Tag Archives: Rough-legged Buzzard

18th Jan 2020 – 4-3-2-1 Owls!

An Owl Tour today. It was a beautiful, bright, sunny winter’s day, although there was a chill in the air and a rather fresh breeze blowing in the middle of the day.

We made our way down to the marshes first thing, to see if we could find a Barn Owl still out hunting. There was a lot of water on the fields after the recent rains, so much that the Environment Agency were pumping out one of the ditches to stop it from overflowing. Lots of birds were enjoying the water – a noisy mob of Black-headed Gulls were feeding round the edge of the pools and several Little Egrets were feeding on the wet edge of the field, along with a Grey Heron. The other side, the wet grass was full of Curlew, Lapwing and Starlings, busy feeding. A pair of Mute Swans flew in and landed on one of the pools.

The raptors were already circling up. A Kestrel flew across (maybe wondering where the Barn Owl was, so it could steal its catch!) and a couple of Marsh Harriers came up out of the reeds. One landed on a bare tree where we could get it in the scope. A Buzzard was on a bush behind us, before flying off to the wood beyond, and presumably the same one later circled above the trees. A Red Kite flew across in front of the wood, its red tail catching the morning light as it turned.

There was no sign of any Barn Owls – perhaps they had already gone in to roost, as the latter part of the night had probably been good for hunting, or perhaps they were avoiding the grazing marshes given all the water. We decided to move on and headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits in the hedges as we walked down towards the wood, and a Jay flew across the track in front of us. A Pied Wagtail flew across and landed in the beet field next to us – just the one today. A little group of Chaffinches dropped down to feed on the weedy margin. Two Mistle Thrushes flew through the trees as we walked round the edge of the wood, before flying out again and dropping down in the middle of the field. There were a few Red-legged Partridges out in the field too and a Red Kite hung in the air over the hedge on the far side.

There were more tits in the trees above the path, including several Long-tailed Tits. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Nuthatch piping loudly. When we got to the far side of the wood, we looked back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there, in its usual spot, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got it in the scope and had a great view. It was a little bit more active today (just to scotch any rumours it might be stuffed!), looking round and even picking at its feet with its bill at one point.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual hole

After watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to head back. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding in the sunshine above the track now. Looking up, we could see they were feeding on buds on the branches.

We made our way further inland to look for Little Owls next. There was no sign of any at the first couple of places we looked, but at the next stop we spotted one hiding under the lip of the barn roof. We pulled up out of sight and walked back to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it. It had chosen a sheltered spot, facing into the morning sun but out of the wind.

Little Owl

Little Owl – looking out from under the lip of the barn roof

Eventually the Little Owl was spooked by a passing farmworker and disappeared in under the roof. We walked back to the minibus. There were some more farm buildings across the field from here and we could see a small blob out on the roof in the sunshine. Through the scope, we could see that it was indeed a second Little Owl. There is a footpath which runs up the far end of the field, so we drove the short distance over there and started off up it.

There were several birds coming and going from the trees by the paddocks at the start of the footpath. As well as Starlings, we could see several Fieldfares so we got them in the scope when they landed in the top of one tree. A Redwing appeared in the top of another tree, before flying over to join the Fieldfares.

We had a quick walk up the footpath and stopped where we could see across to where the second Little Owl was perched on the roof. It was still there, out in full view, and through the scope we could see it was fluffed up, with its eyes closed, looking towards the morning sun, presumably enjoying the warmth of the rays.

Dropping back down to the coast, we made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grazing marshes and lots of Pink-footed Geese loafing on the second field back, just beyond the line of reeds and brambles. As we walked up towards the trees, a family party of Brent Geese flew in and landed just beyond the fence.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – a family party landed right by Lady Anne’s Drive

We headed over to The Lookout Cafe to use the facilities quickly and some of the group, who had hurried on ahead, called back to say there was a Barn Owl. When we got there, it was perched on a post by the bank, but before we could get the scope on it, it was off again. We watched it hunting backwards and forwards over the reeds beyond the pool in front of The Lookout – although the building was in the way, so we had to dart round to the other side of it at one point! Then it stopped to hover and dropped down into the grass.

Some of the group, who had hurried inside, had not seen the Barn Owl, so when they came out we waited for it to reappear. A Stonechat kept flicking up and down from the brambles and posts on the bank. Presumably the Barn Owl had caught something, because it stayed down in the grass for some time, but finally it reappeared. Again, we had some stunning views of it flying round hunting, stopped to hover a couple of times.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – out hunting behind The Lookout

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – stunning views in the late morning sun

Barn Owls will hunt during the day, but only tend to do so if they are hungry. Perhaps the wet and windy weather yesterday evening meant that this one needed to hunt. It was already late morning now, and it seemed to be showing no signs of wanting to head in to roost. We watched the Barn Owl for a while, until it stopped to hover and then dropped down into the grass again.

We wanted to see if we could find a Short-eared Owl here today, so we walked out through the dunes. It had been very calm all morning, but when we got out past the lee of the pines there was a very brisk west wind now. We scanned all the places we had seen the Short-eared Owl hunting in recent days, but couldn’t see it. We had gone as far as we wanted and decided to have one last scan from the top of the dunes. As we looked round, it came up from the grass just behind us.

The Short-eared Owl flew off downwind, with its distinctive stiff-winged rowing action and notably long, slim wings. It went some way, before turning and coming back towards us over the dunes, into the wind. We were hoping it would come back past us, but it got caught by the wind and gained height, before turning and disappearing over the pines. We hoped it might reappear, but it had either gone into the trees to roost or perhaps might have gone over the other side to try to find some shelter.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – flushed from the dunes

We made our way back, cutting through the pines and walking down the track the other side out of the wind. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, along with a few carrot-billed Greylags and a pair of Egyptian Geese. At Salts Hole, there were several Little Grebes out on the water and a Weasel darted along the far bank.

We stopped for lunch back at The Lookout. There was no sign of the Barn Owl now, but the Stonechat was still just outside the window. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a pair of Grey Partridges were busy preening in the grass just beyond the fence.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – a pair were right next to Lady Anne’s Drive

Having only had a short time with the Short-eared Owl in the dunes before it disappeared, we decided to make a quick dash over to Snettisham to see if we could see the ones there. We didn’t have much time once we got over there, so we headed straight round to where they roost. Scanning the brambles, we quickly found one Short-eared Owl perched in a little nook among the branches. We had a good look at it in the scope.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting in the brambles again

A little further on, we found the second Short-eared Owl under its usual sparse bramble bush. It stood out more, with its sandy colouration, but was not moving and we were looking at it from the side so we couldn’t see its eyes today. On our way back round, there were a few ducks on the pits, including a smart drake Goldeneye which was diving constantly.

Back at the Wash, the tide was out now and most of the large flocks of waders were way out in the distance, on the water’s edge. There were a few birds closer to us on the mud – a Grey Plover and a couple of Redshank. A scattering of diminutive Dunlin were feeding on the mud just beyond the channel and a quick scan across with binoculars revealed an even smaller wader in with them. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Little Stint which is wintering here.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud with the Dunlin again

Little Stints are very scarce winter visitors in the UK, being more common on passage, particularly in autumn on their way from their Arctic breeding grounds with most heading down to Africa for the winter. As we saw a Little Stint in almost exactly the same patch of mud regularly through last winter, we wonder whether this bird has come back for the second year in a row.

Back in the minibus, we made our way back across country, passing a couple of large flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields on our way. We stopped again at Wells and, as we disembarked, we didn’t know which way to look. A Barn Owl was hunting up and down the banks of the ditch in front of the layby, while the long-staying Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on its usual favoured bush beyond.

We watched the Barn Owl hunting, while we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. Eventually the Barn Owl flew off back across the field, and we turned our full attention to the Rough-legged Buzzard. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its very dark, chocolate brown belly.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual favoured bush

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. The Rough-legged Buzzard had flown back and landed down in a ploughed field beyond, by the time we got out there, but shortly afterwards flew back in again. We had an even better view of it from here.

The first Barn Owl was now working its way up the edge of the paddocks across the road, but a second Barn Owl now appeared at the back of the field close to the buzzard and flew round the edge to hunt around the entrance to the car park. It was a paler bird, with whiter, unmarked flight feathers, presumably a male.

The Rough-legged Buzzard had another fly round, flashing its white tail with black terminal band, chasing a Common Buzzard off from the top of a bush by the old pitch & putt, taking over its perch. We had taken our eyes off them, but what was possibly the first Barn Owl again then started flying down along the bank towards us. It was getting closer when it stopped, turned, hovered, and dropped into the grass. It took some time to come up again, and when it did unfortunately flew back away from us – we were hoping it might come right past us.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – one of at least two at Wells this afternoon

The sun was going down now and we had one last port of call. As we walked back to the minibus, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in to its favoured bush again. We drove inland and parked in some trees at the top of a footpath.

The Barn Owl which we often come to see emerging from its box in the evening had not been around the last few times we had looked for it. The good news today was that it was back. We had missed it coming out, but it was busy hunting the grassy bank beyond the gate. We had got out into the open along the footpath just in time to see it disappearing into the trees, but after a while it came out again. It weaved in and out of the edge of the trees several times, before disappearing deeper in through the wood.

It was time for the Tawny Owls to start hooting now, and as we walked back into the trees we could hear one hooting distantly. We heard it a couple more times, before it went quiet. It was a clear, bright evening and the light took some time to fade. The other Tawny Owls were slow to get going tonight and time was getting on, but after a smorgasbord of owls today, we didn’t worry too much about calling time. 4 Barn Owls, 3 Short-eared Owls, 2 Little Owls & 1 Tawny Owl (plus another hooting!).

10th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk today. It was very wet overnight, but the rain passed through by morning and the cloud gradually broke to leave a day of blue skies and winter sunshine. Great weather for winter birding!

As we drove west this morning, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese in a field by the road at Holkham but unfortunately there was nowhere to stop and we had several cars behind us. A little further on, a Barn Owl was hunting over a grassy meadow next to the road, and it turned to cross right in front of us. Thankfully we were already going slowly, as we only narrowly avoided it and it saw us at the last minute.

A large flock of Pink-footed Geese was flushed from a potato field by the farmer just before Burnham Overy as we approached and flew over the road ahead of us. We turned inland in the village, and just beyond we found a small mixed flock of Greylags and Pink-footed Geese in a muddy field by the road. It was quieter here, and we could pull up to have a quick look from the minibus. It was a good chance to see the two species side by side.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – we found a small mixed flock with Greylags by the road

Our first stop of the morning was at Sedgeford. There were a few cars already parked along the verge and as we got out of the minibus we were told the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been seen earlier by its favoured muck heap down along the track opposite. But when we got to the small group of birders gathered there, they seemed to be unsure whether it had been seen or where it had gone.

It normally flies in here eventually, so we stopped to wait. There were several Brown Hares in the field opposite and a large gathering of Common Gulls feeding up on the ridge. A Yellowhammer came over calling. A Sparrowhawk flew along the hedge line at the far end. We could see lots of Fieldfares in the field back towards the road, but they flew back and disappeared behind the ridge back towards where we were parked.

We had a lot to try to do today and we figured we could always call in to try for the wagtail again on our way back later, so we walked back towards the road to have a look for the Fieldfares. When we got back there, we discovered that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had earlier flown in with a couple of Pied Wagtails and landed in the field right next to where everyone was parked. A couple of people had been watching it while everyone else was standing down the track by the muck heap. But the birds had flown off again and although the two Pied Wagtails had returned, their rarer cousin had disappeared again.

We could see the Fieldfares out in the field, so got those in the scopes, feeding with a rather jumpy flock of Starlings. There were several Red-legged Partridges behind and a flock of Linnets and Goldfinches in the set aside strip along the field margin. A Bullfinch flew over calling and landed in the hedge, where we got it in the scope, a very smart pink male.

Knowing that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was around now, we decided to walk back to the muck heap, hoping that it would now fly back in there. We were just walking up when we heard it call and it landed in the edge of the field right next to where everyone was standing. We had great views of it now, as it picked around on the bare mud – well worth the wait!

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – eventually flew in to its favoured muck heap

Eventually the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew up calling – the diagnostic rasping call, very unlike our regular Western Yellow Wagtails and more like a Citrine Wagtail – and dropped down onto the muck heap. We took this as a cue to move on.

Our next stop was at Snettisham. There were a few Goldeneye and Little Grebes on the pits on the way in. When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was out – high tide was in the early hours this morning. We were not here mainly for the waders today though, our target was Short-eared Owl. As we made our way round, we scanned the brambles and quickly found one hidden in some long grass – it was hard to see, but eventually everyone managed to get onto it.

We decided to push our luck again, and walked on a little further. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding in the same place we had seen it last week, under a rather sparse bramble bush. Even better, we looked back at the first Short-eared Owl and with the change of angle we now found we were looking straight at it out in the open. We had a great view of it through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two again this morning

Scanning the main pit, we could see a good selection of wildfowl – more Goldeneye, Tufted Ducks, several Wigeon and a few Gadwall and Shoveler. The Swan Goose hybrid was in with the Greylag Geese again. A flock of a few hundred Pink-footed Geese came up from the Wash and flew over calling noisily.

Turning our attention to the Wash, most of the Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits were way off in the distance, but we could see quite a few Dunlin out on the mud quite close in despite the fact that the tide was out. We decided to have a quick look through the Dunlin, pointing out that we had seen a Little Stint here with them several times last winter, when the very next bird we saw was… a Little Stint! What a coincidence!

The Little Stint was feeding with the Dunlin, and was much smaller when they were seen side by side, with a shorter, finer bill. They are mainly passage migrants here, and rare in winter. It was in exactly the same area we had seen the Little Stint last year, so perhaps it it is the same bird come back here for a second winter.

Little Stint

Little Stint – feeding on the edge of the Wash with Dunlin

There were one or two Grey Plover quite close in too. With the sun now coming out, we could see a large flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, packed tightly together in a long line, shining in the low winter’s light. There were lots of Lapwing too, darker, and scattered more liberally over the mud.

We had lots we wanted to do today, so we moved on. We called in for a quick stop at Thornham Harbour, but we were told the Twite which had been there earlier had disappeared. There were quite a few people there and there were not many waders in the harbour channel either – a couple of Redshank and Curlew, and a single Oystercatcher. A couple of Brent Geese were out across the saltmarsh towards the beach.

We walked up to the old sluice and had just stopped to scan the saltmarsh when we heard the distinctive nasal twang of a Twite calling back behind us, somewhere beyond the car park. We turned to see a small group of birds perched on the vegetation on the far side of the harbour channel but before we could get back they had taken off. They landed back down on the saltmarsh a bit further back, disappearing out of view.

We stood and scanned for a bit. A couple of Rock Pipits flew over. A few Linnets flew in and out and when a larger flock flew over, we heard Twite calling again. Two birds landed on the cross bar of one of the wooden jetties on the edge of the harbour and conveniently they were a Twite and a Linnet next to each other – another great comparison.

Twite

Twite – one showed well with Linnets around the Harbour

We had a good look at them through the scope before the Twite flew down and landed on the other side of the channel directly opposite us. We could see its yellow bill and its burnt orange breast caught the sun. It seemed to be on its own and when the Linnets flew up again, the Twite flew back over to join them. One was enough – we decided to head round to Titchwell for lunch.

After lunch, we headed straight round to Meadow Trail. We were told the Woodcock was in its usual spot and when we got there we didn’t have to look for it – a crowd was gathered there and lots of long lenses were pointed in its direction. Thankfully the throng quickly dwindled so we could find a spot where we could all admire it. It was not far from the boardwalk and clearly relying on its cryptically patterned plumage for camouflage, probably convinced that we couldn’t see it.

Woodcock

Woodcock – showing very well by the boardwalk, despite the crowds

We moved on, to create space for the next Woodcock admirers, and headed round to the main path. We could see a Marsh Harrier out beyond the reedbed and lots of Greylags and a couple of Mute Swans on the reedbed pool. The Freshmarsh is still full of water, although with the sluice apparently now repaired, the water level has started to drop. There were lots of ducks on there, including a single drake Goldeneye.

Time was running short, so we continued straight out to the Tidal Pool. A single Spotted Redshank was feeding up to its belly in the far corner – through the scope, we could see its long bill and bright supercilium as it lifted its head. A Bar-tailed Godwit walked across in front of it. A Turnstone was picking around on one of the islands next to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits.

A little further up, we stopped to look at all the Bar-tailed Godwits roosting on the spit. There were several Grey Plovers in with them and scanning with the scope we found a couple of Knot too. There were a few ducks out on the water and, in with all the Mallard, we could see five Pintail. We got a pair in the scope and the drake looked especially stunning in the low afternoon sunlight. As it upended, we could see its long, pin-shaped tail.

We had one more thing we wanted to do today, so we needed to head back. We had to make a brief stop as we passed the Freshmarsh to train the scope on one of the drake Teal on the bank. Again the light was perfect and the plumage detail through the scope was exquisite.

Teal

Teal – looking stunning in the low afternoon light

Titchwell had one more gift to give us today. As we got back into the trees, we looked down into the ditch beside the path to see a Water Rail picking along the far bank of the water in the bottom. A Chiffchaff was calling in the bushes in the car park as we made our way round to the minibus.

Our last stop of the day was back at Wells. As we got out of the minibus, a Short-eared Owl was down in the grass on the edge of the ditch a short way down the track. We got it in the scope and could see its yellow eyes as it looked round. We didn’t know which was to look, as the Rough-legged Buzzard was on its usual bush off towards the bank in the other direction. We got the scopes set up, some on each, and everyone moved between them admiring the two birds.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – still perched on its usual favoured bush

The Short-eared Owl took off and flew a bit further back, landing back down in the grass again. Then we looked over to the bank by the Rough-legged Buzzard to see a Barn Owl appear. It dropped down to the ground on the bank and came up again with a vole in its talons, disappearing with it into the bushes where the Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched.

A Common Buzzard had now landed in the grass where the Short-eared Owl had been and the latter had taken offence. We watched as it flew up repeatedly, before swooping down at the Buzzard, pulling up at the last minute. The Buzzard eventually decided it had had enough, flying off with the Short-eared Owl in pursuit, before the owl turned back and circled up and over the bank.

There was a stunning moonrise this evening – it is a full moon tonight, a ‘wolf moon’, the first full moon of the New Year. We decided to walk down the track to the bank to admire it. A Grey Heron was motionless at the back of the first flood, looking rather like a wooden post in the gloom. As we passed one of the grassy fields, two small birds circled over and dropped in – two Water Pipits. Unfortunately they immediately disappeared into the long grass.

From up on the bank, we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. With the change in angle, we were now looking at it back on, and could see the white base to its tail. We looked away and it took off – we watched it fly off towards the pines, presumably heading off to roost, longer, slimmer-winged and longer-tailed than a Common Buzzard.

Wolf Moon

Wolf Moon – the first full moon of the New Year tonight

We took that as our cue to head for home too. As we walked back, with the full moon away to our left and the last yellow light of the sunset illuminating the sky away to our right, the Short-eared Owl was still hunting over the grassy field beside the track and a Grey Partridge was calling in the stubble the other side. A great way to wrap up our first day.

5th Jan 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today, our first one of the New Year. It had originally been forecast to be bright but by the time we got to the day, it was dull and overcast. There were some spots of very light drizzle on and off, which were not even in the latest forecasts, but at least they were just while we were driving and it thankfully remained dry while we were out and about.

We were a bit later than planned getting away this morning. With mild weather recently, the Barn Owls are not especially hungry at the moment and are not out hunting much during daylight hours, so we would need to be lucky to catch one. We drove down to the grazing marshes and stopped to scan from the bank. One of the group shouted as they spotted a Barn Owl ghost across a gap in the hedge, but only a couple of people were looking the right way. We hoped it would swing back round, hunting, but it didn’t reappear. It looked to be heading off to roost.

We walked out along the seawall. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A flock of Curlews flew over, coming in from the coast and heading inland to feed on the flooded meadows. Two Grey Herons chased each other out of a ditch. The Marsh Harriers were starting to circle up now, coming out of the reeds where they had roosted. A Red Kite drifted in over the reeds, and landed in a dead tree where we got it in the scope. A rather pale Common Buzzard was perched in the trees behind.

Red Kite

Red Kite – flew in and landed on a dead tree as it got light

As we walked back, we could see a pair of Egyptian Geese in the trees at the back of the grazing meadows. They look like they are getting ready to nest. Egyptian Geese often attempt to breed in the middle of winter – perhaps their body clocks have never adapted to the fact they are not in Africa any more!

We drove inland and parked on the edge of a field, before walking down along a footpath to a small wood. As we got to the trees, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming and we could hear a Coal Tit singing. Despite the grey weather, it could almost have been early spring already.

Round on the other side, we looked along the edge to see a large hole in one of the trees. There, in the hole, a Tawny Owl was dozing. We got it in the scope and it almost looked like a cardboard cutout, until it blinked and then turned its head.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in a hole in a tree

Tawny Owl is the commonest owl in the UK, but is not often seen as they are strictly nocturnal. Most roost well hidden in ivy or evergreen trees, or hidden in holes, so it is always a special treat to see one in the daytime.

After admiring the Tawny Owl for a while, we walked back along the footpath. A Great Tit was singing now. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew up from the field and disappeared back into the trees. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was making its way down the hedge.

It was time to look for Little Owls now, but the weather was not ideal. There was no sign of any on the first two groups of barns we stopped at, and it seemed like it might be a bit cold and grey. Then at our third stop, we spotted a small shape tucked under the edge of the roof, looking out. We parked out of sight, and walked round to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it.

Little Owl

Little Owl – tucked in under the roof out of the weather

Eventually the Little Owl was disturbed by a passing tractor and disappeared in under the roof. As we drove back down to the coast, an untidy flock of Brent Geese was flying inland to feed. After a quick pit-stop in Wells, we drove west, over to the Wash coast at Snettisham. On our way, we passed several a couple of flocks of Pink-footed Geese feeding in the recently cut sugar beet fields.

From up on the seawall, there was still a huge expanse of exposed mud. The tide was coming in fast but it was not a big tide today, so the water would not push everything up towards the bank. As we made our way down, an enormous flock of Golden Plover several thousand strong flew up from out in the middle of the mud. The birds circled round before quickly dropping down again. As soon as they landed, they disappeared, remarkably well camouflaged against the mud.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – the vast flock occasionally spooked and flew round

Carefully scanning the bushes as we walked along, we spotted a shape in the brambles. A Short-eared Owl roosting. It was very well camouflaged too, but once you knew where it was it was relatively easy to pick out. It was mostly asleep, but occasionally opened its eyes so you could see its yellow irises through the scope.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the brambles

We decided to push our luck, and tried scanning again a bit further up. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding under a rather sparse bramble bush, but it blended in well against the sandy, stony ground. A large flock of noisy Greylags flew over, honking and dropped down towards the pits.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – a second bird, hiding under some brambles

We walked round to the causeway to scan the pits. There were several Goldeneye diving out on the water, including several smart drakes. Scattered round the edges and islands was a selection of Wigeon, Shoveler and a variety of conventional Mallard and domesticated Mallard intergrades. The pits here seem to attract different feral or escaped wildfowl, and in with the Greylags we found the rather odd looking Swan Goose hybrid. Several Little Grebes were on the water too.

Back on the seawall, a small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over, coming in off the Wash. We stopped to scan the mud. A Grey Plover was on the edge of a small pool right down at the front, with a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Dunlin on the pools a little further back, just beyond the channel. Further back, the huge flock of Golden Plover looked like a darker smear on the mud until we got it in the scope and could see it was actually a mass of small golden lumps. There were lots of Lapwing too. The Knot were much further out, right over towards the waters edge. A huge black slick back towards the sailing club was a big roost of Oystercatchers.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

There were lots of Shelduck scattered out over the mud and some flocks of Mallard and Teal sleeping along the edge of the muddy channels. Further out, we found a small group of Pintail on the edge of the water. It was lunchtime now and, as it wasn’t cold, we stopped for lunch on the benches.

After lunch, with the days short at this time of year, time was getting on. We drove back east and stopped again on the outskirts of Wells. A quick scan and we picked up the Rough-legged Buzzard on a bush in the distance. It took off just after we got out of the minibus and flew across in front of the pines, stopping to hover a couple of times. Then it dropped down out of sight towards marshes beyond bank.

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. A small flock of Skylarks flew up from the stubble and a little further on a group of Pied Wagtails was feeding in there too, close to the path. They were presumably starting to gather already, before heading off to roost somewhere.

We could see the Rough-legged Buzzard again, perched on a bush in the distance. We got it in the scope now and everyone had a chance to have a good look at it, its pale head contrasting with its dark, blackish-brown belly. There had been a Short-eared Owl hunting here the last couple of afternoons, but there was no sign of it today. Perhaps it was a bit cold and grey, and after good hunting conditions on the previous days perhaps it was not hungry too.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on a bush

There were lots of Lapwing and Curlew out on Quarles Marsh. Two pairs of Gadwall swimming on the pool were an addition to the day’s list. A Kestrel was hovering over the bank just behind us.

The last stop of the day was back inland. We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl coming out of the box in which it usually roosts. We were a little later than planned by the time we got there, but we got ourselves into position, overlooking the box.

Three Red Kites circled up over the trees behind us, calling noisily and chasing each other round in the breeze. A large flock of Pied Wagtails flew in and circled over the reeds. They kept flying up and dropping down again, obviously looking to go to roost together but still nervous. More were arriving and we counted at least 65 in the air together at one point.

It was getting dark now and there was still no sign of the Barn Owl tonight. Had we missed it and it had gone off to hunt elsewhere already? Had something happened and it had roosted elsewhere? Or was it just not hungry enough to come out before dark tonight? Time may tell.

We walked up the footpath into the trees. We hadn’t gone far when we heard a Tawny Owl hooting. We stood and listened to it, such an evocative song. It was deep in the trees, so we couldn’t see it from the path. It hooted several times, but the neighbouring male didn’t answer tonight so after a while it fell silent. It was a nice way to end, so we decided it was time to call it a night.

4th Jan 2020 – New Year Birding

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk, to start off the New Year. The aim would be to try to catch up with some of our lingering winter rarities and scarcities, along with as many other species as possible in between. It would require a quickfire series of stops up and down the coast. At least the weather gods were shining on us today – it was dry, bright and sunny at times.

As we drove west, a Barn Owl was still out hunting over a field beside the road – always a good start to the day. We headed straight across to NW Norfolk and parked on the verge just north of Sedgeford.

There was already a small crowd gathered and, even better, they were already watching the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. It was feeding out in the middle of the field with a couple of Pied Wagtails, and we got the scopes straight on it. It was a bit distant, but we all had a quick look at it before it took off. We watched it fly across the field and it seemed to be heading for its favoured muck heap, on the concrete pad further down the track, so we walked down to see if we could find it there.

There was no sign of the wagtail at the muck heap, so we scanned the field from here to see if had landed somewhere down this end. There were lots of Fieldfares feeding out in the middle and a flock of Linnets around some tufts of vegetation. A single Pink-footed Goose looked a bit lonely and one Pied Wagtail along the edge of the field had not brought any friends with it. A flash of yellow further down turned out to be several Yellowhammers which were flying in and out of the hedge, down to feed on the field margin.

Then someone spotted the Eastern Yellow Wagtail again, very distantly back on another muck heap in the field by the main road. We walked back up the track, but by the time we got back there it had disappeared round the rear, out of view. When the two Pied Wagtails it was with took off, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew too. We watched it fly down over the track and drop towards the muck heap where we had just been looking. It was really giving us the run around!

Back down the track, and as we approached the concrete pad again, we heard it call and noticed it feeding on the edge of the field right in front of us. It flew up calling – a distinctive buzzy ‘dzzzeep’ – across the track and landed again on the concrete pad, where it started feeding around the puddles. Now we had a great view of it through the scope.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – the first confirmed record for Norfolk

Eastern Yellow Wagtail is (logically!) the eastern counterpart to our Western Yellow Wagtail. They were all historically treated as a series of subspecies, but the eastern ones have a noticeably more buzzy call than the western ones and have consistent differences in DNA which are sufficient to see it elevated to full species status. It was therefore good that we heard it call.

This particular bird is unusually bright – most of the Eastern Yellow Wagtails which are identified in the UK are plain grey and white first winters. The grey head and white supercilium identify it as belonging to the subspecies ‘tschutschensis’, which breeds across eastern Siberia across to western Alaska, wintering mainly in SE Asia. It is a long way from home. And it is the first confirmed record for Norfolk (although several have been suspected in the past).

We decided to move on, and headed further south down to Fring. There had been a large flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding on a recently harvested sugar beet field just south of the village for the last couple of days. There were still quite a few there today – perhaps less than there had been, although more birds were arriving as we stood and started to scan through the huge throng.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – thousands were feeding in a harvested sugar beet field

We could only see part of the flock from the top of the field, but we managed to find a single Barnacle Goose in with them. We had hoped to find the presumed Grey-bellied Brant or one or two Tundra Bean Geese which have been seen here recently. We found a couple of birds with orange legs, which would often indicate a Bean Goose, but these were just orange-legged Pink-footed Geese, a variant which is found in small numbers within the wintering flocks here. A Red Kite hung in the air over the woods beyond.

Some people were viewing the flock from the minor road the other side of the field and would have a better view of the whole flock, so we drove round. But it was looking into the sun from here and there was nowhere to park. We asked whether they had seen anything, but they seemed to have not seen anything more than we had. As we drove back through Fring and up towards Docking, a Grey Partridge was in the field right next to the road.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – right next to the road, as we drove up to the coast

Winding our way up to the coast, we stopped next at Thornham. We had hoped to have a quick look for the Twite here, but we were told they had flown off over the seawall and out onto the grazing marsh beyond a little earlier. We walked round and up onto the bank, but there was no sign of them.

There was a nice selection of waders out in the harbour. Several Common Redshank and Curlew were feeding in the muddy channels closer to the path. Further out, on the flats, there were lots of Grey Plover and a few Oystercatchers. In the main harbour channel we could see little groups of Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Knot, and some Turnstone feeding along the edge of the water.

Curlew

Curlew – there were several feeding around the harbour

As we walked out along the seawall, we caught a glimpse of a small flock of finches which were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh. There seemed to be about ten of them (which was the right number for the Twite), but when we got closer we realised it was actually a much larger flock and they were Linnets. A Stonechat was perched on some low vegetation just behind them. Scanning the grazing marshes the other side, we found a good number of Golden Plover roosting in the grass.

At this point, a message came through to say the Waxwing, first seen yesterday, was still at Holme. It was not far, we could see the bird observatory from where we were standing, so we walked straight over. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Waxwing had actually been seen earlier in the morning and had then flown off into the trees. There was no sign now – it later turned out it had flown off all the way to the village. There were a couple of Greenfinches feeding in the rosehips and a selection of tits and a couple of Goldcrests in the pines.

We decided not to hang around and walked back to Thornham Harbour. On the way, a Sparrowhawk flew in low from the saltmarsh and over the bank in front of us. There was still no sign of any Twite on the way back, so we headed round to Titchwell.

The car park at Titchwell was very busy – the reserve is getting so popular, the RSPB needs to make a bigger one! There had been a Woodcock earlier along Meadow Trail, but we couldn’t find it now. It had moved from where it had been, so perhaps it had been disturbed by the passage of people along the path.

When we got out to the Freshmarsh, we found that it was completely flooded with water. Although the water level is always high at this time of year, apparently there has been a problem with the sluice which means there is no way to let water off. The recent rain had topped it up. There were just a few ducks on here today, lots of Teal around the margins, and a group of Mallard and Gadwall tucked in along the edge of the reeds.

As we walked past Volunteer Marsh, a couple of Redshank were feeding in the channel below the path, but there were more waders in the muddy channel along the far side,  a few Grey Plovers, Curlews, more Redshank and a couple of Knot.

We were more interested in the waders on the Tidal Pools, which are now tidal again and consequently attracting many more birds. A quick scan revealed two Greenshank roosting towards the back. A Spotted Redshank was busy feeding along the edge, sweeping its bill quickly from side to side in the water. There were a couple of Ringed Plovers right at back, as well as one or two Bar-tailed Godwits. A larger group of Bar-tailed Godwits was roosting on the spit a little further up, along with a lone, hardy Avocet on the end.

There were several ducks out on the water here, mainly Mallard and Shoveler. A small group of Pintail was busily upending in with them, including a couple of smart drakes. There are several Little Grebes on here now, enjoying the new, reduced water levels.

Pintail

Pintail – busily upending on the Tidal Pools

Out at the beach, the tide was in. So there weren’t many waders – just a couple of Sanderling along the shoreline. The sea was rather choppy today. We had a quick scan, and picked up a very distant group of Eider, the white males occasionally catching the light as they bobbed up on the waves. Otherwise, there were several Goldeneye, lots of Great Crested Grebes and a couple of Red-throated Divers which flew past.

As we walked quickly back, we could see a small crowd gathered on the path in the trees. A Water Rail was feeding down in the ditch just below the path. We tried out luck again and cut round via Meadow Trail back to the Vistor Centre, but there was still no further sign of the Woodcock.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch below the main path

The presumed Grey-bellied Brant had appeared at Choseley in with a big feeding flock of Pink-footed Geese just after we arrived at Titchwell, but by the time we got up there next, all the geese had been flushed by two low-flying helicopters. A few Pink-footed Geese had landed back in the field, but we could see thousands more in the skies beyond, over towards Docking. They appeared to be heading off towards Fring (and sure enough, the Grey-bellied Brant was seen again there later).

We headed back east. A quick stop at the layby at Burnham Overy Staithe produced a distant Great White Egret out on the grazing marshes and several Black-tailed Godwits. A large flock of Golden Plover flew up and circled round in a tight group. A big group of Barnacle Geese flew round too and landed back down on the grass behind the reeds.

Another quick stop further on at Holkham got us a couple of White-fronted Geese on the grazing marshes here, along with a pair of Canada Geese (another one for the day’s list!). There were two more Great White Egrets here too.

The coast was very busy again today. When we got to Wells, there was nowhere to park at the layby. We had a quick scan from the minibus and could see the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its favoured bushes. So we hopped out, and got it the in scope quickly. We could see its very pale head contrasting with its dark, blackish-brown belly.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – was on one of its favoured bushes again today

Back to Holkham, and we managed to park on Lady Anne’s Drive, despite it being very busy again. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grazing marshes. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in and landed but were spooked again almost immediately. Several Ruff appeared in the grass with them when they landed too.

Out through the pines and we walked quickly east to the cordon. There were a few people gathered by the rope who got us straight onto the Shorelarks. They were well hidden today, feeding in the denser, taller vegetation. We couldn’t see how many there were, but a head would come up occasionally and we could see a bright yellow face with black mask. A large flock of Snow Buntings was feeding on the shorter vegetation further back in the cordon beyond.

Shorelark

Shorelarks – in the cordon at Holkham again today (photo taken on 1st!)

Continuing on up onto the dunes, we scanned the sea. The ducks were further out today, the sea was very choppy here too, but we could see a large black slick of about 4,000 scoter. They were mainly Common Scoter, and it was hard initially to see anything else in with them today. Thankfully they started to take off. They only flew a short distance in several groups, but as the flocks took off we could see several birds with white in their wings. We counted at least 6 Velvet Scoters in this way. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers offshore here too.

It was a bit of  a whistestop visit to Holkham today, as we were running out of time. As we hurried back to Lady Anne’s Drive, a Rock Pipit flew over the saltmarsh calling. We wanted to squeeze in one last stop this afternoon, but the days are short at this time of year and we were already a little later than planned. We drove straight round to Warham Greens and walked quickly down to the edge of the saltmarsh. There was an unusually large crowd here today too, but we managed to find a spot to stand and put up our scopes.

A grey male Hen Harrier was already perched out on the saltmarsh – we could see it in the scope. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew east just beyond it and a short while later, either the same or another ringtail flew back west closer in. We watched as it headed out towards East Hills, making the most of the fading light for a last bit of hunting.

A Merlin flew in low and fast and landed out on the back of saltmarsh. They are so small, with the light fading it was hard to pick up when it was stationary, perched down on a low bush. We managed to get that in the scope too. Another ringtail Hen Harrier came up from the ground – this one definitely different, as the other one was still off towards Wells.

There had been a Short-eared Owl seen before we arrived, but it had dropped down onto the ground out of view. Thankfully it reappeared just as the light was going, and flew round over the saltmarsh before landing on a bush.

The Short-eared Owl made for a nice set of birds at the roost today. Unfortunately, with a long journey ahead, we had to call it a day and head back now.

19th & 20th Dec 2019 – Two Days of Winter Birding

A two day Private Tour in North Norfolk looking to catch up with some of our regular and scarcer winter visitors. We were very lucky with the weather on Thursday, when it was dry with some unforecast dry intervals. On Friday, although we didn’t get anything like as bad as the Met Office yellow warning for heavy rain in the morning implied, it did drizzle on and off and ironically got slightly worse into the afternoon. It didn’t stop us though, and we got out and saw some great birds on both days.

We met this morning at Titchwell. The walk from the car park was fairly quiet but a large flock of Goldfinches flew over as we got to the Visitor Centre. We decided to head straight out down the main path, but scanning the ditches failed to produce a Water Rail. As we got out of the trees, a Water Pipit flew over calling and dropped down on to the former pool out on Thornham grazing marsh. We had a quick scan from further up, but there is too much vegetation on here now, and it had disappeared out of view.

A Marsh Harrier was circling out over the reedbed the other side, a female, so we stopped to watch it. Another was perched in the dead trees at the back and a third, this time a male, drifted over towards the path. We got a good look at it, a rather dark male, with patchy grey in the outerwing. A Cetti’s Warbler called from somewhere deep in the reeds and a second bird was singing half-heartedly a little further along.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – a darker male, circled over the reedbed

A flock of Lapwings came in high over the saltmarsh and a short while later we spotted another small group coming high over the Freshmarsh. They were probably on the move, fresh arrivals from the continent coming in for the winter.

The water level on the Freshmarsh is very high now, and there are next to no islands still exposed. At least the wildfowl seem to appreciate it – there were quite a few ducks, including lots of Teal. We stopped to admire some of the smart drakes, in their finest breeding plumage now, with bright green and chestnut heads and creamy yellow patches under their tails. Several small groups of Brent Geese flew in from where they had been feeding, out on the saltmarsh.

Brent Goose

Brent Goose – several small flocks flew in from the saltmarsh

The weather was surprisingly good, much better than forecast, with some bright patches in the sky, so we decided to head straight out towards the beach first. We had just walked over the bank towards the Volunteer March, when we heard a Water Pipit calling behind us. We turned to see it circle round and drop down in the near corner of the Freshmarsh.

So we walked back over the bank, and found the Water Pipit feeding on the flotsam on the edge of the water, just below the Parrinder Bank. We had a great look at it through the scope, very clean white below with well-marked black streaks, and a clean white supercilium. Very different from the more familiar and rather swarthy Rock Pipit, two of which flew over the saltmarsh the other side, calling.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – feeding on the flotsam on the edge of the Freshmarsh

Even though the tide was in, it was not a particularly big tide today and there was still a good selection of waders on the Volunteer Marsh. There were one or two Common Redshanks in the channel below the main path and more birds at the far end, where the channel turns and heads away from the path.

We stopped to admire a smart Grey Plover in the scope. A couple of Knot were feeding nearby and a Dunlin flew in to join them, giving us a nice comparison of the three species side by side. Looking down the sides of the muddy channel, we could see one or two Curlew and more Redshank. Several more Knot were feeding in the taller vegetation out in the middle of the marsh, making them very hard to see.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – one of several waders feeding on the mud on Volunteer Marsh

The Tidal Pool is now tidal again, with lots of exposed mud and islands, which means it is now a lot more productive. There was a nice selection of waders on here today. First up, we found a small roosting group of shanks – two Greenshanks, slightly larger and paler, very white below, together with two Spotted Redshanks. The latter were asleep, so we couldn’t get a look at their bills, but we could see the extensive white spotting on the wings and upperparts.

There were several Bar-tailed Godwits feeding on the small islands – and it was good to get a proper look at them through the scope. The spit at the back was packed with Knot and more sleeping Bar-tailed Godwits, and a mob of Oystercatchers were roosting on the island nearby.

A single Red-breasted Merganser was diving out in the middle of the water, unusual to see on here, amongst the several Pintails which were busy upending. We got the scope on the Pintails for a closer look – the drakes looking very smart now, in full breeding plumage, with their long, pin-like tails. There are more Little Grebes on here too now, including one which had climbed out onto one of the islands for a preen.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the Tidal Pools, not often seen out of the water

Continuing on to the beach, the tide was in. Apparently a couple of trawlers had just gone through and flushed most of the ducks. Those that were still here were a long way out. Scanning carefully,  we found four drake Long-tailed Ducks, but they were very distant, and we could only see them when they flapped. There were lots more Red-breasted Merganser on the sea, off towards Scolt, including some smart drakes. And several Great Crested Grebes.

A Goldeneye flew in from the east. While we were watching it, another drake Long-tailed Duck flew past the other way, coming in from the direction of Thornham Point. The Goldeneye turned to follow it, and they both flew past us close inshore. It was a much better look at the Long-tailed Duck than the ones on the sea in the distance. As it flew past beyond the concrete blocks it looked for a second like it might land, but then it turned and flew back out towards the windfarm.

On our way back, we called in to Parrinder Hide. All the ducks were getting spooked by Marsh Harriers flying over the bank, so there were none close to the hide now. We did see more Water Pipits – probably at least two now. And there were several Lapwings on the one island which remains out above the water. Continuing on, we stopped by Island Hide to watch a pair of Reed Buntings which were feeding on the path. They flew up into the trees and perched there, flicking their tails and flashing their white outer tail feathers.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting – feeding on the path to Island Hide

When we got back to the tree, there seemed to be lots of birds feeding along the path. There were several Chaffinches on the ground and tits in the bushes beside the path. As we stopped to look, someone called us over to say they had found one of the Water Rails down in the ditch. It was busy feeding, digging around in the wet leaves, and well hidden under the tangles of branches. There was a Chiffchaff in the bushes here too, and as we got back almost to the Visitor Centre, we stopped to watch a Goldcrest flitting around right beside us.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding under the tangle of branches in the ditch

We had a break for lunch today – back at the Jolly Sailors in Brancaster Staithe. Afterwards, we drove further east along the coast to Warham.

It was fairly quiet as we walked up along the track. There were a few Blackbirds which flew out of the hedge ahead of us, and a Kestrel perched on the corner of the old barn. As we got to the end, a flock of Long-tailed Tits was working its way through the tops of the trees, and several Yellowhammers flew over calling.

We could hear the unmistakable sound of Pink-footed Geese approaching, and looked up to see several skeins flying in overhead from the fields. We watched them head out across the saltmarsh and drop down to roost on the flats beyond. From out on the coastal path, we could see a long line of Pink-footed Geese on the mud in the distance.

There were three Marsh Harriers way out over the beach when we arrived. Thankfully it wasn’t long before a Hen Harrier appeared too, a very smart grey male. It was a bit closer too, hunting back and forth over the back of the saltmarsh. We had a good view of it in the scope. Otherwise, there were several Little Egrets and Curlews out on the saltmarsh, plus a small group of Golden Plover and a well camouflaged Brown Hare.

We had a brief glimpse of a Merlin, too quick for everyone to get onto as it disappeared straight into some bushes. While we were scanning to see if we could find it again, what was presumably the same male Hen Harrier appeared, further over now, close to where the Merlin had been, but it too dropped down out of view.

Eventually the Merlin came out again, and we watched as it flew across fast and low over the saltmarsh. It was about to land on the top of a bush, but suddenly set off again instead, in pursuit of small group of Meadow Pipits. The Merlin chased one of the pipits higher and higher into the sky, both of them circling round and round. Then the Meadow Pipit dropped down vertically, with the Merlin in pursuit, before the two of them towered up again.

For a minute or so, the Merlin and the Meadow Pipit twisted and turned, up and down. Then suddenly the male Hen Harrier appeared below them, and as we watched it came up and grabbed the Meadow Pipit which the Merlin was chasing. Amazing! The Hen Harrier dropped down into the bushes with its prey and the Merlin disappeared off too, with nothing to show for its efforts.

It was a great display. The light was starting to go now, so we decided it was time to head for home.

We met again the following morning in Wells. The weather was not great – it was drizzling steadily – but at least there was no sign of the threatened yellow weather warning for heavy rain that the Met Office had belatedly decided we were going to get. At least they are reliably wrong with their forecasts!

We made our way down to the edge of the town, and pulled up in a gateway overlooking some fields. There were lots of Golden Plover huddled next to a flood in one of the fields, looking convincingly like clods of earth on first glance, and more Lapwings in another ploughed field beyond. A male Marsh Harrier came slowly past, hunting, and a rather dark Common Buzzard was perched on a post further back.

Scanning further across, we quickly found the Rough-legged Buzzard we had come to see, perched on the top of a bush back towards the car park. We had a quick look through the scope from here, just in case it decided to fly off. It was back on to us, but we could see its very pale head and just make out the white base to the tail visible between its folded wings. Then we drove round to the car park for a closer look.

From the edge of the car park, we got the Rough-legged Buzzard in the scope. It was a great view from here – we could see the distinctive blackish belly patch, contrasting with the pale head. Then it took off, flashing its black carpal patches, and flew round the back of the bushes out of sight.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – the juvenile at Wells showed very well in the rain

We had been talking earlier about winter thrushes, so when we heard a Fieldfare call, we walked over towards the football pitch to see if we could find it. There was no sign of it at first, just a few Brent Geese flying round, then two thrushes flew up and landed on top of a tree at the back of the pitch. One was smaller than the other, a Redwing and Fieldfare side by side, a good comparison in the scope. We had also hoped we might find the Rough-legged Buzzard hunting round this side but we couldn’t see it from here.

Walking back round to where we had seen it earlier, we found the Rough-legged Buzzard back on the same bushes. We couldn’t resist another look through the scope, and we watched as it regurgitated a pellet, the indigestible remains of what it had been eating.

We could hear a Mistle Thrush singing behind us, so we turned to see two distantly on the wires over towards the town. A Meadow Pipit flew up and landed on some wires too, this time a bit closer. There were several Chaffinches in the hedge, and a Greenfinch landed in the top of a taller tree, where we could hear it calling. Eventually the Rough-legged Buzzard took off again and flew round out of sight once more, so we decided to move on.

Our next stop was round at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped to admire a covey of Grey Partridge right next to the fence. They were rather damp, but it was a good view of them from the minibus.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – one of two coveys by Lady Anne’s Drive

We parked at the top of the Drive. After all the recent rain, there is a lot of water on the grazing marshes now. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grass, with a few Teal, Shoveler and Mallard scattered round too. However, all we could find was just one distant Pink-footed Goose, which we got in the scope. There were several Redshank and a few Curlew out on the wet grass too.

Wigeon

Wigeon – there were lots feeding on the flooded grazing marshes

As it was still just drizzling, still no sign of the forecast heavy rain, we decided to brave the weather and walk out onto the saltmarsh. As we walked down the boardwalk the other side of the pines, we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese out in the middle feeding. More Brent Geese flew over from behind us and dropped down to join them. We walked over for a closer look.

One of the geese on the front of the feeding flock stood out – it was a little darker than the others, with a slightly more obvious white flank patch and extensive white collar. It is a Black Brant hybrid, a regular returning bird which has been coming back to exactly the same spot with the same flock of Brent Geese each winter for several years. Looking through the flock more carefully, we found a Pale-bellied Brent Goose too. The vast majority of our wintering Brent Geese are Dark-bellied Brents, which breed up in Central Siberia. The Pale-bellied Brent immediately stood out, with its much paler flanks and belly. A very interesting and instructive flock of geese!

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the regular flock of Dark-bellied Brents

We carried on along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh, out to the cordon. There was no sign of any Shorelarks here today, but it was quite wet, with lots of standing water. There are also only five so far this winter and they have been very mobile. We did find a nice flock of Snow Buntings though, feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh at the far end of the cordon. They were surprisingly hard to see until they flew up, flashing the white in their wings. There were about 50 Snow Buntings in total, some much paler than others, a mix of Scandinavian and Icelandic birds.

Continuing out onto the beach, we could see several Red-throated Divers just offshore, fishing just behind the breakers. We had some very good views of them in the scope – paler adults with their white faces and beady eyes, and a darker juvenile with duskier cheeks. We could see their distinctive upturned bills. A very pale, winter plumaged Great Crested Grebe was diving nearby.

Further out, we could see some very large rafts of Common Scoter, looking like long oily slicks until you looked through binoculars. A couple of Eider were out on the sea too, and several Red-breasted Mergansers including some smart spiky-haircutted drakes. Two distant Long-tailed Ducks flew across away to our left, but we lost sight of them round behind the dunes. Otherwise, there were surprisingly large numbers of Wigeon on the sea today, closer in, presumably having been flushed off the grazing marshes and sought the safety of the water out here.

We had planned to walk back along the beach, but it started to rain more heavily now so we decided to walk straight back to the minibus instead. It was already after midday by the time we got back (the forecast ironically had suggested the rain would ease in the afternoon!), so we drove round to Burnham Overy Staithe for lunch. On our way there, we could see large number of Pink-footed Geese in a potato field just beside the road, but there was nowhere to pull in for a closer look. It was nice to get in the warmth of The Hero and take the opportunity to dry out a little.

After lunch, we had a quick walk out along the seawall. The rain had eased off again, but it was still very grey and damp. The tide was in, and a single female Red-breasted Merganser was diving in the channel. A lone Common Scoter had walked up onto the shingle bank further back towards the dunes.

There had been Cattle Egrets out here still in the last couple of days, but there was no sign of any cattle now – they must have just been taken in. There were plenty of Little Egrets enjoying the many wet puddles in the fields.

There were lots more Wigeon out on the grazing marshes here. We had a nice view of a small group of Pink-footed Geese and Greylags together, feeding on the grass just below the bank. A good comparison and our best look at some Pinkfeet. A big flock of Brent Geese flew up from out on the saltmarsh over towards the dunes.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding on the grazing marsh with the Greylags

We stopped to scan from the corner of the seawall. There were about a dozen Barnacle Geese out here, very smart looking little geese, but most likely feral birds from Holkham. There were loads of waders out on the flooded grazing marsh too, Redshanks and Curlews, several little groups of diminutive Dunlin, lots of Lapwings, and a large flock of Golden Plover further out. It looked like it might be about to rain again, so we set off back to find the shelter of the minibus.

On our way back east, we stopped again at Holkham. There were not many geese feeding on the grazing marshes today – a few Greylags and a pair of Canada Geese with them. But scanning carefully, we eventually managed to find a small group of White-fronted Geese over at the back, in the mist. We could see their white fronts through the scope, when they lifted their heads.

We still had a small amount of time before we were due to finish, but we didn’t fancy venturing out in the rain again. We popped in for a quick look at the pools east of Wells, where we could have a scan from the bus. There was a single Little Egret out on one of the pools, but no sign of any other egrets here today. There was plenty of of water here, but it was rather quiet today. Something seemed to have been spooking the birds – the Teal were all in the grass and very flighty. The Lapwings were very jumpy too, and everything took off and flew round. Presumably a raptor had just been through.

It was time to call it a day now and head back to dry out properly. It had been a very enjoyable few days, despite the weather today, with a great selection of some of our finest winter birds.

16th Nov 2019 – Autumn vs Winter, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Late Autumn / Early Winter Tour. It was a much nicer day today, dry with much lighter winds, and even some sunny moments in the afternoon. We spent the day on the coast between Holkham and Stiffkey.

With some new members of the group joining us this morning, we stopped again just on the outskirts of Wells first thing. There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard at first – the raptors were mostly sitting around this morning, and it felt a bit cooler than yesterday. A Red Kite was perched up in a tree by the old railway cutting and a Common Buzzard was down in the long grass on the edge of one of the fields. A Kestrel landed in the bushes just in front of us.

There were quite a few Golden Plovers and Lapwings in the wetter fields again, and periodically they flew up and circled round. A Great White Egret flew over from the direction of Wells Harbour and we watched it disappear off towards Holkham. A small flock of Greylags was feeding in the cover crop showing off their carrot-like bills, with a Muntjac just behind them. There were several Grey Partridges in the field too but they were very hard to see in the vegetation unless they moved.

Two Fieldfares appeared in the top of a tree by one of the houses on the edge of Wells, behind us. A Bullfinch called from the thick hedge in front of us, and then flew out and past us. A Great Spotted Woodpecker then did exactly the same. There were lots of finches in the bushes, Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, and a few Linnets out in the field.

As the temperature started to increase so the raptors started to become more active. The Red Kite took off and flashed its forked tail as it circled, and several Common Buzzards came up now. The Marsh Harriers started to hunt too – we watched a distant dark male, then a paler male flying in along the bank. When the Marsh Harrier dinked down at the bank, we figured there must something there but we couldn’t see it, hidden by bushes in front of us. We walked just into the edge of the field to look round the brambles and realised it was the Rough-legged Buzzard!

It was perched in a bush half way down the bank, and we had a good view of the Rough-legged Buzzard through the scope. We could see the way its pale head contrasted with its dark, blackish belly. Eventually it took off, and we could see its pale tail with black terminal band as it flew up and over the bank and disappeared.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched in a bush

We decided to move on, and drove round to Holkham, where we parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. After all the recent rain, there is a good amount of water now on the grazing marshes and there were lots of Wigeon and a couple of Shoveler around the edge of the pools. A small flock of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits was feeding on the edge of the water just beyond the fence.

Four Grey Partridges flew across and landed just behind a gate back along the road, but ran back out into the middle as people approached. Further up, another larger covey of Grey Partridges was out in the middle of the marshes, well camouflaged among the clods of earth where the channels have been excavated recently.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – there were a couple of coveys by Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked up towards the pines, there were a couple of Brent Geese and an Egyptian Goose out on the grazing marsh, and a Brown Hare too. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew in and circled over the marshes calling. A few Jays back and forth in and out of the trees.

As we walked west along the path on the inland side of the pines, the trees were rather quiet today. Presumably most of the tits were feeding up in the pines. There were several Little Grebes on Salts Hole, along with a couple of Coot and a few Wigeon. We wanted to try to see the Hume’s Warbler which had taken up residence in the trees just beyond the crosstracks and, knowing we might need a little bit of time to pin it down, we pressed on west without stopping in the hides.

There were a few people looking for the Hume’s Warbler when we got there. It had been seen earlier but had disappeared into the bushes. A Chiffchaff was flitting around where it had been seen. Then we heard it call briefly from the back of the sallows. A tit flock came out – Long-tailed Tits, Blue, Great and Coal Tits too. There were one or two Goldcrests in the bushes. We got a glimpse of something small and pale which flew across, but we couldn’t find it again.

We walked round to the back of the sallows and met another couple of people who told us they had just been watching the Hume’s Warbler in one of the oak trees but it had now disappeared through the sallows. Back round the other side again, it reappeared, flying up out of the sallows and back up into the oak briefly. We could see it flitting around in the leaves but only a few of the group got onto it before it disappeared deeper into the tree.

It was a frustrating few minutes. We walked round to the back of the oaks but the Hume’s Warbler had now disappeared again. There was a shout to say it had been found, but there were just a couple of Goldcrests.

Then we heard it calling further back behind us. We hurried back round to where we had started and sure enough it had just reappeared. The Hume’s Warbler was flitting around in the tops of some sallows, against the light. Then it flew across the path to some thicker bushes. It seemed to have disappeared again, but then appeared on some brambles growing up between the sallows. Finally, we got a good view of it.

Hume's Warbler

Hume’s Warbler – eventually showed well in the bushes at Holkham

Hume’s Warbler is a rare visitor here, mostly in late autumn. They breed in the mountains of Central Asia and winter mostly in India, so this one was well off track. It seemed to flick off to the right and into the sallows, but when we looked back there was still a Hume’s Warbler in the brambles. Could there be two? We assumed we were just mistaken, but it turned out later that the Hume’s Warbler had indeed been joined by a second bird.

We made our way back to the crosstracks and up to Joe Jordan Hide next. As we looked out across the marshes, we could see a Great White Egret half hidden in the rushes. When a second Great White Egret flew in and landed nearby, the first took off and flew straight at it, chasing it back off over the hedge before returning to its feeding spot.

Great White Egrets

Great White Egrets – one chased off the second when it flew in

Two Marsh Harriers were in the bushes along the line of the ditch just behind and several more were in the taller trees behind the old fort. A Red Kite was perched up in the tress too, and a second one drifted across in front of the hide.

It was time to head back for lunch. We stopped in the Lookout cafe for a hot drink, and after lunch we headed out through the pines. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and there were lots of people at Holkham now, but they were mostly heading straight out to the beach. We walked west along the edge of the saltmarsh, where a large flock of Linnets wheeled round and disappeared back down into the saltmarsh vegetation.

When we got to the cordoned-off area, the Shorelarks were down at the far end. We walked round for a closer look and got them in the scope. There were six of them again, feeding in the short vegetation, looking for seeds, occasionally stopping to preen. Smart birds, their bright yellow faces were shining in the sunshine.

Shorelark

Shorelark – six were on the saltmarsh at Holkham again

After enjoying the Shorelarks for a while, we continued on through the gap in the dunes, and stopped to scan the sea. There were lots of gulls on the beach – Black-headed, Common, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls. A few Sanderlings were running around on the sandbank in between them, and a few more were whirling round in a tight flock flashing white in the bright light.

There were a few Common Scoters out in the breakers, diving for shellfish. Much further out, we could see a load more, looking a bit like a big dark oil slick, possibly around a thousand birds. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers very close in, just off the beach, and a Great Crested Grebe nearby too.

Then a diver appeared – rather black and white, with a prominent white rear flank patch, it was a Black-throated Diver. It was very close in too, so we walked down teh beach to the edge of the water for a closer look. The Black-throated Diver had moved off to the left, back towards the sea, as we approached, but then came back up the channel and resurfaced right in front of us. Fantastic views, so close in – a real treat!

Black-throated Diver

Black-throated Diver – diving just off the beach at Holkham

There were two of three Slavonian Grebes further out. They are so small, they were hard to see. They kept diving and kept disappearing behind the waves, but eventually everyone got a look at them through the scope. There was a Red-throated Diver further out too, much paler than the Black-throated Diver, with a much whiter face.

As we walked back round via the cordon, the Shorelarks were still there, but with the sun having gone behind a cloud they weren’t shining as brightly now and didn’t attract as many admiring glances as they had done on the way out. Lots of Pink-footed Geese were flying in over the pines, calling. After a quick stop to use the facilities in the Lookout cafe, as we drove back up Lady Anne’s Drive, there were now quite a few Pinkfeet on the grazing marsh nearby.

Our last stop of the day was round at Stiffkey. After all the distractions at Holkham out on the beach, we were later than we had planned and the light had already started to go. We had already missed a couple of Hen Harriers flying in, but we were pointed out a very distant Merlin, which was little more than a dark dot out on a bush on the saltmarsh.

A Peregrine flew in off the beach over the saltmarsh away to the west and disappeared off inland. Then another Merlin flew across in front of us, a male this time, grey backed. It flew quickly, dropping down low over the ground, before landing on a bush away to our left.

A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in from the west, over the saltmarsh and out to the low dune ridge out in front of us, before disappearing away behind. A short while later, presumably the same bird came back in over the saltmarsh, off to the east of us, then flew across low over the vegetation in front of us. It was getting dark now, but we could see the white patch at the base of its tail.

As the light faded, more and more Little Egrets flew past, heading in to roost. It was time for us to call it a day too. It had been another exciting one, and we still had another day to look forward to tomorrow.

15th Nov 2019 – Autumn vs Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Late Autumn / Early Winter Tour. It was a cloudy but dry start with some brief blustery showers developing through the afternoon, blown through on a brisk NE wind which became increasingly blustery through the day. We spent the day along the North Norfolk coast, heading east from Wells.

As we met in Wells, we headed straight down to Freeman Street car park first, where the Rough-legged Buzzard had been yesterday. As we got out of the minibus we could see it hunting over the bank at the back of the field, hovering. It was great to see it in action and we got a good look at its black belly patch contrasting with its pale head, and its white tail with a neat black terminal band. It landed in a bush on the bank, so we got the scope on it. Everyone had a good look, then it was off again, flying off strongly towards Holkham.

It was clearly a morning for raptors. Several Marsh Harriers were up now too, quartering the fields. A couple of Common Buzzards were perched in the trees beyond at first then flying around, with a Red Kite hanging in the air over the fields further back. A Sparrowhawk flew across low over the field in front of us, and later either the same or another Sparrowhawk flew off back the other way. There were a couple of Kestrels around too.

The Rough-legged Buzzard was still hunting, hovering in the distance. Then it flew back in towards us and landed in the rough grass at the back of the closest field. We could see its pale head and shoulders in the grass.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – flying around over the fields at Wells again

There were lots of other birds here too. A flock of Linnets whirled over the field periodically, and there were Goldfinches, Chaffinches and Greenfinches calling in the bushes behind us. Several Skylarks came up out of the game cover, and flew round. We could see some larger groups of Lapwings and Golden Plovers a couple of fields over, which periodically spooked and circled round. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese flew down towards Holkham.

Back in the minibus, we drove east to Blakeney. Lots of Pink-footed Geese were out on the grazing marshes further back and a small group of Greylags flew in to land on the grass in front of us – a good opportunity to look at the differences between them, the Greylags larger, paler and with a big orange carrot for a bill. A Little Grebe was hiding in one of the ditches.

We walked down past the duckpond, trying to avert our eyes from the gaudy collection of captive tame wildfowl on display! When we got up onto the seawall, it was much windier. Several Marsh Harriers were up here too, out over the Freshes, including two smart males, one of which was being hounded by a Rook. A couple of Grey Herons were in the grass with the cows, pretending to be Cattle Egrets. A sizeable flock of Brent Geese were out on the saltmarsh the other side, until they were flushed by a dogwalker.

Continuing on to the corner of the seawall, we stopped to scan the mud in the harbour. There were lots of waders here – a large group of Golden Plover, several small Dunlin feeding busily in front, and Grey Plovers too more scattered around over the mud. A single Bar-tailed Godwit was feeding in front of the vegetation at the back and there were several Curlews.

A Rock Pipit flew in and dropped down onto the saltmarsh. A large flock of Linnets whirled round periodically over the saltmarsh too, at one point flying in to the puddles on the grazing marsh behind us to bathe. We walked on a little further, and another smaller flock of nine finches flew past – Twite! We hoped they would drop in by the puddles too, but they continued on along bank and then turned out to the middle of the saltmarsh where they dropped down out of view.

A family of Brent Geese was feeding on a patch of more bare ground, two adults with two striped juveniles, plus a second pair with no young nearby. This smaller group was more settled and didn’t seem concerned by our presence close by on the bank. A Turnstone was picking around, appropriately enough turning over the small stones looking for food, just behind them.

Brent Goose

Brent Goose – on the saltmarsh by the seawall

It was very breezy out here, so we decided to walk back to try to get out of wind. Back on the corner, we stopped to scan the harbour again briefly. A couple of Red-breasted Mergansers and a Goldeneye came out of the harbour channel on the falling tide and flew out to the more open water. A Ringed Plover and several Oystercatchers on the banks of the channel were extra additions to the day’s wader list.

It was more sheltered in Friary Hills, and we had a quick walk round to see if there were any birds coming in. Several Blackbirds were in the thick hedge feeding on blackberries, possibly migrants, but there were no other recently arrived thrushes. We had a closer view of the Pink-footed Geese from here, dark headed, their small dark bills with a noticeable pink band. There were a few of the local Canada Geese mixed in with them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding on Blakeney Freshes

Some raptors were enjoying the wind, hanging over the edge of the trees at the top of the hill. There were two Common Buzzards, one a noticeably paler bird, rather creamy white below but lacking the black belly of the Rough-legged Buzzard we had been watching earlier. There was a Kestrel and another Sparrowhawk here too.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – a rather pale individual

Following the path round up the hill, it was rather more exposed up at the top. A flock of Long-tailed Tits came out of gardens, and we could see a couple of them feeding in the thick blackthorn bushes. A Goldcrest was calling from the pine tree overhead but was hard to see in the wind. We made our way back down to the minibus.

Round at Cley beach, the shelter provided a welcome place out of the wind to have our lunch. Afterwards, we had a quick look out to sea. There had been a smattering of birds passing by offshore earlier, apparently, but there didn’t seem to be a lot moving now – we saw a single adult Gannet, which was the only thing of note. A Guillemot was on the sea, riding the waves.

An Isabelline Wheatear has been hanging around on the shingle ridge at the other end of Cley since last weekend, but there had been no sign of it this morning apparently, so we went round to the Visitor Centre for a hot drink and to make use of the facilities. We had just arrived in the car park when news came through that the wheatear had reappeared. So, after a short break, we headed out to look for it.

It was very blustery up on the East Bank. Four Gadwall were feeding on Don’s Pool and lots of Wigeon were out on the grazing marsh by the Serpentine. From out of the wind behind the East Bank shelter, we stopped to scan the brackish pools to the west. The resident Long-tailed Duck was busy diving over in the far corner, and we had a good look at it when it surfaced. There were a couple of Shelduck, a line of sleeping Shoveler and several Mute Swans on here too.

Gadwall

Gadwall – two pairs were on Don’s Pool

Braving the wind again, we walked on, out towards the beach. Looking up ahead of us, we could see a line of dark and white birds flying past just beyond the beach. They were about 25 Eider – a mixture of black and white drakes and dark brown females and young birds – coming in for the winter.

Eider

Eider – a line of about 25 flew west over the sea

We turned onto the stones and walked east in the lee of the remains of the shingle ridge, behind the beach. We hadn’t gone far when we looked up as a large bird came in over the ridge and over our heads. It was a Short-eared Owl, presumably freshly arrived in off the sea from the continent. We watched it fly inland over Arnold’s Marsh, before we lost it to view from behind the low  dunes beside us.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – flew in over the beach and over our heads

It was all action out here! A small crowd had gathered to see the Isabelline Wheatear a bit further along, so we walked up to join them. The wheatear was hiding in the long marram grass when we arrived, but after just a few seconds it came out. It showed very well, feeding on the short grass just beyond the fence.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – showed very well, on the short grass behind Arnold’s Marsh

Isabelline Wheatear is a very rare visitor to the UK. They breed in south-eastern Europe and migrate to Africa for the winter, so this poor individual had set off in the wrong direction and was now rather lost.

A single Snow Bunting was feeding on the weedy vegetation on the shingle ridge just beyond where we were watching the wheatear – apparently there had been a few more earlier, but they had flown out onto the beach. The Snow Bunting was very tame – coming here for the winter from their breeding grounds in Scandinavia or Iceland, there is every possibility it might not have seen people before.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – one very tame bird was still feeding on the old shingle ridge

A squally shower blew in from the sea, so we stopped to wait for it to pass over, which it did thankfully quickly. Then we started to walk back. We climbed up onto the top of the shingle ridge on our way, to have another look at the sea. There were a few more Gannets flying past now and when we got back to the north end of the East Bank, we picked up a small flock of Kittiwakes offshore too.

We stopped for a quick scan of Arnold’s Marsh from behind the shelter. There were lots of Wigeon and Teal and several Curlews. Gulls were starting to gather but there was nothing different in with them. Out on Pope’s Pool beyond, we could see a large group of Cormorants drying their wings and several Great Black-backed Gulls.

The light was starting to go now, so we walked back to the minibus and called it a day. Despite the challenging weather at times, it had been a very productive day with some excellent birds. Hopefully with more to come tomorrow!