Tag Archives: Shag

7th March 2016 -Snow Business

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

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

P1170925Brancaster Staithe – poor visibility in the snow

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

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

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

P1170996Shag – back in Wells Harbour again

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

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

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

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

IMG_9328Lapland Bunting – almost too close at times!

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

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

P1180061Stonechat – male and…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_9442Red-necked Grebe – no red neck yet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_9458Rough-legged Buzzard – over the fields at Choseley

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

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

P1180146Barn Owl – hunting by the coast road

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

4th February 2016 -Winter Rarities, Day 2

Day 2 of a two day Private Tour today, and the plan was to look for some more of the rarities and scarce winter birds which hadn’t yet managed to catch up with.

As we made our way down to the coast, we saw two Barn Owls out hunting. It had been wet overnight and they were probably making the most of the dry morning to try to feed. We headed for Holkham first and parked by the gates to Holkham Park. As we walked down towards the lake, another Barn Owl was flying back and forth through the trees. It is typical parkland in here, with the trees widely spaced and with rough grass below, a perfect sheltered place in which to hunt. It was quite magical to watch, working its way silently in and out of the trees.

Down at the edge of the lake, we could see one of the 1st winter drake Scaup away to the left, with a raft of Tufted Duck, but we had really come to look for the Ferruginous Duck and Ferruginous Duck hybrid, so we left the Scaup for later and turned the other way. We didn’t have to walk too much further before we found them. First we picked up the female Ferruginous Duck, in amongst the Pochards – smaller than a Pochard, and a rich chestnut brown, unlike the colour of any of the other ducks, with a striking white patch under the tail.

IMG_6212Ferruginous Duck – the female was on the lake again today

Ferruginous Duck – some video from a couple of days ago

The Ferruginous Duck swam a little further along and the next thing we knew the drake Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid was swimming alongside it. The hybird is arguably a smarter bird than the Ferruginous Duck, a bit like a Pochard but with more brown tones instead of the grey and black, a rich chestnut head and almost purple-toned breast, subtly vermiculated grey-brown flanks and back and a poorly marked small white patch under the tail. A real stunner!

IMG_6231Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid – a very smart drake

Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid – some video from today

It was nice to see these ducks, and also the large numbers of Pochards and Tufted Ducks on the lake, but with some rare ducks you always have to wonder about their origins, and Ferruginous Ducks are very commonly kept in captivity. Unfortunately, the presence of a hybrid and Ferruginous Duck together just add to those suspicions.

After watching the two ducks for a while, we walked down to where we had seen the Scaup earlier, but there was no sign of it at that end of the lake. There were also fewer Tufted Ducks there. It could easily have flown past us while we were focused on the others, so we walked back up past the Ferruginous Duck and hybrid to the far north end of the lake, which is more sheltered. Sure enough, there were all the Tufted Ducks and in amongst them were the two 1st winter drake Scaup, easily distinguished from a distance by their grey backs, the presence of retained brown feathers in their flanks pointed to their young age.

IMG_6244Scaup – two first winter drakes

That was a great start to the day, so we set off out back to the car with a spring in our step. We drove west from Holkham – past yet another Barn Owl by the road, our fourth of the morning. The very pale Common Buzzard, often mistaken for a Rough-legged Buzzard by the unwary, was perched in one of its usual trees north of the road. We went as far as Burnham Overy Staithe and parked in the car park by the harbour.

The tide was out as we walked out. Most of the local Brent Geese were out in the harbour channel, bathing and preening. We had a quick look through them, but couldn’t see anything different before they started to fly off in small groups to the grazing marshes. There were plenty of waders out on the mud too, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Redshank and Dunlin. A single solitary Knot was there too.

It was a bit windy and exposed up on the seawall this morning, so we got our heads down and made for the beach. It was not much better out there, and we turned straight into the west wind and strode out towards Gun Hill. There were lots of waders around the pools on the beach, a large group of silvery grey and white Sanderling, with a few much darker Turnstone in amongst them. But there was nothing at first along the tideline.

IMG_6279Red-breasted Merganser – a smart drake off Gun Hill

As we got closer to the end of the beach, we started to see several Red-breasted Mergansers in the harbour channel. Down at the point, we walked very slowly along the tideline trying not to flush the Shore Larks, but they didn’t seem to be there at first. As more Red-breasted Mergansers swam out from the edge of the channel at the end, below the beach, a smaller bird swam out with them, a Slavonian Grebe. The Mergansers were spooked by our sudden appearance and they all took off, but thankfully the Slavonian Grebe landed again only a little further out in the middle of the channel. We got a great look at it through the scope.

IMG_6270Slavonian Grebe – in the channel between Gun Hill & Scolt Head

We looked up from our scopes and noticed some movement on the beach, not twenty feet in front of us. There were the three Shore Larks, creeping about unobtrusively on the grass and seedheads piled up on the high tide line. We quickly turned the scopes on them and got unbelievably close views as they fed quietly, picking at the dead vegetation. Such stunning birds, just here for the winter from the Scandinavian tundra, and so tame they probably hadn’t seen many humans before they came here.

IMG_6319Shore Lark – the three were still on the beach at Gun Hill

IMG_6280Shore Lark -showing the small black ‘horns’ on its head

As we walked back, the sun had come out and the wind was at our backs – having enjoyed such amazing views of the Shore Larks, the walk went much more quickly. It was all the sweeter after the frustration of yesterday – when the Shore Larks at Holme flew off before we could see them.

Back on the seawall, we stopped to scan through the geese again, that were all feeding out on the grazing marshes. Unfortunately, most of the Brent Geese were way over the back, beyond the reeds. The smaller group which was closer to us did contain six Barnacle Geese, though presumably feral ones from Holkham Park. Then a Marsh Harrier drifted over and everything took flight. The waders went up first – Curlews, Lapwings, Golden Plover – and panicked the geese too. Fortuitously, a lot of the geese landed again much closer, and in the small group right in front of us we managed to find the one we were looking for, the Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Goose hybrid which is usually to be found here. Not quite dark enough for a true Black Brant, it shows grey tones in the belly and upperparts like one of our normal Dark-bellied Brent Geese, but has a much more prominent white flank patch and a very strongly marked white collar.

IMG_6331Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid – at Burnham Overy, as usual

We got back to the car and headed back east along the coast road. We made a quick stop by the road at Holkham, to see the White-fronted Geese. They were a bit distant today, grazing over on the old fort. We were just packing up to leave when a very large white bird took off from the reeds out on the grazing marshes. There was no mistaking it, it was so big – we have seen the Great White Egret here several times over the last month or so, but it is often elusive and can be tucked down out of view, so it was good to see it today. It landed on the edge of a pool briefly, where we could get it in the scope, before walking back into the reeds.

P1160287Shag – came swimming in as we arrived

We carried on east and took a quick diversion through the middle of Wells, stopping briefly in the car park on the quay. We hadn’t even got out of the car and we could see the Shag which has taken up semi-residence here for the winter swimming towards us. It made straight for the pontoons to which the boats moor and climbed up using one of the tyres attached to the side. This is its favourite place when it is in attendance, and it perched there obligingly, spreading its wings to dry and preening. Up close, we could see the beautiful green and bronze sheen on its black feathers.

P1160341Shag – perched in its usual spot, drying its wings

Our next stop was at Blakeney. We had a quick stop for lunch, overlooking the harbour channel. Down in the water was a large gull, about the size of a Herring Gull but with a curiously dark grey back. It was not dark enough for a Lesser Black-backed Gull and had strange fleshy-coloured legs, rather than yellow. Luckily, we have seen this individual several times here over the last couple of months, so we didn’t spend too long puzzling over it. It seems to be most likely a Herring Gull x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrid. Gulls are just as bad as wildfowl at hybridising – and we seemed to be having a day of hybrids today.

Afterwards, we walked out along the seawall. A male Stonechat was feeding along the edge of the saltmarsh, dropping down to the base of the seawall to pick at the accumulated plant debris left by the tide. A Barn Owl flew out across the grass, already out hunting again for the afternoon, making the most of the brighter weather. The wind had dropped considerably too.

We had really come to look for the Lapland Buntings, but we knew that they had become increasingly hard to see well in recent weeks. They seem to spend most of their time out in the tallest vegetation. Still, we felt confident as we walked out. There was no sign of them when we first arrived, but we didn’t have to wait long before suddenly all the Skylarks took off from the tall grass at the back. We heard a Lapland Bunting call first, a dry rattling ‘pt-t-t-t’, and then picked one out amongst the Skylarks as they flew off overhead, slightly smaller and with a heavier front end. Thankfully we saw where it landed and it was over right by the fence.

We walked round and approached very gingerly. At first we could just see a Skylark in the grass just behind the fence, but then we saw a Lapland Bunting a little further along. We just got it in the scope and had time to have a quick look at it before it crept away through the grass and into the taller dead weeds beyond. It felt like that might be the best we would get, but at least it was better than just seeing and hearing them in flight. Then someone walked along the path from the other direction and all the Skylarks and at least two Lapland Buntings took off again.

They flew round for some time, and one of the Lapland Buntings circled round in front of us a couple of times, looking like it might land back in the denser vegetation again. But this time it turned towards the seawall and dropped down in the short grass. We lined the scopes up and realised we were looking at two different birds, both out in the open. One of the Lapland Buntings flew off again, but the other remained where it was. It stood for a couple of minutes out in the open, looking round, before starting to feed – we got an amazingly long look at it. We could then see it creeping around in the short grass, before it gradually worked its way in deeper out of view. Wow!

IMG_6397Lapland Bunting – showed amazingly well this afternoon

IMG_6405Lapland Bunting – showing its rusty-brown nape

Lapland Bunting – a very short video clip from today

That had been far more successful that we had imagined and we didn’t have to wait long either, so we had time to spare. We decided to drive round to Cley and down to the beach. There was a possible American Golden Plover reported yesterday in the Eye Field. There had been no mention of it today, so presumably whatever it was could not be found, but we though we would have a look anyway. There were several birds down in the grass, but they were all our normal Eurasian Golden Plovers.

We had a quick look out to sea from here. There was a trickle of Red-throated Divers flying west offshore and a couple of distant auks. A single Guillemot dropped in on the sea, but it was a long way out and impossible to pick up on the water. We decided to move on.

We turned inland and drove through farmland behind the coast to a set of old farm buildings. On the way, yet another Barn Owl flew across the road – we drove alongside it slowly, as it flew along the other side of a hedge, then it flew up and across the road right in front of us. This is a reliable site for Little Owl, but we don’t normally go looking for them in the late afternoon. Fortunately, one was perched up out of the wind in an old broken window when we arrived and we got a great look at it in the scope, fluffed up.

We turned around and headed back down towards the coast. As we did so, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese flying up in the distance and heading inland. We followed them but unfortunately they dropped down out of sight behind a line of trees. While we were trying to find an angle to view them from, the farmer came out and flushed them so that was that.

We drove round to Stiffkey Fen to finish the day. As we walked along the path by the road, a ringtail Hen Harrier was circling over the river valley beyond. The river level was very high, but the path down towards the seawall was clear. On the way, we stopped to look out across the Fen. The water level has finally dropped a little and there is now some mud showing again. Most of it was occupied with the local Greylag Geese and a mass of Lapwings, but in amongst the latter in the shallow water was a paler wader, a single Greenshank.

IMG_6416Greenshank – in with the Lapwings on Stiffkey Fen

We had hoped to look for the Black Brant here today, but most of the Brent Geese had headed off inland – further groups flew over our heads as we were walking out. A small group of Brent Geese dropped in to the Fen to bathe, but it was not among them. We walked out to the seawall and round to the boats to look out across Blakeney Harbour. The blackthorn by the seawall was a mass of blossom – spring must be just around the corner!

There were plenty of Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye out in the harbour, but no sign of the Great Northern Divers. The tide was high and the area off the Point was very rough, so perhaps they had gone out to sea. Lots of gulls were starting to fly in from all directions, mostly Common Gulls and Black-headed Gulls and drop down onto the remaining mud or out on the water before going to roost.

It was unfortunately time for us to call an end to the day as well, but what a day, or couple of days, it had been!

P1160358Blackthorn blossom – spring must be almost here

19th January 2016 – Winter on the Coast

A Winter Tour today, on the North Norfolk coast. It was cold and generally rather overcast, a little misty at times later on, but mostly dry and with only light winds which meant we could make a good day of it. We met in Wells and worked our way west.

P1150017Wells Quay – at dawn

We had a quick stop down at the quay in Wells first. There was some lovely hazy sunshine out to the east first thing, before the cloud built. We had hoped to find the Shag which seems to have taken up residence in the harbour for the winter, but it was not in its usual place on the jetty when we arrived. We contented ourselves with admiring the Brent Geese bathing out in the harbour channel and loafing around on the sand bars, before drifting off over to the fields the other side of the harbour wall to feed.

IMG_5242Brent Geese – bathing and loafing in the harbour at Wells

Scanning across to the other side of the harbour, we finally picked up the Shag, which was swimming further down along the quay, diving repeatedly in among the boats. It showed no sign of returning to its favoured resting place, so we drove further along to where we could get a better look at it. The Shag was diving just off the quay and surfaced with a large fish. After a couple of attempts to get it turned round the right way, it managed to swallow it. Two Cormorants were also fishing in the harbour, giving us a good comparison.

P1150046Shag – fishing in the harbour at Wells

Our next stop was at Holkham. Just by the road opposite the church we pulled over to admire a little group of Pink-footed Geese on the grazing meadows. Most of the thousands which normally roost here overnight had flown off inland to feed already, but it was good to get a chance to study these few lingering geese more closely. One was sporting a small amount of white around the base of the bill, a not uncommon variant of Pink-footed Goose.

IMG_5248Pink-footed Geese – one had a small amount of white around the bill

We couldn’t see any other geese with the Pinkfeet, but a little further along the road we stopped again and a scan of the grazing marshes revealed yet more geese. Many of them were Greylags – larger and paler with a big orange carrot of a bill. In amongst them were some White-fronted Geese, smaller and darker, with a noticeable white blaze around the base of the all pink bill. This white was much more extensive than on the single Pink-footed Goose we had just seen. The adult White-fronted Geese were also sporting distinctive black belly bars.

IMG_5253White-fronted Geese – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

There were other birds to see here too. A Barn Owl was still out, flying back and forth over the marshes. It landed on a post for several minutes for a rest. Several Marsh Harriers circled overhead and two of them had a brief go at a Grey Heron which flew out of the trees and landed in the grass. A couple of Bullfinches flew along the hedge in front of us calling and landed briefly in the top of a tree.

We carried on our way west, stopping again briefly on the way to watch another Barn Owl which was hunting around some paddocks by the road. We diverted inland at Titchwell, around the back to Choseley, hoping to find the Rough-legged Buzzard which has made the area its home this winter, but there was no sign of it on our way past. We didn’t stop for any length of time. There were lots of Brown Hares in the fields and they are starting to chase each other round already – we even saw a very brief bout of boxing!

The hedges south of the barns have been full of Yellowhammers in recent weeks, but they were empty today. A tractor was working its way up and down the road flailing them back to the proportions of a rather small rectangular box, so the birds had flown. We decided to make our way back down to the coast and on to Thornham.

As soon as we arrived at Thornham Harbour we could see the flock of about 30 Twite, even before we got out of the car. They were buzzing around the saltmarsh right by the road. We pulled up and got out, just as they landed in the vegetation just behind us. We got them in the scope and had a quick look at them, but just at that moment some people tried to walk right up to them and they were off again, out onto the saltmarsh. The Twite came back shortly after, but were quickly flushed again and flew out towards the seawall. We gathered our stuff and set off in their direction.


IMG_5276Twite – around 30 were still around Thornham Harbour

We could see the Twite again from up on the seawall, feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh just below us. Several of them were colour-ringed with individual combinations of coloured plastic rings which identify exactly where they have come from, mostly from the Pennines, with a couple from Derbyshire. We could see their peachy-orange breasts and small yellow bills. One – a male – was even showing off his pink rump! Two Reed Buntings were feeding around the low Suaeda bushes nearby.

We carried on out along the seawall towards the dunes at the east end of Holme beach. We had hoped to catch up with the three Shore Larks which are spending the winter out here, but there was no sign of them at first when we arrived. However, we hadn’t been there too long, when we spotted them flying in along the edge of the dunes from the direction of Holme and over our heads. There were quite a few people milling around on the edge of the beach which perhaps put them off, although that doesn’t generally seem to affect them, but the Shore Larks didn’t drop down onto the beach today and kept on flying inland until we lost them in the sun. Unfortunately, we would have to make do with a flypast as they didn’t reappear while we were there.

We had a look round while we waited. There were a few Goldeneye swimming around in the harbour channel. Out on the sea, we could see a good number of Great Crested Grebes and a single Red-breasted Merganser. A Red-throated Diver was diving constantly, which made it very hard to get everyone onto it. Down on the beach, the selection of waders included several Bar-tailed Godwits and a couple of Sanderling scuttling around on the sand. We decided to move on.

On the way back, some of the Twite were still feeding further out on the saltmarsh, a little less skittish now. A Red-breasted Merganser in the harbour channel gave us better views than we had had of the one out on the sea earlier. A Bar-tailed Godwit flew in and landed close to the seawall on the mud. A Knot was bathing further out in the channel.

IMG_5302Bar-tailed Godwit – in Thornham Harbour

We planned to head on to Titchwell next, but on the way there we took a quick diversion inland. From an unflailed hedgerow by the road, we flushed a large flock of buntings which disappeared across the field to the other side. We pulled in and got the scope onto them – we could see there were lots of Corn Buntings and a smaller number of Yellowhammers. It was a real treat to see so many of these increasingly scarce farmland birds. The Corn Buntings were larger, and buffy-brown – we could even hear some of them singing already, a distinctive sound like jangling keys. Several of the Yellowhammers were very smart males with bright canary-yellow heads.

IMG_5311Corn Buntings – we came across a large flock by the road

From there, we made our way back round towards Titchwell. While checking for oncoming traffic at a road junction, we glimpsed a raptor crossing the road in the distance and disappearing behind a hedge. A quick turn round and drive out beyond the hedge and we could see it was the Rough-legged Buzzard, flashing its white tail with black terminal tail band as it flew away from us. Just when we had least expected it.

We watched the Rough-legged Buzzard heading out across the field, before it turned and made its way along a hedge at the back, showing us its black belly patch contrasting with its pale head as it did so. It then landed in a small tree and we got it in the scope. It was a way off by this stage, but still we got a good look at it. It was a nice bonus to find it along here, having not seen it around Choseley earlier.

IMG_5316Rough-legged Buzzard – just when we least expected it

Then it was time for Titchwell. After a quick break for lunch, we set off to walk out onto the reserve. There were lots of finches on the feeders by the Visitor Centre, but the most notable was a single Brambling which was hiding in the bushes behind with a small group of Chaffinches. While we were watching it, the Barn Owl appeared over the grazing marsh beyond, but by the time we had torn ourselves away from the feeders it had disappeared again. The Water Rail in the ditch nearby disappeared into the reeds as we approached, unfortunately before everyone got a chance to see it.

IMG_5325Brambling – by the feeders at Titchwell

We stopped at the still dry grazing meadow ‘pool’. At first it looked fairly quiet, apart from a small selection of plovers – a Lapwing, a Grey Plover and a couple of Ringed Plovers. Looking from a different angle, we could see that there were actually several pipits out on the mud behind the reeds. We started to have a closer look through them but all we could find today was Rock Pipits. Then it started to drizzle a little, so we made for the shelter of Island Hide.

The water level on the freshmarsh continues to drop nicely, exposing more mud, although the birds don’t seem to be appreciating it yet. There is still a good number of Avocets on here for this time of year, and they were feeding more actively today rather than just sleeping, as were the Black-tailed Godwits. All around the edges of the exposed mud we could see a good smattering of Dunlin.

There are still plenty of ducks on the freshmarsh, particularly good numbers of Teal. Several smart drakes and their accompanying females were feeding in the mud below the hide. There were also still quite a few Shoveler and Mallard, but not so many Wigeon at the moment. The Wigeon prefer somewhere where there is more grass to graze on, so are often out on the saltmarsh.

P1150087Teal – still lots on the freshmarsh

The weather had closed in a bit and it was starting to get rather grey and misty, even if the earlier drizzle had now eased off. We decided to head out towards the beach. The Volunteer Marsh produced a good selection of waders, as it has done in recent weeks. There are always lots of Redshank on here and normally a good number of Curlew too. A single Black-tailed Godwit was feeding along the edge of the deep channel by the path, very well camouflaged against the grey-brown mud, but giving us great up-close views.

IMG_5333Curlew – the Volunteer Marsh is usually a good place to see them

However, the stars of the show on the Volunteer Marsh were the plovers. There were several Grey Plovers out on the mud and through the scope we could admire their delightfully white spangled upperparts. One in particular had a long battle with a worm – the latter was understandably reluctant to leave its hole and the Grey Plover stood pulling at it, with the worm stretched out like an extension to its beak, for some time. A couple of much smaller Ringed Plovers were nearby and some similarly sized Dunlin flew in to join them, giving a good comparison.

IMG_5328Grey Plover – very smart birds, even in winter plumage

The Spotted Redshank was right at the back of the Tidal Pools as usual, but we got a clear view of it through the scope before it disappeared out of view. Noticeably paler silvery grey and white compared to all the Common Redshanks, with a longer and finer bill. Closer to the main path were a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits and two more Ringed Plovers.

The Pintail were back on the Tidal Pools today. A drake flew over as we were admiring the waders and disappeared towards the freshmarsh, but a pair and another couple of females were still busy upending out on the main pool further along towards the beach. We stopped to admire them in the scope.

IMG_5340Pintail – this pair was on the Tidal Pools

Out on the beach, the tide was well in. There were still quite a few Bar-tailed Godwits along the shoreline and plenty of Oystercatchers on the sand picking around the remains of the shells. It was a bit misty now, looking out to sea, but we found a line of Common Scoter out on the water on the edge of the cloud. Closer in, a few Red-breasted Merganser were swimming around just offshore. There didn’t immediately appear to be anything else of note, so we didn’t stay too long out there and started to make our way back.

As we walked back along the main path past the Volunteer Marsh, a particularly streamlined wader whipped in low across the mud, flashing a white tail and plain grey wings, a Greenshank. It dropped down out of view in the tidal channel at the back. Out on the freshmarsh, lots of Black-headed Gulls were starting to gather to roost.

We stopped for a short while to admire the Marsh Harriers out over the reedbed. The closer we looked the more we saw. There were several circling around and a few more perched in the dead trees over the back, in among all the Cormorants. A couple more flew in while we stood there – one high overhead from the direction of Thornham and a second low in from the back. At one point we counted ten Marsh Harriers all in view together.

We were losing the light quickly now, so made our way back towards the Visitor Centre. As we walked along, we scanned the ditches either side of the path. A Water Rail down in the bottom of the ditch on one side scuttled quickly into cover, but a second Water Rail on the other side was more obliging and spent a couple of minutes rooting around in the rotting leaves on the far bank. When a large – and rather noisy – group arrived behind us and stopped to ask us what we were watching, it hurried back into cover. We decided to do the same and headed for home.

30th January 2015 – Never Trust a Weatherman

All week, Friday was forecast to be the worst day – snow, sleet, high winds. It was going to be a day to be indoors. Except that it wasn’t. Miraculously, yesterday afternoon the forecast began to change and by this morning we were expected to have sunny spells. It was a bit cloudy first thing – ironically, now worse than it was ‘meant’ to be – but before midday the sun was out and the afternoon saw clear blue skies. It was a day to get out – at least once the worst of the chores were out of the way.

A quick stop confirmed the continued presence of one of the Little Owls, though once again it was feeling shy and retiring. It perched up briefly on the roof and then ducked down behind the ridge leaving just the top of its head showing. Rather than spook it, I moved swiftly on.

P1110241Brown Hares – enjoying the sunshine

I checked out a couple of barns where I know there are often Barn Owls but there was no joy today. On the way, a couple of Brown Hares sat in a field next to the road, enjoying the sun – though there was no sign of any ‘boxing’ today, they were probably still warming up. A small number of Redwing were also feeding on the verge. And a large flock of Pink-footed Geese had settled to feed in a large field of recently harvested sugar beet. A Kestrel sat by the road allowed me to get unusually close, albeit from the shelter of the car. Perhaps it was sick or had been in a collision with a car? However, it wouldn’t sit long enough for me to pick it up.

P1110254Kestrel – sat by the roadside

I stopped briefly at Wells Harbour. The resident Shag flew past the quay and out into the channel where it started fishing. There was still no sign of the Red-necked Grebe which has been reported erratically in recent weeks, but there were lots of Little Grebes, including one particularly pale one, which looked rather white-faced in the sunlight – surely not the source of confusion? A Red Kite circled over East Hills. A large flock of Brent Geese was bathing in the harbour, but flew off to the fields before I got a chance to look through it.

P1110244Shag – fishing in the harbour

A quick stop at Holkham revealed a few Pink-footed Geese along Lady Anne’s Drive, those that were not feeding in the fields inland. Round from the road, several White-fronted Geese could be picked out amongst the Greylags out on the wetter parts of the grazing marsh. Four Red Kites circled over the pines.

With the sun shining, I couldn’t resist the walk out at Burnham Overy. There were lots of Brent Geese feeding in the fields and it didn’t take long to find the resident (for winter) hybrid Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Goose in amongst them. At first, the way the light was striking it made it look surprisingly dark, almost blackish, and much darker than the other Brents. With its well marked white flank patch and extensive white neck collar, it almost looked like a real Black Brant for a second. But the flock was spooked by a dog walker and flew a short distance. With the angle of the light changed, it suddenly looked much less convincing, the grey tones it its body plumage now showing the Dark-bellied Brent influence.

IMG_2368Rough-legged Buzzard – on one of its usual posts

The Rough-legged Buzzard was sat on one of its usual fence posts. At first, it sat two posts along from a Red Kite, which was a surprising combination. A short flight across and on to another post, just enough to show off its black-banded white tail.

There was not even any wait today for the main event. As soon as I got up onto the seawall, I could see a Short-eared Owl quartering the grazing marsh. For some time, it favoured a small area of rushes and kept flying across it, head down, stopping to hover occasionally. It would periodically fly further off, but kept returning. It landed on one of the posts and sat there, alert, constantly looking around. It didn’t catch anything while I was watching it, but did drop down into the grass on a couple of occasions, as if it was about to. Still stunning, even though I have watched it many times now.

P1110265P1110266P1110297P1110318Short-eared Owl – another great show today

There appears to be only one Short-eared Owl present at the moment. Given how aggressively the territorial bird chased off any others which dared to hunt over the grazing marshes in recent weeks, it has probably succeeded in moving them on. Now it seems to have turned its attention to the local Kestrels. At one point, a Kestrel came overhead and the two chased after each other, circling higher and higher into the air. Eventually, the Kestrel peeled off and headed towards the dunes and I lost sight of which way the Short-eared Owl went. With the afternoon getting on, I walked back, stopping briefly to watch one of the Barn Owls hunting over the set-aside field by the path.

P1110319Short-eared Owl & Kestrel – chasing each other high over the marshes today