Tag Archives: Red-necked Grebe

1st-8th June 2019 – Romania

A week-long International Tour to Romania, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. The Danube Delta is one of the ‘must-see’ wildlife destinations and we spent four days exploring it, sleeping each night on our floating hotel in a different location, right out in the midst of it. We also spent a couple of days exploring the Dobrogea region, down to the Black Sea coast, which is host to some species right at the western edge of their range. A fantastic experience!

SATURDAY 1ST JUNE

Our 10.35 flight from Luton Airport to Bucharest arrived on time. After realising we had come out in a different arrivals hall, we quickly found our local guide, Florin, who took us outside to where our minibus and driver were waiting. There were a few House Sparrows, House Martins and Jackdaws around the terminal building, before we set off on the long drive to Tulcea.

Out in the suburbs, we saw mostly Collared Doves and Feral Pigeons but as we got out into the countryside beyond, we could see Rooks, Hooded Crows and one or two Pheasants in the fields. More exciting, a Long-legged Buzzard circled over the road ahead of us. We broke the journey with a stop at a service station for coffee and/or ice cream, where several Greenfinches were singing outside.

Afterwards, as we continued the journey, we started to see a greater variety of birds. It had clearly rained a lot in recent weeks, given the amount of water on the fields, and some of the wetter areas held a selection of herons – a Great White Egret, a few Little Egrets, two Squacco Herons, three Black-crowned Night Herons, and a couple of the group spotted a Glossy Ibis lurking in a ditch. As we approached the Danube crossing, there were more White Storks, including several nests with chicks on the telegraph posts in some of the villages.

The wires beside the road started to get some more interesting birds too. In one area, we spotted five Rollers in quick succession. There were Bee-eaters too, particularly as we approached a steep section of road which winds down through a small grove of acacia trees. There were plenty of Rooks in the trees, but no sign of any Red-footed Falcons, which also nest here. However, just beyond the trees we spotted a smart male Red-footed Falcon hovering over the grass beside the road.

Further into the Dobrugea region, and we started to see more Red-backed Shrikes and one or two Corn Buntings on the wires. It was starting to get dark now and a Little Owl was perched on the chimney of a house in one of the villages we passed. We finally made it into Tulcea at about 9pm, and we headed straight to the port where the floating hotel, which would be our home for the next five nights, was waiting. After a delicious dinner on board, we retired to our cabins.

SUNDAY 2ND JUNE

There were a few gulls around the harbour in Tulcea when we woke up this morning. As well as plenty of Black-headed Gulls, a couple of Caspian Gulls came close enough to get a good look at. After breakfast on board – cereals with local yoghurt, bread and honey, eggs, and a selection of ham and cheese – we boarded the smaller boat which would take us around the Delta (the floating hotel would be towed out to meet us later). The main Tulcea branch of the Danube is big and open and was fairly birdless at first, apart from a few more Caspian Gulls. After a quick stop to retrieve someone’s cap, which had blown off into the river, we headed over towards the junction with the smaller Mila 36 channel. A Grey-headed Woodpecker flew in and landed in the top of some tall poplars on the bank and our first White Pelicans, a group of fourteen, circled overhead.

White Pelicans 1

White Pelicans – our first of the trip, circled overhead

Having turned off the main channel onto Mila 36, we started to come across a lot more birds. There were Kingfishers calling all around here, zooming back and forth across the water and in and out of the trees. We could hear a variety of different birds in the trees, but they were hard to see in all the leaves and undergrowth. An Icterine Warbler and several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing, as well as both Common and one or two Thrush Nightingales, the more grating and clicking phrases of the latter giving them away. Three calling Collared Flycatchers gave only glimpses but a couple of Spotted Flycatchers sallied out of the trees. There were more woodpeckers too, several Great Spotted, another Grey-headed, and we heard out first Middle Spotted Woodpecker.

The Delta is all about its waterbirds, and is packed full of herons of various sizes. There were plenty of Grey Herons and Little Egrets at first and then, as we got further in, we found lots of Squacco Herons which flushed from the banks as we passed, changing instantly from buff-brown to white. Several Black-crowned Night Herons and a smaller number of Glossy Ibis flew over.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – a very common heron in the Delta

We encountered our first Pygmy Cormorants too, but they are very skittish and typically flew off ahead of us. More pelicans circled overhead, mostly flocks of White Pelicans, but we also saw our first Dalmatian Pelican, typically a lone bird which flew over.

Pygmy Cormorant 1

Pygmy Cormorant – mostly very skittish and flew off before we got too close

A male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us and landed in the base of the reeds, disappearing in before we could get a good look at it. When we stopped to scan, a Penduline Tit started calling over on the other side, and we saw it perched briefly in the top of the reeds. One of the group, scanning for the tit, found a female Little Bittern instead, up on top of the reeds further back. We had already heard several Great Reed Warblers singing in the reeds as we passed, and now one perched up nicely on a dead reed stem. A little further on, and a pair of Hobbys were zooming around through the tops of the trees beside the channel, before landing up in a poplar.

We stopped for coffee at the entrance to Lake Nebunu. As we motored up, a Raccoon Dog was on the bank nearby, but quickly scuttled into the vegetation. There were lots of Mute Swans and Great Crested Grebes out on the lake. A pair of Common Terns and about 15 Whiskered Terns were flying round and dip feeding over the vegetation across the entrance. We could see lots of cormorants and herons coming and going from their nesting colony in the tall trees at the back. Two White-tailed Eagles appeared over the trees, and one was mobbed by a Hooded Crow, which was just a tiny speck by comparison at that range. A Pallas’s Gull flew over the back of the lake too, like an oversized Black-headed Gull, but it was rather distant and disappeared from view behind the trees.

After coffee, we carried on along the channel and hadn’t gone much further when we came across our first Red-necked Grebes. The first one dived ahead of the boat and disappeared into the reeds, but then we found four more together, and had a great view of them, resplendent in breeding plumage with bright rusty-red necks.

Red-necked Grebe 1

Red-necked Grebe – in smart breeding plumage

Next stop was by a White-tailed Eagle nest, which was high in the trees beside the channel. One of the two juveniles was still on the nest, but the other was hiding higher up in the branches above. They were almost fully grown, not long to fledging now. There was no sign of either of the adults at first, until two White-tailed Eagles appeared through the treetops. One of the adults was chasing off an immature, which had presumably flown too close to the nest. Once the intruder had fled, the adult flew back round and landed in a tree not far away.

We cut back across Lake Furtuna, a large open lake surrounded by reeds. Several White Pelicans and a single Dalmatian Pelican were swimming out on the water. There was more floating vegetation over the far side, where we found lots of Whiskered Terns, four Garganey and a pair of Gadwall. It was full of grebes too, nesting Great Crested Grebes, several pairs of Black-necked Grebes and four Red-necked Grebes too. Our first Purple Heron flew over.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw small numbers daily in the Delta

On the smaller channels especially, there were Cuckoos and Rollers everywhere. A brief Golden Oriole flew over, but was not seen by most of the group and would remain a target for a good view for many for a while yet. There were lots of dragonflies – mainly Emperor, Lesser Emperor and Scarlet Darter, and plenty of Banded Demoiselles beside the channels. As we got out into a more agricultural area, several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the feet of a herd cows, though it was hard to see for sure whether these ones were pure Black-headed Wagtails or one of the array of hybrids.

We met the floating hotel for lunch at Maliuc, and while we were settled on board enjoying our three course feast we were towed slowly along to the next location. After lunch, we had a couple of hours to relax over the heat of the day, take a siesta or watch the world go by from the boat. The banks were more open here and in the wetter spots there were lots of Great White Egrets and Glossy Ibis. Three Hoopoes flew alongside as we passed and there seemed to be Rollers on just about every bush.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – several were seen on the river bank today

With the floating hotel moored again, we set off about 5pm in the smaller boat to explore the area. A Penduline Tit was calling from the trees on the opposite bank and a Garden Warbler was singing from the trees on our side. It was still hot, and quiet to start as we checked out a couple of smaller lakes.

The first was overgrown with Water Soldier and not surprisingly there were several Norfolk Hawkers patrolling along the edge of the reeds. Marsh Frogs were everywhere on the lily pads, until a Dice Snake swam across, causing them to disappear into the water. Lots of herons were flying around again, and we saw many more Purple Herons out here. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling from the reeds, the first of many we heard this afternoon.

Purple Heron

Purple Heron – more common in the reedier parts of the Delta

The second lake was full of Whiskered Terns, looking to nest on the floating vegetation. When a Hooded Crow flew across, they all came up en masse to mob it, and we realised just how many had been hiding there. A pair of Greylag Geese lurking in the edge of the reeds at the back had distinctive pink bills, birds of the eastern race rubirostris. We could hear a Bittern booming too.

Back along the more open Crisan channel, an obliging Black-crowned Night Heron was standing on the floating vegetation below one of the trees on the bank. We saw several more Ferruginous Ducks, mostly typically flighty, but we had a nice view of a male down on the water’s edge which lingered longer than most. On an area of open sandy shore, an adult Little Ringed Plover was keeping an eye on its already well-grown juvenile. A White-tailed Eagle flew in over the back and appeared to be coming our way before it suddenly dropped down onto the ground. We could see it was feeding on something, and was quickly surrounded by 10 Hooded Crows.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – another very common species in the Delta

We continued on back past the floating hotel, and turned in down the small channel leading to Lake Iacob. There were more pelicans on the lake – with two White and two Dalmatian Pelicans on a log, giving us a nice comparison. A Garden Warbler was singing nearby and we could hear more Penduline Tits calling. As we motored back slowly along the wooded channel, a Grey-headed Woodpecker perched nicely in the tree above us. Another Pallas’s Gull flew over, much closer this time but we would still hold out for better views.

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Grey-headed Woodpecker – perched nicely in a tree above the boat

Back at the floating hotel, we sat out on the deck to compile the list for the day. We could still hear the Grey-headed Woodpecker calling away in the trees. Eastern Olivaceous and Great Reed Warblers were singing and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling. A Bittern was booming off in the distance and a Golden Oriole was taunting us, hidden deep in the bushes. What an amazing place to be! After a delicious three course dinner of salad followed by local zander, it was time to turn in, to the sound of Fire-bellied Toads calling.

MONDAY 3RD JUNE

Before breakfast, the earlier risers gathered out on the deck. A Little Crake was calling, but hidden deep in the reeds beyond the trees on the bank. A pair of Eastern Olivaceous Warblers appeared briefly low in the branches, before making their way through to the sunny side of the trees as the early mist burned off. The Bittern was still booming and the Savi’s Warbler still reeling off in the distance. Three Pallas’s Gulls flew high over, one at a time, and the first White Pelicans flapped lazily up along the channel. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew past through trees opposite and while we ate breakfast, a pair of Garganey circled round over the water outside.

As we got ready to set off on the smaller boat again, we picked up a distant male Red-footed Falcon on some wires, and through the scope we could just about see its red feet and legs in the morning sunshine. As we motored slowly up the channel, there were the usual herons and egrets everywhere. A Great Bittern flew across and up the edge of the channel ahead of us, a difficult bird to see here.

When we heard Bearded Tits calling we looked over to see a family party right up in the top of the willows on the bank. Another bigger group of Bearded Tits were in the reeds on the junction of the Caraorman channel, lots of juveniles. As we stopped to look at them, one of the group noticed a male Penduline Tit feeding in the sedges right down at the front – nice to get our first good views of this species. We could hear a Reed Bunting singing, and then a pair appeared in one of the willows. The birds here are a different race to back home, tshusii, being noticeably heavier-billed.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – feeding in the sedges

Continuing on to Caraorman village, a pair of Caspian Gulls were loafing on the bank and a Hoopoe was wrestling with a mole cricket as we made our way down to the small harbour. The vista here was dominated by the ruins of the old communist-era industrial sand mining site, long since abandoned. As we got out at the harbour, a juvenile Northern Wheatear was feeding in between the boats pulled up nearby. Walking down the track towards the village, we were surrounded by Bee-eaters calling and perching on the wires, nesting in the low sandy banks.

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – around the abandoned factory at Caraorman

A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a grassy pool out where the cows were grazing. Three Red-footed Falcons were perched on the wires further down, two of the males chasing each other a little closer before landing again. It was already starting to get hot. Lots of Marsh Frogs were basking around the edge of a small pool in the sand, before hopping in as we passed, and the head of a Dice Snake appeared out of the water.

Several White Storks were on nests in the village, and one stood bill clapping and throwing its head back as two others circled over. It was eerie walking round past the huge abandoned accommodation blocks, long-since stripped of windows, doors and any other removable fittings, their roofs falling in but providing nest sites for the local Kestrels.

We continued on down the track out into the old sand pits. On the larger shallow pools here we found several Avocets and Black-winged Stilts along with more Black-tailed Godwits and a few Shelduck too. A Hobby flew over hunting dragonflies. Up on the bank of the next basin, there was pleasant breeze to stop us overheating. A single Caspian Tern was out in the middle, dwarfing the Common Terns and Whiskered Terns it was with. Through the scope, we could see its huge black-tipped red bill. A few Black-winged Stilts and Common Terns were nesting on the sandy islands.

Continuing round to the far corner, we could see a group of larger gulls loafing on the edge of the another pool. A single adult Pallas’s Gull was in with the Caspian Gulls – with its black hood, it really stood out. There were more Bee-eaters in the bushes and a male Red-backed Shrike appeared with them briefly. Then it was time to get out of the sun, so we took a short cut back to the boat. A male Northern Wheatear was singing around the abandoned factory buildings.

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – singing around the abandoned factory

After a break for water and/or coffee back at the boat, we motored round to a former fish farm nearby. There were lots of Whiskered Terns flying round over the pools, but a group of people had set up for a picnic at the viewing platform, so we carried on down the channel. We went looking for a Penduline Tit nest. The reeds were too tall at the first site we tried, but we did see the pair of adult Penduline Tits in the trees calling. Further on, we found another nest hanging in the lowest branches of a willow, just above the reeds, an amazing construction. The remains of last year’s nest was still hanging in the branches further in. It was all quiet here though, so perhaps the female was incubating.

Continuing on, we stopped to look at a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the bushes on the bank. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing here too, and perched up in the top of a bush for ages, being unusually obliging. Back round to Caraorman channel, a Common Cuckoo perched on the wires.

Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo – abundant in the Delta

As we headed back towards the floating hotel, we heard another Savi’s Warbler reeling. This one seemed to be closer, and a careful scan revealed it perched up in the reeds in full view. We stopped the boat and had a good look at this typically very elusive species. We certainly would not go hungry this week – lunch was another three courses of soup with meatballs, followed by stuffed vine leaves and a delicious traditional pudding.

Savi's Warbler

Savi’s Warbler – we had a good view of this typically elusive species

After lunch, the floating hotel was towed slowly back up to the main channel at Crisan before turning onto the course of the old Danube. Here we got back onto the smaller boat again, to head out for the afternoon. As we motored slowly along a side channel, we could hear several Golden Orioles fluting from some very tall poplars. We saw a couple flying in and out through the treetops, but you had to be quick to get on them. Both Grey-headed Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker were calling here too, but there was no sign of any Black Woodpeckers today.

The usual selection of herons flew out of the trees beside the channel as we passed, and a Little Bittern flew out of the reeds and alongside the boat, before crashing back in. We were still waiting for a really good view of one perched in the reeds. Turning on to Bogdaproste channel, Common Cuckoos were everywhere again. Several Hobbys zoomed in and out of the trees on the banks, and one perched up nicely.

Hobby

Hobby – perched up nicely in the trees by the boat

There were lots of Rollers here too – one pair was coming in and out of a nest hole in a tree, and another male was bringing food for the female. An Otter was floating in the channel ahead of the boat, crunching on something it had just caught. As we cut the engine, it saw us and dived.

Roller 1

Roller – we saw several pairs in the trees along the channels

The water opened out into Lake Bogdaproste, where we found a scattering of White Pelicans and Pygmy Cormorants, plus rafts of Common Pochard and Eurasian Coot. Two Black Terns flew over calling behind the boat, but disappeared away from us before we could get a good view. We could see several distant Pallas’s Gulls circling and as we motored across the lake we noticed one on the water, so we diverted over for a closer look. We got much closer before it took off – a very smart gull with its black hood and black-and-white wing tips, and multi-coloured yellow bill.

Through the channel on the far side, we found ourselves coming out into another large lake. As we were crossing, we could see some very distant Whiskered Terns hovering over an island of vegetation on the far side, and we picked up a White-winged Black Tern in with them, so we headed over for closer look. As we got nearer, we could see there were actually two White-winged Black Terns and lots of Black Terns too, at least a dozen, loafing on the floating vegetation. We had great views of one of the White-winged Black Terns dip feeding beside the boat – a real bonus, as they are not common here, with just a few pairs breeding in inaccessible areas. All the terns then took off, and flew round over the boat.

Black Tern 1

Black Tern – breeds fairly commonly in the Delta

White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern – the rarest of the three ‘marsh terns’ in the Delta

Continuing on to the next lake, a pair of rubirostris Greylag Geese swam across in front of the boat with four goslings. An amazing number of Whiskered Terns, probably at least 150 pairs, were starting to nest on carpet of floating vegetation here. We sailed along a channel through the middle, and had amazing views of them flying all round the boat, calling noisily. What an experience! A Hooded Crow flew over, and was immediately chased by a horde of Whiskered Terns. It made repeated visits, looking for eggs. Two Black-necked Grebes swam along the channel ahead of us.

Whiskered Tern 2

Whiskered Tern – nest-building on the floating vegetation on the lakes

Whiskered Tern 1

Whiskered Tern – amazing close views as we sailed across the lake

As we sailed back through the lakes, there were lots of Great Cormorants nesting in the surrounding trees. One tree on the edge of the reeds was full of cormorants of two species, Great and Pygmy Cormorants side by side, so we could really appreciate the size difference. Another Pallas’s Gull was swimming ahead of us on the water, and allowed us to approach closer still before it finally took off and flew round past us. Then we headed back to meet the floating hotel which was moored on a different channel nearby.

Pallas's Gull

Pallas’s Gull – we came across several adults out on the larger lakes

After a break to freshen up, we met up on deck to do the day’s list. A group of eight White Pelicans was loafing and preening on a log by the boat, Whiskered Terns and Marsh Harriers were flying round, another Savi’s Warbler was reeling in the distance, and several Great Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds nearby. After dinner of salad, breaded chicken and local cake, we retired to a deafening chorus of Marsh Frogs outside. Another amazing location and a privilege to be able to spend the night out here again.

TUESDAY 4TH JUNE

Up on the deck before breakfast, we spotted a White-tailed Eagle which had obviously roosted in a tree a short way back along the channel. Three Black Terns patrolled up and down the channel past us and we could hear Bearded Tits and Penduline Tit calling from the reeds, and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling.

After breakfast, on the smaller boat we headed down to look at the White-tailed Eagle. It eventually took off, and flew back upstream, where it caught a fish and landed on the floating vegetation nearby to eat it. We turned round and motored back and had a great view of it feeding, before it eventually flew again.

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle – caught a fish just after breakfast

Continuing on along the channel, we saw the usual selection of herons, cormorants, Red-necked Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks – amazing that these species had become so commonplace after just a couple of days here!

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – a common sight out in the Delta

On the next channel, there were more trees either side, with several Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps singing. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker called and a Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched in a dead willow, the first of several we would see today. Once again, there were plenty of Cuckoos, Rollers and Kingfishers, with one of the latter perching up nicely as we passed.

We came out into a more open agricultural area. Several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up calling and one perched on the top of a dead stem. With its dark grey head and white supercilium it was a ‘dombrowskii’, a hybrid form of Black-headed and Blue-headed Wagtails, a speciality of Romania. A little further on, a Cattle Egret was standing on the grassy bank, the first we had got a good look at – they are not very common here.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – uncommon in the Delta

A female Red-footed Falcon was perched in a willow right above the channel, so we stopped the boat for a look. It was perched just above our heads, staring down at us, and then a male came up off a nest in the tree nearby. The male flew round calling, so we backed off, and watched as the female returned to the nest. We saw several more Red-footed Falcons as we motored along this stretch of channel.

Red-footed Falcon 1

Red-footed Falcon – the female perched in the trees above us

Red-footed Falcon 2

Red-footed Falcon – the male came up off the nest and flew round

Everyone also finally got a look at a Golden Oriole, albeit just in flight, as one came out of the trees and headed away down the channel. Further on, a shrike in the willows was hidden from view at first, but when it finally flew up into the top, we could see it was a Lesser Grey Shrike, its black mask extending over the top of its bill and with a pink flush to the breast. It flew round the back of the trees and we noticed there were now two perched up together in a bush, a pair. Several Grass Snakes and Dice Snakes swam across the channel as we motored on.

There was a large area of reeds on the right of the channel and lots of Glossy Ibises and Purple Herons were flying round as we passed. When we came to a more open area of short wet grass, we counted at least 80 Great White Egrets in one big group, feeding. There were lots of White Storks here too, plus the usual Grey Herons and Little Egrets. We turned onto another channel at the far side of this field and headed out across the meadows where lots of horses and cattle were grazing. A pair of Hoopoes on the bank, flew off ahead of us. A pair of European Stonechat perched on some wires. A couple more Western Yellow Wagtails flew up, one another ‘dombrowskii’ and one a normal Black-headed Wagtail.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – another common heron in the Delta

The channel disappeared into some dense trees. Another Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched up nicely, but a couple of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were typically more elusive, just heard calling. Blackcaps and Garden Warblers were singing. A succession of Black-crowned Night Herons and Grey Herons flew out of the bushes ahead of us.

We had our coffee break as we sailed down here before, at the end, we came out into a huge open lake. We were closer to the main White Pelican breeding site here, a restricted area, but we could see several hundred circling in the distance. There were just a few on the lake here though, along with two Dalmatian Pelicans. Apart from that, all we could find here were a rather distant Pallas’s Gull, a distant White-tailed Eagle, and a distant Little Bittern which flew across. The next lake had a similar variety of birds.

Taking the sinuous Eracle channel back, one of the group spotted a Black Stork circling high over the reeds to one side, a new bird for the trip. As if that wasn’t good enough, we had just started moving again when someone else spotted an owl in the trees. We turned back and found a Long-eared Owl staring back out at us – a very good spot as we motored past! As we pulled up towards the bank, a second Long-eared Owl flew out of the trees.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl – well spotted by a member of the group in the trees

As we continued on along the channel, it clouded over, and we could hear a thunderstorm away to our left. We turned into a small lake, covered in lily pads, where at least twelve Black Terns were dipping down to the vegetation with all the Whiskered Terns. There were several Black-necked Grebes here too. It started spitting with rain now, and continued on and off as we made our way back to the floating hotel for lunch. It felt much cooler too. At least the local weather forecast promised us that the rain would end in precisely 23 minutes!

After lunch and a short break, it had indeed stopped raining as forecast, so we headed out again on the small boat, through various small channels. A smart male Marsh Harrier circled low over. A Purple Heron flew across with a Grass Snake in its bill. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling and when we got out of the small channel we were in and it opened out, we found it perched high on a dead reed stem. Along the next channel, with lots of trees either side, a Thrush Nightingale was singing from deep in cover.

We came out on the Stipoc channel, by an old fish farm which has now been converted into agricultural land (but would make a fantastic nature reserve!). A couple of Stock Doves were on the wires by the farm buildings and a liberal scattering of Rollers were then on the wires all the way down. Several Red-footed Falcons hovered out over the open grassland. A Corn Bunting sang from the top of a bush on the bank on one side and a Sedge Warbler sand from the reeds on the other. We stopped to look at a European Pond Terrapin which was basking on a log in an area of pondweed and realised there were several more lurking in the weed nearby.

European Pond Terrapin

European Pond Terrapin – several were in a weedy along the channel

There was an area of open water and wet grass on the other side of the channel. A couple of small flocks of White Pelicans were swimming in the water and lots of Great White Egrets, Little Egrets, Glossy Ibises and a single Cattle Egret were feeding in the wet grass. Two Green Sandpipers flew round calling, and landed in the vegetation. Four Black-tailed Godwits were feeding here too.

Two Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the grass, one an obvious ‘dombrowskii’, but the other looked like it might be a Black-headed Wagtail until we got better look. Then we could see it had some grey on the nape, and a small amount of white in the supercilium. The Western Yellow Wagtails here are a real minefield of different hybrid forms!

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – perched in the willows above the channel

Further on, another Lesser Grey Shrike was perched up in the top of a willow overhanging the channel. Two Golden Orioles flew across over the reeds, across the channel ahead of us and up into the trees the other side. A Musk Rat swam across in front of us, but dived and must have resurfaced in the reeds. Two Hobbys and another female Red-footed Falcon were perched in the trees as we made our way over to Lake Furtuna.

As we came out into the huge open lake, a White-tailed Eagle was down in the reeds on the edge of the water on one side. We started to head over towards it, but it was chased off by a Hooded Crow before we got there. We could see lots of White Pelicans gathered over the far side so we decided to head over that way instead. They were loafing on islands of reed and logs, several immatures, but including several breeding adults with orange facial skin and bump on the forehead.

White Pelicans 2

White Pelicans – there were lots loafing around on Lake Furtuna this evening

There were several Black-necked Grebes with the Great Crested Grebes over by the reeds and Pygmy Cormorants flying back and forth. The channel the other side was absolutely covered with Mayflies low over the water, but others were also flying round, providing food for the Black-headed Gulls and Whiskered Terns which were hawking up and catching them.

Pygmy Cormorant 2

Pygmy Cormorant – with a distinctive flight silhouette

The floating hotel was moored over the other side of the lake and when we got back there we could hear a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling in the trees nearby and a Little Bittern was hiding in the reeds. We watched the sun set with White Pelicans swimming past outside over dinner.

WEDNESDAY 5TH JUNE

Up on the deck before breakfast this morning, it was a stunning view with the early light out on the lake. Several White Pelicans swam past and Pygmy Cormorants and Caspian Gulls were flying around.

White Pelican

White Pelican – swimming past the floating hotel early morning

After breakfast, we could see a feeding frenzy out on the other side of the lake, so we motored over on the small boat for a closer look. There were at least 2,500 Great Cormorants and 175-200 White Pelicans. They were obviously chasing a shoal of fish across the lake, and the stragglers at the back of the flock kept flying up in smaller groups, leapfrogging the massed horde and landing again at the front. Amazing to watch!

By the time we got over, they had chased the shoal of fish across the lake and into the reeds over the far side. Some of the White Pelicans were swimming in and out of the reeds trying to find them again. About a dozen Little Egrets were waiting on the floating vegetation beside the reeds to see what might be pushed their way. Then the shoal of fish reappeared out in the middle, and everything raced back over and started feeding again, the White Pelicans in groups upending in unison.

Feeding frenzy

Feeding Frenzy – thousands of Great Cormorants and hundreds of White Pelicans

We headed back out of the lake along the channel next to where we had moored for the night. As we were motoring slowly along, we noticed a Little Bittern climb up into the top of the reeds on one side. It was promptly chased off by a second Little Bittern and we watched the two of them fly round after each other. One landed again in the top of the reeds right on the edge of the channel, where we had a great look at it, a smart male with a bright red bill, indicating it was in breeding condition. The two of them then chased round over the reeds again and disappeared back.

We were on a wide channel now, with very big mature trees on the bank on one side. We were hoping to find a Black Woodpecker along here, but the best we could manage was a Black Woodpecker nest hole in a dead tree beside the channel. The hole looked reasonably fresh, so we waited for a minute and listened, but there was no sign of any woodpeckers. Two Common Starlings were in the tree but we didn’t see them using the hole.

Further on, a family of Great Crested Grebes were in the weeds beside the channel, and we watched as the three juveniles climbed onto the back of one of the adults as we passed. Just beyond, we could see a Red-necked Grebe and a Ferruginous Duck. Two White-tailed Eagles were perched in the trees above.

Little Bittern 1

Little Bittern – with some bright red on the bill base

Another male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us, and once again perched up nicely in the reeds on the far side, allowing us to get quite close. We had a good view before it flew back across the tops of the reeds, its bill bright but not quite as red as the one earlier. It already seemed like this might be the day of the Little Bittern!

There was lots of lush vegetation along the bank here and as we carried on we heard two Thrush Nightingales singing deep in cover. We stopped and listened for Black Woodpecker, but once again there was no sign. However, we did find a female Golden Oriole mobbing a Hooded Crow in a willow bush right on the edge of the water. It possibly had a nest nearby, as the male was flying in and out of the trees behind too. We drifted over and had a good view of it, finally a perched Golden Oriole!

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – we finally got good views of one perched

We tried another channel for woodpeckers. A Grey-headed flew over, and we heard both Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted calling, but once again there was no sign of any Black. We joined the main channel for a bit at Mila 23 before we turned onto another side channel. A Red-backed Shrike flew up into a willow on the bank, but landed out of view.

Yet another Little Bittern flew across. Out into a lake, a single Red-necked Grebe was outnumbered by all the Great Crested Grebes. An adult Black-crowned Night Heron was feeding on the lilypads on one edge, chasing frogs, but kept sinking into the vegetation when it landed. A White-tailed Eagle was perched in the distance, in the top of a dead tree beyond the lake. As we sailed through a narrow channel and out into the next lake beyond, two more Little Bitterns chased round through the tops of the reeds.

Little Bittern 2

Little Bittern – it was definitely the best morning for them today!

The next channel had more lily pads and floating vegetation either side. We had just remarked how the Squacco Herons has been outnumbered by Little Bitterns this morning, when normal service was  resumed and five Squacco Herons flew out! There were several Red-necked Grebes in the lilypads too – the first pair had the juveniles on the back of one of the adults, but swam into the reeds as we approached. The second pair were much more obliging, and stayed lurking in amongst the lilypads as we passed.

Red-necked Grebe 2

Red-necked Grebe – in the lilypads as we sailed past

A smart male Red-footed Falcon was perched in a tree in some dead branches just above the channel, and stared down as we passed right underneath. We had a great view, slaty grey with red ‘trousers’, bright red legs and feet and red cere and eye ring. Stunning! As we made our way back round to the floating hotel, a female Red-footed Falcon was perched in another tree, rather pale buff below and with brown wings, presumably a young bird in its 2nd calendar year.

Red-footed Falcon 3

Red-footed Falcon – perched in a dead tree above the channel

Back at the floating hotel, our stay in the Delta was unfortunately coming to an end. Up on deck before we set off on the journey back, two more Little Bitterns chased each other round an island of reeds in the middle of the junction between two channels. It really had been a day for them! As we set off on board the hotel, past the reeds where they had landed, one flew out and across the channel on the other side. We scanned the reeds for the other one but all we could find was a Great Reed Warbler feeding down at the base of the reeds.

As we motored back, we would be passing the White-tailed Eagle nest we had visited on Sunday. We were just coming up towards the eerie when suddenly one of the adults flew out of the trees right beside the boat, before circling round over the trees where the nest was. We slowed down to have a look at the nest, but the two youngsters had climbed up into the tree above and were half hidden in the leaves.

We didn’t have a chance to look at them though because, just at that moment, a Black Woodpecker called in the trees right by the nest. We glimpsed it dropping down through the branches, but we were going away all the time and not everyone got onto it. Then it flew out, right past us up on the top deck, and landed in the top of a dead tree just ahead. We had a good view of it now, its red crown catching the light as it turned, before it flew on. A great way to finish our visit to the Delta!

Black Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker – just as we were sailing back out of the Delta

We retired inside for lunch – soup with meatballs, vegetable stew, followed by apple strudel. It was a slow journey back on the floating hotel, so we relaxed on deck listening to all the birds singing in the lush trees along Mila 36 –  a Thrush Nightingale and lots of Common Nightingales, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Common Redstarts, a couple of Collared Flycatchers. Several Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen, but Middle Spotted and more Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were only heard. Kingfishers zipped back and forth calling.

Back out onto the main Tulcea branch of the Danube, there were more Caspian Gulls. Several Western Yellow Wagtails on the grassy bank as we approached Tulcea looked like ‘dombrowskii’ again. We spent our last night on the boat in the harbour, with a delicious dinner of the local speciality, tochitura.

THURSDAY 6TH JUNE

We were up early, and after breakfast said our goodbyes to the floating hotel. As we drove west out of Tulcea, a Glossy Ibis was feeding in the plastic rubbish along the shore of a lake. In the villages, we saw White Storks on their nests as we passed. Out into more open country, there were Bee-eaters flying around the old terraces in the grassy fields. Our first stop was near Somova.

As we got out of the bus, a male Red-backed Shrike was perched in the top of an oak tree. A large flock of Common Swifts circled high overhead, a few Sand Martins with them. We started to walk up along the track towards the trees but hadn’t got very far when a male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over. We watched as it circled up high with the Swifts.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – this male flew over first thing this morning

In the open woodland, a Hoopoe was calling and several Golden Orioles were fluting. We had brief views of both as they flew round. A woodpecker called, and flew across, landed on the trunk of an oak tree. We walked over to try to get a look at it and confirmed it was a Syrian Woodpecker. We watched it repeatedly dropping down to the ground, then flying back up to the trunk.

A little further on, another Levant Sparrowhawk, this time a female, flew up from the ground and landed in another tree. We had a great view of it in the scope – we could see its gular stripe and more heavily barred underparts than the male.

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – this female flew up into the trees

It was getting hot now, a good time for raptors. First, three Common Buzzards circled up over a distant ridge, and were joined by a Marsh Harrier. Then a Booted Eagle came up, followed by couple of Honey Buzzards. All were rather distant, but thankfully shortly afterwards, a Booted Eagle and a Honey Buzzard appeared much closer, over the trees, along with a Hobby.

Several Sousliks (aka European Ground Squirrels) appeared in the short grass before disappearing down into their burrows. Lots of grasshoppers and moths came up from the vegetation as we walked through, along with Silver-studded Blues and a couple of Lesser Spotted Fritillaries. A small group of Hawfinches flew over calling. We met the bus again down by the road further on, and stopped for a cold drink. A flock of White Pelicans were circling up in the distance beyond the ridge. Another male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over with a lizard in its talons.

Souslik

Souslik – there were several in the short grass

Our next stop was at the monastery at Celtic Dere. A couple of male Red-backed Shrikes were around the gardens and farmyard by the parking area. We took the track up to the old orchard, where a Turtle Dove was purring and an Icterine Warbler was singing in the trees.

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – a male, one of several at Celic Dere

Several Golden Orioles flew back and forth over the opening clearing, including a stunning golden male. Lots of Hawfinches zipped over in ones and twos, calling. On the edge of the wood over on the far side, a Black Redstart and a Spotted Flycatcher were feeding, dropping down from the trees to the grass below.

A Steppe Buzzard flew over – different to the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier, with a rather pale rufous tail, dark rusty body and underwing coverts, prominent clean white bases to the flight feathers with a well-marked black trailing edge.

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard – different to the Common Buzzards we saw

Walking through the trees on one side, we came out into another clearing by the stream, where a Nuthatch was calling. We followed the track here up and into the wood. A striking longhorn beetle was in the middle of the track and when we stopped to look at it, we could hear a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing a little further on. It was very active, constantly changing perch, and hard to follow at times in all the trees. Eventually it came out closer to the track, and everyone got a better look at it. There were lots of Icterine Warblers calling and singing in the trees too, but they were very hard to see high in the branches.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher – this male was singing in the trees

As we walked back down the track, we finally got good views of a pair in the trees over the path. A Hawfinch flew in and perched briefly on a branch and a Wood Warbler was singing deep in the wood. A family of Marsh Tits worked their way through the trees beside the path. We made our way back out of the trees. A Wryneck had been seen earlier by another group up along the edge of the stream so we walked up to look for it. There was no sign of it, but we decided to stop here for lunch and the minibus drove over to join us.

Just as lunch was set out, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker called in the tree right over the picnic table. We had to take a few steps back to see it, feeding high on the trunk. While we were watching the woodpecker, the Wryneck called once from the same tree. We didn’t see it fly out, but despite looking from all round the tree there was no further sign of it.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – feeding in the tree above us while we were having lunch

Over lunch, there were Greenfinches and Goldfinches coming down to drink in the streak. Another flock of White Pelicans and another Booted Eagle, this time a pale phase, circled up over the ridge beyond. A young Long-legged Buzzard was chased by two Steppe Buzzards over the clearing.

After lunch, we had a longer drive over to the Macin Mountains. There were lots of White Stork nests in the villages on the way, and several Rollers and Bee-eaters on the wires by the road. We eventually turned off the road and up along a rough track. There were a few Corn Buntings on the wires but pride of place went to a smart male Black-headed Bunting here too. They are scarce here, so always a good bird to catch up with, and this one posed nicely as we pulled up in the minibus alongside it.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – this smart male was on the wires by the track

There were a few Rollers in the trees and on the wires too, and a Short-toed Lark flew up from a field of sunflowers as we passed.

Roller 2

Roller – there were one or two on the wires too

We parked opposite a quarry. As we got out of the bus, a pair of Crested Larks flew in and one of them perched up nicely nearby. We walked over through the grass towards the quarry, flushing lots of grasshoppers, moths and butterflies as we walked. A female Pied Wheatear appeared on the rocks in the grass and stayed just long enough for us to get a quick look at it, before it flew back up into the quarry. Scanning the rock faces, we found several smart black and white male Pied Wheatears and we had a look at them in the scope. An Ortolan Bunting was singing, and we picked up a couple of males distantly on the rocks. A Northern Wheatear flew in too.

We could hear a Common Rock Thrush singing, but couldn’t see it at first. As we scanned the rock faces looking for it, we did find a Long-legged Buzzard on a nest. Then the Rock Thrush flew in over the top of the quarry and landed on the rocks on the top ridge. It flew up singing a few times, gliding round with its wings and rusty tail fanned. It was very active, constantly flying around the quarry, the white patch on its back really standing out when it turned and caught the sun.

It was a hot afternoon, so we walked back to the minibus for a drink of cold water and then stopped in the next village for an ice cream. Afterwards, we headed out onto an area of steppe. It didn’t take long to find an Isabelline Wheatear perched on bush. We stopped and got out, and realised there were several more here too. We got one in the scope, perched on the top of a ridge. Others were feeding in the short grass or occasionally hovering up singing.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – common out in the steppe grassland

We had a brief glimpse of a Tawny Pipit, but couldn’t refind it, despite walking round through grass where it had been. A Short-toed Lark fluttered singing high in the sky, and one or two Turtle Doves flew over. A Spur-thighed Tortoise appeared on top of the bank where the Isabelline Wheatear had been earlier, but disappeared surprisingly quickly into a hole. Finally the Tawny Pipits showed themselves. Two chased each other round just behind us, and one landed on the same grassy bank, where we got it in the scope. Another two then appeared on the other side of the track and then, as we got back into the bus, one was quite close by in the grass.

We had heard a thunderstorm building away in the distance, and could see the rain now lashing down over the hills. It was a long drive back to Tulcea, and we caught the edge of the rain on our way. But it was dry back in Tulcea as we checked into our guesthouse for the night.

FRIDAY 7TH JUNE

It was another early start, to try to beat the heat of the day, but it was already getting quite warm as we arrived on the edge of Babadag Forest. The minibus dropped us off and we walked down a track through the scrubby woodland.

There were lots of butterflies out in the sunshine – Cardinal and Silver-washed Fritillaries, Ilex Hairstreak, Silver-studded and Green-underside Blues – and loads of dragonflies – mostly Lesser Emperor and Norfolk Hawker.

Ilex Hairstreak

Ilex Hairstreak – one of several butterflies seen this morning

We found several Spur-thighed Tortoises in the grass, and lizards including Snake-eyed (European Copper) Skink and Balkan Wall Lizard.

Spur-thighed Tortoise

Spur-thighed Tortoise – a young one, in the Babadag Forest

There were not many birds active now – a Chiffchaff, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Blackcap and one or two Common Nightingales singing, and a few commoner tits. We had really come to try to see Sombre Tit and we thought our luck was in when we heard one call close by. We stood and listened but it didn’t call again and disappeared deeper into the scrub. Despite looking, we couldn’t find it again. We carried on along the track, where several Turtle Doves were purring and Golden Orioles were fluting, with one or two of each seen flying back and forth.

The raptors were starting to circle up now that it was getting hot, Booted Eagles and a Common Buzzard. As we got out of the trees and into a more open area, we heard a Levant Sparrowhawk call and looked back to see two displaying over the trees. We met the minibus here, down by the road. As we stopped for a drink of water, we spotted a couple of Isabelline Wheatears perched up on small dead stems sticking up out of the short grass. We could hear Tawny Pipit and Ortolan Bunting singing too. There were more butterflies out here too, in particular several striking black and white Great Banded Grayling.

Great Banded Grayling

Great Banded Grayling – common in the open grass on the edge of the forest

Back in the minibus, we drove over to a track across a rough area of open ground, where we found three more Turtle Doves, plus several more Isabelline and Northern Wheatears. We stopped to look at a Corn Bunting in the top of a bush and it was joined by a male Spanish Sparrow. The track continued over to the edge of some open woodland, where we stopped and got out for a walk.

A Red-backed Shrike was in the bushes right next to where we parked, and there were several Ortolan Buntings singing as we walked up the hill. A Woodlark flew over singing, and several more came up out of the short grass, but there was no sign of any Sombre Tits here.

Ortolan Bunting

Ortolan Bunting – this one perched in the top of an oak tree singing

We walked back to the minibus, stopping on the way to look at an Ortolan Bunting which perched in the top of an oak tree. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees too. We were back at the minibus and jst about to get back on when we heard a Sombre Tit calling from somewhere in the trees nearby. We walked into through trees, and played cat and mouse for several minutes, before we eventually tracked them down. A pair of Sombre Tits, feeding quietly in the trees, right within sight of the bus!

There had been thunderstorms audible off in the distance for a while, but now unfortunately it started to rain here, so we dashed back and into the minibus. It was a long drive south to Vadu, and it was raining on and off for much of the journey – not what we had been forecast. When we arrived in the village, we decided to stop for lunch first and it was a good call as it stopped raining and started to brighten up.

After lunch, it was hot and sunny again as we headed back to an area of pools we had passed on the edge of the village. As we got out of the bus again, there were  several Bee-eaters on the wires. We could hear Red-footed Falcons calling in the trees across the road, and we could just see a nest up in one of the trees.

Turning our attention to the pools, we scanned round the edge where there were lots of Little Gulls. We counted 44, mostly young, 1st summer birds. A pair of Pied Avocets, several Green Sandpipers and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers were on the shore too, along with a single smart summer plumage Little Stint. There were Shelducks on the brackish pool at the front, and several Great Crested Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks on the larger fishing pond behind.

Little Gull

Little Gulls – we counted 44 around the first pool we looked at

A Marsh Harrier quartered over the reeds on one edge and, as we walked down the hill and round the pools, three Red-footed Falcons and a Hobby flew overhead. At the back of the pools, we found two different waders in the far corner, two Marsh Sandpipers in breeding plumage, late migrants through here. We had a good view of them through the scope.

Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper – one of two still at Vadu

We cut back round to the road on the far side of the village, where we met the minibus again. After a quick drink, we continued on along the road past the old abandoned communist-era factory buildings. We found several pairs of Northern Wheatears in the sandy grassland, with at least two feeding streaky juveniles. Then once we got to the damper areas with reeds, there were lots of Western Yellow Wagtails in a bewildering array of different forms, a couple that looked good for pure Black-headed Wagtail, but mainly ‘dombrowskii’ types of varying hues, and even one ‘xanthophrys’ with a black head and yellow supercilium.

Two Collared Pratincoles appeared, hawking high over the reeds, with one at one point coming quite close overhead, rather like a cross between a tern and a swallow. A little further on, three were loafing down on the short grass where the cattle were grazing. Several Spoonbills and pelicans circled over too.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – hawking for insects above the reeds

Our main target here was Paddyfield Warbler, but we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find one in the heat of the afternoon. At first, we found nothing but Eurasian Reed Warblers, singing or collecting food. There were Great Reed Warblers singing too, with one or two seen flying across over the tops of the reeds. We heard Bearded Tits pinging and saw several zooming back and forth. And there were Reed Buntings here as well.

Then, as we walked slowly along the road, we heard a Paddyfield Warbler singing further up. We hurried along, and found it perched briefly on a stem in the top of the reeds. For those who were there quickly, it was a good view, but all too quickly it disappeared down into the reeds. Several of the group had gone back in the bus to use the facilities in the village, so had missed it. It was still singing but with a bit of a breeze, it was keeping well down in the reeds most of the time. We stuck at it though, and eventually it made another appearance for those who didn’t see it first time. The Black Sea coast of Romania is the westernmost point of the breeding range of Paddyfield Warbler, so you need to see it here, unless you want to go further east!

Paddyfield Warbler

Paddyfield Warbler – we found one singing in the reeds

There were some large sandy banks surrounding some wet basins a little further on, so we walked up for a look. On the first, hundreds of pairs of Common Terns were nesting. Two Little Gulls were in with them, along with several Common Redshanks round the edge of the islands. The basin on the other side of the road was deeper and less productive. Four Spoonbills and a Grey Heron flushed from the brackish marsh on the edge of the reeds on the way, and a Purple Heron flew over.

It is a long drive own to the coast even from here, and we had one more area we wanted to visit this afternoon, so we decided to head back, with a quick stop on the way for ice cream. We made our way over to an agricultural area, passing through another band of rain on the way, and turned onto a newly tarmacked road through the fields. A Calandra Lark circled over a rough field of grass and oats, just the bird we had come to see, but dropped down out of view.

We continued on slowly up the road and stopped by a track. Several Western Yellow Wagtails were bathing down in a puddle and two Black-headed Buntings perched in the tops of some young sunflowers in the edge of a field singing. A Red Fox walked down the track towards us.

We could see another Calandra Lark standing in the middle of the road further up. It seemed to like the new tarmac, as a couple of times it flew round but came back to the road. We drove slowly up towards it, but we were looking through the windscreen and into the sun so it was not going to be the best of views. The Calandra Lark eventually flew up, but circled round and landed again on the road behind. Now we got out and had a look at it through the scope. There was a lot of heat haze from the tarmac, but it helpfully decided to fly up and land much closer to us, where we could see its big bill and black neck patches.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – kept coming back to the new tarmac

Eventually it flew again, right past us, flashing the broad white trailing edge to its wings and black underwings, before dropping down in the middle of a field of wheat. There were several other Calandra Larks flying round over the fields and several Skylarks here too.

Two Long-legged Buzzards circled over while we were standing here. Then we looked up across the fields to see a Montagu’s Harrier quartering along a ridge. It had been sunny, but now it started to spit with rain again. We had been very lucky dodging the showers this afternoon – we hadn’t been caught by the rain at all while we were out – and it was time to head back anyway now, with a long drive to Tulcea ahead.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – one of two which circled over

Back at the guesthouse, after a break to freshen up and start packing, we gathered for our final dinner, which was finished off with a celebratory cake prepared by the guesthouse to mark the end of our visit.

SATURDAY 8TH JUNE

After a more leisurely breakfast, we checked out of the guesthouse and set off on the long drive back to Bucharest. We had a quick stop on the way at an area of marshes for Ruddy Shelduck.

As soon as got out of minibus, we saw one flying across over the water down below the hillside. There was a big colony of Sand Martins by the road, and several Bee-eaters with them. Two Rollers flew past and a Cuckoo came over calling. It was great we had seen so many Common Cuckoos on this trip – mostly in the Delta, but we had seen at least one every day so it was good to keep up the record. Further down the grassy hillside, a Hoopoe was feeding out on the grass with a single Isabelline Wheatear nearby.

We walked down the path to where we could get a better view out over the marshes and found at least 9 adult Ruddy Shelducks here, including a pair with several shelducklings. There were a few waders out on the marshes too. Several Black-winged Stilts and Lapwings were out in the middle, and two Green Sandpipers were down on a muddy patch on the near edge. Four Collared Pratincoles flew high overhead calling. In the distance, we could see lots of White Storks circling over the hillside beyond, and a Spoonbill flew in.

All too quickly it was sadly time to move on again. We had another break for an early lunch at the filling station back in Slobozia, where a Lesser Whitethroat was singing in the bushes beyond the back fence today.

Then it was on to Bucharest. We got to the airport in good time, only to find our flight was delayed by 20 minutes, but we were soon on our way back to Luton. We sailed through passport control, but then had to wait almost an hour for bags. Welcome back to the UK! Then we bid our farewells and headed off home.

It had been an unforgettable experience – with lots of good birds, good food and good company. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Romania, please get in touch.

27th Feb 2019 – Has Spring Sprung?

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. A glorious sunny day, unseasonably warm with temperatures up to 16C by the afternoon. With lots of birds singing now, it felt like spring had sprung! But it is not set to last, so we had a good day out trying to make the most of it.

There have been lots of birds on the sea in NW Norfolk in the last few days – divers, grebes, seaduck – so we decided to start the day up there to try to see some of them. On our way west along the coast road, we stopped to admire a Barn Owl which was dozing on a post, warming itself in the early sunshine.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – enjoying the morning sun on a post by the road

The Barn Owl stared at us for a while, seemingly unhappy at being rudely awoken from its slumbers, then flew back across the field and landed on another post on the other side.

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was at Titchwell. As we walked down the path towards the Visitor Centre, a Chiffchaff was singing from somewhere deep in the sallows. They have started singing early this year, lulled into thinking spring is here already with all the recent warm weather. We could hear our first Mediterranean Gulls of the day flying over too.

The feeders had been taken down for refilling, so there were no birds coming in, but there was lots of chattering from high in the trees around the Visitor Centre. We heard a redpoll singing and looked up to find a Lesser Redpoll perched in the very top of one of the trees. There were quite a few redpolls here this morning and several Siskins too. They were very mobile, flying around in the trees. When a little group of redpolls came down into the bushes lower down, we picked up one or two Mealy Redpolls too.

There have been small numbers of finches on the move in the last week or so, birds starting to head back north after spending the winter further south. We would hear small numbers of Siskin in particular moving through the day.

Stopping to scan the Thornham grazing meadow, a distant Common Buzzard was down in the grass in the middle and another was even further off on a bush at the back. Looking down into the ditch below the path, a Water Rail was picking around in the leaves in the bottom. We stopped to watch it, and a second Water Rail ran across the path a bit further up, which we could then see down in the water in the bottom as we walked on.

Water Rail

Water Rail – one of two in the ditch this morning

A couple of Cetti’s Warblers were calling from the edges of the reedbed, but despite one being very close to the path typically it kept well hidden. A male Reed Bunting was more obliging, perched in one of the small bushes. Through the scope we could see that its black head was still partly obscured by brown fringing which it still gradually wearing of.

Several Marsh Harriers were up beyond the bank at the back, over Brancaster marsh. Then another Marsh Harrier appeared closer to us, up from the reedbed. It was a male and as it flew across we could see it was carrying a couple of pieces of reed in its talons. It dropped down again into the reeds, presumably busy building up a nesting platform.

The old pool on Thornham grazing marsh is now getting overgrown and hard to see anything, but a quick look across as we passed revealed a Redshank down on the pool at the front and a smaller birds picking round the edge nearby. It was a Water Pipit. We had a good look at it through the scope, before it worked its way further back into the vegetation and disappeared.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – a nice surprise on the old pool on Thornham GM

The Water Pipit in recent days has mostly been seen feeding on the cut reed by the reedbed pool on the other side of the path, but they can be very difficult to see out here. There was one out here too, this morning. But it wasn’t until the first Water Pipit flew over from the Thornham side that we could see it. It flew across and chased off the new arrival, which returned across the path. What was possibly a third Water Pipit then flew up from the back and disappeared back over the reeds.

Several Common Snipe were also well hidden, roosting in the cut reeds. There were a few ducks out at the back of the reedbed pool – Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks. A Little Grebe was hiding behind the reeds on one of the small pools just below the path. A few Wigeon were feeding out on the saltmarsh behind us.

The Water Level on the Freshmarsh is still very high, although it has started to go down a touch and there was a little more mud exposed around the tallest of the islands. The Avocets were still roosting in the deeper water, with a good number now back here. On the small island by the junction with the path to Parrinder Hide, we could just see a small group of Knot busy bathing and preening on the mud at the back. A lone Golden Plover was standing with the Lapwings on the drier mud in the middle.

Avocets

Avocets – more are back now, roosting out on the Freshmarsh

Some people returning from the beach told us there were a couple of Black-throated Divers offshore, so we decided to head straight out there. We had a quick look at the Volunteer Marsh on our way past. It looked pretty empty at first, apart from a few Redshanks, until a flock of Knot appeared from out of the vegetation and whirled round before flying back out towards the beach. There were more waders along the channel at the far end, more Redshanks, several Curlews, one or two Black-tailed Godwits and a little group of six Dunlin.

With the tide coming in, more waders were roosting on the non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’. The water level has dropped here a little in the warm weather and there is a bit more space for them on here at the moment. There were several more little groups of Knot, with a few Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plover standing with them. A few diminutive Dunlin were running round the mud next to them.

By the time we got out to the beach, the Black-throated Divers had drifted east towards Scolt and further out. It was also very hazy offshore, but we managed to get one of the divers in the scope and get a good look at it – we could see the distinctive white flank patch. Several Great Crested Grebes and a single Razorbill were closer in, but everything else was rather distant. There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye and three Eider flew past in the distance.

High tide was not until midday today, so we decided to make our way slowly back and head round to Holme to see if there was any more to see on the sea there. We called in at Parrinder Hide to admire the Mediterranean Gulls. Numbers are growing steadily now and it will be interesting to see how many pairs breed in 2019, after the big increase in pairs last year. We could see several pairs displaying in with the more numerous Black-headed Gulls on the fenced off Avocet Island, and we got a couple in the scope to look at the differences between the two species.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gulls – displaying on Avocet Island in with the Black-headed Gulls

There were a few ducks still on the Freshmarsh. A good number of Teal were sleeping along the edge of the bank either side of the hide. Several pairs of Gadwall were roosting on the smaller islands along with a few Shoveler.

As we came out of the hide, we could hear a Marsh Harrier calling high above. We could just see it way up in the blue sky. It was flapping steadily and calling at first, but as it got back over towards the reedbed it started to tumble and twist, skydancing. A couple of Common Buzzards appeared in the sky too, circling over the path before drifting off west, possibly birds on the move.

We cut across by Meadow Trail, where there was no sign of the Woodcock now, round to Patsy’s Reedbed. There were not so many ducks on here today – just a few Gadwall, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck. Several Common Snipe were hiding in the cut reeds along the edge. Two or three Marsh Harrier circled up over the reedbed, and one drifted closer over the back of the pool.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the back of Patsy’s Reedbed

The highlight here though was the Bearded Tit. We could hear two birds pinging, one in the reeds in front of the right of the viewpoint and a second back on the edge of the reeds on the left of the pool. That second Bearded Tit worked its way closer along the edge of the pool and then perched up for a few seconds in full view – a smart male with powder blue-grey head black moustache. It zipped across the open water and disappeared into the reeds where the first bird had been calling, at which point both then went quiet.

Back to the Visitor Centre and after stopping to get a quick cup of tea, we headed round to Holme. It was lunchtime now, so we walked out to the beach with our food and scanned the sea while we ate. A Red Kite circled over the pines and drifted out over the beach, perhaps another raptor on the move taking advantage of the warm weather.

There were more birds on the sea off The Firs, but it was very hazy here too. The highlight was a Red-necked Grebe, which at one point swam up to join a small group of Great Crested Grebes, giving us a great comparison. There were lots more Red-breasted Mergansers off here and several more Eiders too. We still hadn’t found the Long-tailed Ducks, so once we had finished eating we decided to walk up through the dunes to Gore Point to try our luck there.

Another Marsh Harrier was calling from high over the grazing marshes, and we looked across to see several geese out on the grass. They were mostly Greylags but there were a small number of Pink-footed Geese still here too, smaller, darker-headed and darker-billed. Most of the winter’s Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, but a few are still lingering along the coast. The Brent Geese stay here a little longer and there was a tight flock out on the grazing marshes and several smaller groups flying in and out from the beach.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flying past as we walked up to Gore Point

There were a lot more birds on the sea off Gore Point, and it didn’t take long to find the Long-tailed Ducks. They were diving regularly and hard to count, but eventually we got to a total of 21 together. The long tails of the drakes were hard to see when they were diving but when they stopped a couple of the drakes appeared to be displaying, swimming after a female with their tails cocked in the air.

There were even more Red-breasted Mergansers here – there seemed to be a very good number of them today, though they were too spread out to count easily. A distant Velvet Scoter appeared too briefly, but disappeared again when we took our eyes off it. A single Great Northern Diver was very distant, but a closer Slavonian Grebe then appeared. A Fulmar flew past low over the water. Non-avian interest included a Harbour Porpoise which rested at the surface for a few seconds before diving again.

Having walked up to Gore Point, we were a little later than planned leaving Holme which meant we could only enjoy a brief visit to Holkham on our way back east. There were lots of Wigeon still out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive as we parked, but not so many geese here now.

Out through the pines, we walked east on the edge of the saltmarsh. As we got closer to the cordon, we could see lots of pipits out in vegetation. A closer look revealed they were a mixture of Scandinavian Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits. It was interesting to compare the two side by side, and also to compare and contrast the Rock Pipits with the closely related Water Pipit which we had seen earlier. There were a few Skylarks here too and one or two were singing in the sunshine.

There were a few people watching the Shorelarks already. They were quite a long way back in the taller vegetation before the cordon again, and a couple of people couldn’t resist the temptation to walk out onto the saltmarsh to get closer. We stood on the path and admired them through the scope. It was lovely afternoon light now and their bright yellow faces glowed in the sunshine when they lifted their heads.

Shorelark 1

Shorelarks – still out on the saltmarsh

The best strategy with the Shorelarks is to wait and let them come to you, and we could see they were gradually working their way towards the path further along. We walked up and watched them, busily picking around and creeping through the vegetation. We carried on a little further to see if the Dartford Warbler was still around, despite the fact it has not been reported here for a week or two. There was no sign of it and no sign of the Stonechat which has previously helped to tempt it out of the dense buckthorn, so we didn’t linger here.

Shorelark 2

Shorelarks – great views when they worked their way closer to the path

When we returned to the Shorelarks, they were very close to the path now and walking very slowly we were able to position ourselves without disturbing them. It was a great view of them from here. We tried to count them – there were at least 10 in the closer group, but there were still some further back on the saltmarsh which were mostly hidden. We still had one last thing we wanted to try to do today, so we eventually had to tear ourselves away

Continuing on along the coast, we parked and made our way down a track towards the saltmarsh. A male Marsh Harrier was still out hunting and crossed the track ahead of us. A few Chaffinches and tits flew in and out of the hedges ahead of us. We could hear a couple of Yellowhammers singing and had nice views of one of the males perched in the top of the hedge, bright yellow in the evening sun.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – one of two males singing in the hedge

As we got down to the edge of the saltmarsh, a Barn Owl flew past across the grass in front of us. A nice start! A Peregrine was perched out on one of the sandbanks in the distance, but it was a long way off and little more than a blob in the misty haze even through the scope. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the back of the saltmarsh and a couple of late Common Buzzards circled over the edge of the field behind us calling.

Then a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, flying in across the back of the saltmarsh. It was a long way off, but through the scope we could see the white square at the base of its tail. Shortly after, a second ringtail flew in a bit closer. It landed down in the vegetation for a few minutes and when it flew up again it came across and flushed the first Hen Harrier from where it was hiding. We saw the two of them several times over the next 15 minutes or so.

We really wanted to see a Merlin here, but they were a bit elusive this evening. Eventually the one other person down here with us spotted one, right at the back of the saltmarsh, perched on the top of a small bush. It was a long way off, but we could see what it was through the scope.

That was a great way to end, so with the light starting to go now we walked back up the track. There were loads of Brown Hares out in the fields here now. We stopped to listen to a couple of Grey Partridge calling from the next field over, which were then accompanied by a Red-legged Partridge calling too. Then it was time to head for home.

Aug 2018 – Romania: Birds & Bears, Part 2

This is the second of a 3 part blog post about our visit to Romania in August 2018. The Danube Delta is one of the largest wetlands in the world. Most of it is accessible only by boat. It is a haven for wildlife, particularly waterbirds, and is a destination which should be on every birdwatcher’s ‘must see’ list.

After our visit to the Dobrogea, we spent four days out in the Delta. We sailed from the port of Tulcea, on the Danube, and spent three nights in the village of Crisan, out in the Delta, exploring different parts of the surrounding area each day mainly by boat. On our tour in June 2019 we will use a floating hotel, which will give us even more flexibility on where we can go. You can read more about next year’s tour here.

13th-16th August – The Danube Delta

The first thing which strikes you, as you motor along the smaller channels through the Delta, is the abundance of herons. Squacco Herons are everywhere, particularly favouring the carpets of floating lilypads or water chestnut along the sides of the waterways.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – walking on a carpet of water chestnut

Grey and Purple Herons are both common too.

Purple Heron 1

Purple Heron – common along the smaller channels

We flushed lots of Night Herons from the trees as we motored past – the spotty juveniles were more obliging, whereas the adults tended to hide in or under the trees.

Night Heron

Night Heron – the juveniles were more obliging than the adults

Egrets are abundant as well, with large numbers of both Great White Egret and Little Egret feeding along the channels. We saw lots of Glossy Ibis too, but only a couple of Spoonbills. White Storks were still fairly common, even though the breeding season was largely over, and we saw a couple of Black Storks flying overhead.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – great views from the boat

There are obviously lots of Little Bitterns, but they were typically elusive, hiding in the reeds. We heard many more than we saw and the latter were mostly birds seen flying across the channels, although we did see a few each day. (Great) Bitterns are present too, but in much smaller numbers and they are even harder to see, so it was a great spot to see one standing on the edge of the reeds as we were motoring past on our way back one afternoon.

Little Bittern

Little Bittern – typically skulking in the reeds

Pelicans are one of the birds you want to see when you come to the Danube Delta. The area hosts significant breeding populations of both Great White Pelicans and Dalmatian Pelicans. The number of Great White Pelicans was historically estimated at around 4,500 pairs, out of a European population of 5,600, but more recent counts suggest there may now be over 17,000 pairs in the Delta alone! Dalmatian Pelicans are rarer, with only about 3,500 pairs in Europe, of which around 450 pairs nest in the Delta.

With the breeding season already over, and high levels of disturbance from boats on many of the channels during the holidays in Romania, we didn’t see as many pelicans as perhaps we might have done otherwise. Water levels were also apparently high, after unseasonally heavy rains in July. We had already seen lots of White Pelicans around the lagoons on the Black Sea Coast.

Despite this, we still saw White Pelicans daily in the Delta, generally in small groups loafing along the channels, or as single birds looking for an easy meal around fishing nets! On our last day, when we motored back through the quieter northern part of the Delta, we saw more White Pelicans, including some more sizeable flocks circling up to head off to feed and a feeding party out on one of the lakes.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – loafing and preening

White Pelican

White Pelican – viewing from the boat allows a close approach

Probably for the same reasons, we only saw a small number of Dalmatian Pelicans on this trip, but still we got some nice close views of one or two birds.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – present in much smaller numbers

Pygmy Cormorant is another species localised to SE Europe for which the Delta is an important area. About 10,000 pairs are estimated to breed here, around 25% of the total European population. We saw a small number each day, mostly loafing on trees of posts along the channels, but we found more on the quieter channels to the north on our way back on the last day. It seems likely that when feeding they are particularly prone to disturbance by large numbers of boats.

Pygmy Cormorant

Pygmy Cormorant – the Delta contains 25% of the European popualtion

About two-thirds of the European population of Ferruginous Duck breeds in the Delta too. We saw a quite a few in the small lagoons along the edges of some of the quieter channels, including a good proportion of juveniles. However, the highlight was seeing over a thousand individuals on a single lake in a huge raft mixed with Coot and a smaller number of Common Pochard. Quite a sight!

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – fairly common still along the quieter channels

Garganey is probably the commonest duck here, at least the species which we saw most often. The biggest surprise was disturbing a family of Goldeneye from one of the channels – the Delta appears to be south of the usual range for this species, but apparently it has recently been proven to breed here, probably in very small numbers.

Grebes are well represented, with both Great Crested Grebe and Little Grebe being fairly common. We also saw smaller numbers of both Black-necked Grebe and Red-necked Grebe, both of which breed in the Delta.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe – a juvenile

Little Crakes breed here too, but are not easy to see. We were fortunate to spot single juveniles on two different occasions, creeping over the vegetation along the edge of the channels as we were passing, before they scurried quickly into cover.

Whiskered Terns are common, particularly around areas of floating vegetation, lilypads or water chestnut. We saw lots of fledged juveniles, many still being fed by adults, and even a pair still nest building! Large numbers also gathered to feed along the major waterways later in the day, dipping down to pick insects from the surface of the water.

Whiskered Terns

Whiskered Tern – a common sight in the Delta

We also saw a single White-winged Black Tern, which flew over the boat on our way back one day, and Common Terns were (appropriately enough) common. We visited the village of Caraorman on one day and walked out to explore some small pools nearby. There were lots of gulls loafing here and with them a whopping total of at least 53 Caspian Terns!

White-tailed Eagles seem to be doing well in the Delta and we saw birds most days. An adult perched in the trees just above the channel was a particular treat. We cut the engine and drifted right underneath it – quite a sight to see it staring back down at us!

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle – perched in the trees just above the boat!

Marsh Harriers are fairly common here and we saw one juvenile Montagu’s Harrier hunting along the drier bank of one of the main channels, presumably just a bird passing through. A Black Kite drifting high overhead on our last day was a welcome bonus.

Hobby was probably the raptor we saw most often, with singles or pairs often seen circling over the trees beside the channels. We also saw a small number of Red-footed Falcons in the Delta, particularly around the village of Letea when we went to explore the forest which grows in the sand dunes here. Two Honey Buzzards circled up out of the trees that day too.

Hobby

Hobby – the commonest raptor in the trees along the channels

Out in the more open parts of the Delta, we saw relatively few passerines. In the reedbeds, we saw Great Reed, Reed and Sedge Warblers. Bearded Tits could be heard pinging and we heard several Penduline Tits and had good views of a juvenile.

The more wooded parts of the Delta are surprisingly good places for woodpeckers. We saw three different Black Woodpeckers – two from the boat in poplars along the channels and a third when we walked into the Letea Forest. We also had our best views of several Grey-headed Woodpeckers here, plus numerous Syrian and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

Black Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker – this one flew over the boat

Also in the trees and bushes along the channels, we saw Golden Orioles, Redstarts and some of the commoner warblers. Our only Icterine Warbler of the trip appeared in the willows above the boat when we had stopped to listen to a couple of calling Thrush Nightingales. On our walk in Letea Forest, as well as the Black Woodpecker, the highlight was finding several juvenile Collared Flycatchers (it appears they may breed here), alongside the much more numerous Spotted Flycatchers.

It appeared that passerines were already moving through the Delta, and walking along the river bank in the early morning at Crisan we came across good numbers of Willow Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats, plus a juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher. We had our best views of Thrush Nightingale here too, in the bushes along the river.

Crisan also provided us with a couple of nice surprises. An isolated population of Bluethroats breeds in the Delta and it is not an easy bird to see here. We were therefore very pleased to find one feeding under the tamarisks on the edge of the village, and we subsequently saw it on the following two days too.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat – a surprise find under the tamarisks at Crisan

Wagtails were some of the commonest passerines around the Delta. We saw large numbers of ‘yellow’ wagtails – both Blue-headed and Black-headed Wagtails – as well as White Wagtails. We had been told that Citrine Wagtail is just a very rare visitor here even though, based on its breeding and wintering ranges, it might be expected to pass through here more regularly. It was therefore nice to find a first winter Citrine Wagtail feeding with White Wagtails around a small marshy pool by the tamarisks on the edge of Crisan village.

Citrine Wagtail

Citrine Wagtail – a first winter at Crisan

It was even more of a surprise to find two more first winter Citrine Wagtails together in the same place a couple of days later. Photos confirmed that they were two different individuals. It appears therefore that they are most likely under-recorded here and are probably regular migrants through the Delta.

We had a really enjoyable 4 days in the Danube Delta – seeing a total of 120 bird species here alone. It really is somewhere everyone should visit. From there, we made our way up to Transylvania and the southern Carpathian mountains for the third part of our trip, which we will cover in the final blog post to follow…

3rd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice dry and mild winter’s day, brighter in the morning though clouding over a little later on.

While we were loading up the car in Wells first thing this morning, we happened to scan the trees in a garden next to the road. A Coal Tit appeared in the top of an apple tree and, while we  were watching it, a Waxwing popped up next to it. There have been lots of Waxwings about so far this winter, but most of those which arrived on the coast here have moved on inland. So this was most a welcome surprise.

6o0a1185Waxwing – just one, in the centre of Wells briefly first thing

The tree was full of Blackbirds feeding on the apples still on the tree, and the Waxwing dropped down and joined in. It fed for a few seconds, then climbed up into the back of the tree. It was on its own and probably looking for other Waxwings – it called a couple of times. At that point, something spooked the Blackbirds and everything scattered. We waited a while for the Waxwing to come back down to the apples but we hadn’t seen where it had gone and there was no further sign of it. It had probably just dropped in to feed briefly, before carrying on its way.

While we were waiting, we did see a Brambling which flew down to the feeders in another tree in the same garden. Another nice surprise to start the day.

6o0a1199Brambling – coming down to the feeders in the same garden

Our first destination proper was Holkham. As we drove down Lady Anne’s Drive, there were a few flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields either side, so we pulled up for a closer look, admiring their pink legs and bill bands.

6o0a1203Pink-footed Geese – in the fields along Lady Anne’s Drive

At the north end, a little group of Redshank were feeding on the pools in the grazing marsh on one side of the road and a large flock of Wigeon was out on the grass on the other side. Nearby, we found a single Curlew and a lone Common Snipe in the grass too. There was a bit of a commotion further over and we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier chasing a Carrion Crow. The Crow had something in its bill and obviously didn’t want to give it up. The two birds went round and round in tight circles for a minute or so, until the Marsh Harrier eventually gave up.

Walking out towards the beach, we could see a small group of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh as we made our way down the boardwalk. One of the geese was subtly different from the others – darker bodied and with a more contrasting flank patch and a larger white collar. It was not dark enough for a pure Black Brant though. It was a Black Brant hybrid (the offspring of a Black Brant and a Dark-bellied Brent mixed pair), and it has been returning here for several years, presumably with the same group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese.

img_9082Black Brant hybrid – a returning bird with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

Right in the far corner of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks. We could see them from some distance away, flying round, flashing white underneath as they turned. They landed again and we were able to approach carefully, stopping ahead of them and waiting as they worked their way towards us.

6o0a1225Shore Larks – some of the 28 at Holkham first thing this morning

There were 28 Shore Larks in the flock today, while we were there at least. As they came closer, we had a great view of them in the scope. Their bright yellow faces shone in the morning sunshine, contrasting with the black masks. Very smart little birds!

6o0a1266Shore Larks – the flock gradually came closer to us

In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the Shore Larks and walked out towards the dunes to look at the sea. Just about the first bird we found out on the water was a Red-necked Grebe. It was a little distant at first – thankfully it would come much closer inshore later. While we were trying to get everyone in the group onto it through the scope, a different bird surfaced in front. It was a Great Northern Diver. We all had a quick look at it before it dived.

The more we scanned the sea, the more we found. Not everyone had seen the Red-necked Grebe yet, and while scanning to find it one of the group found two grebes together. They didn’t sound like the Red-necked and taking a look through the scope they turned out to be two Slavonian Grebes. Then we found another Slavonian Grebe and another two, further out. Then a careful scan revealed at least 6 Slavonian Grebes scattered across the sea in ones and twos. A great number to find together in one place here at this time of year! There were lots of Great Crested Grebes out on the sea too.

The sea duck were further out today, and it took us a while to find a raft of Common Scoter. Looking carefully through the flock, we started to find a few Velvet Scoters in with them. The Common Scoter were almost all females, with large pale cheeks. Next to them, the Velvet Scoters looked much darker headed, with two smaller pale spots visible on a good view. It was not easy to pick them out at first, given the distance and the swell, but they drifted a bit closer inshore and the sea flattened off to make it a bit easier. In the end, we could see there were at least 10 Velvet Scoters out there today. A single Eider was similarly distant.

While we were watching the sea, we heard Shore Larks calling and a small group of nine flew along the beach and landed down on the sand in front of us. We presumed they were part of the group we had seen earlier, back on the saltmarsh, which had probably been disturbed by the increasing number of dogs out for a Saturday morning walk.

Four Snow Buntings had earlier flown east along the edge of the dunes. After the Shore Larks had moved on, another group of five Snow Buntings dropped down onto the tide line, where we could get a great look at them. One of them appeared to be an adult male Scandinavian bird, with lots of white in the wing.

6o0a1309Snow Buntings – 3 of the 5 which landed on the tide line

By this stage, the Red-necked Grebe had come closer inshore, giving us much better views. We could even see the yellow base to its bill, glinting in the sunshine! It gave us a better chance to compare it to the Slavonian Grebes, and the Great Crested Grebes as well. The Great Northern Diver had reappeared, at least we assumed it was the same one we had seen earlier, and for a few minutes it stopped diving and allowed us to get a great look at it too.

On our way back over the saltmarsh, we had a quick scan and there was no sign of any Shore Larks where they had been first thing this morning. We eventually stumbled across a small group, closer to the dunes, as we walked back. There were nine of them, so they were possibly the same birds we had seen out on the beach earlier. It seemed likely that the large flock had been disturbed and had disbursed. There were a lot of people out today, walkers and dog-walkers.

When we got back through the pines, we turned and walked west along the track on the south side of the trees. There were lots of Jays calling and flying back and forth across the path. At Salts Hole, we found a couple of Little Grebes on the water among the ducks. A Mistle Thrush flew out of the trees and dropped down onto the grass beyond. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and a tit flock duly appeared on the edge of trees. As well as a variety of tits, we could see lots of tiny Goldcrests flitting around. We heard a Treecreeper calling, and shortly after it appeared, working its way up the trunk of a pine tree. A Green Woodpecker flew off through the tree tops.

6o0a1339Long-tailed Tit – we found a mixed tit flock on the edge of the pines

We stopped briefly on the boardwalk by Washington Hide to scan the grazing marshes. A rather dark Common Buzzard was perched in a bush behind the reeds. A distant Red Kite circled over the trees in Holkham Park beyond. Four Gadwall were upending on the pool in front of the hide.

Making our way quickly further west, we climbed up to Joe Jordan Hide. Our first target was achieved as soon as we looked out of the flaps. A large flock of White-fronted Geese were out on the grass just to the left of the hide. We could see the white band around the base of the pink bill and the black belly bars of the adults. There were quite a few duller juveniles  too. In all, we counted at least 96 White-fronted Geese here today.

6o0a1343White-fronted Geese – there were at least 96 at Holkham today

Before we had even had a chance to sit down, someone else in the hide pointed out a Great White Egret which had appeared on the edge of a reedy ditch. We got that in the scope next and had a great view of it, an enormous white bird, the size of a Grey Heron, with a long, pointed, yellow bill and black feet, distinguishing it from a Little Egret. The Great White Egret flew across and landed on an old bridge, where it stood preening for a while. Eventually it flew again and disappeared back behind the reeds.

img_9110Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes from Joe Jordan Hide

There were lots of Marsh Harriers out here too. At first, we could see a couple perched in the bushes, but then more appeared and the next thing we knew there were six Marsh Harriers circling together. One of them was carrying bright green coloured wing tags and when it landed we were able to read the code on them. It turned out the bird had been ringed several miles inland from here in the summer of 2015 and this was the first time it had been seen again!

It was time for lunch, so we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive and made good use of the picnic tables outside. After lunch, we drove west to Burnham Overy Staithe and made our way out along the seawall towards the dunes.

There were lots of Wigeon and Curlew out on the grazing marshes by the start of the seawall. Several Redshank and Grey Plover were feeding on the mud along the edges of the harbour channel and we counted at least 10 Little Grebes in the channel itself. As we turned the corner on the seawall, the larger area of open mud was covered in waders, predominantly Dunlin. On the grass the other side, lots of Brent Geese were busy feeding. A little further along, we stopped to look at a striking pale Common Buzzard perched on a post.

6o0a1362Brent Geese – lots were feeding on the grazing marshes by the seawall

Once we reached the dunes, we made our way straight over to the beach. It had clouded over more now and, with the shortness of the days at this time of year, we were already starting to lose the light. There was no sign of the Isabelline Wheatear in the dunes around the end of the boardwalk as we walked past. It has seemingly been hiding out on the beach for the last couple of weeks, so we thought we would look for it out there, although we knew we were probably a little late in the day.

We walked quickly west along the tideline. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, a huge number of Common Gulls in particular, with more large groups constantly flying in to join them. There were a few waders too – a Bar-tailed Godwit, a handful of Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers and a couple of Turnstones. What looked at first like a raft of scoter in the distance out on the sea turned out to be a large flock of Wigeon when we got them in the scope. Presumably they had been frightened off the saltmarsh, perhaps by a raptor, and had sought safety out here.

When we saw movement ahead of us on the beach, we looked to see six Shore Larks picking along the high tide line. We lost sight of them behind a ridge and walking on the next thing we knew they appeared right in front of us. They scurried ahead of us for a while, before flying up and doubling back, landing behind us back down on the tide line again.

6o0a1381Shore Lark – six more were feeding along the tide line out at Gun Hill

The bushes round Gun Hill were very quiet now and there was no sign of the wheatear in the dunes on the walk back to the boardwalk. From the seawall, we scanned either side on the way back to Burnham Overy Staithe. We picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier over the saltmarsh, quartering low over the bushes. It seemed to drop down into the bushes, but the next thing we knew we picked up a grey male even further back, towards Scolt Head. Perhaps it was a different bird? The next thing we knew, a ringtail Hen Harrier was flying round with it.

With lots of yelping, we watched as a large flock of Pink-footed Geese dropped down off the fields and onto the grazing marshes. Even in the growing gloom, we could see there were several Barnacle Geese with them, although as usual there is no way of telling whether they might be wild birds or just part of the feral flock from Holkham.

It was the time when the Pink-footed Geese come in to roost at Holkham, and we looked up into the sky in the distance beyond and saw thousands and thousands of geese in a vast skein smearing the horizon. They were flying across from us, heading towards the back of Holkham Park. When we got back to the car park, we heard more geese yelping and looked up to see several more skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in from the west. We loaded up the car as several more skeins passed overhead and then it was time to head for home ourselves.

21st March 2016 -Broads Bound

A Private Tour today in the Norfolk Broads. Although many of the wintering birds have now departed, and the summer breeders have yet to arrive, there are still plenty of things to see on a day out in the Broads, and some fantastic scenery to enjoy.

P1190024Peacock – greeting your arrival at NWT Hickling Broad

Our first stop of the day was the NWT reserve at Hickling Broad, once we had negotiated our way past the Peacock on the entrance track.! We met in the car park and set off down the track behind the visitor centre. There were a few geese on the grazing meadows, Greylags and Canada Geese, with a pair of Tufted Duck on the water and a lone female Pochard standing on the bank nearby. We were just scanning the reedbed when we heard a Common Crane call and turned round to see two flying towards us from the direction of the Broad.

P1190028Common Crane – two flew overhead this morning

It was as if they felt the need to announce their imminent arrival to us, as they did not call again once we had seen them. The two Cranes flew slowly past, head and legs outstretched fore and aft, and disappeared off towards Stubb Mill. It was a great way to start the day.

As we approached Bittern Hide we could hear Marsh Harriers calling. We had already seen several on the way there, and we sat in the hide and watched more of them flying back and forth over the reeds. A pair at the back engaged in a short bout of talon-grappling. There didn’t seem to be much else in front of the hide at first, but when a Common Snipe dropped into the cut reeds along the side, a closer look revealed a Water Pipit creeping back into the vegetation.

At first, we could just make it out through the scope. It was preening and it had its back to us. But then the Water Pipit walked back to the water’s edge and came out into full view. At this point we could see that it was moulting into summer plumage, mostly now lacking streaking on its underparts and with a delicate pink flush across its breast instead. It picked around on the little patches of exposed mud for a couple of minutes before something spooked it. As it flew off calling, a second Water Pipit came up from the cut reeds to follow it.

IMG_0594Water Pipit – moulting into summer plumage

IMG_0551Water Pipit – its breast now mostly unstreaked and washed with pink

We took our leave and continued on, round towards the edge of the Broad. A male Marsh Harrier was calling high overhead and we watched it start to display, tumbling and swooping, gradually losing height until it dropped down into the reeds. A second Marsh Harrier, a young male, started to display nearby and the next thing we knew three were circling up together calling. The sun had just broken through the clouds and there as a bit of warmth in the air, just enough to get them all going.

Hickling Broad itself appeared fairly quiet at first, but we stopped at the screen for a closer look. A small group of Common Pochard were preening along the edge of the reeds, including three smart drakes. Further out, a Great Crested Grebe was swimming in amongst a small group of Coot. We were just looking at the Grebe when we spotted a different duck further back still and through the scope we could see it was a Common Scoter. More normally found out on the sea, this was a bit of a surprise out here but they do occasionally wander inland.

We made our way back round to the car park and drove on. Just out of the village, we heard Redwings call as they flew out of the hedge beside the road. A little further on, we could see into the field beyond and the short-cropped grass eaten down by the sheep was covered in Redwings and Fieldfares. There have been good numbers of Fieldfares particularly around here all winter, but our winter thrushes are now getting ready to fly back to the continent and feeding up near the coast.

The drive around the coast road south from Sea Palling was rather quiet today. Gone are most of the winter geese, though we did manage to find a couple of Pink-footed Geese still. One of them looked to be injured, with a drooping wing, which might explain why it was still here. There was still some standing water in the fields the other side and a little flock of Dunlin was flying round between the patches of exposed mud. The Golden Plover further over were hunkered down and looked to all intents and purposes like clods of earth themselves. We meandered our way round, with no sign of more Cranes in any of the fields where we have seen regularly them over the winter.

Our next destination was Filby Broad. We had just walked across the road to start scanning the open water when we noticed a large bird fly up across the road ahead of us. This was then followed by a second and then a third. They were White Storks and normally the sight of three White Storks circling up into the sky would be a source of much excitement. However, these are free flying birds from a local wildfowl collection which are often seen around the area here.

P1190060White Stork – a free flying bird from the local wildfowl collection

We turned our attention back to the Broad and started to scan the water from the boardwalk. There were quite a few Tufted Duck and a handful of Goldeneye out on the water, as well as lots of gulls and Coots. Working our way through them all methodically, we managed to find the Red-necked Grebe which has been here now for some time. It was a long way over, but through the scope we could see that it was starting to come into summer plumage, looking very bright now with white cheeks and a rusty red foreneck and breast.

IMG_0618Red-necked Grebe – looking smart in summer plumage, though rather distant

The Great Crested Grebes were much more obliging. There were several pairs out on the Broad and one swam right past in front of us. They too are looking stunning in their summer plumage now. A Kingfisher kept zooming back and forth from one edge of the Broad to the other, flashing electric blue as it went.

IMG_0637Great Crested Grebe – there are always lots on the Broads

With our key target here achieved, we made our way on to Strumpshaw Fen next. There are not so many ducks on the pool in front of Reception Hide now, although still a nice selection of Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler.

P1190070Shoveler – a nice selection of ducks was visible from Reception Hide

By this stage of the day, the cloud had thickened again and it was rather cool and grey. As a consequence, the walk out to Fen Hide was rather quiet. We did hear a Water Rail squeal from the reeds and several Cetti’s Warblers shouting at each other. There has been a Jack Snipe seen from the hide on and off in recent weeks and we had hoped we might be able to find it today. It was not to be and all we could locate here were two Common Snipe instead.

IMG_0647Common Snipe – two were hiding in the reeds in front of Fen Hide

There are so many places for Snipe of any variety to hide here, and even the two which were initially in view eventually flew off and dropped back into the reeds out of sight. Two Coot decided to have a fight out on the water, leaning back and flapping their feet at each other, with two others in close attendance. A Chinese Water Deer was picking quietly around at the edge of the reeds.

We decided to carry on down to the river bank and make our way along to Tower Hide. There has been a Penduline Tit around the reserve for almost a month now, but it seems to have been seen or even just heard on only 3-4 occasions in all that time. It had been reported again early this morning, but had apparently flown over the river at that point. We scanned the heads of reedmace around the edges of the reedbed as we walked along, but we didn’t hold out much hope of coming across it given the history of its appearances.

We were almost at Tower Hide and had pretty much given up when we heard the Penduline Tit call twice, a rather thin, drawn out ‘tseeeu’. Unfortunately we were in just the spot where the trees are thickest between the path and the reeds and we simply couldn’t see through to where the call was coming from. It seemed to have stopped calling now, but we made our way the short distance further to Tower Hide and from the end window there we could look back across the reeds the other side of the trees. There was lots of reedmace down there, but no sign of the Penduline Tit. We waited a while to see if it might reappear, entertained by the local Marsh Harriers displaying over the reeds, but there was no further sight or sound of it.

As we walked back along the river bank, a Treecreeper flew past us and started working its way up the trunk of a nearby tree. There had been a few Chiffchaffs singing this morning apparently, although they had gone quiet now, but we found one feeding in the top of a willow. As we made our way back along Sandy Wall, a Marsh Tit was singing on the edge of the wood and we saw it flitting around in an oak.

We still had one more place we wanted to visit. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard around Haddiscoe Island over the winter and it had been reported again in the last couple of days. We drove round to one of the places from which it is possible to look over the site and we were just getting into position when we spotted a bird flying away from us, low over the grass, flashing a white tail – the Rough-legged Buzzard. It perched briefly on a gatepost, before flying off even further and disappearing out of view.

IMG_0650Rough-legged Buzzard – perched briefly on a gatepost

We walked round to where we could get a different angle across the grazing marshes. There were several Common Buzzards of various shades in view, on gateposts or standing around on the ground. One in particular was strikingly white underneath. Everywhere we looked there were also Chinese Water Deer out on the grass.

We had hoped we might get another look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, but just when we least expected it it flew back in across the grass in front of us, landing briefly on another post behind the reeds. When it took off again, it started to hover, flashing its mostly white tail with a couple of black bands towards the tip. It hung there in the air for ages, allowing us to get a great look at it, before it turned and flew back out to the gatepost it had been on earlier.

P1190140Rough-legged Buzzard – hovered close by, flashing its mostly white tail

There several enormous flocks of Starlings out in the grass – we could see them occasionally fly up and move across. At one point a male Marsh Harrier had a go at them, dipping down into the group and scattering them, before flying off. The Starlings all immediately resumed what they had been doing. Then suddenly they all took to the air and the flock started to make amazing shifting shapes as they twisted and turned. A few seconds later and we could see why as a Peregrine stooped down through the murmuration, splitting it instantaneously into two.

The Peregrine turned and climbed through the flock before stooping again. This time a single Starling stupidly split off and started flying towards us. The Peregrine set off after it and was immediately joined by a Marsh Harrier, the two of them taking turns to have a go at the poor Starling. It looked like it was certainly a goner until it dropped sharply into a small patch of reeds. The Peregrine immediately lost interest, but the Marsh Harrier tried a couple of times to continue the chase, dropping down as if it was going to land into the reeds.

P1190090Starlings – pursued by Peregrine (at bottom of flock here)

The flocks of Starlings had now disappeared and the Peregrine landed on a gatepost out in the grass where it perched looking round for several minutes. Then it took off and flew away from us, climbing high up, over towards Breydon Water. It had gone some way before we could see why, as the Starling murmuration appeared again from behind a bank, way off in the distance. The Peregrine began a shallow dive, powering down hard, towards the Starlings again, scything through the flock once more.

We watched the Peregrine for a while, attacking first one flock. Then, when it had scattered, flying up high and back across to find another group to stoop at. It was great stuff, all action, even if the Peregrine did look as if it wasn’t going to get any supper. Eventually we lost sight of it and a look at the time confirmed we would have to call it a day. Still it was a great way to end.

7th March 2016 -Snow Business

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. It was snowing on the way down to the rendezvous point at Titchwell Manor hotel, and that set the scene for the morning’s weather at least. We decided to make our way east and do some birding from the car while we waited for the worst of the snow and sleet to pass through.

We stopped at Brancaster Staithe first. The harbour is normally full of waders, but it was rather quiet today, not helped by the poor visibility due to the snow. We could see a few Bar-tailed Godwits over the other side. A little group of Teal were paddling round in the mud and a pair of Wigeon were doing the same further along. Presumably most of the birds had found somewhere to shelter from the weather and there was no sign of the Red-necked Grebe. We had to come back this way later, so we reasoned we would have another go when the weather had hopefully improved.

P1170925Brancaster Staithe – poor visibility in the snow

Our next stop was at Holkham. We couldn’t even see across to the freshmarsh from the road at first, so we drove down to Lady Anne’s Drive to see if there were any geese in the fields there. There weren’t, but we did see lots of Wigeon, Redshank, Dunlin and Oystercatcher around the floods out on the grass.

It seemed to be brightening up at one point, so we drove back to have another go looking out at the freshmarsh. At least this time we could see across to the pines! It stopped sleeting briefly, so we got out to scan the grazing marshes. We just managed to see a group of White-fronted Geese down on the grass and a handful of Pink-footed Geese fly past before the sleet started falling again.

Thankfully, that was probably the low point in the weather. As we drove along towards Wells, we could see that the sky was getting brighter to the north. By the time we got there, the sleet was starting to abate again. We didn’t even have to get out of the car to find the Shag, resident here for the winter but by no means always present, sleeping on the pontoons in the harbour. It helpfully woke up and had a preen as we drove up and got the camera out.

P1170996Shag – back in Wells Harbour again

There were also a few Brent Geese out in the harbour channel further out. A couple of Ringed Plover were running around on the sandbank. A Little Grebe was diving out in the water in the middle. With a window of better weather presenting itself, we decided to make our way over to Blakeney. The surprise of the day was a Kingfisher battling to fly over the main road just east of Wells. We wondered what it was from a distance – it was hanging in the air about 20 feet up over the middle of the road. When we got closer, we could see it was struggling to make any progress against the wind before it gave up and flew back over the hedge.

When we got to Blakeney, it had stopped sleeting and there was even a small patch of blue sky away to the north, heading our way. It was still a cold walk out along the seawall in the biting cold NW wind. We had not even got to the gate before we could see several small birds flying around down below us, including at least one Lapland Bunting. As we got to the corner, four Lapland Buntings flew up from the grass by the fence and landed again just beyond the gate, so we quickened our pace and made our way over there.

IMG_9349Lapland Bunting – kept returning to the grass to look for seeds

We spent the next 45 minutes or so watching the Lapland Buntings come and go. Someone has now put seed down for them in the grass and on the path, and they kept returning to a patch of grass just out from the gate. We got some stunning views of them through the scopes, at times they were too close!

IMG_9328Lapland Bunting – almost too close at times!

Once the blue sky made it overhead, it was not so bad with the sun on our faces and the wind at our backs. There were other things to see here too – Rock Pipits, Reed Buntings and Skylarks on the ground. A selection of waders out in the harbour behind us – Dunlin, Knot, Grey Plover, Curlew.

There were still dark clouds passing either side of us, but despite the fact that we were still in the clear we started to make our way back. A pair of Stonechats flew ahead of us, working their way along the fence beside the path.

P1180061Stonechat – male and…

P1180020Stonechat – female, working their way along the fence by the path

We had a drive around Cley next. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese in the fields beside the Beach Road. We stopped to look through them, but could only find Dark-bellied Brents in the group today.

Down at the beach, we tucked ourselves in the shelter as a brief squally shower came in off the sea and had a quick scan of the water. There was not a lot happening offshore today but we did manage to find a nice selection of different birds passing by – a few Gannets, a single Kittiwake, a lone Common Scoter. There were some distant Red-throated Divers on the water, though they were hard to pick up in the choppy swell, and a few others were more easily seen as they flew past. We just had a quick look at the sea and then, as the weather improved again, we moved on.

We made our way along past the reserve as far as the Iron Road, scanning the grazing marshes to see if we could see any more geese, or anything else, but it was very quiet along here today. Presumably the birds had gone somewhere more sheltered. So we headed back to the visitor centre for lunch.

Afterwards, we started to make our way back west. Our first stop was at Holkham again. This time, conditions were much improved and we got significantly better views of the White-fronted Geese this time. There were still 150-200 here today, no sign of numbers having dropped significantly yet, although they were hard to count accurately with many hidden from our view behind the hedge.

IMG_9363White-fronted Geese – still 150-200 at Holkham today

In contrast, numbers of Pink-footed Geese have declined substantially from their mid-winter peak. Eventually, we found four out on the grass. There were also lots of raptors out enjoying the improvement in the weather – several Marsh Harriers hanging in the air and a Red Kite flew leisurely down from the Park towards the pines, where another was already circling. A Barn Owl disappeared behind the hedge before everyone could get onto it.

Back at Brancaster Staithe, we picked up the Red-necked Grebe immediately this time and got a really good look at it in the scope. It is still in dull winter plumage, with no sign of its eponymous red neck appearing yet, but a very smart bird nonetheless.

IMG_9442Red-necked Grebe – no red neck yet!

The tide was coming in fast now and the Red-necked Grebe was swimming hard to try to stop itself being swept in along the harbour channel. It was joined in its endeavours by a Goldeneye – we had the two of them in the scope together at one point, before the latter gave up and swam upstream. A drake Red-breasted Merganser just swam straight in past us.

IMG_9389Red-necked Grebe & Goldeneye – swimming against the tide together

There were more waders here now, too. The Bar-tailed Godwits were back feeding in the mud along the edge of the car park. Some Turnstones had rejoined the Oystercatchers on the pile of discarded mussles, while others were cadging crumbs from the cars. A couple of Dunlin were following the tide in as well.

IMG_9399Bar-tailed Godwits – back around the car park this afternoon

It had been fairly bright up until now, but another dark cloud swept in off the sea towards us, so we packed up and moved on. We had hoped to find the Rough-legged Buzzard this afternoon, but it felt like we might have missed the best weather window now. We drove inland from Brancaster, scanning some of its favoured hedges and trees, but it wasn’t here so we headed round to try Chalkpit Lane instead.

There were loads of Brown Hares in the fields here, over 20 together in one spot, although they were all hunkered down against the weather rather than chasing each other round and boxing today. There is no shortage of Red-legged Partridge here – lots of them have obviously evaded the guns – but a pair of Grey Partridge which ran out from the verge right beside the car was a nice bonus. There are good numbers of them still here, but they can be elusive at times.

P1180063Grey Partridge – a pair ran out into the field from the verge

There were a few of the local Common Buzzards out now. Having probably been confined to quarters this morning in the snow, they were making the most of the improved conditions. Our hopes were up that the Rough-legged Buzzard might be doing the same. As we drove along Chalkpit Lane, we picked up a shape disappearing over the ridge towards the coast. From up on the top, we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard hanging in the wind halfway down the slope towards the sea between us and Brancaster.

It spent some time hovering, circling round  and hovering again. As it caught the sun, we got a great view of its bright white tail with sharply defined black terminal band. Then it turned headed back inland, carried quickly along by the wind. We could see it land in one of its favoured trees over towards the Brancaster road, so we made our way back round there. It gave us the run around for the next few minutes – it wasn’t in the tree when we got round there, but was back hovering over the fields to the north. Back at Chalkpit Lane, it was not hovering there any more, but had flown back to the tree again. When we got up onto the ridge to look for it there, it had flown off once more.

Then we spotted the Rough-legged Buzzard again, hanging in the air away to the south of us, catching the sun. It hovered and circled a couple of times, before flying towards us, landing in a tree although half obscured. Then it flew towards us again and did a lovely flypast – we could see the very pale, whitish head contrasting with the large blackish-brown belly patch. Great stuff!

IMG_9458Rough-legged Buzzard – over the fields at Choseley

We had a last drive round the fields via the drying barns at Choseley. There were lots more Brown Hares and Red-legged Partridges. The hedges below the barns were full of Chaffinches and the cover strip the other side of the hedge held a large flock of Goldfinches, but we couldn’t find anything else here.

Our last target for the day was a Barn Owl. No sooner had we reached the main road again than we found one hunting over the field the other side. We found a convenient gateway and stood watching it as it made its way back and forth over the grass. It dropped down a couple of times and the second time took a while to come up again – when it did, it was pursued by a Kestrel, the two birds talon grappling at one point. Kestrels will happily steal food from a Barn Owl, but we couldn’t see if it succeeded in getting something this time. The Barn Owl promptly ducked back through the hedge and moved off to hunt further over.

P1180146Barn Owl – hunting by the coast road

That was a great way to finish, and it was just a short journey back to Titchwell Manor to end the day. Once again, the weather hadn’t ruined a great day out on the coast.

19th February 2016 – Raven Mad!

 

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

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

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

IMG_7856White-fronted Geese – with a few Greylags for company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7875Shore Lark – constantly getting disturbed today

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

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

IMG_7981Red-necked Grebe – in Brancaster Staithe harbour channel again

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

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

IMG_7992Brambling – just one female today, while we were looking

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

P1170458Water Rail – in the ditch, as usual

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

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

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

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

P1170508Teal – a smart drake

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

IMG_8008Ringed Plover – a bright spring bird

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

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

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

IMG_8023Pintail – one of the drakes on the Tidal Pools

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

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

IMG_8044Pallid Harrier – still roosting at Roydon Common today

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

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

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