Tag Archives: Shorelark

Aug 2018 – Romania: Birds & Bears, Part 3

This is the third and final instalment of a 3 part blog post about our visit to Romania in August 2018. After visiting the Dobrogea and the Danube Delta we made our way up to Transylvania and the Carpathians. After a day for travelling, that gave us three full days exploring the mountains.

This section of our trip this year is not included in the forthcoming Romania tour in June 2019, which will just visit the Dobrogea and Danube Delta. You can read more about that tour here.

18th-20th August – Transylvania and the Carpathians

One of the main reasons for visiting Transylvania was to try to see Brown Bears. It is estimated that around 6,000 Brown Bears can be found in Romania, the largest population in Europe, outside of Russia, so it is one of the best places to look for them.

Early on our first morning, we set off into the forest to look for woodpeckers. We headed for an area which research showed had been very good for them just a few years ago, but when we arrived we immediately noticed a problem. The area had been selectively logged, and all the largest trees had been taken out. This would prove to be a recurring problem over the next few days – it appears that logging is a major issue facing the forests here.

Undeterred, we set off into the forest for a walk. We hadn’t gone very far when we heard the undergrowth rustling. Being near to a town, we thought it might just be people at first but it quickly became clear it was a large mammal and after a few seconds a Brown Bear appeared. Bears are known to visit the towns at night, raiding the bins in search of food, so it was perhaps heading back into the woods after a night’s ‘work’.

The Bear looked at us for a few seconds, and we looked at it, wondering who would blink first! Then it turned and ran back into the trees. A great start! We continued on our walk and explored further down along the track through the trees. We found lots of tits – Crested Tits, Marsh and Willow Tits – and we heard several Great Spotted Woodpeckers, but no sign of anything more interesting and no more Bears.

The best way to see Brown Bears in the Carpathians is to visit one of the organised ‘bear hides’. Here, food is put out to attract the animals. This was traditionally for shooting purposes but with bear shooting currently banned, tourism is an important alternative.

We had booked into a ‘bear hide’ later that evening. We were taken up to the hide in the early evening and within minutes the first Brown Bear appeared. Over the next couple of hours, we were treated to amazingly close views of at least 14 Brown Bears, including two females each with two small cubs. An unforgettable experience!

Brown Bear 1

Brown Bear – the first of many we saw from the ‘bear hide’

Brown Bear 2

Brown Bear – attracted to food put out from them

Brown Bear 3

Brown Bear – one of two females we saw with young cubs

Brown Bear 4

Brown Bear – a ‘baby bear’ – very cute!

The woodpecker we were really hoping to see in the Carpathians was White-backed Woodpecker. The birds here are of the southern race, lilfordi, which differs from more northerly birds in having a barred rather than solid white back. After drawing a blank on our first morning, we had more success that afternoon, although not without a bit of effort.

We arrived at another site we knew to be good historically for White-backed Woodpecker. It was an area of extensive beech forest, with scattered spruce. Again, as we walked up the valley there seemed to be lots of logging activity and many of the largest trees had clearly been selectively removed. It was nice walk along the track through the trees, climbing to over 1000m. We saw lots of butterflies, a dark Steppe Buzzard and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk which was a new bird for our trip list, but apart from a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers at the start we came across no others woodpeckers.

After walking for over three hours, up the valley and back down again, we returned to the car. We were just getting in when we noticed a woodpecker flying towards us, down from the woods on the hills across the fields. It landed in some trees not far from the car and to our astonishment turned out to be the White-backed Woodpecker we had spent all afternoon searching for!

White-backed Woodpecker

White-backed Woodpecker – flew in and landed in the trees close to the car

We also saw another White-backed Woodpecker at another site the following day. This is clearly still a good place to look for this often rather elusive subspecies.

Another subspecies we hoped to catch up with in the Carpathians was the distinctive SE European race of Horned Lark (or Shorelark), balcanica. These birds differ from the more familiar nominate northern race, which winters on the Norfolk coast, in having much more extensive black on the face. The black mask continues down to meet a more extensive black breast band. The southern races of Horned Lark are also high altitude birds, breeding on mountaintops and are non-migratory, in contrast to the northern Shorelarks we see more often. Perhaps potential candidates for a future split, based on any reappraisal of the Horned Lark / Shorelark complex?

We took a cable car up to 2000m, on the top of one of the ridges to an area of ski slopes, on our last morning. We had been told a good place to look for them and within a few hundred metres we were watching a group of about 15 balcanica Horned Larks. As well as several males, still sporting their black horns, there were good numbers of juveniles here too.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark – a male of the SE European balcanica subspecies

There were lots of Water Pipits up here too. Several Black Redstarts were feeding around the buildings and the ski slopes and we flushed groups of Linnets from the short vegetation.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – common in the mountains at around 2000m

We had hoped to find Alpine Accentor up here too, but there was possibly too much disturbance at this site. We were hoping to visit another site to look for this species in the afternoon, but when low cloud descended over the tops we were thwarted. We had also hoped to see Wallcreeper in the Carpathians, but we were too late this year. At the site close to where we were staying in Zarnesti, the birds had already finished breeding and had dispersed.

Other birds we did manage to find included Nutcrackers, which were fairly common in some areas in the spruce trees, as were Common Crossbills. In the deciduous forest, we saw another Collared Flycatcher and a few Spotted Flycatchers. Grey Wagtails were common along the mountain streams and around the open meadows lower down we saw Tree Pipits and Yellowhammers for the trip list.

Nutcracker

Nutcracker –  a fairly common sight in the spruce forests

The scenery in the Carpathians is stunning, and our trip would not have been complete without taking some time to visit one or two of the Transylvanian castles. We spent a couple of hours one afternoon at the castle in Bran, which is generally referred to as Dracula’s Castle despite the fact there is no evidence that Vlad the Impaler ever visited there! Despite that, and the fact that it is overrun with tourists as a consequence, it was very pretty and well worth a visit.

Dracula's Castle

Dracula’s Castle – although there is no evidence he ever visited here!

The best bird of our visit to Transylvania waited until the very last. We had been to check out the forests around one of the towns again and we were on our way back to our guest house at the end of our last afternoon. As we drove down the winding mountain road through the beech forest, my eagle-eyed travelling companion spotted a large shape on a branch deep in the trees. Fortunately there was a layby to turn round in just beyond and not much traffic.

As we drove slowly back up the road, we couldn’t see anything at first. There was only a stretch of a few metres long where the shape could be seen from the road and when we got to that point we could see it was a large owl – a Ural Owl!

Ural Owl

Ural Owl – in the forest by the road at the end of our last afternoon

We turned round again, higher up, and drove back down to the layby, where we parked and walked carefully up the edge of the road. The Ural Owl was unconcerned by our presence – it was dozing but several times it woke and looked round, particularly when a large lorry rumbled up the road behind us. It appeared to be yawning, opening its bright yellow bill wide and stretching its neck back on a few occasions, though it was possibly trying to regurgitate a pellet.

Ural Owls are obviously fairly common here still, but are not easy to see, particularly during the day. We sat at the edge of the road and watched it for a while, before eventually tearing ourselves away and leaving it to sleep in peace.

It was a great way to end what had been a fantastic trip to Romania. I am looking forward to going back next June already.

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9th March 2018 – A Different Type of Snowy!

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

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

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

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

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

Shag

Shag – swimming past Cromer, viewed from the clifftop

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

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

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

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

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull – a juvenile on the sea off Mundesley

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

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

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

Lapland Bunting

Lapland Bunting – a surprise bonus, singing from the wires

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

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

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

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

Purple Sandpiper

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

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

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

Fulmar

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

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

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

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

Pink-footed Goose

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

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

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

Shorelark

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

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

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

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

Snowy Owl 1

Snowy Owl – a big surprise to see this today

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

Snowy Owl 2

Snowy Owl – the first in Norfolk since 1991

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

Brambling

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

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

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

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there are lots back at Titchwell now

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

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

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

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

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

6th March 2018 – Winter Coast & Forest #1

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

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

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

Gulls

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

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

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – one of three along the prom this morning

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

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

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

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

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

Snow Buntings

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

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

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – a young male of the Scandinavian race

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

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

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

Scaup

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

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

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

Wigeon

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

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

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

Pink-footed Goose

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

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

Brent Goose

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

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

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

Shorelark 1

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

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

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

Common Snipe

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

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

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

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

Mediterranean Gull

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

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

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

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

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

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

20th Feb 2018 – Winter or Spring, #1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour. We were to spend the day in North Norfolk. It was forecast to rain all day today, particularly in the morning, but once again it was nowhere near as bad as predicted. We managed to successfully dodge the showers and even though the wind picked up in the afternoon we still saw some great birds.

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up towards the coast it was raining but by the time we got up to Lady Anne’s Drive it was already easing off. We had a look at the pools and fields by the road. There were plenty of ducks – lots of Wigeon plus Teal and a few Shoveler on the pools. A pair of Mistle Thrushes showed very well in the field next to the road and three Grey Partridge were feeding along the edge below one of the hedgerows.

Mistle Thrush

Mistle Thrush – one of a pair by Lady Anne’s Drive this morning

After we had parked at the north end, we scanned the grazing marshes again. There were more ducks here, plus a few waders, mainly Common Redshanks plus a couple of Oystercatchers. We could see a stripy Common Snipe in the grass, looking less well camouflaged against the green vegetation here.

A white shape working its way along one of the ditches out in the fields was hidden by a bramble bush at first, but immediately looked big. When it finally came out into view, we could see its long, yellow, dagger-shaped bill and our suspicions were confirmed – it was a Great White Egret. A very nice bird to start the day with here.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding in one of the ditches out from Lady Anne’s Drive

A little flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling but as we walked up towards the pines, we spotted another, a lone bird, out on the grass. We could see its dark head and through the scope we got a good look at its pink legs and delicate bill, mostly dark with a narrow pink band around it. A Greylag Goose was nearby for comparison, larger and paler and sporting a large orange carrot for a bill! On the other side of the Drive, four Brent Geese were feeding out on the grazing marsh too.

We had seen a flock of Fieldfares disappearing into the distance from the car as we drove up. We finally relocated them in the fields behind the construction site for the new Orientation Centre & Cafe, out in a grassy field among the molehills, mixed in with a large flock of Starlings. A pair of Stonechats were feeding on the grassy bank nearby.

With the weather now dry, we decided to head out towards the beach and take advantage, in case it should get wet again later. As we made our way through the pines, we could see more Brent Geese together with several Shelduck out on the saltmarsh. It was a bit windier on this side of the trees though and the walk east along the north edge of the pines was rather quiet. We flushed a small charm of Goldfinches from the high tide line along the dunes as we walked.

When we got to the eastern end of the saltmarsh, we stopped to scan. It didn’t take long to find our quarry, as the nine Shorelarks were feeding in their usual spot again today. We walked over and had a lovely view of them scurrying around among the sparse low vegetation. Through the scope, we could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks.

Shorelark

Shorelark – the nine were out on the saltmarsh again today

After watching the Shorelarks for a while, we decided to make our way back. The walk was only relieved by a couple of flyover Rock Pipits and a pair of Skylarks which flew up from the saltmarsh as we passed. Back on the other side of the pines, a pair of Egyptian Geese had now joined the four Brent Geese we had seen earlier.

Almost back to the car, we stopped for another look out over the grazing marsh. As we scanned, we noticed a large white bird circling over the trees out in the middle. It wasn’t another egret – it was flying with its neck stretched out in front – it was a Spoonbill! This is the first we have seen back here this year, although they breed here at Holkham and hopefully more will follow soon. It might not have felt much like it today, but spring is on its way now.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – the first of the year, back at Holkham

The Spoonbill turned and came straight towards us, flying over Lady Anne’s Drive just a short distance from us and disappearing off east towards Wells. We could see its distinctive spoon-shaped bill as it came overhead. A rather pale Common Buzzard was busy tearing at something it had caught out on the grass but was rather ignored until the Spoonbill had gone. A couple of Marsh Harriers hung in the air over the reeds at the back.

We were planning to make our way west this morning, but we had a quick stop further along the coast road to admire six White-fronted Geese in a grassy meadow with a flock of Greylag. In direct comparison, we could see the White-fronted Geese were much smaller and more delicate, with a smaller pink bill surrounded with white at the base. The adults were also sporting their distinctive black belly bands.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – six were by the road at Holkham this morning

An even whiter Common Buzzard was perched on an old pill box just behind the geese, a striking bird and a regular at this spot. A little further along the road, a couple of hundred Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a stubble field.

Our next diversion off the coast road was at Titchwell, where we turned inland along Chalkpit Lane. There has been a Hooded Crow here, but it is often very elusive. We had a quick scan for it on our way past, but there were several people looking who had not managed to locate it. We did stop to admire a winter wheat field which held at least 20 Brown Hares. On the other side of the road, a bare beet field was chock full of Lapwings and Golden Plovers when you looked closely.

Round at Choseley Drying Barns there was quite a bit of disturbance today, with tractors coming and going and people walking past, and the hedges were quiet. We did stop to look at a Grey Partridge and a Red-legged Partridge feeding side by side, a nice opportunity for comparison.

A little further on, there was much more activity and the hedges were packed with small birds which took off as we approached. They landed again further along, so we rolled up slowly for a closer look. There were loads of Chaffinches and Bramblings in the bushes and we got a great look at some of the latter right next to the car. Then another vehicle came speeding the other way and they all took off again and flew further back.

Brambling

Brambling – we came across a large mixed flock with Chaffinches

At our next stop, we got out to look at an overgrown grassy field and were immediately greeted with several Skylarks singing out in the middle, another sign that spring is on its way. Then a flock of birds flew over from the other side of the road – another thirty Skylarks all together – and they dropped down into the grass. There are often buntings here too and we found a large flock of them in the hedge at the far corner of the field. There must have been at least 20 Yellowhammers here, including some lovely bright yellow-faced males. Stunning birds!

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – a nice bright male to brighten a dull grey morning

We were still not done with our farmland exploration and a little further still we stopped again by a cover strip on the edge of a field. The hedge alongside was absolutely full of birds – mainly Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers. As we set up the scope for a closer look, 15-20 Tree Sparrows flew out of the hedge by the road and across to join the other birds. We had a great look as several of the Tree Sparrows perched up nicely in the top of the hedge.

Tree Sparrows

Tree Sparrows – with Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers in the hedge

As we made our way back down to the coast, it started to rain again. We had been very fortunate that our morning to this point had been almost completely dry – not what had been forecast! We drove down to Thornham Harbour and had a quick look to see if the Twite were around the car park. There was no sign of them here and we decided not to linger in the rain.

We did pick up a nice selection of waders here. The mud below the old sluice held a couple of Common Redshank, a Curlew and a Black-tailed Godwit. Down in the harbour channel by the boats, the highlight was a single Greenshank feeding down in the water, along with a Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover too on the mud nearby.

Greenshank

Greenshank – feeding in the harbour channel at Thornham

As we started to drive back up the road, a quick scan of the channel behind the old coal barn revealed another wader feeding up to its belly in the water. It was clearly very pale, but was almost swimming and upending at first. When it finally raised its head, we could see its long-needle fine bill, a Spotted Redshank. A Common Redshank walked along behind it on the mud, picking at the surface, providing a nice comparison, particularly of the two closely related species very different feeding techniques.

It had been an action packed morning, so we made our way round to Titchwell for a late lunch while the rain passed over. Over a welcome hot drink at the visitor centre, we scanned the feeders which produced another Brambling and several Greenfinches. Afterwards we headed out onto the reserve.

The wind had picked up as the rain had passed through, so we hurried straight out to Parrinder Hide. Thornham grazing marsh looked very quiet. There were a few ducks on the reedbed pool – mainly Mallard, plus a few Tufted Ducks and three Common Pochard. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the breeze over the back of the reeds.

Out on the freshmarsh as we walked out to Parrinder Hide, we could see a gathering of Avocets on the edge of one of the islands. We counted thirty today, another increase here in recent days as birds return now ahead of the breeding season.

Avocet

Avocets – numbers are up to 30+ now as birds are returning

There were a few more waders as we got to Parrinder Hide. A Ringed Plover flew off over the bank towards Volunteer Marsh, but three Dunlin dropped in and started to feed around the edge of one of the islands. Then two Black-tailed Godwits flew in to bathe in front of the hide, flashing their black tails.

Scanning carefully along the edge, where the reeds have been freshly cut, revealed two Common Snipe feeding in the shallow water. They worked their way closer to the hide, until we had scope-filling views of them. They were incredibly well camouflaged against the dead reed stems with their golden-striped plumage, much more appropriately dressed than the Common Snipe we had seen out on the green grass at Holkham earlier.

Snipe

Common Snipe – very well camouflaged in the recently cut reeds

We had also started to scan the cut reeds along the edge for Water Pipits, which like to feed along here. Then one handily flew in and landed out on the edge of one of the bare muddy islands and walked into the water to bathe, which made it much easier to spot! When it flew over to the bank to preen, we then found another Water Pipit creeping around in the cut reeds nearby.

There were a few duck out on the freshmarsh too today, but not as many as recent weeks. There were plenty of Shoveler and Teal, but a careful scan revealed a smart drake Pintail and a pair of Gadwall too. A flock of Brent Geese dropped in for a drink and a bathe briefly before heading back out to the saltmarsh. Gulls were starting to gather on the freshmarsh already, ahead of going to roost. They were mainly Black-headed Gulls but several Common Gulls dropped in to bathe too.

The other side of Parrinder Hide was also very productive for waders. First we spotted a smart Grey Plover just below us, then a Knot appeared out on the vegetation on the mud nearby. There were a couple of Dunlin right in front of the hide too, but then a flock of about twenty more Knot flew in with a couple of Dunlin with them, allowing a nice comparison of the two.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – showed well on the Volunteer Marsh from Parrinder Hide

It was cold and windy, and we had somewhere else we wanted to finish the day, so we decided against walking out to the beach and made our way back to the car. As we made our way back east, we turned off inland again. We were quickly rewarded with a Barn Owl which flew along the verge just in front of the car, hunting for several minutes, before turning out across the field as we tried to get ahead of it.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – flew along the verge ahead of the car

It was rather grey and windy this afternoon, not really Barn Owl weather, but they are probably hungry after several nights of rain in recent days.

There has been a very showy Bittern in some flooded meadows along one of the river valleys near here in recent weeks. It was a bit grey and gloomy when we arrived and we weren’t sure at first whether it would still be here. We almost walked past it, even though it was right out in the open close to the path.

Bittern

Bittern – trying to pretend it wasn’t there, looking like a clump of reeds

When we realised where the Bittern was trying to hide, we got it in the scope and had a great close-up look at it. It was hunched up and frozen still, pretending it wasn’t there, with its bill pointing up and turned to face us, with its striped neck making it look just like a clump of reeds. Even when you knew where it was, it was still hard to spot, despite being out in an open area with only very sparse vegetation. What a stunning bird!

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away and let the Bittern resume whatever it was up to before we arrived. It was a great bird to end the day, with a Tawny Owl then hooting from the trees as we walked back to the car.

 

9th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours, which will see us visit various parts of Norfolk. Today was the turn of the North Norfolk coast. It was a cold and cloudy day, with a couple of wintry showers particularly in the afternoon, although we managed to dodge the worst of them.

Our first destination was Holkham. As we parked on Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of birds out on the wet grazing meadows either side of the road. A large flock of Wigeon was feeding on the grass near the fence, the birds giving their distinctive ‘wheeoo’ whistle. There were also a few Teal and Shoveler out in the field with them, as well as lots of Common Redshank feeding around the pools. On the other side of the road, a single Pink-footed Goose was all alone out in the middle, presumably a sick or injured bird.

Wigeon

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

We were heading out towards the beach, but a shower blew in at that point and we sought shelter under a large holm oak by the start of the boardwalk for a couple of minutes while it passed over, watching the Brent Geese flying in to feed on the grazing meadows. A flock of Golden Plover whirled round and dropped down again out of view.

The rain stopped quickly and we made our way through the pines. A Sparrowhawk flew over the Gap ahead of us, before disappearing over the tops of the trees. We heard a Goldcrest singing and managed to locate it, feeding busily in a holm oak. There were lots of Shelduck out on the saltmarsh, but otherwise it seemed fairly quiet out here today. We flushed a small group of Goldfinch from the edge of the dunes as we made our way east.

There was no sign of the Shorelarks in their usual favoured spot out on the saltmarsh, but it was quite wet out here after heavy rain overnight. So we continued on a little further east and, scanning the ground ahead of us as we went, we quickly located them out on the drier sand. We had a quick look through the scope in case they flew, then made our way over a little closer.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – the usual 9 were still out on the saltmarsh today

We watched the Shorelarks for a while from a discrete distance. They were feeding busily, running round, picking at the dead stems of vegetation, occasionally flying up and landing again. Through the scope, we got a good look at their yellow faces and black masks.

As we made our way back, we stopped briefly to scan the sea. It was fairly choppy and looked rather quiet – just a few Cormorants out on the water and a couple of distant Red-throated Divers flying past.

There was more action back at Lady Anne’s Drive. As we came through the pines, we spotted a Red Kite flapping lazily across the grazing marshes. Back at the car, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese now out on the grass and a quick scan through revealed a slightly darker bird with a more obvious pale flank patch, one of the usual Black Brant hybrids which can often be seen with the Dark-bellied Brents here.

Driving back towards the main road, we noticed a few thrushes out on the short grass in one of the fields. A quick stop and check confirmed they were mainly Fieldfares, but with a single Song Thrush and a pair of Mistle Thrushes alongside. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew across and disappeared into the bushes.

A little further west, another stop to scan the grazing marshes quickly revealed a few Russian White-fronted Geese feeding down in the wetter grass. The first pair were rather distant, but then a family of four appeared from behind the trees down at the front. We could see the white surround to the base of the bill and the black belly bars on the adults. There were lots of Egyptian Geese and Greylags here too, plus a few Canada Geese and a single Barnacle Goose which had presumably hopped over the wall from the feral group in the Park.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – there were several out on the grazing marshes today

There were a few waders out on the wet grass too. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was busy feeding, probing for worms with their long bills. Careful scanning also revealed a couple of Ruff, though they were very flighty and kept disappearing behind the trees. A female Marsh Harrier appeared in the top of a bush in front of us. A Green Woodpecker flew in across the marshes and disappeared over the road into the park.

Then one of the group spotted a Great White Egret, the other bird we were hoping to catch up with here. It was right over the back, against the reeds below the pines, but it was immediately obvious that it was big even at that distance and through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding in the reeds at the back of the grazing marshes

After a very productive short stop here, we continued on our way west. One of the group had asked about Bean Geese earlier. They have been very thin on the ground this winter, but fortuitously we received a message at this point that one or two had been reported along the coast at Ringstead again this morning, having first been mentioned yesterday. We made our way straight over.

It wasn’t immediately clear where the geese were (‘in field viewed from beet pile’ perhaps not being the most helpful of directions!!), so we had a drive round the area. A quick stop by a cover strip sown along the edge of a field revealed a hedge full of birds. On one side, we could see loads of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers, but the other side revealed our target here – several Tree Sparrows. It is a sad sign of the times that we have to go some way these days to find this once very common species.

While we were here, we worked out where the geese were most likely to be found and when we got round there we found a couple of cars pulled up on the verge. A large flock of a thousand or two Pink-footed Geese were feeding out on a recently harvested sugar beet field. One of the Tundra Bean Geese had been seen earlier, close to the front of the flock, but had disappeared. At least that narrowed the search area a little, and we quickly managed to locate it, fast asleep, sitting down, hiding its best features – the orange legs and bill band!

Tundra Bean Goose 1

Tundra Bean Goose – asleep in the middle of the Pink-footed Geese

Through the scope we all had a good look at it. Even though we couldn’t see its legs or bill, the Tundra Bean Goose was subtly different from the surrounding Pinkfeet, with noticeably darker feathers on the back and wings with more contrasting pale edges. Thankfully, after a while it woke up and started to walk round, feeding on the bits of beet left behind in the field. At that point, its day-glo orange legs were particularly striking!

Tundra Bean Goose 2

Tundra Bean Goose – showing off its bright orange legs

After enjoying great views of the Tundra Bean Goose, we dropped back down to the coast at Thornham and headed out to the harbour. As we drove down past the old coal barn, we could see four people with binoculars staring down at the saltmarsh by the road and as we pulled alongside we could see Twite flitting around in the vegetation. We pulled in just past them, by the barn, but at that moment they took off and flew away up the harbour.

Parking down at the end, we had a look in the Twite‘s other favourite spots. We walked up to the corner of the seawall and scanned the saltmarsh, but we couldn’t see them anywhere. There were lots of waders in the harbour – several Curlew and Grey Plover, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, and Redshank. A couple of Little Grebes were diving in the channel and further out we could see a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers.

Then a little flock of about thirty small finches flew in with bouncing flight, straight past us. The Twite had returned. They circled round over the car park, where they usually like to drink in the puddles, but were possibly put off by the number of cars and people. Instead, they flew back towards us and landed down on the seawall just a few metres away to drink on the puddles there. We had a great view of them.

Twite

Twite – flew in to drink at the puddles on the seawall

The Twite didn’t stay long at the puddles, but quickly took off again, flying round a couple of times before landing a short distance out on the edge of the saltmarsh. Here, we had a good look at them in the scope, before they were off again, this time heading out over the harbour, out of view.

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way round to Titchwell. While we ate, we scanned the feeders by the Visitor Centre. A few Greenfinches arrived to join the numerous Chaffinches and a couple of Long-tailed Tits appeared on the peanuts. Then a couple of Bramblings appeared too, a brighter orange male and a slightly duller female.

Brambling

Brambling – one of two by the feeders at lunchtime

After lunch, it started to spit with rain. We had a quick look round via Meadow Trail for the Woodcock, but it was keeping well hidden today. Three Bullfinch flew over our heads calling. We set out onto the reserve. It was cold and windy out of the trees, so we put our heads down and walked quickly out to seek shelter in Parrinder Hide. A Marsh Harrier was circling over the reedbed on our way past.

The staff have been cutting the reeds around the edge of the freshmarsh this week, and it has been very disturbed. Coupled with the still very high water level, this means there are not many birds on here at the moment. Still, recently cut vegetation had attracted a Common Snipe, which was feeding along the edge one side of Parrinder Hide, and a Water Pipit which was picking its way along the edge the other side.

Snipe

Common Snipe – well camouflaged against the recently-cut reeds

We were glad of the shelter, as a heavy sleet shower then blew in off the sea. We waited for it to pass through in the north side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. A particularly forlorn looking Grey Plover was huddled on the edge of one of the vegetated islands, trying to get out of the weather, as were a couple of Avocets. We managed to find a single Knot and a couple of Dunlin, but most of the waders seemed to be hiding.

Avocet

Avocet – there were several out on Volunteer Marsh, when the sleet stopped

Once the sleet stopped, more waders arrived. A Ringed Plover appeared from nowhere in front of the hide and several small flocks of Knot and Dunlin flew in and landed on the mud. We decided to brave the cold wind and make a bid for the beach.

There were more waders along the edges of the muddy tidal channel. We had a good close look at a couple of Black-tailed Godwits just below the main path. There were also more Curlew, Grey Plover and Dunlin. Scanning carefully where the channel heads back away from the path, we managed to pick out a single Spotted Redshank on the edge of the water towards the back.

There was not much out on the Tidal Pools now, but it was very windy and exposed out here. Apart from several Little Grebes diving in the water just below the path, there was a large roost of Oystercatcher on the saltmarsh at the back. A pair of Gadwall were lurking in the vegetation nearby.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the Tidal Pools

We did make it out onto the beach today and found a bit of shelter in the edge of the dunes. More Bar-tailed Godwits were scattered along the shoreline and we got a single Sanderling in the scope. Another flock of Sanderling flew past, led by a lone Turnstone. The sea was very choppy and it was hard to find anything out on the water. We did get a Goldeneye in the scope, but it proved very difficult to see. The other ducks were even further out. We decided to head back.

As we walked back along the main path, the Marsh Harriers were already gathering to roost. We counted at least 12 in the air together over the back of the main reedbed. By the time we got back to the car, the light was already starting to fade, so we headed for home.

23rd Jan 2018 – A Winter’s Day

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk, looking for some of our regular wintering species. It was forecast to rain this morning, and it certainly started cloudy with some drizzle, but thankfully that cleared very quickly and we even had some blue sky and sunshine by the afternoon. In the damp conditions first thing, we decided to head up to the west end of the coast, so we would have the option of the hides at Titchwell if need be.

As it was, when we got there the weather wasn’t too bad so we carried on along to Thornham first. As we drove down to the harbour, the tide was almost in and several waders were feeding of bathing on the strip of mud left along the edge of the main channel. We had great views of several Bar-tailed Godwits and a single Black-tailed Godwit side by side, a lovely comparison of these two easily confused species, plus a Curlew and a couple of Common Redshanks nearby.

As we got out of the car, we could see another wader out on the mud the other side of the road. It was noticeably paler than the Common Redshanks we had seen earlier, with a longer finer bill, a Spotted Redshank. Most head down to the Mediterranean or Africa for the winter from their Arctic breeding grounds, but a very small number stay the winter here. They often feed out in the muddy channels on the saltmarsh, and this one had probably been pushed out by the rising tide.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – one of the small number which stay here for the winter

The Spotted Redshank swam across the pool and disappeared behind the old sluice, so we walked round there for a closer look. It was feeding around the edge of the pool, wading up to its belly in the water, sweeping its bill vigorously from side to side. It came out onto the muddy edge and a Common Redshank walked across behind it giving us a good opportunity to compare the two.

A Rock Pipit flew past us calling and dropped down onto the edge of the saltmarsh. It was rather windy this morning and the poor bird was struggling to avoid being blown away out on the mud. Still, we got a great look at it – dark, oily greenish-brown upperparts and dirty underneath with diffuse dark blotches. One to remember for later!

There was no immediate sign of the Twite around the car park, so we were planning to brave the wind and walk up along the seawall. Thankfully, just at that moment the Twite flew in towards us. It looked like they were hoping to go down to drink at the puddles in the car park, but a car was manoeuvring through the middle of them just at that moment, so they circled over but flew off and landed on the roof of the old coal barn. We had a distant look at them through the scope.

We were about to walk over to get a closer view, but with the car having gone, the Twite took off and flew straight towards us. We were right on the edge of the car park but stood very still and they landed straight down on the edge of the puddle just a couple of metres in front of us. We had a front row seat as they drank! We could see their yellow bills and burnt orange breasts. There were 17 of them, winter visitors to the saltmarsh here from the Pennines.

Twite

Twite – 17 came down to drink at the puddles right in front of us

Having seen the Twite so well, we decided against walking out along the seawall, and instead headed off inland to look for some farmland birds. We stopped on the edge of a field, where a cover strip had been sown beside a hedge. We could see lots of birds in the bushes and they were periodically flying in and out of the cover strip to feed. They were mostly Reed Buntings, but in with them we managed to find a couple of Tree Sparrows and one or two Yellowhammers too.

A little further on, we stopped again at another weedy field. At first, all seemed rather quiet, but then several Skylarks flushed from out in the grass and fluttered up singing. Then we noticed several Yellowhammers in the hedge further along, and we walked down for a closer look. We got a smart male in the scope and admired its bright yellow head and chestnut rump.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – a bright male perched in the hedge

The Yellowhammers dropped back out into the middle of the field but after a couple of minutes a much bigger flock of buntings came up out of the vegetation. We hoped they might land in the hedge again, but unfortunately disappeared off over the road the other side.

We carried on along the road and hadn’t gone far before we started to flush dozens of finches from the hedges either side, just ahead of us. Most of them landed again a little further along, so we coasted slowly up to them. They were mostly Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but in with them were quite a few Bramblings too. We could make them out from their brighter orange breasts and whiter bellies as they tried to hide in the hedge as we passed.

Brambling

Brambling – a bright orange male, hiding in the hedge beside the car

It was great to see so many finches here. They are feeding in a large weedy field which has been sown with seed mix – a fine testament as to what can happen when food is made available for birds. We pulled up in a gateway to watch a Marsh Harrier work its way low along the edge of the field, it too looking to take advantage of the availability of food.

Our destination for the rest of the morning was Titchwell. A Coal Tit was singing from the trees as we got out of the car and a little flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the sallows by the path to the visitor centre. A pair of Kestrels appeared to be displaying to each other around the trees, the male calling and fluttering around below the female. The feeders were rather quiet this morning, so we headed out onto the reserve.

We stopped by the old pool out on Thornham grazing marsh. It looked rather bleak at first, but scanning carefully, we found first a Pied Wagtail and then a Rock Pipit out in the middle. Neither was what we were really hoping for here, but then we noticed a paler bird just in front of them, a Water Pipit. It was very well camouflaged against the mud and hard to see unless it moved, but we all had a good look at it. Rather similar to the Rock Pipit we had seen so well earlier, but noticeably paler off white below, with finer blackish streaks, plus a more prominent pale supercilium and paler wing bars.

A single Marsh Harrier circled over the reeds at the back, and another couple were interacting at the back of the reedbed, the other side. There were a few ducks out on the saltmarsh – a nice little group of Wigeon, plus a pair of Shoveler and a couple of Teal. When they flushed and flew across to the freshmarsh, a couple of Common Snipe appeared up out of the vegetation too. A single Grey Plover was feeding on the edge of the Lavendar Marsh pool.

The water level on the freshmarsh is kept very high through the winter. This is good for diving ducks at the moment, with about thirty Common Pochard and a smaller number of Tufted Ducks in a raft over by the edge of the reeds. Unfortunately, it means there is not much else on here at the moment, apart from a few Teal and Shelduck and a couple of Gadwall.

Avocet numbers are slowly starting to creep up again, after their midwinter low, with twelve today sleeping on the small island which just pokes out above the water by the path to Parrinder Hide.

Avocet

Avocet – numbers are up slightly, with 12 now on the reserve

There were a few more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. Several Common Redshanks were feeding down at the front, with a couple of Ringed Plover and Dunlin around the edge of the muddy channels just behind. Two Black-tailed Godwits were hiding here too, along with singles of Curlew and Grey Plover further back. A small flock of Knot were feeding in the edge of one of the islands of vegetation out in the middle of the mud.

As we walked over the bank towards the Tidal Pools, a small party of Brent Geese took off from the saltmarsh and flew straight over our heads. They disappeared off towards the freshmarsh, presumably to drink and bathe.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flew over us, from the saltmarsh to the freshmarsh

The first thing we noticed on the Tidal Pools were the Little Grebes, three of them which were diving out on the water just beyond the bank. There were a few more duck on here too, and in particularly a little party of Pintail over towards the back corner, busy upending. We got them in the scope and had a look at them – smart ducks!

There were a few more waders on here too – some nice close godwits, both Black-tailed Godwits and Bar-tailed Godwits, which gave us another opportunity to look at the differences between the two species. The Bar-tailed Godwits are slightly smaller, shorter legged, with a bill which turns up slightly, and noticeably paler with streaks on their upperparts.

Ba-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – showing off its slightly upturned bill & barred tail

Several Oystercatchers were roosting on the spit at the back of the Tidal Pools, but most of the waders were out on the beach today, although they were flushed as we arrived by a Common Buzzard circling out over the dunes.

The real draw out here at the moment is the seaduck, and we found ourselves a sheltered spot in the lee of the dunes to see what we could see. A quick scan of the sea and we found several Long-tailed Ducks diving just offshore, including a number of smart drakes. They were sporting even longer tails than the drake Pintail we had just been looking at!

Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck – a smart drake, diving just offshore

There were several Common Scoter and a good number of Goldeneye on the sea too, which were relatively easy to see, despite all the ducks disappearing in the steady swell. The pair of Red-breasted Mergansers were harder for everyone to get onto, as they were diving constantly, as was the Red-throated Diver. The Guillemots were very hard to see on the water too, but several flew past including one right along the tide line, which was much easier to get onto.

After a productive session out at the beach, we beat a hasty retreat to the Visitor Centre for lunch. Afterwards, we made our way back to the car, with a Treecreeper in the sallows by the path a welcome bonus. Then we made our way back east along the coast to Holkham for the afternoon.

As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive towards the pines, a Stonechat posed nicely on the fence beside the car. There were lots of Common Redshanks feeding around the pools in the grass, formed by the recent rain. On the other side, a big flock of Wigeon grazing by the fence were spooked by a passing Curlew and flew up whistling noisily.

Wigeon

Wigeon – a large flock was grazing beside Lady Anne’s Drive

Out first target here was the flock of Shorelarks which often feed out on the saltmarsh, so we headed straight out through the pines towards the beach. A flock of Linnets was flushed by a dog running around in the middle of the saltmarsh, and whirled round in a tight flock. We turned east and walked along the path below the dunes. We hadn’t gone far when we noticed a large group standing out on the edge of the saltmarsh and saw a flock of nine pale birds whirl round and land down again in front of them – the Shorelarks.

We joined the small crowd and set to admiring the Shorelarks as they scampered around on the saltmarsh just in front of us. The clouds cleared just at that moment and the sun appeared. Perfect timing, as the canary yellow faces of the Shorelarks shone in the low afternoon light. Great birds!

Shorelark

Shorelarks – several of the nine feeding out on the saltmarsh

Shorelarks are winter visitors in very small and variable numbers to the UK from Scandinavia. They have declined in recent years, and North Norfolk is now one of the only (fairly) reliable places to see them, so it is always a delight to spend some time watching a flock of Shorelarks here on the coast. They are always better to see in action, so the short video below gives a better sense of how lovely they are to watch!

As we made our way back through the trees, we heard a Goldcrest calling in the holm oaks and watched it flitting around in the dark leaves. A flock of Pink-footed Geese flew in calling and landed out on the grass to the west of Lady Anne’s Drive, so we stopped to have a look at them in the scope.

We had been intending to walk west to the hides this afternoon, but we received a tip that the White-fronted Geese were over the other side of the grazing marsh today, so we drove round there instead. We were soon watching a flock of at least 75 – they were hard to count as they were tucked down behind the trees, but this is the most we have seen here this year. Numbers have been lower than normal this winter, due to mild weather on the continent which means that many of the geese have stayed there.

Through the scope we could see the distinctive white surround to the base of the bill on the adult White-fronted Geese, from which they get their name, and their black belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – we counted at least 75 here today

Great White Egrets are now a regular sight at Holkham and a pair bred here for the first time in 2017. They like to feed in the pools and ditches out on the grazing marshes. One was hiding round behind the trees when we arrived, but thankfully flew out and landed in the middle of the marshes where we could get a good look at it.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – helpfully landed out in the middle of the grazing marsh

A Grey Heron flew across in front of us while we were scanning the marshes and a Marsh Harrier was quartering the grazing marshes over towards Meals House, flushing all the Wigeon and Lapwings. A striking pale Common Buzzard was perched in the top of one of the hawthorn bushes.

Having not had to walk out to the hides at Holkham this afternoon, we had an hour to spare now. We decided to drive back along the coast to try to catch up with a few raptors coming in to roost. When we arrived at the car park, we were told we had just missed a male Hen Harrier, but thankfully we were soon watching another, a ringtail, as it made its way slowly past long the back edge of the saltmarsh. Through the scope we could see the distinctive white patch at the base of its tail.

The Hen Harrier dropped down onto the saltmarsh, but when we next saw it a second ringtail was with it. We watched as the two of them tussled with each other, before dropping back down into the vegetation.

Then a Barn Owl appeared. It was distant at first, perched on a signpost along the edge of the saltmarsh from where we were standing. It started to make its way towards us, hunting the grassy bank below the trees, but then three boys appeared between us and the Barn Owl, playing noisily on the edge of the wood, and the owl turned back the other way. The boy’s mother called them in for tea, but it was just to late for us! A little group of Fieldfares flew over the trees tchacking loudly.

Finally, the male Hen Harrier reappeared. We watched as it made its way in from the east, high over the saltmarsh. It dropped down along the northern edge as it passed by in front of us, flushing a Merlin from the bushes below it. The Merlin flew off fast ahead of it, hugging the vegetation. As the male Hen Harrier headed in towards the roost, with the light fading, we decided to call it a day and head for home too.

20th Jan 2018 – Seeking Owls

An Owl Tour today. It was cloudy and rather cold all day, but with light winds and the rain mostly held off – just a little light drizzle late morning and spots of rain for a time again early afternoon.

With an early start, we hoped to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, and so it proved. After meeting up, we drove straight down to the grazing marshes on the coast and climbed up onto the seawall. There was a Barn Owl flying round over the grass. It flew up and down, landing a couple of times on a fence post, where we could get it in the scope. We all had a good look at it before it took off again and disappeared round the back of the reeds.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting still on our arrival this morning

The Barn Owl had been a bit distant from where we were standing, so we walked up along the seawall for a closer look. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds as we passed. Then a Water Pipit flew up calling from an area of recently cut reed and two Grey Partridge flew across and dropped down in the middle of the same cut area, presumably to feed on any spilled seed. A flock of Curlew flew past us calling, heading inland.

The Barn Owl reappeared again, and was much closer to us now. We watched as it flew round again, staring intently down into the grass. It dropped down at one point, but came up again quickly with no sign of having caught anything, before landing on a nearby post briefly. When it took off again, it flew straight over towards us and made its way right past below the bank, before heading off inland presumably to roost.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – a nice flypast as it headed off to roost

There were other birds here too. One or two Marsh Harriers quartered the reeds and we spotted a Kestrel perched on a telegraph post. Several geese were flying back and forth – including six Brent Geese which came right over our heads, and a couple of skeins of Pink-footed Geese further out over the grass. A Little Egret and a Rock Pipit were both feeding on the pools on the saltmarsh beyond the seawall. Another Barn Owl was only seen as it disappeared into a box to roost, before anyone could get onto it.

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding on the pools on the edge of the saltmarsh

With the Barn Owls here having probably gone to roost now, we walked back to the car. We could hear Grey Partridge calling and looked across to see a pair on the bank in front of us. They then flew down into the grass, where we got a good look at them in the scope.

Some movement in the reeds on the edge of the ditch below us turned out to be a Chiffchaff. Mostly this is just a summer visitor and passage migrant here, but with increasingly mild winters a few stay on. In contract, Cetti’s Warbler is resident. We had heard a couple calling on our walk and, having just explained how it was unusual to see one out in the open, a Cetti’s Warbler flew past us and landed briefly in the top of a clump of brambles!

Our next target for the morning was Little Owl. On our drive inland to look for them, we noticed a white shape flying along the verge beside the road in front of us, another Barn Owl still out hunting. We drove slowly behind it for several minutes, watching it – it seemed oblivious to our presence. It landed briefly on a road sign, then carried on hunting. When it turned down a side road, it flicked over the hedge out of view, working the edge of the field. Then it came back over the hedge further along, crossing the road in front of us and going over the hedge the other side, before flying back the other way, behind us. Great to watch!

We stopped by a set of farm buildings where we know there are Little Owls. There was no obvious sign of them at first – perhaps not a great surprise as they like to perch up in the morning sun and today was cold and cloudy! As we walked round the other side, scanning carefully, we found one tucked in under the roof of an old barn. It was not easy to see from here – we could only see half of it and it was facing the other way – but we could make out its back spotted with white and the false eye pattern on the back of its head.

Little Owl

Little Owl – we could jut see the back of this one, hiding under the roof

We walked back round to the front of the barns, but the Little Owl had tucked itself in so well it was not visible at all from this side. There were a few other birds here – a few Brent Geese, Common Gulls and Curlew in the fields, and a pair of Stock Doves on the roof of one of the other barns.

The weather looked like it might be brightening a little, so we carried on our way west, hoping we might find another Little Owl elsewhere. However, we hadn’t gone far before it started to spit with rain. We drove past several more sets of occupied barns on our way, but there was no sign of any of the other Little Owls. It was just not the weather now for them to be sitting out, and we weren’t helped by lots of disturbance today too – a farmer with his dog was walking round the buildings at one site, a shoot was gathering outside another. We did see another late Barn Owl still out, perched on a post out in a field, looking slightly bedraggled.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got up onto the seawall, a smart drake Goldeneye was diving on the pit below the bank. The tide was out, and we were greeted by a vast expanse of mud stretching across to Lincolnshire in the distance, the Wash. There were a few smaller waders on the near edge, little groups of grey Dunlin and a couple of Ringed Plover too with nearest of them.

Dunlin

Dunlin – feeding out on the mud of the Wash

There were clearly lots of waders out on the mud in the distance. Further out, we could see a few Grey Plover and Curlew. A tighter group beyond them was a line of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot, busy feeding. A slick of Golden Plover was spread out across the mud, remarkably hard to see until we got them in the scope. Another flock of Golden Plover whirled round over the fields just inland, before dropping down out of view.

There were ducks out on the Wash too, lots of Teal and Mallard in flocks asleep on the edge of the muddy channels. Shelduck were liberally scattered across the mud. Inland, a big flock of Wigeon flew up calling before dropping back down behind the inner seawall.

There has been a Shorelark here in recent weeks, but we hadn’t heard anything about it for a while. We had a quick walk up along the tideline to see if it was still here and just as it seemed like it might have gone, we noticed some movement in all the seaweed and dry vegetation lined up along the top of the beach. Sure enough, it was the Shorelark. We had great views of it as it crept around in and out of the piles of vegetation, looking for seeds, its pale yellow face with distinctive black bandit mask and collar.

Shorelark

Shorelark – along the tideline at Snettisham again this morning

As we made our way back along the track, we caught sight of a smart drake Pintail on the water below the bank. There were more Goldeneye diving out on the pits, and a couple of Little Grebes too. A flock of Tufted Duck flew off past us. On the main pit there were good numbers of Wigeon and a couple of Gadwall too, plus lots of Greylag Geese.

Walking round, we scanned the bushes and spotted a shape under the brambles. It was a Short-eared Owl roosting. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but it was facing away from us at first. Another scan and we found a second Short-eared Owl in the bushes nearby. This one was looking straight at us.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting here today

We stood and watched the Short-eared Owls for a few minutes. They were not doing very much, but would occasionally turn their heads. A pair of Brown Hares came chasing through the bushes towards them and ran straight into the brambles where the second Short-eared Owl was perched. We watched as it looking round and down towards them, making sure there wasn’t any threat, before going back to sleep.

After lunch back at the car, we started to make our way back east. We had hoped to have another go at finding another Little Owl on our way back, but having eased off earlier it now started to spit with rain again. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of any more owls still. We did find a big flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field beside the road and had a quick stop to look at them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field

When we got back to the coast, it stopped raining again, so we went back to the grazing marshes to see if any owls were coming out to hunt. As walked out on the seawall, we heard a Water Pipit call and looked down to see it feeding on the edge of a puddle where the reeds had just been cut. This time we had a good look at it through the scope, noting it pale off-white underparts with neat black streaking, and its prominent pale supercilium. A pair of Stonechats was feeding nearby too.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – feeding around a puddle in the recently cut reeds

It was getting late now, and the light was starting to fade. We could see a big flock of Brent Geese feeding out on the grass in the distance and watched as they took off and flew across the marshes, heading off to roost.

A Barn Owl appeared behind us. It flew in over the reeds, past us on the bank, and headed out across the grazing marshes. It was a noticeably darker bird than the one we had seen here this morning. It hunted for a minute or so around the edge of the reeds out in the middle, then headed off over the other side.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – a different bird, came out to hunt late this afternoon

It was getting late now. We already had a good haul of owls for the day, but there was one more still we wanted to try to see, so we headed inland again, and up to the woods. We walked through the trees and stood looking out over the grazing marshes as we waited for the light to fade. As we watched, several ducks flew in and landed down in the pools to feed, Mallard and Gadwall.

Then a Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. We walked back into the wood and it hooted again. We looked over in that direction and saw a large shape fly out, disappearing off through the trees, as the Tawny Owl came out of its roost and headed off for the night.

We walked down along a path to an area where we know another male Tawny Owl favours. We had a short wait, but after a while it finally appeared through trees, and perched high above us. We managed to get it in the scope, silhouetted against the last of the day’s light, and watched it hooting, turning round on the branch, looking down towards us.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – silhouetted against the last of the light, hooting

The Tawny Owl stayed in the trees above us for several minutes, hooting on and off, before eventually it took off and disappeared deeper into the wood. We could still hear it, hooting in the distance, as we walked back to the car. It was a great way to end a very successful day out, seeking owls.