Tag Archives: Salthouse

16th Nov 2019 – Autumn to Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. It still had a distinctly autumnal feel this morning, misty and grey first thing. The cloud gradually lifted a bit and even though it remained cloudy, it was dry and mild.

As we made our way east along the coast road, we could see a couple of large skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in from the coast. They landed in a field by the road and through the hedge we could see thousands of them already packed in there. Unfortunately there was nowhere to pull in and we had someone else right behind us, so we couldn’t stop.

Our first destination for the morning was Blakeney. As we got out of the car by the harbour, it was rather misty further out across the saltmarsh. A lone Curlew was busy feeding down in the harbour channel. We stopped by the wildfowl collection briefly – amongst all the captive exotics there were lots of opportunists come to help themselves to all the seed put out, mostly Mallards and Black-headed Gulls.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding in the harbour channel at Blakeney

A gaggle of Brent Geese was feeding out on the saltmarsh in the middle of the harbour, so we got the scope on them for a closer look. There was a gathering of gulls next to them, again mainly Black-headed Gulls with one or two Common Gulls in amongst them. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were perched on the top of the masts of the yachts pulled up at the far end of the car park.

A slightly paler backed large gull was swimming down in the harbour channel. It was not pale enough for a Herring Gull, and too dark for a Lesser Black-backed Gull, with legs neither pink nor yellow, but a rather insipid fleshy colour. It is a regular here, and has been coming back for years, having found rich pickings on the seed in the wildfowl collection. It is a hybrid, probably Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull.

Looking out across the grazing marshes, we could see three Marsh Harriers circling in the mist, slow to get going this morning. One perched in the top of a bush so we could look at it in the scope. A Common Buzzard flew over, heading for the trees over by the village. Then out over the saltmarsh, we spotted a Merlin hunting, flying across low and fast. We got several flashes of it as it darted back and forth and then it eventually landed, perched on a dead branch out in the middle.

The pools below the bank held a few Teal and one or two Redshank. A Little Grebe was busy diving on the largest of them. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reeds and a couple of Reed Buntings flew up and across to the saltmarsh. A flock of Linnets was feeding out on the edge of the harbour, and whirled round from time to time.

A pipit flew in over the bank calling, and dropped down onto a small puddle in the cut grass on the edge of the Freshes. It was a Rock Pipit – come in from the salty side for a bathe. As it fed round the edge for a couple of minutes beforehand, we could see it was wearing a yellow colour ring and through the scope we could read the black letters. It is probably from Norway – the Rock Pipits which spend the winter out on the saltmarsh here are of the Scandinavian race, littoralis.

Rock Pipit

Rock Pipit – a colour-ringed bird, probably from Norway

Looking out into the harbour from the corner of the seawall, we could see lots of waders on the more open mud. Hundreds of small Dunlin were scurrying around busily, with a scattering of the larger Grey Plover standing or walking slowly around in amongst them. Two slightly larger and dumpier grey birds in with the Dunlin were two Knot. There were more Redshank and Curlew too. When something flushed lots of waders from further out in the harbour, a flock of Black-tailed Godwits circled round and we spotted three Common Snipe which came calling out of the mist.

This is a good site for Twite in the winter and there has been a group here for the last few days. As we stood scanning the harbour, they flew in and landed down by the path in the wet grass briefly. Unfortunately, just at that moment, two people decided to walk down the path and flushed them.

Thankfully the Twite didn’t fly far and landed again in the low vegetation a little further along. We walked over and got great views of them in the scope, sixteen of them in total (although they are very well camouflaged even in the low vegetation and not easy to count!). We could see their yellow bills and orangey breasts. Three Skylarks were picking around in the low vegetation too.

Twite

Twite – there were 16 at Blakeney today

On the walk back to the car, we found a pair of Stonechats feeding in the reeds just below the seawall. We stopped to watch them, fluttering up from the tops, flycatching, before landing back and flicking their tails.

Continuing on east along the coast, our next stop was at Sheringham. We wanted to try to see the King Eider which has been lingering offshore here for a couple of weeks now. It has been favouring the water off the west end of the prom, so we started our search there. There were several Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls on the groynes below the cliffs and a 1st winter Caspian Gull flew past, heading west towards a couple of crab boats which were hauling up their pots away to the west, surrounded by gulls.

Looking out to sea, we could see lots of Starlings coming in over the water, in small groups or larger flocks of 50 or so, birds arriving from the continent for the winter. They seemed to be streaming in constantly. Several groups of Starlings came in right towards us and over the cliffs where we were standing. There were a few thrushes in with them, Redwings and Fieldfares. One or two Blackbirds came in low over the sea too.

We picked up a Woodcock coming in next. It seemed to head straight into the face of the cliffs, but a couple of seconds later it circled over the top and came along the path straight towards us. At the last minute it saw us, just before it crashed into us, panicked and went to land on the path just a couple of metres away, then changed its mind and flew up over the bank and off across the golf course. There was a great variety of migrants arriving this afternoon – this Woodcock had possibly come in all the way from Russia for the winter.

There was no sign of the King Eider on the sea off the lifeboat station, so we walked a little further west along the cliffs until we had a better view beyond. We stopped to scan and could see a few Gannets circling out over the water. A small group of Red-throated Divers flew past. There were a few ducks moving offshore too – a flock of Wigeon, then a line of Common Scoter with several Teal following behind – more migrants arriving for the winter.

Finally we spotted the King Eider, but it was a long way back to the east of where we were now. We had a quick look through the scope, but it was rather distant. So we walked back towards the prom to try to get a closer look. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it had disappeared again. A crab boat had motored out to where it had just been.

There are normally one or two Purple Sandpipers which spend the winter here, so we decided to walk down along the prom to see if we could fine one, while keeping our eyes peeled for the King Eider. Half way along, we met a couple of other birders who had found the King Eider again, but it was now a lot further out. Apparently, it had moved offshore in response to the crab boat. It was also steadily drifting east. We had another look at it, but figured we might be able to get a better view from the east end.

We scanned the rocky sea defences as we made our way further. There were lots of Turnstones along the prom, perched on the wall, or feeding on chips thrown down onto the concrete for them. When we got to ‘the tank’, we looked over the railing and could see a Purple Sandpiper feeding with one of the Turnstones on the seaweed covered rocks below us.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the sea defences along the prom

Thankfully we had already enjoyed good views of the Purple Sandpiper, before something spooked all the birds along the prom – gulls, feral pigeons, waders, the lot. We couldn’t see any likely threat here, but the Turnstones flew off and took the Purple Sandpiper with them.

Finally, we got a good view of the King Eider from here. It is an immature male, still moulting out of eclipse plumage, but over the last couple of weeks it has been here it is gradually starting to look a bit brighter. We could see the bright orange frontal lobes at the base of the bill, between its regular dives to look for crabs.

King Eider

King Eider – the immature male was still off Sheringham

King Eider is a high arctic species, which is very rare this far south. They breed in arctic Russia and winter along the north Scandinavian coast. Presumably, once this bird completes its moult, it will make its way back north. But in the meantime, it seems to be finding plenty to eat here.

Back at the car, we stopped for lunch in one of the shelters on the top of the cliffs, overlooking the sea. Afterwards, we started to make our way back west.

When we got to Salthouse, we turned towards the beach. There were lots of Wigeon on the pools on the edge of the grazing marsh. We parked and walked up over the shingle until we could see the sea. A few Gannets drifted past offshore and one of the first birds we found on the sea was the Great Northern Diver which had been reported here earlier. We had a good look at it through the scope between dives – a big diver with a heavy bill and black half collar.

Great Northern Diver

Great Northern Diver – on the sea off Salthouse today

There were several Guillemots and Razorbills further out on the sea today, all busily diving too. A group of at least 18 Pied Wagtails were feeding further up the beach on the top of the shingle, fluttering about looking for insects on the stones.

As we made our way back to the car, we bumped into one of the locals who informed us that the Yellow-browed Warbler was showing well just the other side of Sarbury Hill. We found somewhere to park and walked along the footpath to where it had been. There were a couple of other people there watching it and after a minute or so it flew up into a sycamore in the hedge.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – in a hedge along the footpath between Salthouse & Cley

The Yellow-browed Warbler was hard to see at first, flitting around in the back of the tree and occasionally disappearing down into some thicker hawthorns next to it, but eventually everyone got a good look at it. This is rather late for a Yellow-browed Warbler – they are regular now between mid September and the end of October, but few linger this long. Hopefully it will still find enough food to fuel up before continuing on its journey.

We headed round to Cley beach next, in the hope we might catch up with a Short-eared Owl here. Half way along Beach Road, we stopped to talk to a couple of people up on the West Bank looking out over the marshes beyond. They had just seen a Short-eared Owl, but it had gone down into the vegetation out along the start of Blakeney Point.

We continued on to the car park, intending to have a look out to sea from here while keeping one eye out for the owl. As we got out of the car, a large flock of Golden Plover whirled over the Eye Field, breaking up into smaller groups and joining up again, before drifting away. Their yelping calls alerted us to several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in from the west. We watched as they whiffled down onto the grazing marshes. Through the scope, we could see a flock of Brent Geese, a couple of Canada Geese and all the Pinkfeet in one view.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – whiffling down to the grazing marshes

Turning our attention to the sea, a quick scan revealed three Velvet Scoters offshore. Through the scope, we could see the two white spots on their dark brown faces and the white in the wing forming a diagonal white stripe on their flanks. A female Common Scoter appeared with them and several Guillemots were offshore too.

With no sign of the Short-eared Owl reappearing, we decided to walk along the shingle to see if we could find the flock of Snow Buntings which had been along here earlier. We had just started walking away when we got a phone message to say the owl was up again and headed our way. We turned back, and had another scan which quickly revealed the Short-eared Owl perched on the top of a post, against the skyline.

One everyone had enjoyed a good look at the Short-eared Owl through the scope, it was off again hunting, flying with distinctive stiff wing beats. It disappeared round behind some gorse bushes and didn’t come out the other side so presumably had landed again. We could see several Marsh Harriers starting to gather over the marshes beyond, before going to roost.

It was getting dark fast now, not helped by the grey and overcast afternoon, but we decided to have a quick look for the Snow Buntings anyway. We got as far as the point where the vegetation is thickest on the top of the shingle, between the pill box and North Scrape, when we head a ‘crest calling and turned to see it fly right past us. It was either a Goldcrest or a Firecrest, though it sounded perhaps more like the latter, presumably fresh in off the sea. It circled round, but unfortunately we lost sight of it in the gloom as it dropped down into the vegetation. We had a quick look where it seemed to go down but there was no sign.

The light was clearly going now, so we decided to call it a day and head back to the car. With more birds arriving this evening, it will be interesting to see what tomorrow brings.

Advertisements

3rd Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a cloudy start, but it brightened up nicely and the brisk southerly wind was mild, coming all the way from North Africa! Another nice day to be out. We planned to spend the morning trying to catch up with some lingering rarities along the coast, and then head out for some more general birding in the afternoon.

As we made our way east along the coast road this morning, we stopped first by the duck pond at Salthouse. Down along Meadow Lane, the ‘Eastern’ Stonechat was hiding at first, down in the reeds in the ditch which runs along the side of the track. It was just visible from the gate when it perched up. Helpfully, it then flew out to the taller reeds out in the middle, along the channel straight out from the gate, where we could get a really good look at it in the scope.

Eastern Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – presumably of the form now called Stejneger’s

We could see its pale peachy orange breast contrasting with its white throat. When it flew, we could see its large, unstreaked, orange rump. At the time of writing, we are still waiting to hear back on its specific identity (which will hopefully be confirmed by DNA analysis!), although we know for sure it is one of the forms of ‘Eastern’ Stonechat.

The more easterly-breeding birds have been split out as a separate species, Stejneger’s Stonechat, which is what this bird is believed to be. However, the criteria for the separation of the two ‘Eastern’ Stonechats in the field are still largely untested so if this one isn’t Stejneger’s Stonechat, it will be back to the drawing board. Still, it is a really interesting bird to see whatever we end up calling it!

While we were watching the Stonechat, small flocks of Lapwing and Starling were passing west overhead, presumably more fresh arrivals from the continent coming in for the winter. A Sparrowhawk skimmed low over the grazing marsh and disappeared up across the field behind us, thankfully well away from the Stonechat.

Our next stop was at Sheringham. We parked at the Leas and made our way up along the coastal path to the Coastguard lookout on Skelding Hill. There were a couple of people already there who quickly put us on to the immature drake King Eider, which was out on the water. It was rather distant today, and diving constantly, but through the scope we got a good look at it. The distinctive bulbous frontal lobes on the base of its bill caught the morning light and shone bright orange.

King Eider

King Eider – an eclipse immature drake

Scanning the sea from the clifftop, we could see a few Cormorants diving among the fishing buoys. One looked a little smaller and had a different profile – a squarer head with a steep forehead and a thinner bill, as well as a more contrasting white throat. It was a Shag, a 1st winter. Shags are not common here, so this was a nice bonus bird to see. A few Gannets were circling and plunge diving offshore too.

A small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, possibly birds on their way up from the Broads to North Norfolk, rather than fresh arrivals. A few Skylarks in off the sea were more likely just arriving here for the winter.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – possibly moving up from the Broads to North Norfolk

There has been a Richard’s Pipit lingering along the cliff top at Trimingham for the last few days, so we made our way along there next to see if we could find it. It had been reported already a couple of times this morning, but as we walked down along the path to the cliffs, we met a couple of people leaving who had not seen it for the last couple of hours. We carried on along the cliffs anyway – it was a lovely day now, and the view from here is stunning.

Trimingham cliffs

Trimingham Cliffs – a great view, but you can see the problem with erosion here

There were a few small flocks of Starlings coming in off the sea here too. We flushed a few Skylarks from the edge of the field as we walked past and a small group of Golden Plovers were hiding further out in the winter wheat. Looking over the edge of the cliffs, we could really see how the coastline is eroding here, with large areas below which had slipped down creating some substantial patches of undercliff. A Kestrel and a Meadow Pipit perched on one of the ridges.

When we got to the spot where the Richard’s Pipit had last been seen, there were a few people standing on the top of the cliffs looking, but there was still no further sign of it. It had been seen briefly in the long grass by the path but had then dropped over the cliff edge and disappeared. No one had seen which way it had gone, and it seemed like it had been roaming along a mile or more of the cliffs. We had a quick scan of the undercliff here, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. We didn’t want to waste too much time here, so we decided to walk back.

As we got to the path which cuts back across the fields to the road, we heard what sounded like a Rock or Water Pipit, but we were looking into the sun as it flew round. As we turned inland, a Water Pipit flew back over us. Two Common Buzzards drifted over from the small wood away to the east, passing right over our heads.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – flew overhead as we walked back

When we got back to Cley, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the scrapes, flushing all the gulls, ducks and a large group of Black-tailed Godwits. A lone Ruff flew over, heading inland presumably to feed in the fields. We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling from the field behind the Visitor Centre, and when something spooked them, they all flew round and landed again behind the hedge just to the east of us.

After lunch, we headed out up the East Bank. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but it was a bit too windy this afternoon for them to show themselves. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the wind out over the reedbed.

Looking across to Pope’s Pool, we could see lots of Wigeon and Teal, together with a few Shoveler and one or two Gadwall. More Black-tailed Godwits were feeding along the back edge and several Cormorants were drying their wings on the island. More ducks were loafing in the grass around the Serpentine. When a noisy motorbike raced along the coast road, revving hard, everything spooked.

Wildfowl

Wildfowl – disturbed by a noisy motorbike on the coast road

Looking down along the main drain, we could see several Little Grebes on the water. There were lots of waders on Arnold’s Marsh today, so we stood on the bank to go through them. There were more Black-tailed Godwits here, together with several Curlews and Redshanks. In amongst all the Dunlin, we found a single Knot. A Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover were feeding on the stony spits on the north side.

On the brackish pools opposite, a Little Egret was feeding just below the path, but flew up and landed again next to a Grey Heron further back.

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding on the brackish pools by the East Bank

Out at the beach, the sea looked quiet at first glance. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore, watching some people gathered down on the shoreline. We could see one or two Gannets circling over the sea and then we found several Red-throated Divers and a single Razorbill on the water. Four Common Scoter flew past, but the highlight was a Great Skua which we picked up flying west offshore.

Back at the car, we headed west to Warham Greens. As we walked down the track, we flushed a few Blackbirds from the hedges but when we got to the paddock a large flock of Fieldfares flew up from the fields and landed in the bushes.

As we stopped to look at the Fieldfares, a harrier came up over the hedge beyond them. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and as it dropped down low over the grass in front of the barn, we could see the white square at the base of its tail. It flew up over the hedge the other side and we walked over to the entrance to the field to find it quartering over the cover strip beyond.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – having a last hunt before heading in to roost

The Hen Harrier flew round past us and disappeared through the hedge by the track. We crossed over and watched it as it continued hunting, patrolling either side of the hedge which runs along the far side of the field the other side. There were several Brown Hares in the field, but they didn’t seem particularly concerned by the Hen Harrier just beyond them.

When the Hen Harrier disappeared from view, we continued on down the track. A flock of Curlews and Lapwings was feeding in the winter wheat in the next field. A Sparrowhawk flew low across in front of them and perched up in the hedge briefly.

As we arrived down on the edge of the saltmarsh, another ringtail Hen Harrier was patrolling distantly along the far edge, out towards the beach. There were little groups of Brent Geese, Little Egrets and Curlews scattered over the saltmarsh. Flocks of Starlings were making their way west, although it was hard to tell now whether these were more migrants arriving or local birds heading in to the town to roost.

A small party of Pink-footed Geese had already settled out on the beach beyond and more flew in to join them. Further skeins of Pink-footed Geese looked to be gathering in the fields just inland from us.

It was a good evening for watching raptors. A couple more ringtail Hen Harriers appeared and quartered the saltmarsh, one coming quite a bit closer to us at one point. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier flew in from the east, along the back edge of the saltmarsh, and shortly after a second male flew in too. A Common Buzzard flew back and forth. A rather dark looking young Peregrine flew in over the beach and tussled with a Marsh Harrier briefly, before flying off towards Wells. A male Merlin appeared on one of the posts out on the saltmarsh and perched preening in the last of the evening’s light.

It was a great way to end the day, but dusk was drawing in fast now, so we decided to head back to the car before it got dark.

27th Oct 2018 – Autumn Weekend, Day 1

Day 1 of a weekend of Autumn Tours today. It was a wet and windy day, with a cold and gusty northerly bringing squally showers in off the North Sea. Perfect seawatching weather – but we had a few other things we wanted to try to do today as well.

With seawatching in mind, we made our way over to Sheringham first thing. It was a big tide this morning and with the strong north wind, the waves were crashing over the prom. It meant we couldn’t get along the prom to the shelter, so we had to drive round to the other side, and it also meant there were already a lot of people taking shelter here. We managed to find a spot out of the wind and settled in to scan the sea.

It was immediately clear there was a lot of wildfowl moving this morning, birds arriving from the continent, coming in over the North Sea to spend the winter here. We saw a steady stream of flocks of Wigeon and Teal flying past, mostly low over the waves. A couple of groups of Common Scoter coming past further out, and then some flew through with a group of Teal, providing a nice size and colour contrast.

The Brent Geese are arriving for the winter too at the moment, flying in short lines, and there were a small number of Shelducks, sometimes mixed in with them. Two Goldeneye flying past were the wildfowl highlight.

There was a steady movement of commoner seabirds passing by this morning too – mostly Gannets, Kittiwakes and Guillemots, blown inshore by the wind. Two dark juvenile Arctic Skuas came through reasonably close and disappeared off east. A single Manx Shearwater was too far out for everyone to get onto. A Great Northern Diver flew west, typically flying strongly well above the waves, despite the wind. But there was no sign of any Pomarine Skuas or Little Auks while we were watching, which we had thought we might see this morning.

There are always a small number of Purple Sandpipers along the shoreline here through the winter and a much larger number of Turnstones. The Turnstones will often run along the prom but the Purple Sandpipers are normally down on the rocks below. However, the crashing waves were obviously too much even for the hardy Purple Sandpiper today, and a couple of times it was pushed up onto the prom in front of us. When it flew back down onto the rocks, we had a good look at it over the railings.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – on the rocks just below the Prom

We only spent an hour seawatching this morning, then with other things we wanted to try to see, we decided to move on. As we drove west along the coast road, we could see a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field. We found somewhere to pull in and would down the windows. The geese nearest us flew up and settled again towards the back of the field, out of view, but it was clear we couldn’t get out of the car without flushing the rest of the flock. We could still see quite a few geese from the car, but most of them were hidden now in a dip in the field.

There were several Red-legged Partridges feeding in the stubble too, and we heard Skylarks calling as we opened the windows. A couple of smart Yellowhammers perched in the hedge nearby, calling..

Continuing on to Salthouse, we parked by the duck pond. As we got out of the car, a Woodcock shot past. It felt like it might almost have crashed into us, but veered round, over the road and into the gardens beyond. Another bird arriving from the winter, possibly from as far away as Russia, presumably fresh in and looking for somewhere sheltered to rest. Several Black-tailed Godwits were standing around in the pools behind the duck pond.

There has been an ‘Eastern’ Stonechat here for the last week or so, which we were keen to see. As we walked down along the track, we could see quite a crowd gathered already, but they didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, mostly standing around chatting. Apparently the Stonechat had not been seen for the last 15 minutes – it was clearly keeping down out of the wind today.

We walked up to where it had last been seen and scanned the edge of the grazing marsh, but couldn’t see any sign of it. Then we walked back to where it had been favouring in previous days, out from one of the field gates. It wasn’t out there either, but scanning back along the reedy ditch which runs beside the path, we spotted the Stonechat down in the vegetation.

It was obviously more sheltered down in the ditch but you could only see the Stonechat looking back from the gate and it kept disappearing into the reeds. When it did finally venture out onto the edge of the grazing marsh where it was more visible, a Sparrowhawk promptly appeared just beyond it, flying out low over the grass. The Stonechat sensibly dived back into the reeds, but then went made its way further back along the ditch away from us, where we couldn’t see it.

About half the group had managed to see the Stonechat, but there was a big crowd by the gate so not everyone had got onto it. Climbing up onto the top of the bank, we walked along level with where it had been. After a few minutes scanning, we spotted it again out in the middle of the grazing marsh this time.

The Stonechat was well camouflaged against the dead sedges, shades of orange and brown. But the wind seemed to have dropped, and it became more active, perching up on the top of the vegetation like a good Stonechat should! Finally, we all got nice views of it through the scope.

Stejneger's Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – this photo taken yesterday, hopefully DNA will confirm its identity

‘Eastern’ Stonechat is the name currently being used for a group of species, including Siberian and Stejneger’s Stonechats, both of which can turn up here. It used to be much simpler, as they were all lumped together under the title ‘Siberian’, but DNA analysis has shown Stejneger’s to be distinct from Siberian and it is now treated as a full species in its own right. Unfortunately, our ability to identify these birds in the field has not kept up with the pace of taxonomic change driven by genetics!

The Salthouse Stonechat appears to be a Stejneger’s Stonechat – at least it looks similar to Stejneger’s Stonechats which have been confirmed by DNA testing recently. Hopefully, DNA has been collected and will be able to confirm it’s identity. If it is not Stejneger’s, then it will be back to the drawing board with the ID criteria!

Either way, it is an interesting and well travelled bird. ‘Eastern’ Stonechats breed across Russia to Japan and China, mostly wintering on the Indian subcontinent, with the range of Stejneger’s being further east than Siberian.

Once we had all enjoyed good views of the Stonechat, we drove on to Cley and stopped at the Visitor’s Centre for an early lunch. There were lots of birds on the scrapes and, with the wind having dropped a bit, we could even eat at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve.

A Marsh Harrier drifted across the scrapes, causing a mass panic, flushing  lots of Black-tailed Godwit and Wigeon. Thankfully, as it drifted off, the birds all seemed to settle back down. Two Lesser Redpoll flew over calling and eight Golden Plover circled over. The surprise here was a Gannet circling over the fields behind the Visitor Centre, presumably blown inland on the wind.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the scrapes, flushing everything

After lunch, we could see black clouds approaching from the north, so we decided to head out to the hides, where we could get some shelter. As we walked along the Skirts path, a Spoonbill flew past over the reserve. Most of the Spoonbills which spent the summer here have departed now, with many of them heading down to Poole Harbour for the winter. There are only one or two still lingering on, so it was nice to see one today. It circled over the scrapes and looked like it might land, but then continue on east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – flew east as we walked out to the hides

By the time we got out to Dauke’s Hide and looked out, we were surprised by the comparative lack of birds, particularly compared to the masses we had seen when we were eating lunch. Talking to one of the volunteers in the hide, it seems the Marsh Harriers had made several more passes over the scrapes and eventually succeeded in scaring off most of the birds. We could still see a couple of Marsh Harriers quartering the reedbed in the distance.

There were still a few waders left. A couple of little groups of Dunlin were picking around on the muddy edges of the islands. Several Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the deeper water. The Lapwing were mostly asleep on the grass and a lone Avocet was standing in the water behind one of the islands. Like the Spoonbills, most of the Avocets have gone south now for the winter, but a very small number always try to remain as long as it doesn’t get too cold. A Common Snipe dropped in at back, but quickly disappeared into grass.

Avocet

Avocet – just the one left at Cley now

There were still a few ducks left on the scrapes too, mainly Wigeon and Teal, along with a few Shelduck. The Black-headed Gulls were joined by a couple of Common Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull was asleep on one of the grassy islands. The Spoonbill came back west and headed off towards Blakeney Harbour.

While we were in the hide, it started to rain, so we stayed in the dry until it eventually eased. Then we headed back to the car, and drove round to the East Bank car park. As we got a short distance up the bank, it started to sleet, so heads down, we walked quickly up to the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh.

The forecast was for heavy showers, but the weather seemed to set in for a while now. There was lots of water already on Arnold’s Marsh, which was good for the ducks, presumably with many coming over here when they were flushed from the scrapes. There were lots of Wigeon and Teal again, but with a few Shoveler here too. Scanning through carefully, we found a female Pintail and four Gadwall in with them. A group of Brent Geese dropped in, possibly fresh arrivals stopping for a rest. With the high water levels, the Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the tall vegetation around the edges.

We had been told about two Snow Buntings feeding at the end of the bank, by the beach. When the rain finally eased again, we walked up to look for them but as we arrived we could see two walkers had just come up off the beach and gone right through the area. There was no sign of any Snow Buntings, presumably having been flushed.

We set off east along the grassy part of the old shingle ridge, but there was no sign of them along here. When we got back to the East Bank,  the Snow Buntings flew up from the shingle ahead of us, presumably having flown back in. They landed back on the north end of the path just a few metres ahead of us and we had nice views of them as they fed on amongst the stones, picking around the clusters of vegetation. They were looking a bit bedraggled, but we were probably too!

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – out on the beach, looking a bit bedraggled

While we were watching the Snow Buntings, we noticed a large dark bird drifting west right past us, with the gulls over the beach. It was a Pomarine Skua. We watched it as it hung in the wind – we could see it was heavy, bulky, especially compared the Arctic Skuas we had seen earlier. It landed on the beach and we could just about see it in the scope from here through the sea spray, so we walked over for a closer look.

After we had all had a good look at the Pomarine Skua in the scope, it took off and flew further west again. It looked like it went down towards the beach car park, so we  decided to head back to the car and drive round there to see if we could find it again.

As we walked back along the East Bank, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and looked up to see a small skein coming in from the east. They came in overhead and dropped down towards the reserve. Four Marsh Harriers were already gathering to roost out over the reeds.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Geese – flying in to the reserve, late afternoon

By the time we got round to the beach car park at Cley, the Pomarine Skua had taken off and gone further west again. Looking out to sea, there were still lots of Kittiwakes & and Gannets pouring past. Lines of Brent Geese were still moving west offshore too.

We were just about to leave when someone seawatching there shouted that there were two Little Auks on the sea. They were in the surf just offshore, drifting west towards us, but despite being close they were still hard to see in the crashing waves. We managed to get the scope on them, and you could see them as they rode up the face of the waves.

They seemed to swim a bit further out and we lost sight of the Little Auks. Then we noticed a Great Black-backed Gull drop down into the breakers, followed by three more. When they came up again, one of them was carrying a Little Auk in its bill! We didn’t see what happened to the second one, but Little Auks are always vulnerable when they are blown in by gales. They breed in the Arctic and spend the rest of their lives far out at sea, away from predators like gulls. They are often exhausted when they are close inshore and easy pickings for the gulls.

That was a fairly gruesome end to our seawatching today – nature red in tooth and claw! We still had one more stop to make on our way back. With the blustery wind and rain, the Peregrine was in its usual spot on the sheltered side of the church tower, tucked in an alcove between the stone pillars. We stopped and had a nice look at it through the scope.

Peregrine

Peregrine – tucked in out of the wind, on the south side of the tower

We had done well today, despite the wind and rain. The weather forecast is a bit better for tomorrow, so let’s see what the wind had brought us!

15th April 2018 – Early Spring at Last, Day 2

Day 2 of a two day weekend of Bird Tours in North Norfolk. Having been west along the coast yesterday, we headed out east for the day today. It had been forecast to be cloudier than yesterday, but we were not expecting to have the fog which clung on along the coast all day. It meant that migration along the coast was limited today, but we still managed to find a few migrants despite the weather.

Our first destination was Cley. It had looked to be brightening up as we drove along the coast road, but by the time we got to the East Bank, we could see the fog rolling in out towards the coast. A Kestrel was hovering over the edge of the reedbed. It gradually worked its way closer and then, as we watched it, it dropped steeply down into the grass just beyond the car park. When it came up again it had a vole in its talons. A Grey Heron dropped out of the trees and down towards the pools.

Kestrel

Kestrel – caught a vole just by the car park

Up on the bank, we could see several Common Pochard on Don’s Pool, along with a single drake Tufted Duck. They were all diving constantly. Over the other side of the bank, we could see lots of Greylag Geese out on the grazing marshes. There were still a few Wigeon out here too, plus several Teal, a couple of Shoveler and a pair of Gadwall.

Common Pochard

Common Pochard – a smart drake on Don’s Pool

 

The Redshanks were displaying here today – they were very vocal and we saw several in display flight, fluttering their bowed wings as they called. The Lapwings were a bit more subdued in the weather, though we did see one or two tumbling. There were plenty of Avocets but they were right at the back, on Pope’s Pool, in the fog. We could hear them calling noisily. We stopped to look at a Ruff feeding on the edge of the Serpentine.

A Bearded Tit pinged from the reedbed, but remained stubbornly down out of view today. A Marsh Harrier circled out over Pope’s reedbed, in the fog, and then another appeared much closer, over the reeds the other side.

We made our way on Arnold’s Marsh and took advantage of the shelter. There was a good selection of waders out on here today. There were several Bar-tailed Godwits, some still in non-breeding plumage, but several starting to moult and one particularly smart individual already in summer plumage, deep rusty coloured below, right down to under the tail.

There was a good number of Dunlin on the mud at the back, accompanied by a couple of Ringed Plovers. A single Grey Plover on one of the shingle spits was still in grey non-breeding plumage. There were plenty of Avocets and Redshanks on here too.

Redshank

Redshank – on the brackish pools by Arnold’s Marsh

We managed to pick out two Sandwich Terns on the small shingle island at the back, and we could see their shaggy crests even if they were mostly sleeping. Then more Sandwich Terns flew in and landed with them and there was lots of calling and displaying, so we could see their yellow-tipped black bills. We went to have a look out at the sea, but it was too foggy now to even see the waves, so we headed back.

It was brighter back at the car, but we drove back into the fog along Beach Road. The edge of the Eye Field is a good place to look for Wheatears and thankfully we found a couple close to the edge, where we could see them. They were feeding down in the grass just beyond the fence, but one came out onto the shingle and perched on a couple of the fence posts.

Wheatear

Wheatear – one of two at the Eye Field this morning

Both the Wheatears were males and both looked to be large and richly coloured below, with a comparatively deep burnt orange wash across the breast. They looked to be Greenland Wheatears, stopping off on their way before making the long journey most of the way across the Atlantic

With our mission here accomplished, we decided not to linger in the fog and drove back east along the coast road. A quick stop at Salthouse duckpond and scan of the pools beyond didn’t produce anything new, but we did stop to admire a pair of Gadwall. The drakes in particular are very intricately patterned, belying there ‘grey and boring’ image. There was also a Canada Goose on the pond and more Wigeon and Teal on the wet grazing marshes beyond.

Gadwall

Gadwall – an intricately patterned drake

The pools along Salthouse Beach Road can be good for migrants, but there was nothing here today. It was very foggy now along the shingle ridge and with few migrants apparently moving along the coast today, we decided it probably wasn’t going to be worth walking out to Gramborough Hill.

Continuing on to Kelling, we drove back into the sunshine as we headed slightly inland. As we parked in village the, a Common Buzzard was soaring high overhead, above the thing hazy cloud. A Swallow appeared overhead, hawking or insects, and disappeared off towards the road. When we got over there, we found a pair of Swallows on the wires. Rather than being on their way through, these birds had probably returned here to breed.

Swallows

Swallows – two returned already in Kelling village

A pair of Pied Wagtails and a couple of Goldfinches were feeding on the playing field and a Chiffchaff was singing in the grounds of the school opposite. As we walked along the lane, a male Blackcap flew across in front of us and landed briefly in the bushes. Up at the copse, another Blackcap was singing in the trees and a pair of Chiffchaffs were fliting around, the male stopping to sing from time to time as it followed what was presumably a female.

It was increasingly foggy again as we got closer to the coast. Down at the Water Meadow, there were good numbers of Avocet feeding out in the water and calling noisily, plus a single lone Redshank and a few Teal. As we walked along the cross track on the north side of the water meadow, we heard a Whimbrel call. We looked across the Quags and saw it emerge from the fog and fly past us. It didn’t stop and headed off SE. Another good spring migrant.

We walked down towards the beach but it was very foggy down by the sea now. We had a quick scan of the Quags pools, but couldn’t see anything of note in the mist, so wee decided to head back to the Visitor Centre at Cley for lunch.

The weather was not too bad at Cley, so we ate our lunch outside, on the picnic tables. One or two Pied Wagtails kept flying back and forth overhead, commuting to the field behind. Just as we finished our lunch, we heard a Yellow Wagtail call and looked up to see it flying east in front of us. It turned back just before North Foreland Wood, and came back around over behind the Visitor Centre. It dropped down and looked like it might be landing in the field behind. We walked up to the back of the Visitor Centre to look for it, but there was no sign of it in the field, just one of the Pied Wagtails.

After lunch we paid a quick visit to the Iron Road. As we got out of the car, we could see three Egyptian Geese asleep in the grass with the Greylags. Two Brent Geese flew in to join them, Dark-bellied birds yet to set off back to Russia to breed. A Little Egret was feeding on one of the wet flashes in the grass.

It was a bit clearer now, so we walked up along the track to the pool. There were several Ruff around the muddy margins, and we stopped to look at a small group. Of the six birds, one was much smaller, a female ‘Reeve’. Most of the Ruff were rather pale, but one male was very dark, blackish speckled. They are the most variable of waders and they are now starting to moult into breeding plumage, although the males will not get their elaborate ruffs for a while yet. There were a couple of Redshanks on the pool too, for comparison.

There had been a White Wagtail here this morning and we found it again feeding on one of the grassy island. White Wagtail is the continental cousin of our Pied Wagtail and just passes through here on migration in the spring. This one had stopped off to feed. We could see its silvery grey back, much paler than the black or slate grey backs of our Pied Wagtails. A Swallow flew over, heading west, the first hirundine we had seen on the move today, they were obviously held up further south by the weather.

White Wagtail

White Wagtail – feeding on the pool by Iron Road

 

There seemed to be more fret rolling in from the east, so we decided to head inland, up to the Heath to try to find some brighter weather. It was nice and bright, sunny with some high hazy cloud, when we arrived in the car park. We could hear Chiffchaffs and a Willow Warbler singing in the trees.

We headed first for a sheltered corner which always catches the afternoon sun. We could hear Bullfinches calling, flew and a pair flew across in front of us and disappeared into trees. We were looking at the margins of the gorse to see if we could find any Adders, when a small bird flew up ahead of us calling a distinctive ‘speez, speez’. It was a Tree Pipit. They used to breed up here on the Heath, but have died out in recent years, so this was most likely a migrant, stopping just off on its way further north.

We walked round the corner to see if we could find the Tree Pipit on the ground, but it was obviously hiding in the trees. It then flew out and landed in the birches behind us briefly, then flew again and disappeared. It seemed to be trying to come back down into the grass to feed, so we left it in peace. You can find migrants inland, not just on the coast!

Scanning the leaf litter on the bank which faces the sun, we spotted our first Adder. Unfortunately, it headed straight into cover but the second Adder we found was more obliging, and stayed curled up in the grass for a few seconds before it decided our combined presence was too much and it disappeared into a hole in the vegetation.

Adder

Adder – warming itself in the sun in the leaf litter

While we were watching the Adder, one of the group spotted a Common Lizard basking nearby. Then a young Common Frog hopped out of the leaves too. It was all action in this corner of the Heath this afternoon!

 

Common Lizard

Common Lizard – basking on a leaf

 

Walking back up the track, we stopped to look at a Willow Warbler in the top of a small birch tree, as a Red Kite drifted overhead. We heard a Woodlark calling and turned to see it flying towards us. It circled round over a more open area of grass, singing – a beautiful if slightly melancholic song. Then it appeared to drop down beyond the trees behind us. We walked back and found two Woodlarks on the ground.

The male Woodlark didn’t stay long, but took off again and started to fly round singing, while the female fed quietly in the grass. It was remarkably hard to see against the browns of the dead bracken, until it moved. We had a great look at it through the scope, before it too took off and headed away in the direction the male Woodlark had flown.

Woodlark

Woodlark – very well camouflaged against the dead bracken

 

As we walked across the Heath and entered one of the traditional Dartford Warbler territories, we could hear one calling ahead of us. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it had gone quiet and despite walking round the area for a couple of minutes we didn’t hear it again. Still it was a good start.

We made our way further on, to another territory, and stopped to listen again. Once more, it was all quiet, despite the warmth from the sun, perhaps because it was now late in the afternoon. As we turned to leave, we saw something flit across in a dense clump of gorse right next to us. As we stood and watched a Dartford Warbler stuck its head out.

Dartford Warbler

Dartford Warbler – feeding in the gorse flowers

 

The Dartford Warbler appeared to be feeding on the bright yellow gorse flowers, presumably looking for insects. It was on the move constantly and very hard to see, only occasionally appearing on top of the bush. We followed it for a while as it fed quietly before it eventually dropped down out of view as the sun disappeared behind some clouds.

Another Woodlark flew over calling, and a few seconds later presumably the same bird came back the other way singing, right over our heads. There were plenty of Linnets around the Heath and we could hear several Yellowhammers calling, but the one resident of the Heath we hadn’t yet come across was Stonechat. We headed over to an area where a pair have taken up residence, but couldn’t see them on a quick circuit of the path, before a male Stonechat popped up in front of us as we got back to the start!

It was a nice way to end the day, and the weekend, up on the Heath. We had been very successful on our quick visit here, so we headed for home well pleased with our tally.

6th March 2018 – Winter Coast & Forest #1

Day 1 of two days of Private Tours today. It was mostly cloudy, with some brighter intervals, at least until late in the day when it cleared to blue sky and low sunshine. Another very pleasant day to be out, particularly after all the snow last week.

With lots of gulls reported along the NE coast yesterday, we decided to head over to Sheringham first thing. The storms last week washed up large quantities of sealife onto the beaches – fish, starfish, urchins, etc – and the gulls have been gathering in their hundreds to feed on the bounty, bringing a few of their scarcer cousins with them. We particularly hoped to catch up with one of the two Iceland Gulls here this morning.

As we walked down to the prom, we could immediately see lots of gulls on the sea just offshore. The tide was in, but rather than feeding on the fish washed up on the beach, the birds were busy picking food from the surface. We looked through them as we made our way east along the front – plenty of Black-headed, Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. A Rock Pipit flew in and landed on the concrete below us.

Gulls

Gulls – there were hundreds feeding on the sea off Sheringham this morning

A quick stop to scan the rocky sea defenses, just below the prom, revealed a Purple Sandpiper with all the Turnstones. It was just below the top of some steps, so we walked over for a closer look. Two more Purple Sandpipers were roosting here too, partly hidden on the back edge of one of the large blocks. We had a great view of the three of them here – smart birds, with their yellow-orange legs and bill base, more subtle shades of grey than really purple!

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – one of three along the prom this morning

The other two Purple Sandpipers did wake up when a large wave crashed in beneath them, but quickly went back to sleep. The original bird continued feeding, clambering around the faces of the blocks. It then flew down to a small shingle beach where it started to pick around in the detritus washed up here, finding a worm to its liking, before flying back up onto the blocks again.

Continuing on east to the end of the prom, we couldn’t find any other gulls of note among the throng – there was no sign of the Iceland Gull which had been here yesterday. We did spot a couple of Fulmars and a distant Red-throated Diver flying past offshore. We decided to head back and try our luck further along the coast, but at that point we had a message to way that there was no sign of any of yesterday’s gulls at Cromer either.

A change of plan was in order, so we turned round and headed west. Our next stop was at Salthouse. As we got out of the car on Beach Road, a scan of the wet grazing marshes revealed several Wigeon and Teal hiding in the pools and three Ringed Plovers out on the mud. Walking out towards Gramborough Hill, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass calling. A Linnet landed on the fence in front of us. Three Dunlin were feeding on the pool beside the path, along with two more Ringed Plovers and a Redshank.

Another pipit flew up from the back of the pool, with shriller call and not repeated like the Meadow Pipits. It was a Rock Pipit. It landed on the shingle at the back of the pool and we could get a closer look at it. When it turned in the light, it was possible to make out a pinkish-apricot wash behind the streaks on the breast. The Rock Pipits here are winter visitors from Scandinavia, of the race littoralis, and they can get very pink below in spring, leading to much potential confusion with Water Pipit.

As we rounded Gramborough Hill, we could see several small birds picking around the grassy patches on the remains of the shingle ridge just beyond. These were the Snow Buntings we had come here to see. They are very well camouflaged against the stones, but watching carefully, we could see that there were actually at least 30 of them here.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – some of the 30 still on the shingle ridge today

With a bit of care and patience, we managed to slowly edge ourselves into a position just below the grass where the Snow Buntings were feeding. They came down the ridge back towards us, giving us great close views. We could see they were a mixture of darker brown birds and paler white/grey/orange ones, the former from Iceland and the latter Scandinavian birds.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – a young male of the Scandinavian race

After enjoying the Snow Buntings for a while, we backed away carefully and left them to feed in peace. We planned to head for Holkham next, but on the way was drove round via the beach road at Cley. There were just a handful of Brent Geese here today, on Cricket Marsh, and nothing in the Eye Field. No sign of the main flock, which was probably feeding further inland.

We turned inland and headed up towards Wighton. A quick stop on the way produced a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming in the trees. There had been a Great Grey Shrike seen just west of Wighton a week ago, before the snow, so we thought we might have a quick look in passing to see if it was still in the area. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was no sign of it – in previous years, it has appeared to roam over a vast area.

We had stopped by a small farm reservoir. There were lots of Greylag Geese and Shelducks around the top of the bank, a few small gulls were flying in to bathe and a couple of Tufted Ducks appeared, diving out on the water. Then we noticed another duck right in the far corner. It was face on to us and fast asleep with its head tucked in. Like this, it could easily have been overlooked as another Tufted Duck, but we just caught a flash of what looked like grey on its shoulder. Reaching for the scope, we could confirm it was actually a Scaup.

Scaup

Scaup – a 1w drake, asleep on a farm reservoir

There have been a few Scaup seen along the coast in the last few days, so this one had possibly sought shelter from the weather on this small reservoir. It bobbed along the back edge of the water and turned sideways so we could see its grey back properly, very different from the black back of the Tufted Ducks. It appeared to be a young drake, still with some darker brown feathers in the flanks and mantle.

Dropping down to the coast at Holkham, there were various ducks and geese out on the marshes as we made our way up Lady Anne’s Drive. A pair of Egyptian Geese were out in the field just inside the gate. Further up, several Teal and Shoveler were feeding on the pools. A big flock of Wigeon was out in the grass at the north end, in front of where we parked.

Wigeon

Wigeon – a large flock was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

It was time for lunch, so we made good use of the picnic tables here. While we were eating, we heard a call high above and looked up to see a Marsh Harrier displaying way up the sky. We watched as it tumbled and twisted, calling periodically. There were lots of other raptors here too. A Common Buzzard was also displaying over the edge of the pines and a Red Kite drifted in over the trees and across the grazing marshes. At one point, they were all in the air circling together!

A lone Pink-footed Goose was sitting down in the grass not far from the path, which meant that we could get a really close look at it. When it got up and started feeding, we could see it was not holding its left wing properly. Possibly it had been shot and injured, and had now recovered sufficiently to get around but unable to join the rest of the flocks on their way back to Iceland.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – an injured bird, feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

A single Brent Goose the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive was similarly very tame, but showed no sign of any obvious injuries to explain why it was on its own here.

Brent Goose

Brent Goose – also on its own right by Lady Anne’s Drive

After lunch, we made our way out through the pines and down onto the saltmarsh. As we walked east another five Rock Pipits were feeding in the vegetation on the edge of the path. A party of six Skylarks were incredibly well camouflaged against the browns of the saltmarsh plants.

The Shorelarks were not in their favoured spot today, so we continued on a little further and quickly located them on the edge of the dunes. We walked over for a closer look. They were initially feeding on the high tide line, picking at the line of dead vegetation looking for seeds, but then they ran up into the dunes and started to poke around in the marram grass.

Shorelark 1

Shorelark – one of the 9 which were still on the beach at Holkham today

We edged our way a little closer and had great views of the Shorelarks as they emerged from the grass and stood preening on the edge of the dune. We could see their yellow faces and black masks and collars, and we could even make out the small black horns on one or two of them. Then they ran down onto the beach and started to feed along the high tide line again.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from enjoying watching the Shorelarks. As we walked back towards the pines, we had a quick look out towards the sea through the gap in the dunes. A single Great Crested Grebe was diving offshore. Back at the car, a scan of the grazing marshes again revealed a Common Snipe tucked down on the edge of one of the pools.

Common Snipe

Common Snipe – out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive

There were several options for the rest of the afternoon, but with a report of one of the Iceland Gulls seen flying past Cromer again, we decided to head back for another look. On our way back east, we noticed a white shape on a gatepost beside the road as we passed, a Barn Owl. After struggling to hunt in the snow, they have been hungry since and have been spending much more time out in daylight hours. We turned round and tried to sneak up on it in the car, but with another car coming past the other way, it flew off over the field as we approached.

When we arrived at Cromer, there were surprisingly few gulls on the beach. With the tide out, we had assumed that lots of birds would come in to feed on all the storm debris again. We spoke to one of the people who had seen the Iceland Gull fly past earlier, but there had been no further sign of it.

We decided to try our luck back along the coast at West Runton instead. The clouds had cleared now and the sun was out, bathing the beach in glorious late afternoon light. There were lots more gulls here, so we set about scanning through them. We hadn’t gone too far, when we spotted a smart adult Mediterranean Gull.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – one of three on the beach at West Runton today

The Mediterranean Gull‘s bright red bill and white wing-tips particularly stood out, relative to all the commoner Black-headed Gulls. It was still mostly in winter plumage, with a black bandit mask behind the eye and peppering of dark in the rear crown.

There were lots of waders around the rock pools down on the beach too. Several Grey Plover, Knot, Redshanks and Dunlin, feeding in between the gulls. Another Purple Sandpiper was harder to see among the rocks. A flock of Sanderling appeared, running around on the sand over towards the water’s edge.

We couldn’t find any sign of the Iceland Gull here, but we did manage to pick out a 2nd winter (3rd calendar year) Caspian Gull among the Herring Gulls. It stood out immediately with its long legs and long neck, standing tall. It also had a distinctive long, pointed face with a long bill, exaggerated by its white head and small dark eye. Unfortunately, we were just admiring it when a dogwalker came around the end of the groyne and flushed all the gulls from that part of the beach.

The school group which had been out on the beach had just left, so a lot of the smaller gulls flew in to feed on the sand just beyond the access ramp. In with all the Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, we found another two more Mediterranean Gulls. These had much more black on the head that the one we had seen earlier, meaning there were at least three different individuals here this afternoon.

It was lovely out on the beach in the late sunshine, but the owner of the car park came down to tell us that it was about to be locked up, so it meant we had to walk back up to the top of the cliffs to get the car out. It had been a great day, but it was now time to head for home anyway.

14th Jan 2017 – Owling Wind

The first Owl Tour of the year today. After gales, snow and a storm surge along the coast yesterday, the weather was much, much better today. But it was still cold in the wind which remained a rather blustery NW, and we were thankfully close to the car when a couple of wintry showers hit us during the morning. The afternoon was better, with the wind easing a bit and blue skies. Not a bad day to be out and we did very well.

After meeting in Blakeney, we had a quick drive round the back roads to see if any Barn Owls were still out hunting – or had come out to find food after a difficult night – but it was still rather too windy. A stop down by the river produced a few nice birds. A Kingfisher went zooming off over the reeds as we approached. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the dense vegetation by the water, but then showed nicely. A Siskin flew over without stopping, but a Yellowhammer dropped into the top of a tree nearby briefly.

Several small groups of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead calling, heading inland along the river valley. A short while later, we looked away to the south and saw a huge cloud of Pink-footed Geese come up from behind the trees. They had obviously been flushed from the fields, possibly from a recently harvested sugar beet field on which they had been feeding.

After the storms yesterday, coinciding with a very high spring tide, the coastal marshes between Cley and Kelling had been flooded overnight. We drove over the back roads and walked down to the coast road at Salthouse. It was a sorry sight. The road itself, the main A149, was completely underwater. All the grazing marshes between the coast road and the beach were flooded – to all intents and purposes, they looked like the sea. We could see the top of the shingle ridge and some big waves still beyond.

img_4132Salthouse – the coast road underwater and the flooded grazing marshes

img_9854Salthouse – looking E along the flooded coast road from the village green

The houses in the village seemed to have escaped any damage but most of the avian residents of the marshes had been rendered homeless. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from a flooded patch of brambles the other side of the ‘road’ and looked over to see seven of them climb up to the top. They should be out in the middle of the reedbed, but the reedbed was underwater and they were desperately searching for anywhere to hide. They flew up calling, over the water, but quickly dropped back again into the garden of the pub.

A Common Snipe flew in across the water and tried to land in the strip of vegetation which would have been the far verge of the road. But it struggled to find any dry land there and it quickly flew on west. Presumably it had been spending the winter out on the grazing marshes before the flood.

Looking up, a drake Goosander flew low over the village towards us and then disappeared off west towards Cley. There have been a few on the move in the last day or so, presumably birds moving off the continent in response to colder weather, to spend the rest of the winter here. At that point, a squally shower blew in from the sea and we beat a quick retreat, back to the car.

Heading back west, we drove out of the clouds and started looking for owls again. The weather didn’t seem particularly conducive – even though it wasn’t raining, it was still windy and cold. However, at one of our regular sites we struck gold. We very quickly found a rather distant Little Owl, sheltering under the roof on a distant farm building. Nearby, a second Little Owl was doing the same. We had a look at them through the scope, and thought that might be the best of it.

We drove a little further along, and found a third Little Owl. It had found a sheltered spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun, and was presumably trying to warm itself up. It was facing us and we could see its head pattern this time. Turning behind us, a fourth Little Owl appeared. This was was much closer and, though tucked in tight under the roof of one of the sheds, we got a good look at it through the scope. Amazing – four Little Owls out on such an unpromising day!

img_9865Little Owl – sheltered under the roof, facing into the morning sun

There were other birds around the farmland while we were watching the various Little Owls. A stubble field held a large flock of Curlew, which flew round periodically. A Redpoll flew out of the trees when we pulled up, and disappeared back away from us calling. A Common Buzzard came out of the wood and started to fly across the fields before thinking better of it and returning whence it came. At that point, another wintry shower blew in from the coast, and again we sought shelter in the car.

The skies looked clear further west along the coast, so we decided to head that way and try to escape the squalls. It was the right decision – that was the last shower we saw today. Drove along the coast to Titchwell, where we would also have the benefit of hides.

We had a quick look at the feeders by the visitor centre. The normal finches, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch, plus a selection of tits, were coming in to feed. We had limited time here today, so we pressed on. Scanning the ditches either side of the main path, a Water Rail showed briefly in the water at the bottom on one side before disappearing back into deeper cover. Rather than wait for it to reappear, we decided to have another look on the way back.

The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’, which has been dry for the last year or so, was flooded again, but this time with seawater which had come in through the open sluice. Consequently, there was no sign of any Water Pipits and no other birds of note. A lone Tufted Duck was diving out on the reedbed pool. Three Marsh Harriers were circling out over the main reedbed.

Island Hide provided some welcome shelter from the cold wind. The Freshmarsh is flooded at the moment, but not with seawater. Reserve staff have raised the levels of fresh water on here to kill the vegetation on the islands, and consequently there was very little dry land to be seen. It is to the liking of the ducks – there were plenty of Teal, Shoveler and Mallard, plus a few Wigeon and Shelduck. The flocks of Brent Geese frequently fly in from wherever they are feeding for a wash and preen.

6o0a3673Teal – a smart drake, enjoying all the water on the Freshmarsh

With all the water on here, there are rather few waders on the Freshmarsh at the moment. We did find a few around one of the only remaining small patches of island. About half a dozen Avocets were asleep, along with various ducks which were also trying to find somewhere to roost. In amongst the duck’s feet, we found a couple of Knot and a small group Dunlin too. There were lots of gulls, mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls, bobbing about on the water, taking shelter from the wind.

Round at Parrinder Hide, we had a different view of the Freshmarsh. From here, we picked up a few Pintail. A drake was preening on one of the islands, but promptly went to sleep. A pair of Pintail out on the water were more obliging and through the scope we could see the drake’s  long pin-shaped central tail. The largest, fenced off island was packed with roosting Teal but around the flooded vegetation on the near side we managed to find a single Ruff.

6o0a3608Wigeon – quite a few on the Freshmarsh, this one in front of Parrinder Hide

One of the group spotted a small bird making its way towards us along the edge of the bank. It was a Water Pipit – we could see its clean whitish underparts, neatly streaked with black on the breast. We were just hoping it would come right down towards the hide when it flew off.

6o0a3613Redshank – feeding on the Volunteer Marsh from Parrinder Hide

From the other side of the hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh, we could see quite a few waders. A Redshank was feeding just below the hide, its orange-red legs shining in the winter sunshine. There was also a Lapwing out just in front, and it too was looking particularly resplendent in the light, its green upperparts iridescent. Further over, we could see a little group of Knot, a couple of Ringed Plover, a Grey Plover and a single Black-tailed Godwit.

6o0a3621Lapwing – showing off its glossy green upperparts to perfection

Having warmed up in the hides, we decided to brave the conditions again and make a bid for the beach. On the way, we stopped to look at the tidal pools. A pair of Goldeneye were diving in the deeper water, catching small crabs. We got the male in the scope, looking particularly smart. There were several Little Grebes as well, also diving constantly. A pair of Gadwall were easier to see. But with the water level on here still high after the big tide, and with low tide out on the beach, there were fewer waders than normal.

img_9897Goldeneye – a smart drake, showing off his bright yellow eye

Out at the sea, the storms of yesterday had left large quatities of shellfish wrecked on the beach. A huge number of gulls had flown in to take advantage. There were quite a few waders on the beach too, particularly Sanderling and Oysterdatchers. Scanning the sea, we could see a large raft of Common Scoter out on the water but they were a long way offshore today. Still with a brisk north-west wind bringing cold air straight in from the arctic, we didn’t stay long out here, but headed back for lunch.

On the way back past the Volunteer Marsh, there were a few waders now close to the main path. A nice Bar-tailed Godwit was feeding out on the mud. We could see its shortish legs, slightly upturned bill and black-streaked upperparts. Two dumpy grey Knot were picking their way along the muddy slope just beyond the channel, and a single Ringed Plover was running around on the open mud nearby. Further over, a Grey Plover was feeding with another Knot.

6o0a3645Bar-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh on the walk back

Almost back to the visitor centre, we found the Water Rail showing much better, now feeding out on the open mud in the ditch. We stopped to watch it for a while and got fill the frame views of it in the scope as it dug around in the mud with its long red bill. It was then back to the car for a late lunch.

6o0a3695Water Rail – showed very well out in the open on the walk back

After lunch, we left Titchwell and started to make our way back along the coast road. We stopped at Brancaster Staithe briefly, to see if there was anything of note in the harbour. There were a few waders. Several Turnstones were picking around the stones in the car park, between the cars. Further over, a little group of Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits was roosting on the edge of the water. Another Bar-tailed Godwit and two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a muddy channel as we turned to leave.

It was still perhaps a little bit early for Barn Owls as we drove back, but we kept our eyes peeled nonetheless. Two white shapes out on the grazing marsh at Holkham were way too big to be owls but, with a good idea what they were we stopped for a look. Sure enough, they were two Great White Egrets. We had a good look at them through the scope, one standing next to a Grey Heron providing a great size comparison – the Great White Egret was slightly bigger!

img_9902Great White Egret – one of two out at Holkham this afternoon

There were also lots of geese out on the grazing marshes. Scanning across, we could see a good smattering of White-fronted Geese. Three were feeding closer to us, so we got them in the scope, noting the white surround to the bill base and the black belly bars. There were loads of Pink-footed Geese further over out on the grass too, thousands and thousands of them. The Pink-footed Geese normally roost on the marshes at night and spend the days feeding in the fields inland, but around the time of the full moon that reverses and they roost by day and feed inland by night. As we stood scanning the marshes, a steady succession of flocks of Pink-footed Geese took off and flew up and over our heads.

6o0a3719Pink-footed Geese – flying inland to feed after day-roosting on the grazing marshes

As we carried on our way east, it was getting into prime time for Barn Owls now. However, we found nothing along the coast road as we drove beyond Holkham. Perhaps it was still rather exposed here, cold and windy, so we turned inland. We were heading for an old barn where which we know Barn Owls inhabit. We hadn’t even reached it, when a Barn Owl flew up from the grass on the verge beside the car. We slowed and the Barn Owl caught us up and flew along beside the car, before crossing over the road in front of us.

It was a great view from the car, but we really wanted to get a Barn Owl in the scope. We tried to follow it, but it then gave us the runaround for a while, disappearing off across a field, cutting back, then flying back behind us as we stopped. Finally it landed in a tree beside the road. We stopped a suitable distance back and all managed to get a good look at it in the scope before it was off again, resuming its hunting.

6o0a3724Barn Owl – our first of the day gave us a bit of a runaround for a while!

We drove on the other way and after only a short distance one of the group spotted another Barn Owl in a tree by the road. We reversed back and it sat looking at us for a just a couple of seconds before it flew off. We passed by another Little Owl site, but there were no sign of any here, there favoured perch visible from the road now not in the afternoon sun. Worryingly, there are now planning notices here, yet another barn nesting site for Little Owls scheduled for conversion into holiday cottages. Soon there will be none left! A covey of Grey Partridges in the field nearby were nice though.

As we were making our way back, another Barn Owl appeared, perched on a post by the road, our third of the afternoon. With another car behind us and nowhere to stop, we had to drive on and turn round. Thankfully, when we got back it was still on its post. We parked in a gateway some distance away and watched it for a while through the scope. It had probably found a sheltered spot, out of the wind, and was staring at the ground below looking for voles. Then, with no cars coming, we drove down along the road and pulled up alongside for some close ups. Great views!

6o0a3738Barn Owl – our third of the afternoon gave cracking views on a post by the road

It was getting late now. We had a quick drive round via one of the meadows where we know a Barn Owl likes to hunt, but there was no sign. It was time to head round to look for Tawny Owls. We walked down and got into position, but strangely there was no hooting to be heard as we did so. The Tawny Owl came out of its roost site on cue, but annoyingly rather than fly out into the trees, it dropped straight out of the roost and disappeared back into the wood. Eventually, we could hear one Tawny Owl distantly hooting behind us. The male we had seen gave a quick burst of half-hearted hooting in front of us and then went quiet again.

The Tawny Owls were oddly subdued this evening. The wind was catching the tops of the trees, or perhaps they had been disturbed by last nights storm. It was getting dark now so we decided to call it a day. Still, it had been a remarkably successful one considering the weather.

2nd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice morning, cloudy with some brighter intervals, but the cloud thickened in the afternoon and brought some misty drizzle with it at times.

Our first stop was at Blakeney. As we set out towards the seawall, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour channel. The first half dozen were our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese but a pair a few metres further on were more interesting. One of the pair was much paler on the flanks and belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and it appeared to be paired with a male Dark-bellied Brent. It really stood out next to the Dark-bellieds.

6o0a0923Pale-bellied Brent Goose – this one is paired with a Dark-bellied Brent

Dark-bellied Brent Geese breed in arctic Russia and come here for the winter in large numbers. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard across Greenland into the Canadian High Arctic. We regularly get a small number of Pale-bellied Brents in with our regular wintering flocks of Dark-bellied Brents.

While we were looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, suddenly lots of birds took to the air. A flock of Golden Plover whirled overhead. Low over the vegetation we picked up a Hen Harrier further back, quartering the marshes. A ringtail, it flashed its white rump patch as it flew away from us.

As we walked out past the harbour, a Rock Pipit flew across and landed on one of the small boats tied up on the water, where we could get it in the scope. We flushed several Meadow Pipits from the grassy banks of the seawall and a few Reed Buntings too. We heard the distinctive calls of a Lapland Bunting flying over, a dry rattle ‘t-t-t-t’ and a ringing ‘teu’, but it was long way out over the grazing marshes and we didn’t manage to find it.

There were various waders which flushed from the saltmarsh as we walked past, Curlews and Redshanks. A Little Egret was busy feeding in one of the channels. A group of Turnstone ran along a path ahead of a couple of dogs until they got too close and the Turnstone flew off towards the channel.

At the corner of the seawall, we stopped to look at a small flock of Dunlin on the edge of the harbour. A smart drake Goldeneye surfaced on the water just behind and then a raft of duck appeared in the channel. As well as a few more Goldeneye, there were several Red-breasted Mergansers with their spiky haircuts. While we were admiring them a rather nondescript brown duck bobbed up in their midst. It was a 1st winter female Scaup, normally difficult to find here in the winter but this appears to be a good year for them.

There were a few more waders here now too. A Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, both picking at the surface with their short bills. An Oystercatcher too. The tide was starting to go out and more mud was beginning to appear. A little further along the seawall, where the harbour starts to open out, there were some bigger numbers of waders and sifting through them we found a small group of dumpy Knot and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits closer to us. The Bar-tailed Godwits were much further over.

We had seen a female Marsh Harrier earlier, on our walk out, flying over the reeds out in the middle of the Freshes. When all the Wigeon erupted from the grazing marshes, we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier flying towards us. It turned slightly and cut out across the saltmarsh, flying past us and flushing all the Brent Geese as it went.

6o0a0942Marsh Harrier – a smart, grey-winged male

There were a few Skylarks feeding on the short vegetation on the inland side of the seawall, which flushed as we approached. They circled round and landed again on the edge of an open area. A slightly smaller bird was with them now and through the scope we could confirm it was a Lapland Bunting. It was creeping around in the short grass at first and hard to see, but then it flew a short distance towards us and landed out in the open where we could get a great view of it through the scope.

img_9054Lapland Bunting – feeding with Skylarks below the seawall

The Skylarks were nervous and kept flying round. The Lapland Bunting also flew around a couple of times and landed back on the short grass. Then suddenly it was off, calling as it went.

Lapland Buntings can be very hard to find out in the open, so this was a great way to cap off our walk here. As we started to walk back, we could see five or six small birds perched on the fence and a closer look confirmed there were five Twite.They had obviously been bathing in the puddles by the path and were now busy preening. We got them in the scope and could see their yellow bills and burnt orange faces.

img_9074Twite – five were preening on the fence after having a bathe

The sixth bird was a single Linnet which perched on the fence near the Twite for comparison for a few seconds. We could see it had a grey bill and was not as brightly coloured on the face as the Twite.

Back to the car, and we made our way further east to Salthouse. We parked at the end of Beach Road and walked east along the edge of the shingle towards Gramborough Hill. Local photographers have been putting seed out for the Snow Buntings here, so when a small group of buntings appeared from around the back of the Hill, we initially thought they would be the Snow Buntings. They headed south, inland across the grazing marshes, which would be an odd direction for Snow Buntings to go and when they turned and dropped down, with the fields behind them, we could see they were actually more Lapland Buntings.

There were at least 15 Lapland Buntings in the flock, a very good number, but they kept on going and we lost sight of them as they flew off west. We weren’t finished though, and yet another lone Lapland Bunting circled over the grazing marshes calling a few minutes later before dropping down into the grass out in the middle.

The day’s delivery of seed had just been put out for the Snow Buntings and we didn’t have to wait long before they flew back in to enjoy it. They landed on the top of the shingle ridge first, where they had a good vantage point to check for any danger, before running down the slope to where the food was waiting for them. There were at least forty of them here today, although not all of them came down to feed.

6o0a1033Snow Buntings – coming down to feed on feed put out on the shingle ridge

The Snow Buntings can be quite tame and we had great close views of them when they came down to the food. Looking at the flock, we could see a variety of different looking birds, some much paler ones amongst a mass of darker, browner ones. We get two different races here in the winter from different breeding areas. The duller ones are predominantly female Snow Buntings of the Icelandic race, insulae, whereas the paler ones are from Scandinavia, of the race nivalis.

6o0a1017Snow Bunting – of the Scandinavian race, nivalis

Regardless of where they come from, the Snow Buntings are always great to watch. Along with Lapland Buntings, they are our two sought after winter buntings, so we had enjoyed a very successful morning getting such great views of both species.

We walked back over Gramborough and along the remains of the now flattened shingle ridge. The sea looked fairly quiet but we did see a loose groups of six Red-throated Divers flying past distantly. Another Red-throated Diver was on the sea, along with a single Guillemot, but both were hard to see out in the swell and diving constantly. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore and were much more obliging – they seemed to come in to investigate a couple of fishermen down on the beach. Back to the car and a very obliging group of Turnstones had flown in to feed on some food put out for them. We watched them feverishly turning the stones over – they had a lot to choose from here!

6o0a1092Turnstone – very tame, feeding by the Beach Road at Salthouse

It was already time for lunch, but we still wanted to make one last stop at the Iron Road before heading back to the visitor centre at Cley. Rather than have lunch here, the group decided on a late lunch back at the visitor centre, so we set off straight away to see what we could find. The water level on the pool by Iron Road has gone down nicely and there was a good flock of Dunlin on here today. However, apart from a Redshank, we couldn’t immediately see anything else. With time pressing, we headed out along Attenborough’s Walk.

There were four Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes close to the path, which flew off as we passed. A little further along, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese. The vast majority were Dark-bellied Brents, as we would expect here, but a quick look at them and we found our second Pale-bellied Brent Goose of the day, right at the front of the flock.

6o0a1163Pale-bellied Brent Goose – with Dark-bellied Brent behind for comparison

There were lots of Dunlin right in front of Babcock Hide but they were very nervous and kept flying round. A single Common Snipe, feeding on one of the islands nearby, took fright when they did so and landed much further back, out of sight in some taller vegetation. A single Ruff (or, more accurately, a female Reeve) was picking around on one of the islands further back, in amongst a large flock of sleeping Teal. Two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding up to their bellies in the deeper water.

6o0a1145Dunlin – one of several feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

At first all we could see were dabbling ducks out on the water, but then one of group picked up a Long-tailed Duck which emerged from behind one of the reed islands in the deep water right at the back. It was diving constantly, but when it surfaced we could get a good look at it through the scope. We could see its white face with large dark brown cheek patch. Long-tailed Ducks are mostly found out on the sea in winter, where they dive for shellfish. Occasionally one may wander to an inland water for a short time, especially after gales. This one is unusual in that it has been on this small pool for over a month now. It must be finding something good to eat here!

We didn’t linger too long in Babcock Hide, and stopped only briefly on the walk back to the car to admire a pair of Stonechats on the fence. We made our way quickly back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. As it was so mild, we decided we would eat outside on the picnic tables, but we were only half way through when the weather turned. Some low cloud blew in and brought with it some misty drizzle, so we retreated to the car.

After lunch, we drove back west along the coast road to Stiffkey. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost, but with the weather having deteriorated we thought it best to watch from here today. When we arrived, we were told we had already missed a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Merlin – it seemed bird may have come in early tonight given the conditions.

As we stood and scanned the saltmarsh, a Brambling flew over calling and headed inland over the campsite. Looking away to the west, we picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier flying low over the vegetation. Unfortunately, it dropped quickly down out of view, before everyone could get onto it. Then a second grey male appeared over in the same area, but it was even less obliging. The Hen Harriers were flying straight into the roost this evening, without flying round, probably due to the mist. Even when it temporarily brightened up a little, there was no sign of a pick-up in Hen Harrier activity.

The light was starting to go and we were just thinking our luck had run out when a large bird flew in from the fields behind us, just a short distance to our left. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and we could see its white rump patch as it flew out across the saltmarsh, before disappearing out into the mist. That was a great way to end, so we called it a day and headed for home.