Tag Archives: Scaup

17th Nov 2019 – Autumn vs Winter, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Late Autumn / Early Winter Tour, our last day. It was a grey and misty start, but brightened up mid morning with the sun even showing itself for a while. Then the cloud returned for the afternoon, and the mist rolled back in later too and there were a few spots of rain for a short time. We still had a great day out, exploring NW Norfolk.

To start the day, we headed over to the Wash. It wasn’t one of the biggest tides of the month today, but it should still be big enough to bring a lot of the waders within range so we could see them. As we made our way in at Snettisham, our first Goldeneye and a couple of Tufted Ducks were diving in the pit below the crossbank.

The tide was already in, but there was still lots of mud in the far corner. The sky was full of birds, a huge flock of Golden Plover wheeling round in their thousands, before dropping back down. We headed down towards Shore Hide and stopped to scan the mud. A black stain out in the mist was a large slick of roosting Oystercatchers and there were thousands of of Knot spread across the mud behind, although they were hard to see clearly given the poor visibility.

Waders 1

Waders – Oystercatchers in the foreground, with Knot and Golden Plover beyond

There were some waders closer in, which were easier to see. A single Avocet walking around in the shallow water was the first for the weekend. There were Grey Plovers and Dunlin liberally scattered round the mud and a good number of Ringed Plovers too. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding further back, on the shoreline beyond the mud, but one came closer in to one of the pools just beyond the channel, where we could get a better look at it. There were one or two Curlew roosting in the middle, but many more over towards the vegetation away to our left.

The mist started to lift, and the sun broke through behind us. The Golden Plover were shining in the light, and the line of Knot now looked more bright white than dull grey.

Waders 2

Golden Plover & Knot – shining when the sun came out

A little group of Wigeon down around the muddy pools just below the bank looked stunning in the sunshine. There were lots of Shelduck out on the water and a few Pintail in amongst them, along with Teal and Mallard. Six Pink-footed Geese were still out on the mud where they had roosted, with one or two flying in and out over our heads.

As we turned round to walk further along, six swans flew past just beyond the pits. They were Whooper Swans, heading south presumably down to the Fens where they will spend the winter.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – flew past, heading down to the Fens

A juvenile Gannet flying in over the mud towards us was a bit of a surprise. It was presumably disoriented by the mist, and seemed to realise its mistake as it headed back out to the Wash. Down opposite Shore Hide, a Common Seal had hauled itself out on the dry mud on the side of the channel. It looked more like a log until it raised its head and looked over at us.

Common Seal

Common Seal – hauled out on the mud

As we got into the hide and opened the windows, two Kingfishers shot past over the water in front of us, calling. We saw a flash of electric blue as they flew past.

Scanning the water, one of the first ducks we picked up was a Scaup on its own out in the middle. It was asleep at first but quickly woke up and headed over to the gravel bank at the back where it started diving repeatedly. There was a small group of Tufted Duck further over to the left, including one female with some white round the base of its bill, not as extensive as the Scaup. There were several Goldeneye scattered around the pit too – white males and darker females.

Scaup

Scaup – a 1st winter drake, diving on the back of the Pit

There were lots of dabbling ducks on here too – mainly Wigeon, a few Gadwall and several Mallards including some feral domesticated ones. There were a few Little Grebes and one Great Crested Grebe as well.

Continuing round, we looked across the water to see a Kingfisher perched in an elder bush on the bank across the other side. We stopped to get the scope onto it, face onto us, showing off its bright orange underparts. Then we spotted a Short-eared Owl nearby, roosting out in the open on the edge of some brambles. Quickly turning the scope onto this, we had a good look at it. Mostly asleep, we could see its short ‘ear’ tufts on the top of its head.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the bushes

As we walked back to the minibus, the mist started to descend again. We made our way back round to the north coast and stopped at Thornham Harbour. There were lots of people out for a Sunday walk along the seawall, and more down on the road, walking out along the jetties to the boats and round the old coal barn, looking into harbour channel.

Needless to say, it was too disturbed for many waders to be lingering here. There was a Curlew in the channel but it flew off as we walked past, and otherwise just a few Common Redshank. There were a couple of Rock Pipits in the channel behind the old barn.

We walked round to the seawall. There were lots of Linnets, but they were all up in the lone tree out on grazing marsh. A couple of Reed Buntings were with them briefly too. The Linnets flew off in a couple of flocks, but headed straight out into the middle of the saltmarsh. Presumably where it was quieter.

Clearly it was not going to be very productive here today, so we headed round to Titchwell for lunch. There was not much coming in to the feeders by the Visitor Centre, just a couple of Chaffinches and a few Goldfinches, plus one or two tits. After lunch, we headed straight out onto the main path.

A small group of people were staring up into the trees up by the Meadow Trail junction. When we got up to them, we could see lots of Goldfinches feeding in the alders. There were a few Siskin and at least three Mealy Redpoll in with them too, but they were hard to see, constantly moving. With a bit of persistence, we eventually managed to get the scope on some for long enough for everyone to see them. A Treecreeper appeared in the trees too – an uncommon bird here.

As we got out of the trees, it was grey and misty again now. There was nothing of note on the reedbed pool, so we continued straight out to the Freshmarsh. As we scanned from the main path, we could see lots of Avocets still. Most have headed off south already, but almost 50 are still lingering for the time being. The surprise of the day was seeing a pair mating. The female stood with her head and neck held down, horizontal, while the male walked round and picked at the water or preened, before mating. It is a common enough sight in the spring and summer, but this was the wrong time of year for that!

There were plenty of Golden Plover on the islands, although nothing to compare with the number we had seen at Snettisham ealrier, and a good number of Lapwing. A single Black-tailed Godwit was standing in the shallow water in the middle, our first of the trip. A little group of Dunlin was feeding busily on the mud just below the bank. A flock of Knot flew in and whirled round over the Freshmarsh but didn’t land.

There were plenty of ducks too – lots of Teal and Wigeon, a few Gadwall and Shelduck. We heard a Water Pipit calling a couple of times, and eventually found one picking around on the short vegetation on one of the islands. We had a good view through the scope – white below with neat black streaks, grey-brown above with a well-marked pale supercilium.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – on one of the islands on the Freshmarsh

The sky was getting greyer, and it looked like the weather might close in, so we headed straight on, out towards the beach. We stopped to scan the channel at the far end of Volunteer Marsh, where there were several Redshanks, a couple of Curlew and a single Grey Plover. A small group of Knot appeared out of the vegetation on the edge of the mud beside the channel. It was good to get a closer view after seeing so many but at distance earlier.

It started to spit with rain as we walked over the bank to the Tidal Pools. We quickly picked up a Spotted Redshank, feeding with its head and bill down under the water, walking round quickly and sweeping its bill vigorously from side to side. As one point, it was in the same view as a Common Redshank, and as well as the very different feeding action, the Spotted Redshank was noticeably paler too, with a longer, finer bill. There was also another Black-tailed Godwit here and several Grey Plover at the back.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – feeding on the Tidal Pools

The rain stopped, so we made a quick bid for the beach. The tide was out and it was unfortunately too misty to see any more than a short distance offshore – we could just make out a few Great Crested Grebes and a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers. We could see thicker cloud approaching from the west, so we didn’t linger and turned and headed for Parrinder Hide as the rain picked up again.

There were lots of gulls already gathering on the Freshmarsh. An adult Yellow-legged Gull was in with them, rather mid-grey-backed and with only limited light streaking on its white head, as well as yellow legs. There were a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a single Great Black-backed Gull nearby, and one or two adult Herring Gulls to allow us to compare. Several shades of grey!

Yellow-legged Gull

Yellow-legged Gull – an adult, in with the other gulls gathering at dusk

There was a Water Pipit on the island straight out from the hide, but when it flew we lost it. Then someone pointed out one on the island to the right of us. When the first reappeared from amongst the Golden Plover, we realised we had two. Pied Wagtails started to drop in on the islands, gathering pre-roost – we counted at least 15. We realised there were now three Water Pipits present.

The light was going fast now, but at least the rain had stopped, so we decided to head back. It was still rather misty, but we could see five or six Marsh Harriers circling out over the reedbed, getting ready to go to roost. It was time for us to head in to roost too!

It had been a great three days, with a fantastic selection of birds – lots of newly arrived winter visitors, as well as a couple of late rarities too.

 

8th Feb 2019 – Breezy in the Broads

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours today. It was forecast to be wet and windy today. It was certainly windy, but thankfully we saw next to no rain until we had finished for the day and were on our way back. We spent the day today down in the Norfolk Broads.

Our first stop was at Barton Broad. It wasn’t too windy as we walked down along the road to the boardwalk, although the debris from yesterday was scattered on the road, leaves and small branches. It was quite sheltered on the boardwalk and when we got to the platform at the end, the first thing we saw was a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying just in front.

Great Crested Grebes

Great Crested Grebe – this pair was displaying in front of the platform

The Great Crested Grebes were facing each other, turning their heads alternately side to side. They didn’t get much beyond that though, swimming off separately before coming back and doing some more head turning.

Beyond the grebes, we could see quite a few ducks out on the Broad. In particular, there was a good number of Goldeneye on here again. Further back, a large raft of diving ducks were mostly Tufted Ducks, although a single drake Common Pochard was with them. We had really come to see the two female Scaup, and it didn’t take too long to find them, the thick white surround to their bills being particularly striking.

A Marsh Harrier flew down the far side of the Broad, above the trees, then cut across over the water in front of us and hung in the air over the near side. With our mission accomplished we set off back along the boardwalk. There were more tits in the alders here now, with both Great Tit and Coal Tit singing and a small flock of Long-tailed Tits once we were almost back to the road.

As we walked back towards the car park, a flock of small birds came out of the hedge and circled round over the field beyond. As they dropped down again into the stubble, against the background of the trees, we could see they were Yellowhammers. The wind was starting to pick up now and a few Redwings had been feeding in the shelter of the car park, under the cars, and flew off as we returned.

The plan was to head for Ludham next, to see if we could find some Bewick’s and Whooper Swans. As we were driving along the main road just past Horning, we spotted a large group of swans in a harvested sugar beet field. This was well beyond the normal range where we have seen the Ludham herd, so we assumed these would most likely be just Mute Swans until we pulled up and noticed they were not.

Whooper Swans

Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – a nice surprise in a beet field by the road

We managed to find somewhere to pull in off the road and had a closer look. There was a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans, about thirty of each. It was nice to be able to see the two species side by side, in the same scope view. The Bewick’s Swans were noticeably smaller and shorter necked, with a smaller and more squared-off patch of yellow on the bill, compared to the long wedge of the Whooper Swans.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – smaller and with more restricted and squared-off yellow on the bill

Having enjoyed such great views of the swans by the road, the pressure was off at Ludham now. Still, we drove down to the river to see if we could find any Cranes. A large flock of Woodpigeons and Stock Doves flew up from around the barns as we got out of the van.

It was very windy up on the river bank, and it started to spit with rain. A large flock of Lapwings and Golden Plover flew up across the other side of the Levels, but we couldn’t see what had spooked them. Three large shapes were flying across in the distance, which we could see were Common Cranes, our first of the day. They crossed the river and looked for a second like they might turn in our direction, but instead flew off away from us.

There were a handful of Mute Swans feeding on the grass here, but we could see a very large herd of swans way off beyond St Benet’s Abbey. They were mostly hidden behind a line of reeds, but we got the scope on them and they appeared to be mostly Bewick’s Swans. Since we had enjoyed such good views of them earlier, we decided not to walk further along the bank. We turned and headed back to the shelter of the van.

We did drive round to St Benet’s Abbey, to see what we could find there. As we came down along the entrance road, several more Bewick’s Swans flew over, but went down out of view.

There were lots of Greylag Geese on the grass here, but when we pulled up to check a flock by the side of the track, we could see there were Russian White-fronted Geese with them. We found somewhere to pull over and got out for a closer look. There were actually at least 55 White-fronted Geese here, many asleep down in the grass, but some feeding so we could see their distinctive black belly bars. There was one Barnacle Goose here too – as ever, it is hard to tell whether individuals of this species are feral birds or wandering wild individuals.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – about 55 were on St Benet’s Levels

From St Benet’s, we had a quick drive round via the coast, to see if we could find any Cranes and any more flocks of geese. There was no sign of any Cranes today, but it was rather windy and exposed out here now. There were rather few geese visible too. We saw a couple of small flocks of Pink-footed Geese but they dropped out of view behind some tress. Six more Pink-footed Geese were in a winter wheat field by the road, but no sign of any large flocks today. The herd of swans here were all Mute Swans.

As we made our way inland, we finally managed to spot some Cranes on the ground. There were 12 of them together, standing in some winter wheat, but they were rather distant, several fields over. Still, we got them in the scope and had a better look at them.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – we spotted a flock of 12 distantly across the fields

Three of the Cranes took off and flew back further away from us, before landing again in another field. Gradually, the others followed in small groups until only two were left. When they flew too, we watched them go and realised that the group had all landed closer to a small road some way off. We figured we might be able to drive round for a closer look.

Little did we realise how right we were. The Cranes had landed in another field right next to the minor road. Edging along slowly, and stopping regularly to allow them to get comfortable with our presence, we eventually found ourselves right alongside them. The birds were very relaxed as we watched them from the van, continuing to feed. We could see now there were ten adults and two browner juveniles. We could see the red on the crowns of some of the adults, even without a scope. Stunning views, a real treat and a privilege to see them like this.

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – we drove round and found them feeding right next to the road

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – they were mainly adults with two duller brown juveniles

Common Crane 4

Common Crane – what you would call ‘showing well’!

We watched the Cranes, spellbound, for a while. Then we decided to leave them in peace and drove slowly away.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed round to the RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw Fen. Huge thanks have to go to the warden, Ben, and his staff. Someone had called in sick and they didn’t have enough people to staff the reception, so they had just closed it up for the afternoon. But they very kindly switched on the hot water urn just for us, so we could get an extremely welcome hot drink.

There were a few ducks on the Reception Hide pool, Gadwall, Shoveler and Mallard, but there was no sign of the resident Black Swan today. It was probably hiding somewhere out of the wind, which had increased steadily through the morning. There were plenty of Coot too and when they all suddenly raced across the water and onto the cut reeds at the front, we thought something might have spooked them, but we couldn’t see what it was.

Possibly also due to the wind, there were fewer tits than normal coming down to the feeders today too. A steady stream of Great Tits came in and out, but no sign of any Marsh Tits today.

After lunch, we headed round to Buckenham. As we crossed the railway line, we could see some geese on the right of the path. Looking closer, we found there were seven Russian White-fronted Geese in with the Greylags. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese on the other side of the path, tucked up in the far corner by the railway. Several small groups flew round and landed much closer to the path where we could finally get a good look at them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flew in and landed closer to the path

The Wigeon were rather nervous today, possibly due to the wind. There are normally several small groups right by the path, but they were all out in the middle. There were plenty of Lapwing out on the marshes too, and scanning through them carefully we found a couple of Ruff in with them. We could see several Chinese Water Deer out on the marshes as well.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – there were several on the marshes at Buckenham

It was rather exposed out here in the wind, so we made our way up to the hide by the river bank. We could see lots of ducks on here, mainly Teal, but also a few Shoveler and a couple of Shelduck. Something spooked all the Wigeon from the grazing marshes the other side of the track and they flew in, calling noisily. A quick count suggested at least 1,000 were here.

A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was loafing on the water on the further pool. We couldn’t see any other waders out here today though, and despite scanning the margins of the pools very carefully we couldn’t find any Snipe.

Wigeon

Wigeon – over 1,000 flew in from the grass and landed on the pools

It was grey and windy but miraculously still dry this afternoon. We wanted to have a look at the watchpoint at Stubb Mill while the weather held, so we headed round there next. As we walked down the track from the car park, several Marsh Harriers were already circling over the reeds.

We noticed another bird come up from the reeds. It seemed to struggle in the wind at first, almost appearing to be hovering, before it turned and started to fly across over the reedbed. It was a Bittern! Unfortunately, it was hard to see in the gloom, low over the reeds, before it disappeared behind some bushes.

When we arrived at the watchpoint, the small huddle of hardy people already there pointed out three Cranes at the back of the marsh. We had a look at them through the scope – another family party, two adults and a juvenile.

A small flock of Fieldfares flew over and landed first out on the grass in front of the watchpoint, then in one of the small hawthorns. A group of Long-tailed Tits worked their way through the bushes in front of us too. A Red Deer appeared out on the grass, followed shortly after by a second. They spent most of the time sheltering behind a large patch of brambles, out of the wind.

More Marsh Harriers drifted in and we could see a few already in the bushes over by the old ruined mill. When they flew up and circled round in a group, we counted at least 25 in the air together. A Hen Harrier appeared with them, a ringtail. It kept low, flying in and out of the bushes, but it reappeared several times while we were there, so in the end everyone had a chance to get a look at it through the scope.

Having had some unbeatable views of the Cranes earlier, and with the rather cold and windy weather, we didn’t fancy staying until dark tonight to see more Cranes come in to roost. An advance party went to get the van, while the others waited a the Watchpoint to be picked up. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees by the mill. Time to head for home.

9th March 2018 – A Different Type of Snowy!

A Private Tour today, with a difference. It was to be an early start, a full day ranging widely up and down the coast, with a particular list of target birds to go after. We had to be flexible too – as anything can happen! Thankfully, the weather was kind to us – sunny in the morning, cloudier but dry in the afternoon, with light winds.

As we set off from the meeting point, a Barn Owl was still out hunting and flew across one of the fields by the road as we passed. A good way to start the day, with that being one of the species we were after. A little further on, and a Fieldfare flew over – another one we wanted to see today.

The first part of the morning was to be spent looking for gulls. In particular, we were hoping to catch up with one of the Iceland or Glaucous Gulls which have been along the coast in the last week. They have been very mobile though, some may even have moved on already, and we knew it would be a real challenge to find them today. Still, nothing ventured.

On our way down to the coast, we took a quick detour via Felbrigg Park. As we drove in along the access road, we spotted some thrushes in the small trees out in the grass. As well as a couple of Redwings, which flew off as we got out of the car, we managed to get two Fieldfares in the scope, better views than we had of the flyover on our way here.

Then it was on to the beach at Cromer. As we walked up to the clifftop, it was immediately clear there were not many gulls here today. A quick scan of the sea did produce a Shag swimming past just offshore though, quite a scarce bird here and a welcome surprise.

Shag

Shag – swimming past Cromer, viewed from the clifftop

There are sometimes more gulls on the beach the other side of the pier, so we walked down to that end of the prom for a closer look. There were some gulls here, but just Great Black-backed, Herring and Black-headed Gulls, not what we were looking for. We decided to head back to the car and try our luck further east along the coast.

Back on the clifftop, we continued to scan the sea. We spotted a Fulmar flying past offshore and watched as it circled up and came in towards the top of the cliffs. It joined three more Fulmars we hadn’t noticed before, a short distance away to the west of us, which were flying in and out of the sandy cliff face, presumably prospecting for potential nest sites.

Our next stop was along the coast at Mundesley. There had been a Glaucous Gull here earlier in the year, although it has become more elusive recently and has not been seen for a few days. Again, we started by walking over to the top of the cliffs and scanning the sea below. There were a lot more gulls here, which at least gave us something to work through. We had checked out quite a lot of them to no avail and we were looking quiet a long way back to the north when we picked up a juvenile gull on the sea with very pale wing tips. It seemed to have long pointed wings and looked good for an Iceland Gull, one of our targets.

It was a long way off from here, so we followed the path down the cliffs and set off along the beach. Fortunately, when we got there, the gull we had been watching was still present and we could confirm it was indeed a juvenile Iceland Gull. We had a good look at it through the scope, swimming round, before it tucked its head in and went to sleep. We could see its long wings, paler than the rest of its body, and its bill which appeared mostly dark from a distance but close up could be seen to have a diffuse pale base.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull – a juvenile on the sea off Mundesley

We had a good scan of the rest of the gulls out on the sea as we walked back to the steps, but could not find anything else of note. We did manage to spot a Guillemot out on the sea and three Red-throated Divers flying past in the distance. A Grey Plover and a Sanderling flew along the shore. As we climbed back up the cliffs, a Stonechat landed on a bush not far from the steps.

It was still early, so we decided to have a short drive further down the coast to Walcott. Gulls have sometimes been seen on the groynes here, but when we arrived there were just a few Herring Gulls there. However, as we got out of the car, several pipits flew up from the stubble field on the other side of the road. They sounded mostly like Meadow Pipits, but a couple of them flew towards some wires which spanned the middle of the field.

As we watched the pipits, they joined another bird which was already on the wires. It looked a different shape – plumper, with a more rounded head and shorter bill. A quick look through the scope and we could see it was actually a Lapland Bunting, not what we were expecting here! It appeared to be singing too.

Lapland Bunting

Lapland Bunting – a surprise bonus, singing from the wires

Through the scope, we could see the Lapland Bunting‘s rusty nape and the black outline to its ear coverts and bib. They are scarce winter visitors here, but can sometimes be found in fields around the coast. Stubble fields are often a particular favourite.

Making our way back along the coast, we stopped at West Runton. There has been a large roost of gulls over high tide on one of the ploughed fields here, but there was no sign of any gull there today. A flock of about twenty Brent Geese flew east offshore, presumably heading off back to the continent. The sea was in already when we walked down to the beach, and there were next to no gulls here either. A little flock of Redshank and Knot, accompanied by a single Dunlin, was feeding on the water’s edge but flew off ahead of the rising tide.

Purple Sandpiper was on the target list, so we made our way over to Sheringham next. As we walked along the prom, we could see lots of Turnstones picking around on the shingle or perched on the rocks. There were a few more gulls here, but nothing we hadn’t seen already, apart from better views of several Common Gull.

On the rocky sea defences below the Funky Mackerel cafe, feeding unobtrusively and very well camouflaged apart from its bright yellow-orange legs and bill base, was a Purple Sandpiper. It was beautifully lit and almost looked purple, but was perhaps more subtle shades of grey.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the rocks below the prom at Sheringham

Purple Sandpipers are great birds, full of character. We watched as this one shuffled around or clambered up and down the boulders. It was picking at the algae growing on the face of the rocks.

We walked down to the far end of the prom. A distant Gannet flying past offshore was the only other bird of note, but it was nice to see another two Fulmar‘s prospecting the cliffs here and they gave us a nice fly by as they continued on west. A Rock Pipit flew past calling and we looked up to see a Common Buzzard circling high over the town – possibly a bird on the move already.

Fulmar

Fulmar – one of several prospecting the cliffs at Cromer & Sheringham

The immediate possibilities for gulls along the coast here were just about exhausted, so we decided to change tack and look for some other birds now. As we continued on our way west, a quick stop by Walsey Hills added three Little Grebes and a Common Pochard on Snipe’s Marsh. There were lots of Brent Geese out on the grazing marshes opposite, but no sign of the Black Brant with them today. A drake Pintail was swimming down one of the channels.

When we got to Holkham, we decided to stop for an early lunch. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive, along with a few Teal and Shoveler and a pair of Egyptian Geese. As well as Oystercatchers, Redshank and a flock of Curlew, we managed to spot several Common Snipe round the edges of the grassy pools. When the Snipe froze and looked nervously into the sky, we noticed a Red Kite drifting lazily over.

A Little Egret was hiding in one of the ditches and a Great White Egret flew over in the distance. As we made our way down towards the pines, we stopped to look at the Pink-footed Goose with the injured wing, which seems to be permanently here now. That was another species on the target list, so good to see it up close.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – the regular bird with the injured wing

Out on the saltmarsh the other side, we made our way east. It was fairly quiet out here today, so we headed straight towards the Shorelarks favourite spot. While we were still some way off, we could see a couple standing sensibly on the edge of the saltmarsh and three photographers right out in the middle. We saw the photographers look up, scan round and then go charging across to the other side. As they stopped again, we noticed nine small birds flying away, disappearing off towards Wells. They had flushed the Shorelarks!

Thankfully, by the time we had walked out to join the couple – who were none too impressed with the behaviour of the photographers either – six Shorelarks had flown back in and landed down on the saltmarsh well away from their pursuers. We stood and watched them from a discrete distance – admiring their yellow faces and black bandit masks.

Shorelark

Shorelark – one of the six which flew back in after they had been flushed

Woodcock was another species on the list, but they can be very tricky to find during the day. We made our way back to the car via the pines. It was generally very quiet in the trees, although we did come across a tit flock – Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits and a Treecreeper. We did manage to find a Woodcock, but it flew up from underneath a tree before we got anywhere near it and all we saw of it was a large rusty brown shape disappearing off through the pines.

At that stake, we noticed a missed call and then several messages to say that a Snowy Owl had been seen just along the coast at Scolt Head. Thankfully, we were almost back at the car and it was not very far away, so we got round there very quickly, before the crowds arrived. We could see a couple of people out on the saltmarsh as we walked out and they helpfully called us to say we would be best viewing from up on the seawall.

It was very easy to spot the Snowy Owl as it was being mobbed by two Red Kites, which were flying round and diving down at it repeatedly. We could see an enormous greyish-white bird on the ground beneath them. This was definitely not a species which was on the list, but only because it is so unusual here that it wasn’t even considered as a possibility! The last record of one in Norfolk was back in March 1991.

Snowy Owl 1

Snowy Owl – a big surprise to see this today

The Snowy Owl was quite a dark bird, possibly a young female, heavily marked with thick black bars above and finer bars below, on a white background. The face was more contrasting white. It sat on a shingle beach on the edge of Scolt Head Island, looking round. We joined the others out on the saltmarsh and had a great view of it through the scope.

Snowy Owl 2

Snowy Owl – the first in Norfolk since 1991

Having watched the Snowy Owl for a while, enthralled, we decided we should move on and try to see something else before the end of the day. We headed round to Titchwell. As we walked down the path towards the visitor centre, a smart male Brambling appeared in the sallows nearby. Another one from the target list.

Brambling

Brambling – a male, in the bushes on the way from the car park

There were not so many birds on the feeders in front of the visitor centre, and just Chaffinches and Greenfinches on the ones the other side. We headed straight out onto the reserve. The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ was very quiet – no sign of any Water Pipits. The reedbed pool had Tufted Duck and more Common Pochard. As we stood and scanned, a Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds and a Barn Owl was out hunting along the bank at the back.

The water level on the freshmarsh remains quite high, so there were few birds of note here today. The one thing of interest is the number of Mediterranean Gulls which are now back on the reserve. Several pairs flew back and forth calling and we could see at least 15 with the Black-headed Gulls on the fenced off island.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there are lots back at Titchwell now

There were a few waders on the Volunteer Marsh – Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshanks and several Avocets. A big flock of Linnets flew up from the islands of vegetation. There was a lot of water on the Tidal Pools too and not much on here either, apart from a few Gadwall and a Little Grebe.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

What we had really come here to look for though was out on the sea, so we made our way quickly out onto the beach. It didn’t take long to locate our target – three Long-tailed Ducks out on the water. They were rather distant at first, but a little while later we found them much closer, at least 14 of them now, and we could see the long tails on several of the drakes.

There were other ducks out here too – the headline being a flock of six (Greater) Scaup, plus several Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye and a small number of Common Scoter. There were plenty of Great Crested Grebes offshore too. Looking down along the shore, we added Bar-tailed Godwit to the list and had a better look at a Sanderling.

With everyone suitably exhausted after such a mammoth day along the coast, we made our way back. A Sparrowhawk flashed past across the saltmarsh and disappeared out over the reeds. The light was already starting to go as we headed for home, but what an amazing day it had been.

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.

20th Oct 2017 – Migrants & Winter Visitors Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Autumn Migration Tours today. It was cloudy all day but not too windy and, thankfully, the only shower fell while we were having lunch – and it was mercifully brief!

With lots of thrushes and finches arriving in over the last few days, we decided to start with a visit to check out the hedges at Warham Greens. As soon as we parked, we could hear several Blackbirds alarm calling.

As we walked up along the track, lots of birds came out of the hedges and flew on ahead of us. As well as lots more Blackbirds, there were plenty of Song Thrushes and a few Redwings too. They had probably all just arrived in from the continent and were taking a break to refuel on all the berries. We saw several tiny Goldcrests along here too – amazing to think that a bird so small can make it all the way across the North Sea. A Blackcap was typically elusive, climbing through the hedge before zipping across the track in front of us.

We stopped by a gate and looked across the grassy field beyond to some old barns. There were several Stock Doves on the roof. Here we saw a couple of Yellowhammers perched in the top of the hedge, with a Reed Bunting for company. A Chiffchaff flew across the track and dropped into the bushes at the base of a large sycamore. A Redwing perched up nicely for us in the top of the hedge.

Continuing on up the track, a little flock of Golden Plover flew over, calling. We could hear some rather noisy Grey Partridge out in one of the fields, but couldn’t see where they were through a thick hedge. A Sparrowhawk flew off across a field, disappearing into a hedge before emerging the other side a minute or so later, presumably after a quick rest.

As we were walking past a large oak tree, a sharp call caught our attention and we looked up to see a small bird flitting around in the leaves. It was a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was hard to see at first, high in the tree, but eventually we all got a good look at it, particularly as it dropped out of the tree and into the hedge, before working its way back up the track.

Yellow-browed WarblerYellow-browed Warbler – flitting around high in an oak tree

Yellow-browed Warblers breed in Siberia and winter mainly in Asia. They have become increasingly common in autumn here over the last 30 years, as the species has extended its breeding range westwards. Still, it a great bird to see and amazing to think that this small bird probably started its journey over at the Urals.

At the top of the track, we emerged out onto the coastal path and stopped to scan the saltmarsh. There were lots of Little Egrets scattered around, so common now it is amazing to think how rare they were only 20 years ago. A flock of Golden Plover down in the vegetation was very well camouflaged and hard to see until you looked through the scope. We could hear several Curlew calling from time to time, and eventually one landed close enough so we could get it in the scope.

There are always lots of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh and today was no exception, with numbers having increased steadily even in the last few days, as more return for the winter. Most of the birds which come here at this time of year are Russian Dark-bellied Brents, but it is always worth checking through the groups carefully. Sure enough, as we looked through them, one bird instantly stood out. It was much darker, blackish, with a bright white flank patch and much more extensive white collar. It was a Black Brant.

Black BrantBlack Brant – probably a returning individual, with the Dark-bellied Brents

Black Brant is one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose. It breeds in NW North America and far eastern Siberia, wintering either side of the Pacific. It is a regular visitor here, with lost birds mixing with Dark-bellied Brent Geese in Russia and migrating to western Europe with them. Some of these birds then return winter after winter with the same group of Brents and there has been a Black Brant here in the winter for several years now. This is the first time we have seen it this winter, so it was a welcome surprise to find it here today.

Looking out beyond the saltmarsh, out towards the beach, we could see lots of waders on the sand flats in the distance. Through the scope, we could just make out a flock of Knot, accompanied by a few Grey Plover. In one of the tidal channels nearby, we picked out three ducks – Red-breasted Mergansers. But they were all very distant and hard to see much detail, even with a scope.

There were not so many flocks of thrushes coming in off the sea today, but there were still lots of birds moving. A steady stream of flocks of Starlings of various sizes flew west along the edge of the saltmarsh this morning. A flock of Lapwing flew over us. There were a few Chaffinches and Skylarks coasting too.

YellowhammerYellowhammer – we saw several this morning in the hedges and down by the Pit

We had a quick look in the Pit, but it was fairly quiet today, suggesting there was perhaps not so much fresh in overnight last night. We did flush a few more Redwings from the bushes, one perching nicely in the top for us briefly, plus several Chaffinches and a couple of Yellowhammers. A large flock of Goldfinches kept coming & going, between the bushes round the Pit and the weedy vegetation on the edge of the saltmarsh. A male Stonechat put in a brief appearance down in the Suaeda too.

There were a few raptors out over the saltmarsh today. Three Marsh Harriers were quartering out along the edge of the beach pretty much all the time we were there. As we were leaving, we spotted a Red Kite flying lazily over the back of the saltmarsh and when we turned to head back, we noticed a second Red Kite circling over the field just behind us.

Red KiteRed Kite – the second of two at Warham Greens today

The walk back up the track was fairly uneventful – with fewer birds flushed from the hedgerows now, but still lots of Blackbirds, thrushes and a few Goldcrests. We were almost back to the car when we found a mixed flock of finches – mostly Chaffinches and Greenfinches but with at least one Brambling too. We heard the Brambling call, but unfortunately couldn’t see it in the thick vegetation.

We had a bit of time still before lunch, so we decided to head further east and have a look for the Cattle Egret at Stiffkey. As we drove past, we had a quick scan of the field, but the cows were lying down and there appeared to be no sign of the Cattle Egret with them. Being white, it normally sticks out like a sore thumb! We decided to have a quick look out at Stiffkey Fen, and then go back to the cows again afterwards.

As we walked down along the path beside the river, we could hear a Yellow-browed Warbler calling in the trees. It sounded as if it was making its way towards the near edge, so we walked back and could just see it up in the trees. It was very vocal, calling continually for a couple of minutes before going quiet. Our second Yellow-browed Warbler of the morning!

There were more birds along the path too. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from deep in the brambles. A Yellowhammer called from the trees the other side of the river. We could hear Bullfinches calling plaintively and looked up to see a nice pink male fly past. We flushed more Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings from the brambles as we passed. Almost out to the seawall, a Chiffchaff called from the sallows.

Half way along, we stopped to look out at the Fen from the path. We could see lots of Ruff along the northern edge, below the reeds, and several smaller waders with them. Just as we got the scope onto them, they all took off. Several of the Ruff flew off inland, but two of the smaller waders landed on the mud in the middle of the Fen. One was a Dunlin but the other was a juvenile Little Stint, a nice surprise. We were just admiring the Little Stint through the scope when it took off and we didn’t see where it went.

Out on the seawall, we had another scan of the Fen, but we couldn’t see the Little Stint again, just a group of about ten Ruff where it had been. There was a nice selection of ducks on here, mostly Teal and Wigeon, but also quite a few Pintail, including some increasingly smart drakes as they emerge from eclipse plumage.

Looking out to Blakeney Harbour, the tide was out. A nice close Grey Plover was on the mud on the side of the channel, a juvenile, looking slightly golden-tinged on its upperparts. There were lots of Oystercatchers out on the sand in Blakeney Pit. As we scanned, we picked up a mixed flock of Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling which landed out on a sandbank with them. A big flock of Dunlin and Turnstone flew past.

There were also lots of Brent Geese and Wigeon out in the harbour. Several groups of gulls were loafing, Herring Gulls and big brutes of Great Black-backed Gulls. On the sand flats beyond the habour, we could see lots of seals hauled out, and through the scope we could see several Gannets diving into the sea beyond them.

As we turned to walk back, a Kingfisher was calling from down along the river channel, but we didn’t see it. The Yellow-browed Warbler showed itself again briefly on our way back past.

We continued on along the path and stopped down at the corner overlooking the grazing marshes. We were immediately informed that the Cattle Egret was back, but not in view. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait long before it walked out from behind the cows and we got a really good view of it through the scope. This Cattle Egret has been lingering here for some time now – perhaps it will stay until the cows are taken in for the winter? There were also two Grey Herons, lots of ducks, and several Ruff on the muddy flash here.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – still lingering with the cows at Stiffkey

After we had all had a good look at the Cattle Egret, we headed back to the car and drove back to Holkham for a late lunch. While we were eating, the cloud thickened again and it start to rain. Thankfully it was just a shower and it quickly passed over, although it remained rather cool and cloudy.

After lunch, we headed into Holkham Park. The walk in through the trees was fairly quiet, perhaps with the weather clouding over and the breeze picking up they had retreated now. There are always lots of Fallow Deer in here and we saw several groups of females and a few bucks barking to defend their territories.

Fallow DeerFallow Deer – we saw lots in the Park again today

We made our way straight down to the lake, but there was no sign of the Osprey in any of its favourite trees. We couldn’t find it fishing at the north end of the lake either. We did find a nice variety of ducks on the lake – including Gadwall, Pochard and Tufted Duck – plus several Great Crested Grebes and Little Grebes.

Turning round, we walked down to the south end of the lake to see what we could find there. A quick scan revealed a juvenile Scaup in with a raft of Tufted Duck. It swam off out into the middle of the lake as we approached, but we had a good look at it through the scope, noting its pale surround to the bill and cheek spot.

ScaupScaup – a juvenile, with the Tufted Duck on the lake

There were a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the lawn in front of the hall, but still no sign of the Osprey anywhere, so we set off back to the car. With everyone tired of walking, we decided to have a quick look out at the freshmarsh to finish the day. It turned out to be a good call. As soon as we pulled up, we could see a Great White Egret out on the edge of a ditch. By the time we had got out of the car, there were now two Great White Egrets. A second bird had appeared further back and was preening in the base of the sallows. Three species of egret in a day!

Great White EgretGreat White Egret – one of two out on the freshmarsh late this afternoon

Scanning around the various pools, we picked up three Avocets on the edge of one of the more distant ones. There are not many Avocets around now, with most having left for the winter, so we stopped to look at them through the scope. As we did so, we noticed another small pale bird nearby. It was small and swimming in circles, in and out of the ducks nearby, a Grey Phalarope. A real bonus!

We had a good look at the Grey Phalarope before something flushed all the ducks and waders and it settled again on the water even further back. The geese down on the grass below us were almost entirely Greylags. Still, we scanned through them carefully to see if we could find anything else. We had almost given up when a family of three Russian White-fronted Geese walked out from behind the bushes, two adults with black belly bars and white fronts and a plainer juvenile. This is a regular wintering site for Russian White-fronts but these are the first we have seen here this winter. Nice to see them returning now.

It had been a really productive stop here, with lots of birds coming and going, but it was now time to call it a day and head for home. Here’s hoping for more of the same tomorrow!

22nd Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 3

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, our final day. Once again, it was a frosty start and then a gloriously sunny winter’s day, great weather for being out. We headed up to north-west Norfolk today.

Our first destination was Titchwell, but on the way there we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese in a field beside the road. The winter wheat was coated with frost and they were huddled together in a tight group. We stopped for a quick look – they looked quite smart in the early sunshine.

6o0a4152Brent Geese – huddled together in a tight flock on a frosty morning

The car park at Titchwell wasn’t too full yet. A couple of Long-tailed Tits appeared on the sunny edge of the trees opposite as we parked up. Then we made our way down to the visitor centre. There were not too may birds on the feeders yet, a few tits and a Goldfinch or two, but more action below where several Moorhens, Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Chaffinches were tidying up the spillage.

There were a few birds up in the alders nearby, mostly Goldfinches. But a careful look through revealed a Redpoll. It was quickly joined by three more. We got them in the scope and confirmed they were Mealy Redpolls, quite pale around the face, grey brown above with prominent pale lines down the middle of their mantles and, when they hung upside down and parted their wings, we could see the pale ground colour to their rumps. One was a smart male, with a lovely pink wash on its breast, in addition to the darker red poll on the front of its head.

img_0081Mealy Redpoll – four were feeding in the alders by the visitor centre

img_0098Mealy Redpoll – one of the four was a very smart pink-breasted male

When the Mealy Redpolls flew back away from us through the trees, we set off onto the reserve. A careful look in the ditch by the path revealed a Water Rail. We watched it for a while, digging in the leaf litter on the side before running further along in the water in the bottom. While we were standing there, a Sparrowhawk zoomed low through the trees only a few metres in front of us.

6o0a4234Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path

As we came out of the trees, the reserve was quite a picture, with the low winter sun catching on the tops of the reeds. A quick stop by the now dry again Thornham grazing marsh pool revealed a single Water Pipit feeding out on the mud. We had a good look at it before it wandered over to one side and disappeared into the rushes.

On the other side of the path, the reedbed pool was almost completely frozen. A pair of Mute Swans had managed to crack through the ice and created a small pool for themselves right in the middle. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reeds at the back. We heard a Cetti’s Warbler sing half-heartedly from the brambles in the reedbed and looked across just in time to see it fly down and disappear into the reeds.

The freshmarsh was also almost completely frozen. A Little Grebe was diving in the one area of open water around the tallest island over in the back corner. It was surrounded by ducks – Mallard, Gadwall and Teal – also trying to feed. More ducks were standing around in groups on the ice, sleeping.

A large flock of waders flew up from the fenced off island. We could hear Golden Plover calling and a couple of smaller groups broke away from the larger numbers of Lapwing and headed off inland. With the water levels still very high on here, there were not very many islands left poking out of the ice. A small muddy remnant over towards Parrinder Hide held three Ringed Plover, as well as a few Lapwing and a lone Golden Plover. Otherwise, that was about it for waders on here today, not a surprise given the ice.

6o0a4170Bar-tailed Godwit – our first of the day, on the Volunteer Marsh

There was more to see on the Volunteer Marsh, though that too was fairly icy today, despite the salinity of the water on there these days. A Bar-tailed Godwit seemed to be finding plenty of food in the mud, despite it sliding around on the ice. A couple of Knot down on the edge of the channel below the path were joined by two Dunlin, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them side by side. There were also a couple of Grey Plover and several Redshanks on here.

6o0a4184Knot – one of two along the edge of Volunteer Marsh today

More birds were hiding out on the Tidal Pools, which had not frozen. The Avocets had come on here from the freshmarsh, about 13 of them braving out the winter in Norfolk, and they were sleeping on the spit at the back. There were also more godwits on here, as well as a few more Bar-tailed Godwits there were a couple of close Black-tailed Godwits too, always good to get a chance to compare these two very similar species.

There were more duck on here than usual, lots of roosting Teal and Shoveler around the edges. Over towards the back, we could see several Pintail asleep too. The Little Grebes are always on here in the winter, but they were very close to the path today. We watched them diving, puffing out their feathers when they surfaced and then flattening them down again just before going back underwater.

6o0a4197Little Grebe – diving close to the main path on the Tidal Pools

Our main targets here today were out at the sea. We stood up in the dunes with the sun on our backs and scanned the water. There have been good numbers of sea duck here in recent weeks and counts have continued to climb in the last few days. They were a little distant today, but we were not disappointed. The first thing we saw were the Long-tailed Ducks. They were hard to count, as birds were diving constantly, but there were at least 100 all together in one enormous raft, probably more. In recent years, numbers of wintering Long-tailed Duck in Norfolk have been quite low, so to see this many together is a real treat.

Further out we could see a huge raft of scoter. They would be predominantly Common Scoter, but they were too far off to sort through properly. Thankfully, there was a long line of much closer birds. Again, they were mainly Common Scoter but looking through them carefully, we could see a good number of Velvet Scoter with them too. The female Common Scoter have extensive pale cheeks, but the female Velvet Scoter have two smaller white dots on their faces. On some, you could also see the white wing flash on the Velvet Scoter and one helpfully flew past, showing off the white patch in the wing perfectly.

In with the closer group of scoter was a single Scaup. It was a first winter drake, its upperparts now quite extensively grey as it gradually moults out of its brown juvenile plumage. We could also see a few Goldeneye scattered over the sea. Four Common Pochard flew round out over the rafts of seaduck, presumably looking for somewhere to go, with so much water inland frozen over.

There were plenty of Great Crested Grebe out on the water, but one of the reserve volunteers picked up a couple of smaller grebes with them, two Slavonian Grebes. We had hoped to see some divers too, but they were all rather distant. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving again, but eventually we located a single Black-throated Diver on the sea. Even if it was a long way off, we could see the distinctive white rear flank patch between dives.

That seemed like a great selection of birds for the sea, so we decided to make our way back. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a Kingfisher whizzed in from the saltmarsh and disappeared away over the mud, too fast for everyone to get onto. Thankfully, as we were almost back to the grazing marsh pool, another Kingfisher flew right past us and dropped down into one of the channels on the saltmarsh. Again, they were probably looking for places to feed with much of the fresh water frozen over.

There was a small crowd on the main path staring out at the saltmarsh, so we stopped to look. Down in the grass, we could see a Jack Snipe. They have a very distinctive feeding action – bobbing up and down all the time, as if their legs are on springs – so we knew immediately what it was. Through the scope, we had a great view of it.

img_0122Jack Snipe – feeding out on the edge of the saltmarsh

Then it was back to the car, stopping briefly to admire another Water Rail on the other side of the path to the one we had seen earlier this morning. There were also two Muntjac under the sallows and while we were looking at them, yet another Water Rail scurried past.

It was already lunchtime, but we decided to drive the short distance to Thornham Harbour and eat there. We couldn’t find any sign of the Twite around the harbour, but it was perhaps not a surprise as it was unusually busy here today, with lots of people out for a walk in the winter sunshine. We did hear a Spotted Redshank calling and turned in time to see it fly round over the saltmarsh and drop down out of view. Another Kingfisher was perched on a mud bank out along the edge of the harbour, glowing electric blue in the sun.

After lunch, we walked out along the bank towards Holme. When we got out to the dunes where we could look out over Broadwater, we were not surprised to find that it was mostly frozen. A few ducks, mostly Mallard and Gadwall, were sleeping around the edge of the reeds. There were more ducks further over, but the light was not so good from here – we were looking into the sun. Still, we could see a nice selection, including a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard. But there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck from here, so we decided to walk round to the other side of Broadwater for a better look.

From round on the boardwalk by the NOA Car Park Hide, it didn’t take us long to find the Ferruginous Duck. It was asleep at first, over by the edge with all the other ducks, but we could see its distinctive rust-coloured body plumage and bright white undertail. Even with its head tucked in while sleeping, it would open its eye occasionally and we could see the white iris. Then it was disturbed by one of the Mallards and woke up, swimming out into the middle of the water to join the local Tufted Ducks. It didn’t stay there long and promptly swam back to the bank and went back to sleep.

img_0152Ferruginous Duck – woke up and swam out into the middle with the Tufted Ducks

Ferruginous Duck is a very scarce visitor to the UK, from southern Europe and further east. However, it is also a very common duck in captivity, and it is always hard to tell whether the ones which turn up here have come from the wild population or escaped from someone’s collection. Still, it is an interesting bird to see.

While we were watching the Ferruginous Duck, we could hear a Fieldfare calling. We looked round to see it perched in the top of a bush by the car park. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but as soon as the camera came out, a Magpie hopped up through the bush and flushed it. It was a shame, as it looked very smart in the winter sunshine.

We walked back to the beach and stopped for a quick scan of the sea. One of the first birds we set eyes on was a Black-throated Diver. It was much closer than the one we had seen earlier at Titchwell. It was still hard to get everyone onto, as it was diving constantly, but we all got a really good look at it in the end. There was another first winter male Scaup off Holme too. We could also see quite a few Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water and a small group of Eider. A close-in Guillemot was nice to see too.

There were a few seals out to sea as usual. We could see a crowd gathered further along the beach to the east, on the edge of the water, but only when they moved round could we see that they had been surrounding a Grey Seal pup. We walked over and the crowd had largely dispersed as we arrived. The pup seemed to be breathing heavily and had shown no signs of moving when everyone had been so close to it, so we messaged one of the reserve wardens about it, just in case.

6o0a4240Grey Seal pup – on the beach at Holme

We left the seal pup on the beach and made our way back up through the dunes and along the seawall back to Thornham Harbour. There was still not sign of the Twite, but we did see a Greenshank in the harbour and a Stonechat perched on a bush by the seawall. Out across the grazing marshes, a Sparrowhawk was perched on a post in the distance.

The sun was already starting to sink in the sky and the temperature was dropping again. We made our way inland and started to drive round the farmland inland. We could see lots of Yellowhammers flying round in the hedges and so we pulled up in a convenient layby. In the small tree in the hedge nearby, we could see a single Corn Bunting – it was immediately obvious, given its much larger size. Then all the buntings flew and disappeared across the field behind the hedge.

We carried on our drive and eventually came to another place where lots of birds have been feeding in a plot planted with wild bird seed cover. The hedge beside the field was full of birds, masses of Reed Buntings and a good number of Yellowhammers too. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling and looked along the hedge to see several perched up with all the buntings, we counted at least eight there and at least another two calling in the hedge behind us. Tree Sparrows are an increasingly rare bird in southern Britain, so it was great to see them still clinging on here.

img_0160Buntings – the hedge was full of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers

The birds in the hedge would gradually thin out, as they flew down into the field to feed. Then, periodically something would spook them and the field would erupt and everything would fly back to the hedge. When it did, we could see there were lots of Chaffinches here too, but they would fly up into the tops of the trees rather than into the hedge with the buntings.

It was great to watch all these birds – bringing back memories of how winter flocks in farmland used to be everywhere. But the light was starting to fade now as the sun began to set, so it was time to head for home, after a fantastic three days of winter birding.

17th Dec 2016 – Birding through the Mist

A Private Tour today with a regular client, with some particular target birds we wanted to see. Unfortunately, there was some intermittent and patchy thick mist along the coast for a time today, but by trying to dodge it and making the most of the sunnier spells, we still managed to amass a great tally of birds for the day.

We met in Wells and made our way west along the coast. There were lots of Blackbirds and a few Redwings in the hedges as drove along, feeding on the berries. Our first destination for the day was Titchwell.

As we walked out along the main path, a Water Rail ran along the bottom of the ditch beside us, a nice way to start the day. The grazing meadow pool had been flooded by the high tide, which was just receding, so there were no birds that we could see. It was still a bit misty, so we thought we would have a look on the way back. As we passed, a juvenile Peregrine flew in over the saltmarsh and headed off towards Thornham.

img_9434Sunrise – over Island Hide and the reedbed

There was a lovely hazy sunrise looking out over the reedbed as we headed out to the freshmarsh. The water level is very high still at the moment, but still there were lots of Lapwings on here. They were very nervous and kept flying round calling. Twelve Avocets, bravely hanging on through the winter, were not so fidgety and stayed mostly asleep in the shallows. There was a nice selection of wildfowl on here as usual – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and three Pintail, a drake and two females.

6o0a2235Teal – lots on the freshmarsh, the drakes are looking very smart now

Volunteer Marsh was still under water, so we hurried past to the tidal pools beyond. There were lots of waders on here, roosting over the high tide. A line of godwits consisted of a mixture of both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, a nice comparison side by side. A single much smaller Knot was in with them. Further over, a couple of Grey Plover were roosting with a little mixed group of Turnstones and Dunlin.

Over at the back, we could see a flock of sleeping Common Redshank and nearby were several noticeably paler birds.  Two Greenshank  were roosting up on the mud behind. Another paler bird was in the water just behind the line of duller grey Common Redshank, and through the scope we could confirm it was a single Spotted Redshank. When looked back again later, two more Spotted Redshanks had appeared with it.

6o0a2115Common Redshank – its legs shining in the morning sunshine

The main point of our visit here today was to have a look at the sea and our primary target was Long-tailed Duck. There have been up to 70 here for the last couple of weeks, an unprecedented number in recent years. We were not disappointed. As we climbed up into the dunes, we could see that the sea was alive with ducks, including lots of Long-tailed Ducks. Amazing!

6o0a2010Long-tailed Ducks – around 70 were on the sea here today (these from yesterday)

We managed to get onto one or two adult male Long-tailed Ducks – stunning birds with their incredibly long and narrow tail feathers. The drakes are much whiter than the females and immature birds which make up the majority of the birds here. They also have a striking pink saddle over the bill, and we could even make that out on them as it glowed in the sunshine.

Apart from the Long-tailed Ducks, there were hundreds of Common Scoter offshore. In with them, there are also an impressive number of Velvet Scoter too, many more than we usually get here at this time of year. We got some great views of them too today, with the sea flat and calm.

The rest of the gathering was made up of five Scaup, plus several Eider, Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. It is amazing to watch all these ducks out on the sea at the moment. Many of them are diving for shellfish and we saw several coming up with large razorshells in their bills. The staff and volunteers on the reserve were doing a wildfowl count while we were there today and their final tallies were impressive, including 73 Long-tailed Ducks and 46 Velvet Scoter! We just enjoyed watching them all.

As well as the ducks, there were other birds on the sea too. A Slavonian Grebe was diving in with the ducks and several Great Crested Grebes were offshore too. A lone Guillemot drifted past. There were several divers too, though they were mostly a bit more distant and harder to see on the edge of the mist. There were three Great Northern Divers, and thankfully one of them appeared in front of the ducks straight out from us, giving us a great look at it.

6o0a2134Bar-tailed Godwits – gathered on the shore as the tide started to go out

The only Black-throated Diver today was quite a long way out and further to the west from where we were standing, so we decided to walk along the beach to try to get everyone onto it. There were more waders on the shore now, with the tide starting to go out, including a nice flock of Bar-tailed Godwits.

We had just positioned ourselves to start scanning the sea again, level with where we thought the Black-throated Diver should be, when the fog descended around us, blowing in over the saltmarsh behind us. We waited here a few minutes to see if it would clear. A couple of times, the sun looked like it would break through, but each time it disappeared again into the mists and our hopes were dashed. We amused ourselves watching several Turnstones and Sanderling picking along the pile of razorshells washed up along the high tide line. Finally, we came to the conclusion it wasn’t going to clear any time soon, so reluctantly we started to walk back.

6o0a2153Sanderling – feeding on the piles of shells along the high tide line

On the way back, we stopped briefly in the Parrinder Hide. From here, you couldn’t even see across the freshmarsh today. A nice Common Snipe feeding on the bank just outside the hide was some compensation.

6o0a2228Common Snipe – feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

The grazing meadow pool was now hidden in thick fog. So much for our hoped for better look on the way back! We had a quick look in the alders by the main path and visitor centre but couldn’t find any redpolls here today. We did find a single Siskin feeding in amongst the Goldfinches up in the tops of the trees.

While we waited for the fog to clear, we decided to have a quick look round in Thornham Harbour. A single Greenshank was feeding in the bottom of the harbour channel by the car park, along with a Redshank, a Curlew and a Little Egret. Several Rock Pipits were flying round, landing on the boats or the old barn. We had hoped to catch up with the Twite here,  but despite being seen earlier they had disappeared again. Two Linnets were the best we could manage.

6o0a2241Greenshank – feeding in the channel at Thornham Harbour

The fog seemed to lift a little, so we decided to have a go for the geese up at Choseley. As we drove up away from the coast however, we ran into the fog again, which seemed even thicker than before. We could see a few Pink-footed Geese out in the recently harvested sugar beet field, feeding on the discarded tops, but there were a lot fewer geese here than yesterday and we couldn’t see all of them. There was no sign of the Todd’s Canada Goose here today, amongst those Pink-footed Geese that we could see.

The Pink-footed Geese will usually return to the same field to feed for several days, so many had presumably been put off from landing by the fog. While we were there, we could hear calling constantly overhead, and saw several groups fly over in occasional breaks in the sky. Many geese were presumably loafing in other fields nearby, but we just couldn’t see them today. We decided to try something different instead.

As we drove back east along the coast road, the sun finally broke through the fog and it suddenly became bright and clear. Another target for the day was Snow Bunting, so we made a beeline for Salthouse where we knew we could find some. There were some dog walkers going through the area as we walked up, the dogs off the lead and running all over the shingle ridge. Needless to say, there was no sign of the Snow Buntings at first.

Thankfully, after just a couple of minutes, three Snow Buntings flew back in. They perched nervously on the top of the ridge at first, checking to see if the coast was clear, before coming down to a pile of seed which had been put out for them. Great stuff.

6o0a2254Snow Buntings – coming to seed on the shingle ridge

The days are short at this time of year, so we wanted to make the most of the remaining light. We headed swiftly round to Blakeney for our final stop. Walking past the duck pond, a lone large gull sitting on the top of a severed tree trunk caught our eye. It is a regularly returning bird and it does not fit any species – among other things, its mantle is too dark grey for Herring Gull and slightly too light for Lesser Black-backed Gull, and its legs an odd fleshy colour. It looks like a Herring Gull x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrid.

6o0a2262Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrid – most likely

As we walked out along the seawall, a Water Rail appeared in one of the channels on the edge of the saltmarsh. It started to walk along in the water at the bottom, until something spooked it and it darted quickly back into cover.

It was very disturbed along the bank this afternoon, with loads of people out for a walk. We did manage to find 12 Barnacle Geese with a flock of Brent Geese out on the Freshes. We could hear Pink-footed Geese further over, towards Cley, and they started to fly off overhead, skein after skein, heading west. We managed to find a handful of Skylarks on the rough ground on the edge of the grazing marsh, but nothing else today.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have long here today. Very quickly, we started to lose the light as the sun dropped. The temperature fell and the mist started to return. We walked back to the car, led by a pair of Stonechats, flying ahead of us along the fence just below the seawall. It was a slightly frustrating day, given the weather, but looking back at what we had seen, we had amassed an impressive total for the day, including most of our main targets. All on one of the shortest days of the year!

6o0a2276Stonechat – led us back along the seawall