Tag Archives: Shore Lark

18th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, and we spent the day in North Norfolk. It was forecast to be dull and cloudy all day, but thankfully we were treated to some long spells of sunshine, great winter weather to be out birding. There was still a bit of a chill in the brisk SW wind though – it is February after all!

As we made our way down towards the coast, a Red Kite circled lazily through the trees beside the road. We flushed a Common Buzzard out of the trees too, as we stopped, which flew away across the fields. A dead Brown Hare lay on the tarmac, which was obviously being eyed up by the local raptors. We watched as the Red Kite turned over the trees, twisting its tail like a rudder, before it too reluctantly drifted away, leaving behind its potential meal.

Our first destination was Holkham. There were lots of ducks on the pools alongside Lady Anne’s Drive – Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal. However, there were no Pink-footed Geese here today. Numbers of geese are now falling as the birds have started to make their way back north again after the winter.

Parking at the north end of the road, we made our way out through the pines and onto the saltmarsh. There were several birders making their way back along the sandy path who told us that our quarry was ahead. Shorelarks. The birds had been harried and chased around by a photographer, who was just leaving as we arrived, and they were rather skittish and unsettled initially.

They had been mostly keeping to the longer vegetation but when the Shorelarks were flushed by a loose dog and its associated walker, they flew round calling and landed on a more open area. We got them in the scope from a distance at first, and admired their canary yellow faces with black bandit masks, bright in the morning sunshine.

6o0a7241Shorelarks – their bright yellow faces catching the morning sun

6o0a7181Shorelarks – around 30 were still at Holkham this morning

The Shorelarks flew round again and settled near the path. We positioned ourselves nearby and waited patiently, rather than chasing in after them. Gradually, a small group, four of them, came out of the taller sea purslane towards us and started picking at the seedheads of the saltmarsh vegetation in front of us. We enjoyed some great close up views through the scope of them feeding. The poor Skylark singing its heart out in the sky high overhead was all but ignored until we realised that we could listen to one and watch the other, and enjoy both.

6o0a7266Shorelark – came to us as we waited patiently

The Shorelarks are winter visitors to the coast here, in very variable numbers. In recent years, only a very small number have typically made it here, but this winter has seen a resurgence. Early on in the winter, 70-80 were here at Holkham but they have now dispersed along the coast a little. Still, it was a real treat to see a flock of 30 here today.

After watching the Shorelarks for a while, we made our way over to the dunes and had a look out to sea. A drake Red-breasted Merganser we got in the scope was asleep but a drake Goldeneye was awake, its glossy green head catching the sunlight. Several Great Crested Grebes were mostly rather distant, but a winter plumage Red-throated Diver was diving just off the beach. Between dives, everyone eventually got a really good look at it through the scope.

After a great start to the morning, we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive. The lure of a hot drink at the coffee van proved too strong and we drank it by the picnic tables looking out over the marshes. There was a lot of action here. As well as all the Wigeon and Woodpigeons, a pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding out on the grass, amongst the molehills. The sunshine had brought the raptors out and at least four Common Buzzards circled over us.We had failed to find any Pink-footed Geese on the grass by the drive earlier, but a flock of about 50 flew in from the west and landed on the marshes, though unfortunately behind a hedge where we couldn’t get a clear look at them.

6o0a7274Common Buzzard – several circled over Lady Anne’s Drive in the sunshine

Three large white shapes circled up out of the trees in the middle of the marshes. With their long necks held outstretched in front and long legs trailing behind, we could see they were Spoonbills. They dropped down into the trees, but a few minutes later were up and circling again. They repeated this a couple of times more. The UK’s only colony of Spoonbill breed here so these were early returning birds presumably checking out the colony. Spring is definitely in the air!

We made our way round to the other end of the freshmarsh, closer to the trees, and it wasn’t long before the Spoonbills were up and circling again. We had a much improved view of them from here. Even better, when they landed back in the trees at one point, one was in view so we managed to get it distantly in the scope. We could see the yellow tip to its black spoon-shaped bill, confirming that it was an adult Spoonbill.

6o0a7322Spoonbills – early returning birds checking out the colony

Another large white bird out in the middle of the freshmarsh was a Great White Egret. Even without binoculars, we could see it was huge, with a long neck. Through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill. There were also three Ruff feeding out on the grass around one of the pools. Several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards circled in the sunshine or perched around in the trees.

6o0a7339Marsh Harrier – a female, circling above the marshes

The other highlight here was the geese. Scattered across the grass, mixed in with the Greylags, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese. Smaller and darker than the Greylags, through the scope we could see their more delicate pink bills with distinctive white surrounds to the bases. We could also see the distinctive black belly bars on the adult White-fronted Geese. They should be on their way back north soon, back to northern Russia where they breed.

img_0760White-fronted Geese – there were still a good number at Holkham today

From here, we also finally managed to find some Pink-footed Geese on the ground and in view. There were just two of them, but they were handily with a couple of Greylags for comparison. Again, the Pink-footed Geese were smaller and darker, particularly dark on the head and neck, with a more delicate dark bill. Through the scope we could see the pink legs and pink bank around the bill. There were also a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the grass, just to round off the goose selection nicely.

Leaving Holkham, we made our way west. Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe, where the tide was on its way out. There was a nice selection of waders feeding around the harbour. We had a good look at some Bar-tailed Godwits, noting the dark streaks on their pale buff-coloured upperparts an the long but slightly uptilted bill.

6o0a7360Bar-tailed Godwit – showed well at Brancaster Staithe

Lots of Turnstones and several Oystercatchers were picking around the piles of discarded mussels on the shoreline. A couple of Grey Plovers were picking around on the mud, and a group of smaller Dunlin were feeding feverishly in the shallow water.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at Titchwell, so we made our way to the picnic area. We had been intending to sit at the picnic tables, but we didn’t get a chance! First of all, we heard a Goldcrest singing and walked over to see it flitting around in the bare sallows right by the path. There were lots of Goldfinches twittering high in the alders and then a pair of Siskin appeared with them. The male fed in the top of one of the trees in the sunshine for a minute or so, where we could get a good look at it.

Then one of the group spotted another bird in the top of the same alder. It was hanging on one of the outer branches, picking at the cones. It was much paler and browner, and when it turned to face us we could see that it had a small red patch on its forehead and a bright pinkish red wash across its breast. A Mealy Redpoll and a smart male too. When it climbed around reaching for the cones, we could see it had a distinctive pale whitish rump streaked with black.

6o0a7398Mealy Redpoll – feeding in one of the alders opposite the picnic area

After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. We had a quick look at the feeders the other side of the visitor centre, but at first there were no birds. Gradually, they started to reappear – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. Finally a Brambling flew in and joined them. It was a female, with greyish head and a pale orange wash across the breast and shoulders contrasting with the white belly.

6o0a7430Brambling – a female on the feeders by the visitor centre

On the walk out along the main path, we had a quick look in the ditches either side but could not see a Water Rail – we resolved to have another look on the way back. The grazing meadow dry ‘pool’ was rather quiet again, but the reedbed pool the other side held a small group of Common Pochard, along with the regular Mallards and Coot. We stopped to have a look around the reeds. There had been a Bittern feeding in one of the channels yesterday, but there was no sign of it this afternoon. However, we did find a Kingfisher perched in the edge of the reeds.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still rather high, although a few small islands have started to reappear. This is continuing to prove popular with the wildfowl, and there were good numbers of Teal on here still today, as well as a selection of Shoveler, Gadwall and Wigeon. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from over towards Brancaster and dropped in for a wash and a drink.

The number of Avocets is now starting to increase again. They were mostly sleeping by one of the smaller islands, until everything was spooked and they flew round flashing black and white as they twisted and turned. A small group of Knot and Dunlin were bathing on one of the other small islands. The larger fenced-off island was absolutely packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing.

6o0a7468Avocets – numbers are increasing again as birds return after the winter

The mud on the Volunteer Marsh is proving a more attractive feeding ground for waders and there was a nice selection on here again today. A lone Ringed Plover looked very smart in the scope, with the black and white rings around its head and neck. A Grey Plover was looking very pale in the sunshine. There were lots more Knot and Dunlin on here, plus a few Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit.

As we made our way over to the bank at the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, one of the group spotted a Water Rail scuttling into the vegetation right below the bank. We waited and eventually it showed itself again briefly. We thought it might work its way all the way along beneath us, but when it came to a more open area it stood lurking in the vegetation for a couple of minutes before thinking better of it and heading back in the better hidden direction from whence it came.

6o0a7478Water Rail – lurking in the bushes on the edge of the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, there were a couple of nice close Black-tailed Godwits. Conveniently, a Bar-tailed Godwit was also nearby, giving us a chance to compare the two. We could see the buffier upperparts of the latter, extensively streaked with black, compared to the plainer, duller grey Black-tailed Godwit. The Bar-tailed Godwit was also noticeably smaller and shorter legged, with a distinct upturn to its bill compared to the straighter billed Black-tailed Godwit.

6o0a7489Black-tailed Godwit – showing very well on the Tidal Pools

Next stop was the beach. As soon as we came through the dunes, we could see a huge raft of scoter out on the sea, several thousands strong. It looked like a massive black oil slick across the water. Periodically, parts of the raft would take off and fly a short distance and in flight we could see that the vast majority of these birds had all black wings, making them Common Scoter.

Closer in, we could see some smaller rafts of scoter and through the scope we could see they were made up of a nice mixture of Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter, including at least 30 of the latter. Several of the Velvet Scoter were conveniently holding their wings loosely folded, which meant that we could see the white wing patch as a white stripe across their sides. Others had more distinctive twin white spots on their faces, very different from the pale cheeks of the female Common Scoter.

Two Long-tailed Duck flew across and landed on the sea next to one of the closer scoter rafts. We managed to get them in the scope, but they were hard to see against the water, which was also a bit choppier now than it had been this morning. While we were trying to get everyone to get a look at them, they flew again and disappeared.

It is very mild at the moment for February, but out of the sun in the lee of the dunes, and with the chill in the wind, several of the group were getting cold. With the sun already starting to sink in the sky, we decided to call it a day and make our way back.

There were still some more things to see. Scanning along the channel on the north edge of the Volunteer Marsh, a much paler wader caught our eye. It was a Spotted Redshank in silvery grey and white winter plumage. It walked across the mud and dropped down into the deep channel in the middle. Thankfully we picked it up again walking towards us in the channel and then it climbed out again onto the mud.

As we walked past the freshmarsh, all the waders took flight. They seemed to be especially jumpy this afternoon. We stood and watched the Golden Plover and Lapwing wheeling in the sky over the water, and then a large group of Golden Plover flew towards us and right overhead – we could hear the beating of their wings.

We had failed to find the Water Rail in the ditch by the path on the way out, but on our way back it was feeding down in the bottom, under an overhanging tree. We got a good look at it through the branches, probing around in the rotting leaves. A nice way to end the day, then it was back to the car and time to head for home.

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3rd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice dry and mild winter’s day, brighter in the morning though clouding over a little later on.

While we were loading up the car in Wells first thing this morning, we happened to scan the trees in a garden next to the road. A Coal Tit appeared in the top of an apple tree and, while we  were watching it, a Waxwing popped up next to it. There have been lots of Waxwings about so far this winter, but most of those which arrived on the coast here have moved on inland. So this was most a welcome surprise.

6o0a1185Waxwing – just one, in the centre of Wells briefly first thing

The tree was full of Blackbirds feeding on the apples still on the tree, and the Waxwing dropped down and joined in. It fed for a few seconds, then climbed up into the back of the tree. It was on its own and probably looking for other Waxwings – it called a couple of times. At that point, something spooked the Blackbirds and everything scattered. We waited a while for the Waxwing to come back down to the apples but we hadn’t seen where it had gone and there was no further sign of it. It had probably just dropped in to feed briefly, before carrying on its way.

While we were waiting, we did see a Brambling which flew down to the feeders in another tree in the same garden. Another nice surprise to start the day.

6o0a1199Brambling – coming down to the feeders in the same garden

Our first destination proper was Holkham. As we drove down Lady Anne’s Drive, there were a few flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields either side, so we pulled up for a closer look, admiring their pink legs and bill bands.

6o0a1203Pink-footed Geese – in the fields along Lady Anne’s Drive

At the north end, a little group of Redshank were feeding on the pools in the grazing marsh on one side of the road and a large flock of Wigeon was out on the grass on the other side. Nearby, we found a single Curlew and a lone Common Snipe in the grass too. There was a bit of a commotion further over and we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier chasing a Carrion Crow. The Crow had something in its bill and obviously didn’t want to give it up. The two birds went round and round in tight circles for a minute or so, until the Marsh Harrier eventually gave up.

Walking out towards the beach, we could see a small group of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh as we made our way down the boardwalk. One of the geese was subtly different from the others – darker bodied and with a more contrasting flank patch and a larger white collar. It was not dark enough for a pure Black Brant though. It was a Black Brant hybrid (the offspring of a Black Brant and a Dark-bellied Brent mixed pair), and it has been returning here for several years, presumably with the same group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese.

img_9082Black Brant hybrid – a returning bird with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

Right in the far corner of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks. We could see them from some distance away, flying round, flashing white underneath as they turned. They landed again and we were able to approach carefully, stopping ahead of them and waiting as they worked their way towards us.

6o0a1225Shore Larks – some of the 28 at Holkham first thing this morning

There were 28 Shore Larks in the flock today, while we were there at least. As they came closer, we had a great view of them in the scope. Their bright yellow faces shone in the morning sunshine, contrasting with the black masks. Very smart little birds!

6o0a1266Shore Larks – the flock gradually came closer to us

In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the Shore Larks and walked out towards the dunes to look at the sea. Just about the first bird we found out on the water was a Red-necked Grebe. It was a little distant at first – thankfully it would come much closer inshore later. While we were trying to get everyone in the group onto it through the scope, a different bird surfaced in front. It was a Great Northern Diver. We all had a quick look at it before it dived.

The more we scanned the sea, the more we found. Not everyone had seen the Red-necked Grebe yet, and while scanning to find it one of the group found two grebes together. They didn’t sound like the Red-necked and taking a look through the scope they turned out to be two Slavonian Grebes. Then we found another Slavonian Grebe and another two, further out. Then a careful scan revealed at least 6 Slavonian Grebes scattered across the sea in ones and twos. A great number to find together in one place here at this time of year! There were lots of Great Crested Grebes out on the sea too.

The sea duck were further out today, and it took us a while to find a raft of Common Scoter. Looking carefully through the flock, we started to find a few Velvet Scoters in with them. The Common Scoter were almost all females, with large pale cheeks. Next to them, the Velvet Scoters looked much darker headed, with two smaller pale spots visible on a good view. It was not easy to pick them out at first, given the distance and the swell, but they drifted a bit closer inshore and the sea flattened off to make it a bit easier. In the end, we could see there were at least 10 Velvet Scoters out there today. A single Eider was similarly distant.

While we were watching the sea, we heard Shore Larks calling and a small group of nine flew along the beach and landed down on the sand in front of us. We presumed they were part of the group we had seen earlier, back on the saltmarsh, which had probably been disturbed by the increasing number of dogs out for a Saturday morning walk.

Four Snow Buntings had earlier flown east along the edge of the dunes. After the Shore Larks had moved on, another group of five Snow Buntings dropped down onto the tide line, where we could get a great look at them. One of them appeared to be an adult male Scandinavian bird, with lots of white in the wing.

6o0a1309Snow Buntings – 3 of the 5 which landed on the tide line

By this stage, the Red-necked Grebe had come closer inshore, giving us much better views. We could even see the yellow base to its bill, glinting in the sunshine! It gave us a better chance to compare it to the Slavonian Grebes, and the Great Crested Grebes as well. The Great Northern Diver had reappeared, at least we assumed it was the same one we had seen earlier, and for a few minutes it stopped diving and allowed us to get a great look at it too.

On our way back over the saltmarsh, we had a quick scan and there was no sign of any Shore Larks where they had been first thing this morning. We eventually stumbled across a small group, closer to the dunes, as we walked back. There were nine of them, so they were possibly the same birds we had seen out on the beach earlier. It seemed likely that the large flock had been disturbed and had disbursed. There were a lot of people out today, walkers and dog-walkers.

When we got back through the pines, we turned and walked west along the track on the south side of the trees. There were lots of Jays calling and flying back and forth across the path. At Salts Hole, we found a couple of Little Grebes on the water among the ducks. A Mistle Thrush flew out of the trees and dropped down onto the grass beyond. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and a tit flock duly appeared on the edge of trees. As well as a variety of tits, we could see lots of tiny Goldcrests flitting around. We heard a Treecreeper calling, and shortly after it appeared, working its way up the trunk of a pine tree. A Green Woodpecker flew off through the tree tops.

6o0a1339Long-tailed Tit – we found a mixed tit flock on the edge of the pines

We stopped briefly on the boardwalk by Washington Hide to scan the grazing marshes. A rather dark Common Buzzard was perched in a bush behind the reeds. A distant Red Kite circled over the trees in Holkham Park beyond. Four Gadwall were upending on the pool in front of the hide.

Making our way quickly further west, we climbed up to Joe Jordan Hide. Our first target was achieved as soon as we looked out of the flaps. A large flock of White-fronted Geese were out on the grass just to the left of the hide. We could see the white band around the base of the pink bill and the black belly bars of the adults. There were quite a few duller juveniles  too. In all, we counted at least 96 White-fronted Geese here today.

6o0a1343White-fronted Geese – there were at least 96 at Holkham today

Before we had even had a chance to sit down, someone else in the hide pointed out a Great White Egret which had appeared on the edge of a reedy ditch. We got that in the scope next and had a great view of it, an enormous white bird, the size of a Grey Heron, with a long, pointed, yellow bill and black feet, distinguishing it from a Little Egret. The Great White Egret flew across and landed on an old bridge, where it stood preening for a while. Eventually it flew again and disappeared back behind the reeds.

img_9110Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes from Joe Jordan Hide

There were lots of Marsh Harriers out here too. At first, we could see a couple perched in the bushes, but then more appeared and the next thing we knew there were six Marsh Harriers circling together. One of them was carrying bright green coloured wing tags and when it landed we were able to read the code on them. It turned out the bird had been ringed several miles inland from here in the summer of 2015 and this was the first time it had been seen again!

It was time for lunch, so we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive and made good use of the picnic tables outside. After lunch, we drove west to Burnham Overy Staithe and made our way out along the seawall towards the dunes.

There were lots of Wigeon and Curlew out on the grazing marshes by the start of the seawall. Several Redshank and Grey Plover were feeding on the mud along the edges of the harbour channel and we counted at least 10 Little Grebes in the channel itself. As we turned the corner on the seawall, the larger area of open mud was covered in waders, predominantly Dunlin. On the grass the other side, lots of Brent Geese were busy feeding. A little further along, we stopped to look at a striking pale Common Buzzard perched on a post.

6o0a1362Brent Geese – lots were feeding on the grazing marshes by the seawall

Once we reached the dunes, we made our way straight over to the beach. It had clouded over more now and, with the shortness of the days at this time of year, we were already starting to lose the light. There was no sign of the Isabelline Wheatear in the dunes around the end of the boardwalk as we walked past. It has seemingly been hiding out on the beach for the last couple of weeks, so we thought we would look for it out there, although we knew we were probably a little late in the day.

We walked quickly west along the tideline. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, a huge number of Common Gulls in particular, with more large groups constantly flying in to join them. There were a few waders too – a Bar-tailed Godwit, a handful of Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers and a couple of Turnstones. What looked at first like a raft of scoter in the distance out on the sea turned out to be a large flock of Wigeon when we got them in the scope. Presumably they had been frightened off the saltmarsh, perhaps by a raptor, and had sought safety out here.

When we saw movement ahead of us on the beach, we looked to see six Shore Larks picking along the high tide line. We lost sight of them behind a ridge and walking on the next thing we knew they appeared right in front of us. They scurried ahead of us for a while, before flying up and doubling back, landing behind us back down on the tide line again.

6o0a1381Shore Lark – six more were feeding along the tide line out at Gun Hill

The bushes round Gun Hill were very quiet now and there was no sign of the wheatear in the dunes on the walk back to the boardwalk. From the seawall, we scanned either side on the way back to Burnham Overy Staithe. We picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier over the saltmarsh, quartering low over the bushes. It seemed to drop down into the bushes, but the next thing we knew we picked up a grey male even further back, towards Scolt Head. Perhaps it was a different bird? The next thing we knew, a ringtail Hen Harrier was flying round with it.

With lots of yelping, we watched as a large flock of Pink-footed Geese dropped down off the fields and onto the grazing marshes. Even in the growing gloom, we could see there were several Barnacle Geese with them, although as usual there is no way of telling whether they might be wild birds or just part of the feral flock from Holkham.

It was the time when the Pink-footed Geese come in to roost at Holkham, and we looked up into the sky in the distance beyond and saw thousands and thousands of geese in a vast skein smearing the horizon. They were flying across from us, heading towards the back of Holkham Park. When we got back to the car park, we heard more geese yelping and looked up to see several more skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in from the west. We loaded up the car as several more skeins passed overhead and then it was time to head for home ourselves.

11th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The middle of November traditionally marks the time when autumn starts to merge into winter, at least as far as the migration season is concerned. However, there are sill birds on the move, arriving here for the winter, and there is still the odd lingering migrant yet to move on. It was a gloriously sunny day today, even warm at times, a perfect day to get out and see some of those birds.

We started at Burnham Overy Staithe. As we climbed up onto the seawall,a small bird flew past us and into the bushes below. It was a Chiffchaff. Presumably a late migrant, it seemed to be in a hurry to be on its way and disappeared off down the line of bushes in a series of long flights. A Common Buzzard perched in a large bush out on the grazing meadows, enjoying the morning sunshine.

img_8390Fieldfare – in the bushes by the seawall at Burnham Overy Staithe

There were lots of Blackbirds in the hawthorns below the seawall, presumably winter migrants arrived from the continent and stopped to refuel on berries. As we walked along, we heard first the tchacking of a Fieldfare, which we found perched in the top in the sunshine, and then the teezing of several Redwings, most of which were less obliging. A Song Thrush completed the set.

6o0a8480Redwing – several were also feeding in the bushes below the seawall

Looking out over the other side, in the harbour, we stopped to look through the waders. The tide was out, so there was lots of exposed mud. First we picked up a Grey Plover with a lone Ringed Plover over on the far bank. Then several more Ringed Plovers appeared, and started to bathe in the shallow water, with a Redshank conveniently close by for size comparison. A little further along, at the bend in the seawall, we could see a good sized flock of Dunlin out on the larger mudflats, feeding feverishly.

As we walked past, we flushed a Little Egret from the near edge of the harbour channel, and it flew out to the mud, flashing its yellow feet as it went. In the channel, we found four Little Grebes together. They proceeded to haul themselves out onto the far bank – always off to see Little Grebes on dry land, they look so ungainly.

6o0a8448Little Egret – with bright yellow feet

Several Rock Pipits had flown around calling, but typically dropped down out of view. Finally one dropped down in front of us and perched nicely on a pile of rocks, appropriately enough! Through the scope, we could see its plain, oily brown upperparts and the dirty ground colour to its black-streaked underparts. We get a lot of Scandinavian Rock Pipits, of the subspecies littoralis, coming to Norfolk for the winter, but we don’t have any British petrosus breeding here.

img_8392Rock Pipit – eventually one perched up nicely for us on a pile of rocks

There were lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes. As we stopped to have a look at them in the scope, we could hear them whistling – a real sound of winter on the marshes here. There were plenty of geese too. We were looking straight into the sun on the walk about but we could still see lots of Brent Geese, Pink-footed Geese and Greylags. In with them were 12 Barnacle Geese, presumably feral birds from Holkham Park.

As we passed the reedbed, we could hear Bearded Tits calling but, despite the lack of wind, they were not to be seen. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us, but was similarly elusive. At least the Reed Buntings were slightly easier to see. A Marsh Harrier perched in one of the bushes at the back of the reeds and another one or two flew backwards and forwards across the channel to and from the saltmarsh beyond.

There were lots of Starlings on the move today, little flocks passing west overhead constantly on the walk out. Some were not flying so directly as they sometimes do, instead taking advantage of the warm conditions to try to catch flies on the way. A small flock of Golden Plover flew over calling and dropped down on the grass by the dunes. When we got there, we got them in the scope and found a little covey of six Grey Partridges with them!

When we got to the dunes, we turned left and walked out towards Gun Hill. The Isabelline Wheatear was still present earlier in the morning – it has been here for three weeks now – but had not been seen for over an hour when we arrived. Could it have taken advantage of the sunny weather finally to continue its journey? We decided to have a walk round the dunes to see if we could find it.

There was no sign of it where it had been feeding for the past couple of weeks. From the northern edge of the dunes, we stopped to look out towards the sea. We could see lines of wildfowl flying in, migrants arriving for the winter. There were several groups of Brent Geese and a larger flock of Wigeon coming in. A line of around twenty Eider flying west over the sea was a nice bonus, particularly as it included a couple of smart drakes.

There were lots of waders down on the beach. There were plenty of Oystercatcher and a few Sanderling out on the sand. Down around the tidal channel, we found a little mixed flock of Knot and Dunlin – a nice opportunity to compare their relative sizes. Several Turnstones had gathered for a bath.

Out at the point, looking out towards Scolt Head, we picked up two Red Kites circling out over the saltmarsh. They seemed too concerned with swooping at each other to worry about the Marsh Harrier which was trying to have a go at them. There were a few people standing on the top of Gun Hill looking for the Isabelline Wheatear, and as we turned to walk back one of the locals started waving to us. It had reappeared!

img_8405Isabelline Wheatear – looking very sandy in the sun

We stopped to scan in the direction they were all looking and there was the Isabelline Wheatear on the edge of the saltmarsh. It looked particularly pale and sandy in the sunshine. It flitted around the bushes for a few seconds and then disappeared off behind the Suaeda. It was proving very mobile because, by the time we got over to the others, it had flown again to the other side of Gun Hill. We had some nice views of it on the grass and back down to the edge of the saltmarsh again before suddenly it was off again. It flew  off up over Gun Hill and disappeared.

It was around this time that we heard trilling and looked up to see a Waxwing heading towards us.  It flew over our heads and carried on west, unfortunately without stopping.

Having had good views of the Isabelline Wheatear, we decided to walk round onto the beach and head back along the tideline to see what we could find. We didn’t find any Snow Buntings today, but we did come across the Isabelline Wheatear again. The reason we couldn’t find it earlier in the dunes was because it was now out on the beach! There were lots of flies buzzing around the high tide line, and it was busy catching them. Chasing up and down the beach, occasionally flying up after a fly.

img_8451Isabelline Wheatear – catching flies out on the beach today

We watched it for a while, but in the end had to tear ourselves away and head back, taking a detour via the base of the dunes to avoid disturbing it. We walked quickly back along the seawall, stopping briefly to watch a large flock of Linnets and Goldfinches whirling around over the saltmarsh. When they landed, we could see several Golden Plover out there too, surprisingly well camouflaged, despite the bright golden-spangled upperparts we could see through the scope.

The light was better on the walk back, so we stopped at the corner to look at the geese again. This time, we found four White-fronted Geese in with the Pinkfeet. One had its head up for a while, so we could see its pink bill surrounded at the base with white, but then they all went to sleep. Then it was back for lunch, led along the seawall by a pair of Stonechats which flew ahead of us. We ate our lunch sat on the benches looking out over the saltmarsh back towards Gun Hill – a stunning view!

6o0a8464Stonechat – a pair led us back along the seawall

After lunch, we drove back round to Holkham. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes east of Lady Anne’s Drive. While most were distant, a little group of about a dozen were right next to the road, so we stopped for a close look. We could see their pink legs and delicate dark bills with encircled with a pink band.

6o0a8494Pink-footed Goose – showing very well close to Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked through the pines, we could hear Goldcrests calling high up in the pines. A Jay flew across and started scolding from the trees the other side. Out on the saltmarsh, a large flock of Linnets was whirling round, reluctant to settle.

A little further along, we came across a small group of Brent Geese. Looking through them,  we quickly found the Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which is regular here. It is not as dark or contrasting as a pure Black Brant but is still subtly darker bodied, with a slightly bolder flank patch and more obvious though not complete collar. In with them too was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose. When it turned, we could see the bold wing stripes which meant it was a juvenile. Along with several or our regular Russian Dark-bellied Brents, that meant we had 2 1/2 subspecies of Brent Goose in one very small flock!

img_8457Black Brant hybrid – out on the saltmarsh at Holkham

At the eastern end of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks in their usual place. We could see several of them flying around before we got there, but when we got closer we noticed there were lots more still down on the ground. There was a mass of bright yellow faces, shining beautifully in the late afternoon sunshine. Shore Larks are always stunning birds, but it was fantastic to watch so many of them in such great light, a real treat.

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They were feeding in the slightly taller vegetation today, picking seeds from the dried seedheads of the saltmarsh flowers. Several of the Shore Larks were hidden from view, which made it harder to get an accurate count, but there were at least 65 today and very probably a few more that we missed. After years of declining numbers it is great to see so many back again this year. While we were watching the Shore Larks, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the pines beyond, a reminder that days are short now.

Out at the beach, the tide was in. There was a surprising amount of swell, given how little wind there was today, which meant we had to climb up into the dunes to get a higher vantage point. Even from there, the ducks kept disappearing in the waves. We did manage to find a couple of Long-tailed Ducks which were not too far out. The large flocks of Common Scoter were more distant but little groups kept flying around and a flash of white in the wing alerted us to two Velvet Scoters in with one of them. They landed on the sea and we could see them in the scope before they started diving and disappeared into the larger flock.

We could see several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too. A little flock of Cormorants flew overhead, heading in to roost. Then it started to get a little misty and, with the light fading, became increasingly difficult to pick out anything different. We decided to head back to the other side of the pines.

Lots of Pink-footed Geese could be heard calling as we walked back through the pines. There was a lovely view across the marshes, with low-lying mist enveloping the bases of the hedges and trees. We watched and waited for a while, with several smaller groups of geese flying in and whiffling down. Then we picked up some bigger skeins in the distance and several thousand flew in together, in a cacophony of yelping calls. Perhaps put off by the mist, several groups flew straight over, perhaps heading out to roost on the flats instead. Many of the others did drop down and disappear into the mist.

6o0a8536Pink-footed Geese – dropping down in the mist to roost

It is quite a sight and sound to watch the Pink-footed Geese coming in to roost on a winter’s evening. Then, with the light fading, we headed for home.

4th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The last of our scheduled Autumn Migration Tours, we were looking to catch up with some lingering migrants and also see the arrival of many of our winter visitors. It was mostly cloudy all day, but not too windy today, good birding conditions for the time of year.

Our first destination of the day was Burnham Overy Staithe. We climbed up onto the seawall and set off to walk towards the dunes. As we did so, we heard Waxwings calling and looked over to the hawthorns further along just in time to see six of them flying off across the path in front of us and heading off west. A nice way to start the day.

The Waxwings had moved on but the bushes were still alive with birds as we walked past. Lots of thrushes were feasting on the berries, probably fresh in from the continent and hungry after their long journey over the sea. There were plenty of Blackbirds and with them a few Redwings and Song Thrushes. Several Robins chasing around in the bushes were also probably winter migrants. Out on the grazing marsh, a flock of Starlings were down in the brambles and a steady stream of small groups of Starlings were passing west overhead.

It was high tide and small parties of Brent Geese were flying around over the harbour or heading out across the grazing marshes. We could see three grey geese half hidden behind a line of reeds out on the grass and looking more closely we could see that they were White-fronted Geese, the white around the base of their bills showing when they lifted their heads.

img_8064White-fronted Geese – three were on the grazing marshes this morning

Further along, at the corner of the seawall, we could see loads more geese out on the marshes. They were mostly Greylags, larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and Pink-footed Geese, smaller and darker grey with a more delicate and mostly dark bill. In with them we found four Barnacle Geese. Unfortunately it is hard to know whether they were wild birds which had arrived with the Pink-footed Geese for the winter, or perhaps more likely feral birds from the flock in Holkham Park!

The geese were mostly distant, but two Pink-footed Geese swam in from the harbour and started feeding on the grass at the bottom of the seawall, giving us a closer look at their pink legs and feet and the pink bank around the dark bill.

6o0a7088Pink-footed Goose – two were feeding at the base of the seawall

While we were watching the geese, we received a phone call to let us know that a Great White Egret was flying across the harbour behind us. We turned to see it drop down onto the saltmarsh the other side, over towards Scolt Head. Through the scope we could see its long neck and long yellow-orange dagger of a bill. Even at that range, it was clearly much bigger than the Little Egrets, several of which we could see dotted around the harbour.

We made our way swiftly out to the dunes and turned west towards Gun Hill. There were a few photographers with massive lenses lying prone on the grass ahead of us and we could immediately see their target. The Isabelline Wheatear has been here for almost two weeks now. They are a very rare visitor here – breeding from Turkey across through southern Russia, they winter mostly in Africa, so this one was well off course. It seems to be finding plenty of food in the short grass though.

img_8139Isabelline Wheatear – has been in the dunes for almost two weeks

The more typical Northern Wheatear is a regular passage migrant here, but Isabelline Wheatear is paler and sandier-coloured. In flight, it has a similar black and white tail pattern, but the black terminal band is much broader. A great bird to catch up with here.

After admiring the Isabelline Wheatear for a while, we set off past Gun Hill and out to the beach. The tide was starting to go out and we could see more waders on the emerging mud. A couple of Grey Plover were feeding in a muddy creek. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were in the water by a sandbank along with two Curlew. Further over, we could see a Ringed Plover and several Dunlin. Small groups of Wigeon had gathered on the banks of the harbour channel.

Walking round onto the other side of the point, we started to scan the sea beyond the spit at the eastern end of Scolt Head. A surprise find here was a late adult Arctic Tern, fishing just offshore. It kept flying up and down just beyond the sand and diving periodically into the water. A Red-throated Diver moulting out of summer plumage drifted east and a juvenile Gannet flew past further offshore.

We had been told that there were some Snow Buntings on the beach, so we walked round along the tide line and eventually spotted nine of them flying towards us. They landed out on the beach at first, but then returned to the high water mark where they proceeded to feed on the piles of saltmarsh vegetation which had been washed up, looking for seeds. We edged closer to them and were watching them through the scope when they flew again – and promptly landed right in front of us. Stunning views!

6o0a7206Snow Bunting – there were nine on the beach by Gun Hill today

We made our way back along the beach, stopping to scan through a nice selection of waders which had gathered around the channels out on the sand north of the boardwalk. The silvery grey and white Sanderling contrasting with the much darker and longer billed Dunlin. More Ringed Plover were walking around on the sandbanks. A Bar-tailed Godwit was wading deeper in the water.

Crossing back over the dunes towards the grazing marshes we could hear birds calling plaintively and looked up to see a small flock of Golden Plover whirling over the grass. They settled down again and we had a look at them through the scope. While we were standing there, a flock of about a dozen Blackbirds came in from the direction of the sea and headed inland. Then three Mistle Thrushes flew in calling too and made their way in over the seawall.

It was time lunch, so we made our way quickly back towards the car. Scanning the grazing marshes on the way, we spotted some birds flycatching from the bushes in the distance. They were Waxwings, possibly the ones we had seen earlier having returned or more likely another group. There are large numbers of Waxwings arriving along the coast at the moment. They are irruptive, coming here in very variable numbers each winter, moving out of Scandinavia in response to cold weather or a lack of berries. After a couple of fairly lean winters for them, this looks like being a good Waxwing year!

We hurried back along the seawall and positioned ourselves where we could see them. The Waxwings were perching in the tops of the bushes and making little sallies up into the air after insects. Others were perched in the hawthorns, preening or eating berries. We counted six out on the grazing marshes at first – then as we walked back along the seawall, four were perched in the bushes just below, and we could still see at least four further over. Waxwings are such stunning birds and full of character with their spiky hairstyles! Suddenly they started calling and flew off towards Burnham Overy Staithe.

6o0a7251Waxwings – at least 8 were in the bushes on our way back

After a late lunch at Holkham, delayed due to our time spent admiring the Waxwings, we drove down to the end of Lady Anne’s Drive and walked out through the pines towards the beach. The saltmarshes here used to be a regular site for wintering Shorelarks, but they haven’t been here for nearly five years now. The numbers along the whole Norfolk coast have dropped in recent years and it seemed that seeing large flocks of Shorelarks could be a thing of the past. However, just like with Waxwings it looks like this winter could be a year for Shorelarks. A large flock of Shorelarks has gathered at Holkham in the last couple of weeks.

As we walked down along the edge of the saltmarsh, we could see several people ahead of us. They were not here to see the larks but were walking their dogs – they were off the lead and one of them, a spaniel, was haring about over the whole of the saltmarsh, back and forth. Disturbance from dogs may be one reason why Holkham doesn’t get Shorelarks every year like it used to do. When we got to the place the birds have been favouring, we were pleased to see that some were still left. There were only ten of them though, as we proceeded to stop and admire them.

As we watched them, another flock of about 25 Shorelarks flew back in and joined them. Then another similar sized group returned to. It was hard to count them all, as they were moving all the time and some were hidden in the saltmarsh vegetation but there were at least 62 in total, an amazing number and the most we have seen for many years.

img_8217Shorelark – the Holkham flock numbered at least 62 today, an amazing number

While we were watching them, a covey of nine Grey Partridge strolled out of the dunes and across the path and proceeded to feed on the edge of the saltmarsh, next to the Shorelarks. A very odd combination!

Having enjoyed great views of the Shorelarks, we made our way out to the beach. The tide was out but we stopped by the dunes to look at the sea. We could see lots of Common Scoter scattered across the bay, numbering several hundred in total. Closer inshore, we picked up a group of five Long-tailed Duck just off the beach. Before we made our way down to the shore for a closer look, we had a quick scan of the sea.

We got a glimpse of a diver as it disappeared beneath the water and it looked very contrasting, black and white, and we felt sure we had seen a white flank patch. When it finally resurfaced, our suspicions were confirmed – it was a smart winter plumage Black-throated Diver, a nice find as it is the rarest of the three regular UK divers in Norfolk. It was diving all the time, but each time it reappeared we got it in the scope and eventually everyone got a look at it.

By this stage, the Long-tailed Ducks had unfortunately flown further out into the bay, but we still made our way down to the shore. We got a flock of Common Scoter in the scope for a closer look – they appeared to be almost entirely pale-cheeked females/1st winters. Then a more careful look through the various flocks revealed a couple of Velvet Scoters too, larger and darker faced, with two smaller white spots. They were loosely associating with one of the groups of Common Scoter but still keeping to themselves. Conveniently the Velvet Scoter were at the front of the flock which made them easier to pick out.

The sun was already setting and we were starting to lose the light already, so we made our way back across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks flying in again and landing right beside us as we did so. There was a little group of Brent Geese in the taller vegetation and we stopped briefly for a look through them. One stood out – it had a slightly white flank patch than the others and a somewhat better marked collar.

It was a Black Brant hybrid – not contrasting enough for a pure Black Brant. This bird is regular here every winter, the progeny many years ago of a wandering Black Brant which got in with the Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese which winter here and ended up pairing up with one of them. The parents are long gone, but the hybrid young still returns.

As we walked back towards the car park we could already hear the high-pitched yelping of Pink-footed Geese. We stopped on the south side of the pines to admire the stunning sunset away to the west, across the grazing marshes. At first, there were only a few small lines of geese which flew over and landed with some Pink-footed Geese which were still feeding on the grass the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive.

Then away in the distance, over Holkham Park, we saw them coming – skein after skein of geese, several thousand strong in total. As they got closer, they were accompanied by a  cacophony of yelping. The Pink-footed Geese circled round against the bright pinks and firey oranges of the sky, before whiffling down onto the grass to roost. It was a truly stunning spectacle – and a great way to end the day. One of the greatest sights and sounds of a North Norfolk winter.

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6o0a7306Pink-footed Geese – coming in to roost at Holkham at sunset

 

19th February 2016 – Raven Mad!

 

Day 1 of another three day long weekend of tours today. We spent the day in North Norfolk, trying to catch up with a few of our local wintering specialities and lingering rarities. It was a glorious morning to be out – bright and crisp after a frost overnight, with big blue skies spread out above us. Even though it clouded over later in the afternoon, the forecast rain very kindly held off until after we had finished.

On our way down to the coast, a Barn Owl was out hunting over the grass beside the road, where the frost had melted. Our first stop was along the road at Holkham and the first bird we set eyes on there was another Barn Owl out hunting over the grazing marshes. There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the fields and a single one perched in the morning sun in a tree in front of us. Several Common Buzzards came out of the Park behind us and circled up into the sky.

Then a Peregrine appeared over Decoy Wood. It circled out over the pools, scattering all the masses of Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler, seemingly just for fun, then drifted back over the trees again. Next it dropped down towards the grass and had a go at an Egyptian Goose which happened to be flying past. It landed on one of the trees for a brief rest and then dropped down over the back.

IMG_7856White-fronted Geese – with a few Greylags for company

There were still a good number of White-fronted Geese out on the freshmarsh. Many of them were hidden behind the trees, which made it difficult to count them today, but several were out in the open where we could get a good look at them, admiring the white surround to the base of their bills and their black belly stripes. There were several much larger Greylag Geese with them, giving a good opportunity for comparison.

A lone Ruff was down on the grass by one of the small pools and there were lots of Lapwing there too. A small party of Black-tailed Godwits whirled round whenever one of the Marsh Harriers drifted over.

We made our way on westwards and stopped by the harbour at Burnham Overy Staithe. It was a wonderful day to be walking out along the seawall. The mud along the harbour channel was full of waders – Redshanks, Grey Plover, Dunlin. A group of Black-tailed Godwits were roosting on one of the sandbars, at least until they were flushed by a couple of dogs. Several are already starting to acquire the orange breast feathers of summer plumage. We couldn’t find a Knot with them on the way out, but remedied that later, on the way back.

IMG_7862Black-tailed Godwits – flushed from the sandbank in the harbour

All the Brent Geese which had been loafing around in the harbour were flushed by the dogs too and flew off out across the grazing meadows to feed. A couple of Red-breasted Merganser swam away, diving constantly, and later flew back to where they had been feeding, once the danger had passed.

We stopped on the seawall to have a closer look at some Pink-footed Geese. Most of them seem to have departed already, on their way further north where they will stop a while before continuing on to Iceland. However, there are still groups hanging around so we wanted to take this opportunity to have a proper look.

At this point, our attention was drawn to a black bird circling low over the edge of the dunes. It is always hard to judge the size of a lone bird, but it looked big, really big. There was also something about the way it was flying, circling effortlessly. We swung the scope round onto it quickly and could see a huge black bill, thick neck, with shaggy feathering at the throat and what seemed to be a longish wedge-shaped tail – a Raven!

P1170375Raven – one of a pair in the dunes today, a properly rare bird in Norfolk!

In some parts of the country, a Raven would not create much excitement, but they are still really rare in Norfolk. So much so, that this was the first Raven that your correspondent has ever seen in his home county! They have been spreading across the country and records here have been increasing in the last couple of years, but it is still a great bird to see here.

It was joined by a second and the two Ravens circled slowly along the dunes towards Holkham Pines. At this point, two Carrion Crows set off after them and started to mob them – the Crows were tiny by comparison. One of the Ravens started to circle out over the grazing marshes towards us, and we could now hear the deep, hoarse ‘kronk’ call. It got nearer and nearer and looked like it would come straight to us before it swung away again towards Holkham Park. Great stuff!

With a spring in our step, we carried on out towards the dunes, and turned west along the beach towards Gun Hill. We had come to look for the Shore Larks, so we looked carefully all the way along the high tide line where they like to feed. We couldn’t find them. There were a few Ringed Plovers on the beach and several Sanderlings with the Oystercatchers down by the channel.

At the end of the dunes, opposite Scolt Head island, there was no sign of the Shore Larks on the piles of seaweed and other dead vegetation where they like to feed. A small group of Goldeneye took off from the channel as we approached. We had a good look round the edge of the dunes on the inland side as well, without any joy. It seemed like we were out of luck – the Shore Larks had apparently been present earlier in the morning but had obviously been disturbed and flown off.

IMG_7865Red-breasted Merganser – in the harbour channel opposite Gun Hill

We started the long march back, stopping to admire a little party of Red-breasted Mergansers in the harbour channel, including a smart drake this time. We walked out onto the beach to check the lines of debris washed up by the tide. We had just given up and decided to move on when three small birds flew along the edge of the dunes towards us – the Shore Larks!

They carried on past us, along the beach the way we had just walked, and appeared to land. It was too much to resist, so we walked back up the beach again to try to see them. There were two walkers with a dog ahead of us, the latter scampering along the high tide line, and we had to race to catch them up. They very kindly agreed to get their dog under control, almost too late as it flushed the Shore Larks before they could call it back (apparently the dog was deaf, which didn’t help!).  Thankfully they landed again a few metres further on and the dog was duly restrained. We all had a good look at the Shore Larks in the scope – including the dog owners.

IMG_7932-001Shore Lark – the three eventually flew back in just as we were giving up

The Shore Larks were feeding very quietly around the piles of dead vegetation on the edge of the beach, working their way slowly along. We admired their bright yellow faces with black masks. Then we noticed another dog walker coming back along the beach and, despite being spoken to by someone watching the Shore Larks from opposite us, he carried straight on with his dogs and the Shore Larks flew off again back down the beach.

Having had great views of them now, we decided to call it a day and walk back. On our way, we came across the Shore Larks further down the beach, hiding in amongst the stones. They were obviously waiting for their favoured feeding area to be left undisturbed as, after a few minutes, they flew back again to where they had been feeding. We left them in peace – though for how long they might be able to enjoy that we could not say.

IMG_7875Shore Lark – constantly getting disturbed today

We stopped to admire the Golden Plovers on the open grass below the dunes again. There were loads of them – probably at least 1,000 – mostly standing still head into the breeze. Then we made our way back to the car.

We were running a bit later than planned, after we had finally caught up with the Shore Larks. We made our way on further west to Brancaster Staithe. Before we even got out of the car, we could see the Red-necked Grebe in its favoured place, further up the channel. It was diving regularly, but we got it in the scope and had a good look at it.

IMG_7981Red-necked Grebe – in Brancaster Staithe harbour channel again

There was a female Goldeneye diving nearby and a Little Grebe too for good measure. The tide was still pretty low, and surprisingly there were no Bar-tailed Godwits here today. However, there were several Black-tailed Godwits, plus lots of Dunlin, Turnstone and Oystercatcher.

After an action packed morning, we had a late lunch at Titchwell before a quick look round as much of the reserve as we could manage in the time available. The feeders by the visitor centre were busy with birds as usual – lots of Chaffinches, several Goldfinches, and a few Greenfinches – although several were already empty. A single female Brambling was struggling to find a feeder port with any food left!

IMG_7992Brambling – just one female today, while we were looking

Out from the main path, the Water Rail was hiding in the shadows under the brambles on the far bank of the ditch. Eventually it came out a little more into the open, probing round in the rotting leaves for something to eat.

P1170458Water Rail – in the ditch, as usual

The first bird we saw on the dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ was a Water Pipit, quite close to the path down at the front. It was looking particularly clean, bright white below in the sunshine today. A couple of Rock Pipits nearby were noticeably swarthy by comparison. Further over, towards the back, a second Water Pipit appeared with yet more Rock Pipits. The raft of Pochard and Tufted Duck was still on the reedbed pool.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still low for management work. There is a reasonable number of waders on here, particularly Dunlin, plus about 40 Avocet and several Black-tailed Godwit. A hundred or so Golden Plover were on one of the drier islands, along with a scattering of Lapwing.

P1170522Black-tailed Godwit – always good to see up close at Titchwell

Most of the Teal are still over the back of the freshmarsh, around the remaining deeper water, but a few were close to the main path where we could get a better look at them. The drakes are looking particularly smart at the moment. Other than that, there were a few Gadwall and Mallard and a handful of Wigeon scattered around.

P1170508Teal – a smart drake

The Volunteer Marsh held a couple of Knot and a little group of Ringed Plover, as well as the usual Curlew, Redshank and Grey Plover. The brightest Ringed Plover, presumably a spring male, was very aggressive in chasing the others off.

IMG_8008Ringed Plover – a bright spring bird

A few Black-tailed Godwit and a single Avocet were down in the deeper channel by the path. At the back, we finally found our first Bar-tailed Godwit of the day, but we got better views of them around the Tidal Pools. Again, we had a discussion about how to separate the two similar Godwit species.

IMG_8009Bar-tailed Godwit – there were a few round the Tidal Pools today

We just had time to admire the Pintail, swimming around on the Tidal Pools. We got a cracking drake in the scope for a quick close-up. Then it was time to make our way back – we had somewhere else we needed to be!

IMG_8023Pintail – one of the drakes on the Tidal Pools

We drove across inland and managed to just about find a space this evening in the car park at Roydon Common. As we arrived, the news came through that the Pallid Harrier had already flown in to the heath ahead of going to roost. We quickened our step one last time and made our way across to the ridge.

The Pallid Harrier was down in the grass when we arrived but promptly took off for a fly round. We had it in the same scope view as a ringtail Hen Harrier, the two having a quick go at each other. The Hen Harrier was noticeably bigger and heavier, with broader wings with more obviously rounded tips. It was great to see the two species together.

IMG_8044Pallid Harrier – still roosting at Roydon Common today

The Pallid Harrier circled up high into the sky this evening, and spent some time flying back and forth way up above the trees. When it came down, against the background of the birches, we could see its pale collar better, and the contrasting dark neck patch, the ‘boa’. It landed a couple of times and we could see it half hidden in the grass the first time.

A second ringtail Hen Harrier flew in as well, but dropped down pretty quickly into the grass. It was rather cloudy now and there were just a couple of spots of rain. When the Pallid Harrier dropped down to the ground again, we decided to call it a day and head for home.

A short video clip of the Pallid Harrier in action from today is below:

 

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

3rd February 2016 – Winter Rarities, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour today, and the plan was to look for some of the rarities and scarce winter birds which are around North Norfolk at the moment. We had a ‘wish list’ for the two days, so we would try to see as many of those as possible.

We started at Choseley, with the target to try to find one of the Rough-legged Buzzards which is spending the winter here. It didn’t take us very long today, as we had only just driven a short distance scanning the trees and hedges when one circled across the road almost overhead!

P1160197Rough-legged Buzzard – first, one circled over the road this morning

We leapt out of the car and watched the Rough-legged Buzzard circle lazily away to the east. From underneath, we could see the black belly patch and black-tipped white tail. We drove round to the other side to see if might have landed in one of its favourite trees, only to find it hovering over the hillside and then drifting back towards where we had just been. Back in the car and back round again, we pulled into a layby and scanned the hedge and there were not one but two Rough-legged Buzzards in the same tree!

IMG_6064Rough-legged Buzzard – then one of the two in a tree

We watched the Rough-legged Buzzards for some time. One flew along the hedge and landed in another tree, then the second flew and forced it off its perch. The first then landed in a tree further along still and after a few moments the second came to join it. Finally the two of them drifted off back east towards the trees. It was an excellent way to start the day and great views.

Next, we stopped in an area of farmland where there are some nice overgrown weedy fields and unkempt hedges. Skylarks were singing and a Barn Owl was hunting out over the long grass. A tight flock of Linnets was whirling over the field and further along in the hedge we could see several Yellowhammers. A van came along the road and appeared to flush them all, but after they landed again we could hear a Corn Bunting singing distantly. As that was the bird we really wanted to see, we walked down along the road towards where they were.

They were hard to find at first. Lots of Yellowhammers came out of the hedges either side as we walked along, and dropped down into the weedy field beyond. When a farmer came along the road and drove into one of the fields, right by the hedge where most of the Yellowhammers had been, we thought that would be the end of it. But when we got further along, past where he was working, we could see all the birds gathered in the hedge on the other side of the field. Even better, perched in one of the small trees we could see five larger shapes. A quick look through the scope confirmed that they were Corn Buntings and we had a good look at them before they flew off.

P1160204Brent Goose – a few hang around in Thornham Harbour

With our second target in the bag, we headed down to Thornham Harbour. The usual little gaggle of Brent Geese were hanging around at the end, but there was no sign of the Twite at first. We decided to walk out along the seawall to look further down towards Holme. When we had got half way along the bank, the flock of Twite flew over our heads and landed back in the harbour, from where we had just come. We decided to carry on and try for a better look on the way back.

As we walked out towards the dunes, we could hear Pink-footed Geese in the distance behind us. We turned to see lines upon lines of them heading our way, there must have been at least 3,000 of them. They gradually lost height and started whiffling down into the grazing marshes between us and Holme, landing on the grass – it was a fantastic sight and sound.

P1160217Pink-footed Geese – several thousand came into the fields at Holme

A little further along and a tight flock of small birds came hurtling in over the saltmarsh, over the bank and down towards Broad Water. They were Teal and just behind them we could see why – a Peregrine was after them. The ducks crashed down into the water and the Peregrine had to fly off empty-taloned.

The other bird we wanted to see here was Shore Lark. So we walked on out to the beach, stopping briefly to scan the sea from the dunes, before making our way round to the end of the dunes, which is the area they favour. We had only just got out of the dunes when the three Shore Larks flew up from the high tide line just ahead of us. They had obviously been tucked down amongst the piles of dead seaweed and other detritus, had probably crouched down as another group of people had walked ahead of us, then taken off when we approached.

We had hoped the Shore Larks would fly out to their favoured spot, but they turned and headed inland, disappearing behind the dunes. We carried on anyway, just in case they had doubled back but there was no sign of them and they didn’t return while we stood and scanned the beach. There were lots of waders out on the sand – Dunlin, Turnstone and Grey Plover, plus a group of roosting Bar-tailed Godwits around one of the damper pools.

We had also hoped we might find some interesting seaduck out here today, but it was windy this morning and there was quite a swell. Still, we walked back and along as far as the firs, scanning the sea. Most of the ducks were a long way out to sea. We could see a huge flock of Common Scoter, hundreds or even a thousand strong, which peeled up off the sea out in the middle, midway between us and the Lincolnshire coast, and circled round before landing again. There were a number Red-breasted Mergansers diving closer in and several Great Crested Grebes. A few Red-throated Divers flew east and a Fulmar went west, presumably heading for the cliffs at Hunstanton.

On our way back, the Twite were more obliging. We had just made it to the first bend in the seawall when they flew up from the saltmarsh below, a flock of around 30 of them. They flew off towards the harbour and looked like they might go down way over in the middle, but changed their minds and turned back. Eventually, they dropped back down where they had come from. This time we could get a good look at them in the scope, admiring their orange faces and breasts and yellow bills.

IMG_6115Twite – about 30 were around Thornham Harbour again

On our way back to the car, we stopped to admire a single Knot feeding in the mud, right beside the path. Then, as time was getting on, we headed round to Titchwell for lunch.

IMG_6151Knot – feeding in the mud at Thornham Harbour

We really wanted to see if we could find some seaduck at Titchwell today, rather than explore the reserve, and we didn’t have much time available. Still, we tried to pick up many of the regular birds here as we went along. The feeders around the visitor centre were chock full of finches as usual, and it didn’t take long to find a smart male Brambling amongst them.

IMG_6174Brambling – a male on the feeders at Titchwell

We stopped at the grazing meadow pool for a quick scan, but it looked rather quiet this afternoon. There were a couple of Rock Pipits but no sign of the Water Pipit with them. Other than a few Lapwing and a single Redshank, that was it out there today. A Kingfisher flashed over the reeds at the front and disappeared down into the channel on the saltmarsh.

The water level on the freshmarsh has gone well down now, and most of the birds were right out around the remaining water at the back. There were still a few Avocet and a small number of Black-tailed Godwit. A large flock of Dunlin did seem to be making the most of all the mud. A few Lapwing were feeding round the edges.

P1160247Lapwing – on the muddy edge of the freshmarsh

Duck numbers are now well down. There were still quite a few Teal, but nowhere near the number there has been, plus a small group of Mallard and a couple of Shoveler. We didn’t hang around here today, but moved quickly on to the Volunteer Marsh. There were all the usual waders on here – Curlew, Redshank and Grey Plover, plus a couple of Ringed Plovers as well.

IMG_6199Ringed Plover – a couple were on the Volunteer Marsh

There was no sign of the Spotted Redshank on the Tidal Pools again today, but there were several Bar-tailed Godwit here. We did enjoy good views of three Goldeneye, including a smart drake. We also spent some time admiring the Pintail which were all on here today, all eleven of them.

IMG_6200Goldeneye – this drake and two females were on the Tidal Pools

Our next stop was the beach and the tide was in, so there were not may waders out here today. We set ourselves to scan the sea. Once again it was very choppy, which didn’t make it easy. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers, but the flock of Common Scoter, while not as far offshore as the ones we had seen earlier, were still rather distant. We had hoped to see if there were any Velvet Scoter with them again today, but it was hard enough to see them in the waves and they were just that bit too distant.

P1160263Black-tailed Godwit – by the path on the Tidal Pools

We made our way quickly back. A Black-tailed Godwit flew in and landed right by the path on the Tidal Pools. Back at the grazing meadow pool, there was no sign of any pipits now out on the mud, but a call behind us alerted us to one heading our way. It flew in high over the main reedbed, over the path and out towards Thornham over the mud, then turned and flew straight back to the reedbed before dropping down out in the middle of the reeds. When it came overhead, we could see it was very white underneath and relatively unstreaked – it was the Water Pipit, but it was not playing ball today.

Our final destination of the day was to be Roydon Common for the harrier roost, but we still had a little time to play with. It was a straight choice between going to see the Red-necked Grebe at Brancaster or go for another try looking at the sea at Holme. The choice was for the latter, so we drove back west along the coast road and set off across the golf course.

The sea didn’t look any more amenable here and the first couple of scans revealed nothing new – a few Great Crested Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers. Out in the distance, a couple of auks whirred past. Then another scan revealed a pale duck out on the water which caught the afternoon sun. It was a Long-tailed Duck, but it was a long way out, drifting fast with the tide and diving. It was all but impossible to see and as soon as we found it, it was lost again. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t find it again to get everyone onto it. We had a date with some harriers and we had to tear ourselves away.

We arrived at Roydon Common in good time, and there was already quite a crowd assembled. The Pallid Harrier had arrived for the last couple of nights around 3.30pm. A Marsh Harrier was out over the heath, quartering back and forth. A ringtail Hen Harrier was already in when we arrived and eventually got up and did a fly round. The clock ticked on, and still there was no sign of the Pallid Harrier. It was a lovely evening, with clear skies as the sun dipped down behind us.

P1160277Roydon Common – it was a lovely evening out on the heath

A second Hen Harrier flew in and dropped down into the grass. Still we waited. There were some nervous glances around the crowd now. The sun dipped below the horizon and a third and then a fourth Hen Harrier came in. By now, the light was just starting to fade a little and gradually the crowd started to leave. Eventually there were only about half a dozen of us left. However, harriers can come very late into roost, particularly on such a fine and calm evening, where they might choose to carry on hunting until the last moment. We were also still down on the usual count of Hen Harriers here, so we figured there must be more to come. We decided to stay.

It paid off. Suddenly the Pallid Harrier appeared – we could immediately see its comparatively small size and the dark patch or ‘boa’ really stood out on the side of its neck in the late evening light, and we could see the pale collar too. It circled round and the Hen Harriers started to get up for a last fly round as well. It was great to see the two species side by side – the Pallid Harrier smaller, slimmer with much more pointed wings and more buoyant flight.

Then even better, a Marsh Harrier appeared in the same view – the Pallid Harrier was the sandwich filling between the Marsh and a Hen Harrier! The Pallid and the Hen Harrier took it in turns to swoop down at the Marsh Harrier, before turning away in opposite directions.

It was a great way to end the day – a magical place, and well worth the wait!