Tag Archives: Salthouse

23rd May 2015 – East of Wells

Day 1 of a two day weekend tour today. It was a bit cloudy and cool this morning, in a NE wind, but brightened up in the afternoon. We met up in Wells and headed east along the coast.

We started up on the Heath. It was colder than we might have hoped this morning, and we thought it might not be the best day to go looking for Dartford Warblers. As it was, we needn’t have worried. We had not been walking for long when we heard the distinctive rattling song of a male Dartford Warbler. It gave us the run-around a bit, singing often from deep in the gorse, but we could see it flicking around and it perched up at nicely one point.

We continued on round the Heath. A Turtle Dove was purring from the birches, though it was tucked well down out of the wind. We couldn’t see it as we walked past the trees, but later on it flew past us, flashing its rusty back as it went.

P1010225Yellowhammer – a smart male in full voice

We had heard a Yellowhammer singing as we walked round, and eventually a smart yellow-headed male performed for us. There were lots up on the Heath today. As we rounded a corner, we stopped to look at another, perched in a dead tree when a second bird appeared next to it, a male Stonechat, and then a third bird, a male Woodlark. We got the Woodlark in the scope first, admiring its striking pale supercilium. Then it circled overhead singing and disappeared off across the Heath.

We turned our attention to the Stonechat next. We also picked up a female nearby and could see the two adults carrying food into a clump of gorse. As they did so, several streaky juveniles flew out to meet them. We spent some time watching them, the adults returning repeatedly with food and the juveniles sitting partly concealed low down in the gorse in between visits from their parents.

IMG_4912Stonechat – the proud father, perching on the top of the gorse

On our walk round, we had not heard another Dartford Warbler, so we swung back to the area we had passed through, as a pair had also been feeding young here recently. We couldn’t find them at first, but eventually heard the distinctive churring call. We saw the male and female Dartford Warblers coming in and out of a dense patch of gorse carrying food and eventually also spotted a short-tailed, grey juvenile hiding down just above the heather.

P1010227Dartford Warbler – perched up briefly

Time was getting on, so we headed back to the car. On our way, we could hear the rolling song of a Garden Warbler from the tops of some birches. We manoeuvred ourselves so we could see one particular tree and eventually the Garden Warbler appeared in full view, singing from the very top.

We headed for Salthouse next, but made an unscheduled stop on the way to our destination. A Spoonbill had been reported by the duck pond and we found it straight away, on the pool behind. It was busy feeding, sweeping its bill from side-to-side through the shallow water, but occasionally lifted its head up, so we could see it above the reedy edge of the pool. A scan of the wet grazing marsh all around also produced a Common Sandpiper feeding in the flooded grass.

P1010213Spoonbill – possibly the Salthouse bird from today, but taken at Cley yesterday

Our planned next stop was at the Iron Road, a little further along. There is a lovely area of flooded grass and pools here, that has been good for birds recently. However, there was no sign of any Little Gulls here at midday – unfortunately they have a habit of wandering along the coast. We did find a nice big flock of Black-tailed Godwits and hiding amongst them was a single Bar-tailed Godwit, still in streak-backed winter plumage.

P1010232Tufted Duck – like a duck out of water!

A pair of Tufted Duck were in the channel and climbed out onto the bank. We stopped to listen to Skylarks and Meadow Pipits singing above our heads. Best of all, a Swallow flew down and landed on a gate beside us, singing.

P1010234Swallow – landed beside us, singing

Cley was out next stop. After lunch, we walked out along the East Bank. The Serpentine and the flooded grazing marsh to the east have also been very productive in recent days but were also a little quiet today. The highlight was a smart male White Wagtail which flew in and landed briefly along the edge of the ditch below us.

P1010246The Serpentine & flooded grazing marsh east of Cley East Bank

The reedbed was the place to look today. We saw several Bearded Tits flying back and forth over the path, seemingly gathering food in the reedy ditches either side. At one point, we could see a female Bearded Tit working her way along the edge of the ditch, low down at the bottom of the reeds and just above the water surface. There were also lots of Reed Warblers singing and eventually we even managed to find a couple that would perch up long enough for us to get them in the scope. A Chinese Water Deer was out in the reedbed, seemingly enjoying the fresh green growth where the reeds were cut over the winter.

P1010245Chinese Water Deer – eating the new reed growth

Arnold’s Marsh was also fairly quiet, but we found a pair of Little Terns, one out on one of the islands and the other fishing nearby. A pair of Sandwich Terns also flew in and landed, one (presumably the male) carrying a fish in its bill, and they circled round each other in a little bout of courtship display until the male lost interest and walked off, still carrying its fish. Another Sandwich Tern was fishing just offshore from the beach.

On the walk back, we stopped to admire a Little Egret out on the grazing marsh. A Grey Heron was standing, stock still, in the reeds by one of the new pools near the road, staring intently at the water oblivious to our presence.

P1010248Little Egret – on the flooded grazing marsh

We finished the day at Stiffkey Fen. As we walked down beside the road, a very smart male Marsh Harrier was quartering the fields to the south. A scan of the Fen from the path revealed a single Little Ringed Plover out on the mud. Aside from the Redshanks, Lapwings, Avocets and a few Black-tailed Godwits, there were no other waders of note today.

We were up on the seawall, and just starting to scan the Fen from a higher vantage point, when a shout from someone nearby alerted us to a Spoonbill flying over. It circled the Fen and dropped in and as it did so, we could see it was sporting some coloured plastic rings. At first it landed with its legs in deep water and we couldn’t see the rings, but eventually it walked up onto the edge of one of the islands and started to preen. We could see the combination of rings on its legs – time will tell if we can identify where it was ringed and where else it has been seen since.

IMG_4925Spoonbill – a colour-ringed bird at Stiffkey Fen today

Walking round to the harbour, a stunning summer plumage Grey Plover was out on the mud on the far side of the creek. The tide was out, but we could still see lots of Brent Geese in the harbour. A Mediterreanean Gull flew over calling and disappeared out towards Blakeney Point, before we could all get onto it. As we walked back, a second Mediterranean Gull flew past at eye level, a summer adult with white wing-tips and black hood, which was much easier to see.

There were some more warblers singing along the side of the river on the way back to the car – a Willow Warbler sat in the top of a hawthorn, a Cetti’s Warbler sang from the river bank unseen, and a Blackcap lurked in the bushes. Then it was time to head back to Wells.

P1010253Blakeney Harbour – the view across to the Point from Stiffkey Fen

16th May 2015 – Heath & Marsh

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today, and we made our way over to the Cley area. It was cloudy in the morning but brightened up to sun in the afternoon, although there was a blustery NW wind all day which took the edge off the temperature.

We started up on the Heath. It is always a good place to be in the morning, and particularly at this time of year. The Common Gorse is still in flower, looking stunning, and lots of Bluebells were out along the hedgerow. We stopped to admire the distinctive features of the native British Bluebell.

P1000906Bluebell – the distinctive native British species

There were lots of warblers singing from the bushes. We c0uld hear a Garden Warbler close by, but it was tucked deep in the Blackthorn. We manoeuvred ourselves to try to see it, but as we did so a couple of dog walkers strolled straight in front of us and it went quiet. We could also hear Blackcap, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff.

As we walked past one of the newly cleared areas, a small bird flew up from beside the path and perched briefly on a gorse stump – a smart Woodlark. Unfortunately, it flew almost immediately but luckily didn’t go too far and we quickly got the scope on it. We could see there was a second bird with it, and this one differently marked, with pale scallops above rather than dark streaks. It was a juvenile Woodlark, following the adult. As we watched them for a time, it became apparent that there was a family group, two adults and three juveniles.

IMG_4768Woodlark – one of the adults perched up on a gorse stump

The Woodlarks were incredibly well camouflaged and very hard to see on the ground, unless you knew where they were. We watched them for some time, the adults picking around quietly amongst the dead branches and brash, the juveniles following or hiding in the tangles. Periodically, the adults would find some insects and would turn to feed one of the juveniles. It was a real privilege to watch them like this.

IMG_4770Woodlark – the adult has just fed the juvenile and is off to find more food

Walking on, it didn’t take us long to hear our first Dartford Warbler, a male singing. We tracked down the thick clump of gorse he was hiding in, but he was keeping low in the blustery wind. We had a couple of glimpses of him darting between bushes, but he clearly wasn’t keen to show himself this morning. We decided to try our luck elsewhere.

A little further, and we picked up the faint purring of a Turtle Dove. It was some distance away at first and nigh on impossible to hear above the noise of the wind in the trees and cars driving past on the road beyond. Then it went quiet. We were just walking away when it started again, and we were able to track it down. What a wonderful sound, the purring of a Turtle Dove, and such a shame it is so rarely heard these days. We eventually got it in the scope and had great views of it perched unobtrusively, deep in a tree. Then a second Turtle Dove flew over and the first bird set off in pursuit. We were just leaving when the two of them flew back in and landed back in the trees again.

IMG_4787-001Turtle Dove – purring from deep in the trees

Over the other side of the Heath, we could hear the distinctive calling of more Dartford Warblers, but once again they were tucked down out of the wind. Again, we had tantalising glimpses of birds flying between clumps of gorse and heather, but they would not show themselves – the wind seemed to be keeping them tucked down out of sight. We contented ourselves with watching a smart pair of Stonechats, perched rather more obligingly on the top of the gorse. We saw the female bringing food back, presumably to young in a nest somewhere nearby. A bright yellow male Yellowhammer also flew in and sat out for us on the top of a dead tree. A Green Woodpecker flew up noisily from the side of the path and off across the Heath.

By now, the weather was starting to brighten up, so we walked back across the Heath to try our luck again with the singing male Dartford Warbler we had glimpsed earlier. It didn’t take us long to track him down, but he was still hiding deep in the gorse. Then, as we rounded a corner, we surprised him sat in the open, right on the top. Unfortunately, he saw us and dropped back in before the whole group could see him. It was obviously not going to be a day for good long views of Dartford Warblers, given the wind, so we decided to move on.

Our next stop was at Cley. The scrapes on the reserve have been rather quiet recently, but we wanted to have a look at the flooded grazing marshes from the East Bank. This had been a productive spot last week. Grey Herons were coming and going from North Foreland wood, as were Little Egrets. One of the latter performed very nicely for us as we got up onto the bank.

P1000914Little Egret – good views from the East Bank today

We stopped to admire a very smart male Lapwing, his iridescent upperparts shining in the sun, and several Redshank. It didn’t take us too long to find our target bird here, a delightful spangle-backed Wood Sandpiper. It was feeding very unobtrusively in the flooded grass, but at one point managed to irritate one of the Redshanks, which chased after it repeatedly. Still, it gave us a good size comparison between the two.

IMG_4797Wood Sandpiper – on the Serpentine, from Cley East Bank, today

There were lots of other birds to look at here as well. The ubiquitous Avocets, but no less beautiful for it. Lots of Black-tailed Godwits further over towards the reeds. A Common Sandpiper flew in along the ditch in front of us and disappeared out onto the grazing marshes. There were ducks too – Gadwall, Shoveler, Mallard and lots of Shelduck.

Out on Arnold’s Marsh, we got a good look at a couple of Sandwich Terns out on the sand. There was a steady stream of them flying over, heading back towards the breeding colony on Blakeney Point. We added a few more waders to the day’s list – a couple of Ringed Plover, a Curlew and several Oystercatcher. However, the prize for the biggest surprise of the day goes to the female Goosander which flew in from the east, over Arnold’s Marsh and straight past us. Goosander is predominantly a winter visitor and May is a very late date for a straggler to be heading back.

P1000916Goosander – this very late female was the complete surprise of the day

After the East Bank, we drove round to Salthouse and walked out along the Iron Road. There had been a Garganey here recently, but we couldn’t find it today. However, we did find an excellent selection of other birds. We picked up the 1st summer Little Gull out on one of the pools as soon as we got out of the car. It was sitting on the water, twirling round and picking at the surface, as they do. At one point, a Black-headed Gull landed behind it, highlighting just how little a Little Gull really is.

IMG_4816Little Gull – a 1st summer bird by the Iron Road at Salthouse

While we were watching it, a couple of Yellow Wagtails flew overhead calling. One of them, a smart yellow male, dropped down in front of us, before disappearing into the grass. There were lots of Sand Martins feeding over our heads. Then, turning round to look behind us, there was a stunning summer-plumage male Ruff. As it preened, it even fluffed out its ‘ruff’ and crown feathers. A real stunner!

IMG_4803Ruff – a smart summer-plumage male

We still had time for one last stop, so we dropped in at Stiffkey Fen on our way back. There were a few waders there today – plenty of Black-tailed Godwit, plus singles of Common Sandpiper, summer plumage Dunlin and Little Ringed Plover. The highlight was a pair of adult Mediterranean Gulls which flew in to bathe.

It was high tide and the harbour was full of water. There were a few Brent Geese still milling around, swimming in the channel. We could see all the seals and Sandwich Terns out on Blakeney Point. A couple of Little Terns flew across the harbour closer to us. A small group of waders on one of the spits was pushed off by the rising water – as they flew across the harbour, we could see Grey Plover, a single Knot, Dunlin and lots of Turnstone. Then it was time to call it a day and head back.

P1000919Blakeney Point across the harbour

26th April 2015 – Wagtail Wonderland

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, the last day. We would focus on the eastern end of the North Norfolk coast today, between Kelling and Stiffkey. It had actually rained overnight, the first rain for some time, and the day dawned overcast and cool, but it cleared up through the day and was sunny and warm (out of the wind) by the close.

P1000455Blakeney Freshes from Friary Hills

We started at Friary Hills. This can at times be a very good spot for migrants, but the bushes were quiet today. From the top, we scanned over Blakeney Freshes, picking up a variety of wildfowl for the day. As we walked back, we did hear a Reed Warbler singing from the bushes and a Lesser Whitethroat, which eventually showed well.

It was our intention to head round to Kelling, but news of several Blue-headed Wagtails in the Eye Field at Cley saw us take a small diversion on the way. Blue-headed Wagtail is the main central European subspecies, the equivalent of the British Yellow Wagtail, and they form just two of many subspecies of a very widely distributed and very variable species. Several subspecies occur or are suspected to occur in the UK from time to time, but as we were to see today, the subject is even more complicated than that!

It took us a while to find the wagtails, as they were mobile and distant at first. We contented ourselves with looking at several Wheatears intially. Finally we picked up a couple of Yellow Wagtails and a smart male Blue-headed Wagtail dropped in with them. So far, so simple!

IMG_4274Blue-headed Wagtail – a smart male in the Eye Field

In the end, we saw at least 8 ‘yellow’ or flava wagtails, the all-encompassing moniker for the species (Motacilla flava is the Latin name for the species as a whole). There were several male Yellows, as well as at least one male Blue-headed, and a number of females of different hues (it is still not clear where the appearance of female Yellow stops and female Blue-headed starts!).

At one point, the little group of flava wagtails landed with four ‘monochrome’ alba wagtails. In a similar way to the Yellow Wagtail, the British Pied Wagtail is replaced on the continent with the grey-backed White Wagtail (two subspecies of the very widely distributed Motacilla alba – a theme is emerging!). We could see that the group of four in the Eye Field included two smart silvery-grey backed White Wagtails as well as two Pied Wagtails. A great start – four subspecies of Wagtail together!

Round at Kelling, we set off along the track to the beach. A Goldcrest sang from the trees by the school and a couple of Common Whitethroat sang from the hedges. The cows were feeding up by the gate, but there were no wagtails with them as we arrived. However, as we walked further on, we could see two flava wagtails on the short grass by the pool. One was a smart male Yellow Wagtail, but whilst the other resembled a Blue-headed Wagtail, it looked a little pale around the head. Unfortunately they were flushed by a couple of people walking along the track before we could get the scope on them.

We could still hear the odd Yellow Wagtail calling from time to time, but we couldn’t see them at first, until we realised they had flown into the dense clumps of rushes. It was only when the cows started to walk back down the water meadow towards the pool that the wagtails came out. Then we realised there were flava wagtails everywhere – at least 12-15 birds!

At first, we contented ourselves wit watching the bright yellow British Yellow Wagtails. We admired the way they ran in and out of the cows feet and even seemed to get so close to them feeding that it would not have been a surprise to see one get eaten! They looked stunning in amongst the daisies and dandelions in the short grass.

P1000478Yellow Wagtail – a smart ‘British’ male

P1000479Yellow Wagtail – careful, not too close!

There were a couple of nice smart male Blue-headed Wagtails in amongst them as well – nice contrasting blue-grey heads with a strongly marked white supercilium. Then the paler-headed male appeared – unlike the regular Blue-headed males, this one appeared to have a pale silvery grey crown, a ‘Channel’ Wagtail.

P1000458‘Channel’ Wagtail – paler silvery grey on the crown than a regular Blue-headed

Blue-headed and Yellow Wagtails are known to ‘hybridise’ in northern France, and the resulting intergrades are known as ‘Channel’ Wagtails. These show much paler heads than Blue-headed – silvery-grey, powder-blue or even approaching white. They turn up quite regularly with our Yellow Wagtails in the spring.

As if that wasn’t already complicated enough, then another darker headed bird appeared. We glimpsed it a couple of times and it looked really quite striking. At first, it appeared to have an all dark grey head – dark slate grey on the crown and blacker on the ear coverts. However, when we got a good look at it, we could see that it had a very thin supercilium. It also had a rather white upper throat.

IMG_4297flava Wagtail ssp – most likely an intergrade of some form

P1000464flava Wagtail ssp –  a thin white supercilium and white on throat

This bird did not obviously fit any of the regular subspecies or intergrades. Perhaps it was a mixture of Blue-headed and the Italian subspecies, Ashy-headed? We will never know, but it was an interesting bird to see nonetheless. The morning as a whole was a great opportunity to study a variety of different wagtail forms. We spent time discussing the different subspecies and known intergrades between them. At the end of the day, it was just great to watch them all running amongst the cows and spring flowers. Still, after all that we needed a sit down and some lunch!

As we walked back up the track, three young Field Voles were trying to hide in the middle of the path – presumably a dog had dug them out of their nest. We tried to usher them to the safety of the verge, but they kept running back out into the middle.

P1000497Field Vole – three youngsters were in the middle of the path at Kelling

After lunch, we went for a walk at Salthouse. We eventually found the single Snow Bunting feeding in the field about half way towards Gramborough. The flock of Snow Buntings which roamed the beach through the winter appears to have long departed, but this single bird remains. Still, it seemed perfectly happy feeding quietly on its own, until something upset the local Sand Martins and they flew round calling – and the Snow Bunting joined them.

IMG_4327Snow Bunting – the rest of the winter birds have departed

There were also several Wheatears in the field. As with the birds we saw yesterday at Burnham Overy, the males at Salthouse were washed with orange underneath, especially on the throat and upper breast, to varying degrees of intensity – Greenland Wheatears.

P1000504Wheatear – the rich orange wash on the breast suggests a Greenland bird

We finished the day at Stiffkey Fen. As we crossed the road, a Willow Warbler was singing in the sallows by the river. We stopped to try to see it and a Reed Warbler was lumbering around in the same tree. A Cetti’s Warbler sang loudly nearby, and we could hear the scratchy notes of a Sedge Warbler from the Fen. A hooting Tawny Owl was more of a surprise, in the middle of the afternoon.

Scanning the Fen from the path, we could see a selection of waders. A Little Ringed Plover lurked on one of the islands. Several Black-tailed Godwits stood in the water. A smart male Ruff was hiding in the vegetation on the shore and a Common Snipe eventually showed itself, preening nearby.

From up on the seawall, we could get a better look over the Fen. At first we couldn’t see anything we hadn’t seen from the path. Finally, we picked up a Common Sandpiper working its way round the water’s edge at the very back. On the saltmarsh side, a Greenshank was working its way up the creek and quickly disappeared from view. Thankfully, a few moments later, it flew back out and onto the Fen where it proceeded to bathe and preen. There were also several Avocet in the channel by the seawall.

P1000509Avocet – a couple of pairs were in the tidal channel at Stiffkey, more on the Fen

As we walked round towards Blakeney Harbour, we could hear a Whimbrel calling. It then flew in and landed on the edge of the creek opposite us. Eventually, once it came round out of the sun, we could see its pale central crown stripe. It then flew out into the creeks in the harbour.

P1000516Whimbrel – feeding on the edge of the harbour

As we came round the corner, we could see a couple of Common Buzzards soaring up over the fields just behind us and a Red Kite was circling lazily over the saltmarsh. There were still plenty of Brent Geese out in the harbour and we could see lots of gulls and Sandwich Terns out toward Blakeney Point. As we turned to walk back, a pair of adult Mediterranean Gulls flew over us calling.

From back on the seawall, the Common Sandpiper was on the edge of the mud on the tidal channel. But it was very jumpy and flew off as we approached, flicking down the channel on bowed wings. A Redshank flew up from the Fen and over the seawall, displaying over our heads – fluttering its wings fast, again holding them deeply bowed, then gliding for a second, before another burst of quick fluttering, before it glided down across the channel and landed on a post. Stunning to watch. As we walked back, we stopped to admire a cracking male Lapwing feeding quietly in the set-aside field amongst the flowers. A lovely end to the day.

P1000519Blakeney Harbour from Stiffkey Fen seawall

22nd April 2015 – Spring has Sprung

Back to business today and a Spring Tour around the Cley area looking for migrants. It was slightly cool and cloudy first thing up on the coast, in a light north wind, but the sun came out and it warmed up in the afternoon – a lovely April day.

We started off looking – or listening – for Nightingales, which have started to arrive in the last few days. As we got out of the car, we could hear plenty of warblers singing – a couple of Blackcaps, several Chiffchaffs and a Cetti’s Warbler. With all the sounds around us, it felt like a real spring morning. We heard a Bullfinch call and a smart pink male perched up briefly in the bushes in front of us. But there was no sound of the Nightingale at first.

We began to walk down the road. A couple of Long-tailed Tits were calling from the hedgerow and as they flew up we could see some grey lichen in the area they had been – a closer look confirmed our suspicions and we found a beautiful nest tucked in amongst the branches. As we stopped to admire it, the Nightingale started singing back where we had been – but only two brief snatches of song before it went quiet again. It seemed like it might still be too chilly for it to really get going.

P1000269Long-tailed Tit nest – an amazing construction, well concealed in the hedge

Continuing back down the road, we stopped every so often to listen to the bird song around us. A Whitethroat or two were new additions for the day – we got a look at one smart male – and a Lesser Whitethroat rattled from deep in the bushes but didn’t similarly oblige. A male Cuckoo sang from the trees, really adding to the feeling of spring, and then we heard the amazing bubbling sound of a female nearby. We got a look at her perched up in a tree before she flew across the road behind us. Unfortunately, a Cuckoo is not as common a sight (or sound) now as it used to be.

We had gone some way down the road when a second Nightingale started singing just behind us. We turned and walked back a short way to listen to it. It was a delight just to stand there and hear the song, the liquid phrases rolling out from the dense undergrowth. After a while it stopped singing and we could hear it calling (a bit like a frog!), before it flew across the road and disappeared into the hedge the other side, flashing a russet tail as it did so. We listened to it singing there for a while, close beside us, catching another glimpse of it in flight before it finally went quiet again and we headed back. What a magical moment. As we walked back to the car, a Tawny Owl hooted from the trees – not what we were expecting in the middle of the morning!

Heading down to the coast, our next stop was Walsey Hills. There had been a Black Redstart hanging around opposite here for the last couple of days, but there was no  sign today. We had a quick explore along the footpath, and had a good look at a couple of Willow Warblers which were singing from the bushes. But with no sign of any more life, we didn’t hang around.

Further along the coast road, we pulled up outside the visitor centre at Cley. Our intention had been to use the facilities and get a cup of coffee first, but from the car park we could already hear the Grasshopper Warbler reeling from the bushes just across the road. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get a good look at it, particularly as it has been performing so well of late, so we walked over to see it. Unfortunately, by the time we got over there it had already decided to go quiet. Typical! We stood for a while, and the call of the coffee was growing ever more tempting when we caught a couple of quiet reels. The Grasshopper Warbler sounded like it had moved much further away. Then suddenly it hopped up into some low brambles not 5 metres in front of us. We got a great look at it as it sang in short bursts and clambered about in the nettles close to the ground. After that, we celebrated with a coffee in the visitor centre!

P1000274Grasshopper Warbler – reeling right in front of us today

We were planning to explore the reserve later in the day, so after our coffee we headed back along the coast to Kelling. As we walked down along the lane, a Red Kite drifted over and disappeared to the west. The cows are out on the water meadow early this year and that seemed to have pulled in the Yellow Wagtails. But the first bird we saw was not a typical ‘Yellow’, but a very smart male Blue-headed Wagtail, the continental European subspecies. We got him in the scope and set about admiring his blue-grey crown and striking white supercilium, which contrasted with his bright yellow underparts. As we did so, a male British Yellow Wagtail appeared next to him. As we scanned in amongst the cows feet, we eventually picked up four of them – three males and a duller female. One of the male Yellow Wagtails in particular sat preening in the grass and positively glowed bright canary yellow in the (now) sunshine.

P1000245Blue-headed Wagtail – with 4 Yellow Wagtails amongst the cows today

Down at the pool, there were several Black-tailed Godwits and Avocets wading around in the water. Amongst them was a stunning Spotted Redshank in mostly black summer plumage. Flushed by some walkers along the cross track, it flew towards us and started to feed close by. We admired its white eye-ring, contrasting with the blackish head and neck, the white-spotted upperparts and the long and needle-tipped bill.

IMG_4238Spotted Redshank – a smart bird, in fine black summer plumage

That wasn’t the only good wader down on the pool today. It was hiding on the island at first, but eventually the Knot appeared. It was starting to live up to its proper name of ‘Red Knot‘, beginning to moult into its much brighter summer plumage, rather than the grey winter grab with which we are more familiar. The resident Egyptian Geese had already hatched three goslings, already starting to look quite well grown.

P1000287Red Knot – or ‘Reddish Knot’ perhaps still at the moment

We carried on down towards the beach and up onto the top, hoping that we might pick up a Wheatear or Whinchat. No sign of either of those, but we did find a couple of pairs of Stonechat, presumably local breeding birds. One of the males decided to come down the fence line towards us – another smart bird! As we stood there admiring it, we could hear a Mediterranean Gull calling and after a while we picked up a pair of adults, flashing their white wing-tips, circling high above the field behind.

P1000286Stonechat – one of the males at Kelling today

The morning was long gone, so we eventually managed to tear ourselves away and head back to the car. We drove a short way along the coast to Salthouse for a late lunch on the Beach Road. While we ate, we picked up a small group of Wheatear out on the grazing marshes. A Greenshank appeared on the pools behind the beach.

After lunch, we drove back to Cley and headed out to explore the reserve. The main scrapes were fairly quiet – a smattering of duck (Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard & Shoveler), a few Black-tailed Godwits and lots of Avocets. Looking more closely, we found a pair of Little Ringed Plovers on one of the islands, displaying. There were also lots of Ruff (& Reeves). The first ones we saw still appeared to be in mostly winter plumage, but eventually we found a male with lots of black on head and neck, clearly moulting into summer plumage. It was a good opportunity to look at the variation, and the differences between males and females.

P1000303Shelduck – this pair were mating right outside the hide

The Eye Field seemed a bit quiet as we drove down Beach Road. However, a scan from the car park revealed four Wheatears out on the grass. We set out to walk towards North Hide and as we did so, a lovely male Whinchat appeared on the fence. It was quite flighty and wouldn’t settle near us, but we eventually got it in the scope – another cracker. On the edge of the shingle, we stopped to admire a Ringed Plover on one of the pools and as we did so, we picked up a White Wagtail by the grass. Unfortunately, it didn’t linger and flew off out into the Eye Field and disappeared from view. We did manage to find it again, looking from further along, and got a good look through the scope. A nice haul of classic spring migrants for the list for the day.

IMG_4241Whinchat – a smart male on the Eye Field fence

Billy’s Wash had a few ducks on it, including three Pintail, one of them a smart male. North Scrape was fairly quiet – just a couple more Little Ringed Plover and a few of the other Cley regulars. Then it was time to start heading back, stopping briefly to admire a female Wheatear right by the fence.

P1000320Wheatear – we saw a few at Salthouse & Cley today

We had met in Wells, so made our way back there to finish. A single Common Seal (or perhaps more appropriately ‘Harbour’ Seal) was pulled up and resting nearby.

All-in-all, a decent haul of early spring migrants and incoming breeding birds for the day.

P1000328Common Seal – hanging around in the harbour

16th December 2014 – Photographing Geese

A private tour again today. The request was to spend the day watching and photographing geese. There is no shortage of geese in Norfolk in the winter! Getting up close to them can sometimes be more of a challenge.

We went first to Salthouse, which was a convenient pale to start the day. This has been a good place for Brent Geese in recent weeks, and we were not disappointed. A large group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese was feeding on the grazing marsh by the Iron Road. A quick scan through them revealed the Black Brant which has been present for the last few weeks, though roaming up and down the coast and elusive at times. It’s much darker – almost black – body plumage and extensive white flank patch and collar meant it stood out obviously from the rest.

P1100364Black Brant – this very striking bird stood out amongst the Dark-bellieds

P1100359Black Brant – the white collar is extensive, across the neck under the chin

Also in the same flock was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose. Whereas our regular Dark-bellieds come from Russia, and Black Brant from North America or Eastern Siberia, we get a few Pale-bellieds from Svalbard, Franz Josef Land or Canada every winter. It was  a great opportunity to compare three subspecies of Brent Goose in a single flock.

P1100384Pale-bellied Brent Goose – the near-white belly is obvious here

We spent some time watching the geese and particularly the Pale-bellied Brent Goose. Even though it was in the middle of a vast throng, it was clear that this bird had three juveniles accompanying it. It was also paired to a male Dark-bellied Brent Goose – a mixed pair, and the young birds appear to be hybrids between the two subspecies. This pairing is very rarely reported, given that the populations are typically geographically separated, but this pair has been returning for a couple of years now. It was particularly interesting to look at the young hybrids.

P1100380Pale-bellied & Dark-bellied Brent Goose pair & hybrid young

P1100339Pale-bellied Brent Goose – can you tell the 3 hybrid young from the others?

Also amongst the Brents was a small group of Pink-footed Geese. They were mostly in the longer grass and hard to see but one bird glimpsed occasionally appeared to have a neck collar. Eventually, it came out into view and we could read the letters on the grey collar – ‘THS’. A quick check back at base later revealed that I had actually seen this bird two years ago, nearby at Kelling! It was ringed as an adult male at Loch of Lintrathen in Angus on 16th December 2007, and had been seen in Norfolk over the winter of 2010/11 and in December 2012 at least.

IMG_2057Neck-collared Pink-footed Goose – I had seen ‘THS’ at Kelling in Dec’12!

From there, we moved on to Holkham. Most of the Pink-footed Geese spend the days feeding inland, on discarded sugar beet tops in recently harvested fields. A few remain at Holkham, loafing around on the grazing marshes. By carefully positioning the car, we were able to get close to a view and get some great photos.

P1100397

P1100457

P1100466Pink-footed Geese – great photographic opportunities at Holkham

There were fewer geese at the west end of Holkham, and most of those present appeared to be Greylags. However, a closer look through the geese revealed several White-fronted Geese hiding in the deeper vegetation out on the grazing marshes.

The days are short in the middle of winter, and the only other thing required today was a quick visit to see Snettisham. It seemed like a nice way to round off the day. Out on the Wash, there were enormous quantities of waders. Lots of Golden & Grey Plover, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank & Turnstone. It was great to watch the swirling flocks. The Golden Plover were quick to take flight. However, whenever a raptor flew over, all the other birds took to the air. The odd Marsh Harrier flew over, but two young Peregrines spent some time chasing fruitlessly after various waders, putting them all up.

On the pits, amongst the feral Greylags, were lots of ducks – mostly Wigeon and Mallard, but a few Gadwall, Tufted Duck and also several Goldeneye. There were a number of Little Grebes and amongst them a single Black-necked Grebe – quite a rare bird in Norfolk and a nice one for the list. As the sun started to go down, we walked back to the car – fittingly, the backdrop was provided by the Pink-footed Geese flying out onto the Wash to roost.

12th December 2014 – Winter Specialities on the Coast

A private tour today in North Norfolk. We were hoping to catch up with a few of the winter specialities and see some Pink-footed Geese. We certainly did see some geese! And we had a really good day besides, with a lot of other good birds.

We started the day at Salthouse. A small flock of Brent Geese was feeding right by the Beach Road, so we sat in the car for a while to watch them at close quarters. There were lots of stripy-backed juveniles and lots of squabbles between the different families. Lurking amongst the regular Russian Dark-bellieds was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose, possibly from Franz Josef Land or Svalbard. However, there was no sign with this group of the Black Brant which has been here regularly for the last few weeks.

P1100101Pale-bellied Brent Goose – with the Dark-bellieds at Salthouse

We walked out along the beach. A good selection of ducks was out on the pools – Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and a single Shelduck. Suddenly, a flock of small birds flew up from the shingle ahead of us and their distinctive twittering immediately confirmed that they were Snow Buntings. They flew off to the east, flashing their white wing patches of various sizes, returning overhead shortly afterwards and disappearing from view. In the distance, we could also see another flock of small birds which flew round and landed on the edge of the shingle. They looked like Twite, so we decided to walk west and try to find them.

However, when we got to where they had landed, we couldn’t find them. Walking a little further on, we came across the Snow Buntings again, about 20 in all, and this time got great views through the scope as they fed in the sparse vegetation behind the beach. We turned to head back, and hadn’t gone very far when the flock of about 30 Twite flew round once more. We managed to position ourselves and they flew in and landed on the fence in front of us, allowing us to get a good look at them, before dropping down to feed in the long grass, at which point they completely disappeared again! Knowing where they were, we stood and watched for a while and one or two birds would regularly fly back up onto the fence.

P1100111Snow Buntings – a flock of about 20 was at Salthouse today

As we walked back to the car, we could see more Brent Geese further along the coast at Kelling, so we decided to see if the Black Brant was with them. We had a short walk along the lane there, which yielded Redwing, Song Thrush, Yellowhammer and a stunning male Bullfinch. However, there was no sign of the target goose, so we didn’t linger.

We had driven via Cley looking for geese on our way to Salthouse earlier on. There had been none there first thing, but news came through that the Black Brant had been seen there later in the morning, so we drove round to the Eye Field. We quickly found the Brent Geese and it didn’t take long to locate the Black Brant in amongst them – its much darker, blackish body plumage and striking white flank patch and collar meaning it really stood out.

IMG_1939Black Brant – in the Eye Field at Cley today

From there, we headed on to Wells. Some of the Pink-footed Geese had been feeding on the harvested sugar beet fields just inland in previous days, but they had obviously moved on. We did have a Red Kite circling lazily over the road. From there, we dropped back down to Holkham and there were plenty of Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes – thousands of them! We stopped a while to watch the throngs, with lots of small groups flying round overhead and a constant backdrop of high-pitched honking. A few were feeding closer to Lady Anne’s Drive and allowed us to get a really good look at them. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Snow Goose which had been here with them for the last couple of days.

IMG_1948Pink-footed Geese – several thousand were in the fields at Holkham

Our next stop was Burnham Overy. We walked out along the track across the grazing marshes. Another nice flock of Brent Geese was feeding close to the path, little groups of Pink-footed Geese were out on the fields and lots of Curlew and Lapwing. A commotion over the other side of the hedge revealed a covey of cantankerous Grey Partridges, at least 8 birds arguing amongst themselves, calling and chasing. We saw several more coveys as we walked out along the seawall. However, the highlight was the big flock of over a thousand Golden Plover – they were very hard to see in the grass but when spooked they flew round and overhead in a swirling flock.

P1100127Golden Plover – the large swirling flock landing back on the grazing marsh

Over towards the dunes, we picked up the unmistakeable flight of a Short-eared Owl. We watched it for a while in the scope as it tussled with a Marsh Harrier, circling back and forth. As we walked along the seawall, a stunning male Hen Harrier flew in and west across the grazing marshes, before circling up and over the dunes. There were numerous Common Buzzards sat on bushes or gates or flying round, but as we got nearer the dunes, we finally located the regular wintering Rough-legged Buzzard, sitting on a fence post out over the marshes. Its pale head and deep black belly patch really standing out in the late afternoon light

IMG_1962Rough-legged Buzzard – this young bird looks set to spend the winter here

As we walked back, a Barn Owl suddenly appeared over the fields. It circled round and flew past us, intent on hunting and oblivious to our presence. We saw it several times as we walked back, working its way back and forth. Just to round off the raptor (& owl) haul, a young Peregrine shot past over the trees just inland on the return walk.

P1100120Pink-footed Geese – a stunning display, thousands flying in overhead at dusk

The sun was starting to go down by this stage. Several large skeins of Pink-footed Geese, each of over a thousand birds, had flown overhead as we walked, coming from the fields inland where they had been feeding to roost out on the marshes. However, the best was to come as we got back to the car. We could hear the noise well before we could see them – a cacophony of yelping and honking in the distance. Then the sky was lined with birds which came in low overhead, the sky almost black with them, the sound of them strangely bewitching. For several seconds they passed above us, an enormous number of geese. We stood in awe as they went. What a great way to finish the day.

P1100131Sunset at Burnham Overy

4th December 2014 – A Good Day for Geese, and More

A private tour today. After a late start, we headed over to Salthouse. As we drove along the coast road, we could see just a few Brent Geese on the grazing marsh by the road. We pulled up and through the window could see that the Black Brant was in amongst them, but before everyone could get onto it the geese took off. They flew over the road and up over the hill beyond, out of sight. Very annoying!

We drove on down to the beach. The sea was quiet – a few distant Red-throated Divers moving past offshore – but there was a good selection of wildfowl on the grazing marshes. Several Shoveler, Wigeon and a few Teal were on view, as well as a couple of Shelduck and a Little Grebe. Suddenly all the ducks erupted from cover and out onto the open water, and we realised there were many more there than we had previously been able to see! The source of the excitement soon became clear as a Sparrowhawk was promptly seen off by a couple of the local Jackdaws. There was no sign of the Lapland Buntings which have been around those fields for the last few days and as we walked back to the car, we worked out why as the Sparrowhawk flew in again to the very area they had previously been in.

P1100072Salthouse – the view over the marshes from Sarbury Hill

From the beach, we had not seen any sign of the Brent Geese returning from where they had flown, so we decided to drive back and have a quiet walk up over the paths beyond the coast road to see if we could locate them. A couple of fields up behind the road, we saw through a gap in the hedge that there was a large flock feeding in a winter wheat field. Moving very slowly, we got ourselves into a position where we could see the geese. They could see us too, but by making sure that we didn’t spook them as we approached, they were happy to walk slowly away from us and resumed feeding. A quick scan through the flock revealed the Black Brant – its much darker body plumage, very bold white flank patch and striking, thick, white collar all immediately serving to distinguish it from our usual wintering Dark-bellied Brent Geese. We got great views of it through the scope.

P1100071Black Brant – amongst Dark-bellied (& one Pale Bellied) Brent Geese

A second scan through the flock and we picked up a rather paler bird – this time a Pale-bellied Brent Goose. This race of Brent occurs regularly but rather uncommonly in Norfolk, coming from places such as Greenland, Spitzbergen or Arctic Canada, much further west than our Russian Dark-bellieds, it typically winters in the west of the UK. At one point, as it walked through the flock, we had the three races of Brent Goose all in the scope together! It is not very often that happens. We retreated as the flock walked away from us over the brow of the hill and out of view.

We moved on to the East Bank at Cley. It was not great weather for Bearded Tits – cold, damp and overcast, although at least it wasn’t windy – but we thought we would have a go at seeing them anyway. A small group of Redshank was feeding on the new pools at the start of the bank and three Ruff had tried to hide in amongst them, giving us a great opportunity to study the differences between these similar-sized waders. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the reedbed and a showy Little Egret fed on the Serpentine. We could hear both Reed Bunting and Wren calling as we walked along, then suddenly heard the distinctive ‘ping’ of a Bearded Tit. Waiting patiently, and one flew out and dropped into the reeds not too far from the East Bank. Then a male shuffled up a reed and briefly sat out in full view and we could see a female feeding on the edge of the shorter reeds.

P1100074Little Egret – feeding on the Serpentine

We headed west to Holkham. Identification of geese was a topic of interest, so we stopped at Lady Anne’s Drive to look at the Pink-footed Geese. There are normally a few birds to be found loafing around in the fields by the road here, and we got excellent views, giving us the chance to compare and contrast with some nearby Greylags and to see the size difference versus the smaller Brents which were mixed in with them.

P1100078Pink-footed Geese – we had good close up views at Holkham

By now, the weather had closed in and it was decidedly misty. Undaunted, we carried on towards Burnham Overy and set off to walk out across the marshes to the seawall. The first thing we saw was a group of at least 12 Barnacle Geese out amongst the Brents. The origin of these birds is never entirely clear, as there is a large feral population in the UK these days.  A short distance further on and we could hear a cacophony of sound approaching from behind. Gradually, out of the mist, we could see the source approaching – at least 2,000 Pink-footed Geese had been disturbed from the sugar beet fields inland, where they had been feeding, and had decided to flight into the grazing marshes. They came right overhead – a truly amazing sight.

P1100081Pink-footed Geese – at least 2,000 birds came right over our heads

There were several small groups of Brents on the grazing marshes as we walked out, and in one of them a bird stood out. Not quite as dark as the Black Brant we saw earlier, the flank patch not quite as white, but still with a very striking collar, this was a hybrid Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Goose. This bird has been returning to the same area every winter for many years – unfortunately, not normally as accommodating as it was today, right by the path, just as the weather meant there was not enough light to get what would have been a fantastic set of photographs. Always the way!

P1100084Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid – a regular at this site

From up on the seawall, we could see a good selection of waders out on the mud – Grey Plover, Redshank, Dunlin, Knot and Oystercatcher. Later on, after walking out through the dunes to the beach, we added Sanderling, Turnstone and a fly-by Bar-tailed Godwit to that list. Also by the seawall, we flushed a little covey of three Grey Partridges which flew out and landed on the saltmarsh, where we could get them in the scope.

The first raptor we picked out was a female Marsh Harrier, which sat on a bush in the reeds. We watched it as it flew away and chased off a male nearby. However, the bird we had really come here to see was the Rough-legged Buzzard. Just as it looked like we might be out of luck, we picked up a fence post looking slightly taller than it should at a great distance across the marshes. In the scope, through the mist, we could just about make out a pale head – it was a Rough-legged Buzzard. Walking further up the path didn’t help – it was still a long way off and visibility was very poor. However, it had turned round and we could see its solid dark belly patch. Hardly satisfactory views, but under the circumstances, better than we might have feared. At least we had seen it.

After our walk out to the beach, we headed back along the path. A glance out over the saltmarsh revealed a raptor approaching from the west. As it got nearer, it was clearly a Rough-legged Buzzard. It proceeded to come right overhead, giving us great views of its underparts, and as it flew away from us, it banked to show off its white tail with black terminal bank. Stunning, so close, if only the light had been better and the cameras had been out! We were still not finished and, a little further back along the seawall, some mournful honking alerted us to two Bewick’s Swans flying low overhead and away to the west. Well worth the walk out, despite the weather.

What little light there had been was now fading fast, so we headed back to Lady Anne’s Drive and enjoyed the sight and sound of the thousands of Pink-footed Geese coming in to roost.

22nd November 2014 – Brant & Buntings & Harriers

Day 2 of the 3 day tour. The plan was to work our way east along the north coast today. The weather forecast did not look promising, and the day started cloudy with drizzle, but luckily it was not going to be as bad as it first looked.

P1090905Wells Harbour – a damp & misty start

We started out at Wells and had a quick look out across the harbour. Several Marsh Harriers were flying about over the saltmarsh. Groups of Brent Geese came low overhead and landed in the creek to bathe, before flying to the fields to graze. A Little Egret waded just off the mud and several Redshank and Turnstone, plus a Curlew and a Grey Plover were on the sandbanks. A small group of Redwing flew overhead and inland. Best of all, a Kingfisher flashed across and landed on a pontoon in the harbour.

P1090909Little Egret – one of many seen today

A short drive along the coast and just past Cley we could see several large groups of Brent Geese flying alongside us from the reserve to the grazing meadows by the road. We stopped to look through the gathering flock and it wasn’t long before we managed to locate the Black Brant which has been with our ‘Dark-bellied’ Brents in the Cley area for the last couple of weeks. After the Black Brant hybrid which we saw yesterday, this was the real deal, an altogether more impressive beast. Much darker, almost black back and belly with brown rather than grey tones, and with a very bright white flank patch and collar, the latter complete under the chin and continuing extensively round to the rear of the neck. It really stood out among the Dark-bellieds.

IMG_1828Black Brant – a much more striking bird than the hybrid we saw yesterday

While we were sitting in the car watching it, a Chiffchaff appeared in a bush in front of us. Presumably a migrant on the move, it flew off along the ditch by the road. We got out of the car very carefully and managed to get great views through the scope of the Black Brant, but we could see several people gathering in the field across the road and then the shooting started. The geese took flight and all the birds around took to the air. As a large covey of Red-legged Partridges fled from the guns we saw a Woodcock amongst them – thankfully it escaped unscathed.

We drove on to Salthouse and parked on the beach road. Walking up on to the shingle, we stopped to look at a group of Dunlin feeding on the pools behind the beach. A couple of Turnstone were in amongst them and more were feeding around the remains of the old shingle bank.  While we were standing there, a small flock of Snow Buntings flew in from the west, their calls first giving away their arrival, and we watched them land on the edge of the pools. We spent some time watching them through the scope, running quickly along the mud and feeding in the grass along the edge.

We walked east along the beach. A large flock of Linnets was on the shingle where the old car park used to be. Looking out to sea was quiet – a single Red-breasted Merganser flew past, some more Brent Geese arrived presumably from the continent and a lone Gannet circled distantly offshore. The one thing we could see was small groups of Blackbirds flying in off the sea. One landed on the beach exhausted – it took two goes to fly up the beach before dropping down into cover on the other side. At Gramborough Hill, there were a couple more in the bushes and yet more flew in as we walked round. It was to be a theme of the day, with small groups arriving wherever we went.

P1090932Blackbird – this exhausted new arrival took two goes to get up the beach

Back to Cley and we headed along the path by the road and up onto the East Bank. The new pools on the edge of the reedbed held a Grey Heron and a small group of Teal with the Mallard. Scanning along the edge, a pair of Stonechat were by the reeds. Then a sharp call alerted us to a Water Pipit overhead, which thankfully dropped in amongst the reed regrowth around the margin of the pools. We managed to get the scope on it and everyone got a quick look before it disappeared into cover.

P1090934Teal – feeding on the new pools by the East Bank

There were several Marsh Harriers over the reeds, both on the old reserve and over Pope’s Marsh. One of the group spotted another harrier flying in from behind us, which looked slightly different. A quick look revealed a stunning male Hen Harrier. We watched it fly west across the reedbed, over the reserve and disappear away over the West Bank. Out in the reeds, their distinctive ‘ping’ calls alerted us to the presence of Bearded Tits. They were keeping low down in the vegetation, but occasionally would fly between groups of reeds, allowing us to see them. Several Reed Buntings were slightly more accommodating.

P1090936Marsh Harrier – over the reedbed at Cley

There were lots of ducks out on the marsh – Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Shelduck. A single Black-tailed Godwit flew overhead. The sea itself was still quiet, but more Blackbirds were seen flying in. The walk back towards the car was accompanied by several small groups overhead, or flying past us over the reeds.

We finished the day at Stiffkey. The forecast had been for rain later in the afternoon, but it was actually dry with the cloud even breaking up in places. It seemed worth a go at seeing the harrier roost. There were several Marsh Harriers over the saltmarsh, but it didn’t take long for us to see our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, in this case a young bird which flew east over the saltings. Then a second ringtail appeared distantly to the west, and it too flew past us, before turning and doing a much closer flypast back west. Finally, to round off the performance, a beautiful male Hen Harrier appeared. Possibly the same bird we had seen earlier at Cley, it worked its way slowly west past us, giving us prolonged scope views.

There are always lots of Little Egrets on the saltmarsh at Stiffkey, but as the light started to fade, even more began to appear, flying east in small groups to roost. In the space of about half an hour we saw more than 50 fly past, with the largest group comprising 13 birds together. And they were still coming when we decided the light was getting too poor to stay any longer and called it a day.

P1090939Sunset – Stiffkey looking towards Wells over the saltmarsh