Tag Archives: Shorelark

12th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours today. The plan was to spend some of the time looking for a selection of our regular winter birds and some of the time trying to find owls. After two foggy days, it seemed like it might be more of the same today but then, contrary to all the forecasts, the sun came out! It was a lovely day to be out.

Holkham was our first destination this morning. As we turned into Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see several thrushes out on the wet grass feeding around one of the pools. We pulled up for a quick look and could see they were mainly Fieldfares along with a couple of Redwings too.  A short distance further on, a little covey of Grey Partridges was feeding in the grass on the other side.

As we got out of the car at the top of the Drive, a couple of Marsh Harriers flew low overhead, presumably heading out from the roost to feed. The first was a male, quite a dark one, possibly a young bird although greyness does not always correlate with age in male Marsh Harriers! This was closely followed by a female, dark brown with paler creamy yellow head and shoulders.

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Marsh Harrier – this male flew low over Lady Anne’s Drive

There were plenty of wildfowl here too. Little groups of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, before landing out in the fields – we could hear their squeaky calls, higher pitched than the more familiar Greylags. A larger flock of Brent Geese arrived from the direction of Wells. On the other side, a big group of Wigeon was flushed by another passing harrier and flew round whistling, before landing back down in the grass.

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Brent Geese – flying in to feed on the grazing marshes

As we made our way through the trees towards the beach, a Treecreeper was calling in the pines. We walked east along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. A couple of Skylarks flew over calling and a big flock of Meadow Pipits flushed from out in the vegetation.

There was no sign of any Shorelark in their usual favoured spot out on the saltmarsh. We continued on a little further, scanning all the time, and finally spotted one in the distance on a strip of shingle in a gap in the dunes. A couple walking their dog were just coming off the beach beyond, walking straight towards it. We all had a quick look at it through the scope in case it flushed, but thankfully it stayed put.

We walked over half way towards it and stopped again for a closer look through the scope. We could see its creamy yellow face and black bandit mask. We could see now that the Shorelark appeared to be on its own and was rather nervous. We could hear it calling, presumably trying to locate the rest of the group here. Then it flew over us and landed back on the saltmarsh where we had just been. We walked back, but the Shorelark was calling all the time now. It took off and circled round over the saltmarsh, before flying off over the dunes to the beach.

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Shorelark – just one this morning, this photo taken the other day

Out on the beach, we could feel the warmth of the sun, which was just high enough to reach here over the pines behind. Scanning the sea, we found a group of Red-breasted Mergansers. Several smart males were chasing round after a single female, showing off their spiky haircuts.

There were lots of Cormorants standing on the sand and several more diving out on the sea, along with a handful of Great Crested Grebes. Looking carefully, we managed to find a single Red-throated Diver with them, but it was hard to get onto, diving all time. There were not many waders on the beach, just a few Oystercatchers, but three Sanderling flew past just offshore, shining white in the morning sunshine.

As we walked back towards Holkham Gap, a movement in the dunes just below the trees caught our eye. A female Stonechat had landed down in the marram grass. It flew up and very helpfully posed in front of us on the top of a young pine.

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Stonechat – feeding in the dunes below the pines

Back through the pines, we headed west along the track on the other side of the trees. It was fairly quiet until we reached Salts Hole. Here, we could see two Little Grebes asleep on the edge of the reeds on the far side, in the sun. A couple of Coot were busy diving, and a female Goldeneye swam out into the middle to join them. A big flock of Wigeon flushed from the grazing marsh behind, and several flew in and landed on the water whistling noisily.

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Goldeneye – this female was diving out on Salts Hole

The drawback of it being such a lovely morning was that at Washington Hide, we were looking into the sun. There was no sign of anything on the pool in front of the hide today, although we did hear a Bearded Tit calling from the reeds.

One of the Great White Egrets then appeared, landing on the grazing marsh just to the west of us. A Grey Heron flew across and chased after it – a good size comparison, we could see that there was nothing between them. The Grey Heron seemed to lose interest pretty quickly and the Great White Egret landed again, before walking down into one the reedy ditches.

We carried on our way west. We were almost up to the crosstracks when we came across a big flock of tits. We heard the Long-tailed Tits first and they dropped out of the pines and made their way through the bushes across to the other side of the track. They were followed by several Coal Tits and Goldcrests. A few seconds later, a rather wet Coal Tit flew back to the bushes on the edge of the pines and perched in the top of one preening. A wet Goldcrest followed. They had obviously been down for a drink and a bathe in one of the ditches.

As we opened the windows of Joe Jordan Hide, we could see lots of geese on the grass just below. They were mainly Greylags, but a single Pink-footed Goose was with them. It was a good comparison – we could see the large orange carrot of a bill on the Greylag Geese compared to the more delicate and darker bill of the Pinkfoot.

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White-fronted Geese – more today, feeding out on the old fort

There were more geese further back, feeding on the grass on the top of the old fort. Through the scope we could see they were White-fronted Geese – we could see the distinctive white surround to the base of their bills and their dark belly bars. These birds come here from their breeding grounds in Russia for the winter in very variable numbers. There have been rather few present so far this winter but numbers have just started to increase, possibly in response to colder weather out on the continent. 

Another Great White Egret appeared, landing out in the wet grass between the hide and the pool. It looked huge next to the Greylag Geese feeding nearby. Through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill.

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Great White Egret – showing off its size relative to the Greylags

There were a few ducks around the pool beyond, mainly Teal along with a few Shoveler. A couple of Mistle Thrushes landed on the grass below the hide, feeding in amongst the molehills with a Fieldfare. A female Kestrel was walking around looking for worms in the grass too.

Looking out of the side window, we noticed a good number of waders around the pools down in the grass. Through the scope, we had good views of Ruff and a nice comparison with a Common Redshank. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits too and several diminutive Dunlin running around between them. A few Curlew were feeding out on the grass as well, until everything was flushed by a passing Marsh Harrier.

It was getting on for lunch time now, so we made our way back to the car. As we ate, a Red Kite flew lazily across over the grazing marshes.

After lunch, we headed inland. We drove round via a couple of sets of barns where Little Owls live, but there was no sign of any at first. Unfortunately, it had clouded over a bit now. At our third attempt, we found one. It was rather distant and tucked down under the lip of the roof, but we could see its speckled breast, and the white spots on its brown back.

The afternoon was getting on now and it was already starting to get rather dull. We made our way back down to the coast and out onto the grazing marshes. A distant Barn Owl was already out hunting on our arrival, but it didn’t come round our way as we had hoped. We could hear Bearded Tits and Reed Buntings calling in the reedbed below the seawall, and a nice male Bearded Tit perched up in the top of the reeds briefly for us.

Thousands of Pink-footed Geese flushed from the far side of the grazing marshes. It was quite a sight and sound. Some of them landed back down on the grass, but some flew off over our heads calling. Very noisy!

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Pink-footed Geese – thousands flushed from the grazing marshes

We drove round to the other side of the grazing marshes to see if we could find where the Barn Owl had gone. There was no sign of it here either. We did get a glimpse of a second Barn Owl out hunting, a darker bird, but it dropped down behind the reeds out in the middle before everyone could see it and didn’t reappear. We drove back inland, round via some other sites where Barn Owls like to hunt, but there was no sign of any – they must not be hungry enough to come out feeding in the daylight at the moment.

It was starting to get dark now, so we headed up to the wood. We stood on the edge for a few minutes and looked out over the meadows below, where a Water Rail was squealing. Then the first Tawny Owl starting hooting behind us, so we walked back into the trees. We stopped on the corner of the track and waited.

After a few minutes, a female Tawny Owl called behind us. Then we heard another male hooting in the distance. Finally, a third male Tawny Owl started hooting close to us. We stood and listened for a while and eventually this one flew towards us. It landed in a tree in front of us briefly, but it looked like it saw us and flew across the track and deeper into the trees. It seemed like the opportunity might have passed.

Then we heard the Tawny Owl hooting again and it seemed to be coming from the edge of the track a little further down. We walked along and scanning the branches managed to find it perched high in tree above us. We managed to get it in the scope, silhouetted against the last of the light. It stayed there for several minutes, first hooting, then calling,  before dropping back through the trees in the direction it had first come. As we walked back to the car, we could still hear it hooting from deeper in the wood.

It was a great way to end our first day, watching Tawny Owls at dusk. But it was getting dark now, so it was time to call it a day.

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9th Jan 2018 – Looking for Owls

It was an Owl Tour today, the first of 2018. The weather was dry and the wind had dropped completely today, which was a real bonus, but it was still very dull, grey and chilly all day with a light mist which thickened in the afternoon.

After we met up on the coast this morning, we headed straight over to the grazing marshes to look for Barn Owls. One had been out hunting just before we arrived, but after a mild, dry night they can go to bed very early at this time of year. Thankfully, as soon as we got up onto the seawall, we could see a Barn Owl still hunting out over the grass in the distance.

We walked up along the bank and watched it for a while, flying round methodically over the same field. The Barn Owl dropped down onto the ground a couple of times but came up without anything shortly after. It disappeared round behind some reeds for a while, but then came back out and continued to hunt over the same area.

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Barn Owl – we saw a couple still out hunting this morning

The Barn Owl gradually worked its way back away from us, working the fields further off along the bank, so we turned our attention to whatever else we could see. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds and the grazing marshes. A Kestrel flew in and landed on a bush before making its way over to perch on one of the information boards out on the seawall.

A big flock of Brent Geese flew up periodically in the distance out across the marshes, circling round calling, before dropping back down to feed on the grass. Several Pink-footed Geese flushed off the grazing marshes too, but they headed off inland, presumably to find some recently harvested sugar beet fields to feed it. We could hear their high-pitched yelping calls as they flew off.

The next thing we knew, the Barn Owl was back again, presumably the same one, much closer to us. It dropped down behind a line of reeds, so we made our way over towards it, and when it came up again we had a close flypast. Great views! It came straight past us, flying purposefully now, up and over the bank behind us, and disappeared off inland, presumably heading off to roost.

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Barn Owl – gave us a close flypast as it headed off to roost

No sooner had that Barn Owl disappeared, than another turned up. This one was much paler, white winged, the resident male here. It circled round in front of the reeds, perching down in the grass for a few seconds where we managed to get it in the scope. Then it flew back over the reeds and disappeared off towards the trees. Presumably it too was heading in to roost now.

We were just turning to leave when a pair of Grey Partridges flew across and landed down on the grass in front of us. The male stood bolt upright, looking round, while the female picked around in the grass nearby. Then they were off again, running away across the open grass.

Our next target was Little Owl. They can often be found during the morning, perched up enjoying the sun at this time of year, but there was a distinct lack of any sun today! There was a distinct chill in the air too, despite the lack of wind. There was no sign of any Little Owls at our first stop. We stopped again a little further on and walked round to check out the back of some barns. We could just see the top of the head of one Little Owl from here, tucked tight down in the roof, but we couldn’t make out any detail. Not a stunning view!

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Little Owl – tucked well down out of view this morning

We walked round to the other side of the barn, to see if we could get a better look at the Little Owl from there, but it had found a spot where it was sheltered, out of the wind, and it wasn’t visible at all from this side.

There were some other birds here. A big flock of Curlew flew up from a rape field next to the road as we stopped. A couple of Red-legged Partridges and a pair of Stock Doves were lurking around the farm buildings. A flock of Brent Geese flew up from the coast and headed off inland to feed on a winter wheat field somewhere. Given the weather, it seemed unlikely a Little Owl would come out into the open this morning, so we decided to head off and try our luck elsewhere.

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Brent Geese – flying up from the coast, heading inland to feed

As we made our way west, we saw several Bullfinches which flew out of the hedges as we passed, flashing their white rumps. A couple of Red Kites flew over, and a Common Buzzard perched on the top of the hedge took off as we pulled up alongside it. A Sparrowhawk flew low and fast along the grass verge ahead of us, up into a tree where it landed on a branch briefly, before flying on along the road as we approached. We drove round via several other sites for Little Owl, but there was no sign of any this morning, it seemed like perhaps it was just too dull and cold.

We decided to give up on Little Owls for now, so we continued our way west over to Snettisham. There had been a Shorelark seen here yesterday so, while the rest of the group stopped for a warming coffee, the intrepid leader headed out to look for it. It didn’t take long to find it, picking at the vegetation washed up along the high tide line.

ShorelarkShorelark – feeding along the tide line at Snettisham

Collecting everyone else after their coffee break, we walked back and had great views of the Shorelark in the scopes. We could see its bright yellow face and black mask and collar, but despite this it was very well camouflaged when feeding unobtrusively, creeping around in the dry brown vegetation.

After watching the Shorelark for a while, we turned our attention to the Wash. It was about high tide now, but it was not a big enough tide to cover the mud today. Still there were lots of waders out there. A long line of Oystercatchers had gathered towards the water’s edge, several thousand strong. A dark smear across the grey mud closer to us was actually a big flock of Golden Plover, roosting over high tide.

There were also lots of Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Redshanks scattered liberally over mud, still busy feeding, which we had a look at through the scope. Several Curlews were sleeping further back. The Knot had all gone to sleep out in the middle too, in several smaller groups.

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Knot – sleeping in smaller flocks, scattered over the mud

While we were gathered watching the waders, a Spanish couple visiting here walked over to speak to us. They had found an injured Pink-footed Goose – it looked like it had most likely been shot and winged and was unable to fly or stand. They were headed back in the direction of King’s Lynn, so we agreed the best option would be to take it to the RSPCA Wildlife Centre East Winch, which would be not far out of their way.

We made our way round to look at the pits. There are lots of Goldeneye here at the moment, and several of the drakes were displaying, throwing their heads back in an exaggerrated fashion. There was also a nice selection of other ducks – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and a few Tufted Ducks. There were plenty of noisy Greylag Geese too and a few Little Grebes diving out on the water.

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Goldeneye – several of the drakes were displaying today

A Kingfisher flew past us, along the edge of the water. It disappeared from view, but by walking down onto the causeway and looking back we could see it perched on a bramble bush along the bank. It was easier to see in the scope – surprisingly well camouflaged for an electric blue bird!

Looking across to the other bank, we could see a shape tucked down under a bramble bush. It was a roosting Short-eared Owl. They often like to roost well hidden from view, but this one was not particularly well concealed by the brambles above it.

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Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

There have been Fieldfares on the move in recent days and today was no exception. As we stood scanning the pits, a good-sized flock of about 150 Fieldfares flew south, followed by another 20 or so a little later, calling.

After lunch back at the car, we started to make our way back east. Again, we looked at several sites for Little Owls on the way, but it seemed like we would be out of luck again. It was even greyer know than it had been earlier. Driving past a set of barns where we know there are owls, we looked across to see a shape perched on the top of a roof. We pulled to a stop in front and looked up. There was a Little Owl, perched high on the ridge. It stared at us for a few seconds then, just as the camera came out, it flew off round the back of the buildings.

We made our way back to Blakeney. The mist had thickened and it was very dull now. As we walked out on the seawall, we could see a Barn Owl hunting across the other side. We stopped to scan the marshes and could see a couple of Marsh Harriers out over the reeds, presumably getting ready to go to roost. A pale-headed female perched on the top of a bush and a male did a nice circuit round in front of us.

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Marsh Harrier – quartering the reedbed before going to roost

We heard the pinging calls of Bearded Tits coming from the reeds in front of us and we could see the feathery seedheads swaying, despite the lack of any wind. Looking closely, we could see the Bearded Tits clambering through the reeds and feeding on the seeds. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds too.

It didn’t look like the Barn Owl was going to do a circuit round to us today – there was no sign of it coming over to this side of the marshes. So, with the light fading, we headed back to the car and made our way inland again. We parked and walked down to a meadow. There is often a Barn Owl here, but not today – perhaps it had not yet emerged from its roost. A Water Rail squealed nearby.

As we made our way back into the nearby trees, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the wood behind us. We walked down to a nearby area where we know another Tawny Owl sometimes roosts. We heard it hoot once, but it was deep in the trees today. After a few minutes wait, it started calling from the far edge of the trees ahead of us and in reply came more hooting from back where we had heard the first.

It was lovely listening to the Tawny Owls, but then it went quiet. It was perhaps a bit cold and grey for them to get really worked up this evening. As it was getting dark, we decided it was time to call it a day and head for home.

6th & 7th Jan 2017 – NW Norfolk in Winter

This was a Private Tour, over a day and a half, for a group based in NW Norfolk. It was to be a relaxed paced tour, enjoying some of the sights and sounds of the coast in winter.

Saturday 6th January

After an earlier than normal start, our first destination was Snettisham. It was a big high tide forecast for this morning, although not big enough to cover all the mud and force all the waders off the Wash. Still we hoped the thousands of waders forced in by the rising water might put on a good display for us.

As we arrived up on the seawall, the tide was already well in. A couple of swirling lines of waders overtook us on their way to the remaining mud in the far corner. We made our way quickly down towards Rotary Hide and then stopped to scan the water. There were lots of duck just offshore, bobbing on the tide, mainly Shelduck and Mallard closer in. Beyond them, we could see a couple of big rafts of Teal, which flew up and circled round before landing back in the water, along with a few Wigeon. Nearby, we found a handful of Pintail too, including some smart drakes sporting their elongated tail feathers.

There was a light mist this morning, but further out we could see a large flock of geese also swimming on the tide. They were Pink-footed Geese which had roosted here overnight. As we stood and watched, they started to take off, flying in towards the shore a few hundred at a time. As they approached us, they turned and started trying to gain height, presumably fearful we might be shooting at them with something other than cameras, before turning inland again further up the beach.

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Pink-footed Geese – a few of the many flying over us early this morning

As the number of Pink-footed Geese flying over gradually dwindled, we turned our attention to the waders. Through the mist, we could see a dark slick smeared across the mud and through the scope we could see it was a massed throng of birds. The tide was still coming in and they were shifting gradually up ahead of the rising water. More birds were flying in to join them from further up the Wash, long lines of Oystercatchers and Knot.

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Waders – the vast throng gathering in the mist this morning

We walked on, down to the grass opposite Shore Hide. From here we could see the waders more clearly. In the deeper water at the front, were the Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits. Behind them on the mud were the Knot, tightly packed in their tens of thousands, looking almost like a single amorphous mass. Behind those on the drier mud, we could see lots of Grey Plover with the diminutive Dunlin in amongst them, the birds here more widely spaced. At the back, towards the saltmarsh beyond, were the much larger Curlews.

The Oystercatchers started to peel off quite early, flying in towards us in small groups, piping noisily. Over our heads, they dropped down towards the pit behind to roost. In one group, we spotted a single Avocet in with them. The vast majority of the Avocets have gone south to warmer climes for the winter, but a small number hang on here right through, as long as it doesn’t get too cold.

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Oystercatchers & Avocet – one hiding in with the others

A couple of times, the Knot all flushed, bursting into the air and wheeling around high over the water before settling back down onto the ever-shrinking area of mud. There didn’t seem to be any immediate reason to panic; though a Marsh Harrier was patrolling the saltmarsh some distance behind them. After one of the flushes, with the exposed mud fast diminishing, several long lines of Knot flew in past us and dropped down onto the pit behind to roost.

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Knot – a long line, flying in off the Wash and down to the pit to roost

The tide had stopped rising and the waders all seemed to have settled down on the last semicircle of mud. We started to think that would be it, when suddenly everything erupted. We looked at the clouds of birds and in the middle of them spotted a Peregrine. It swept through the Knot as they took off, scattering them, before swooping up and turning for another stoop. A small wader peeled off from the flock and the Peregrine set off after it for a second before turning back to the throng again.

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Knot – tens of thousands twisting and turning over the Wash

The flocks of Knot swirled and twisted, making some amazing patterns as they turned, flashing alternately grey and white. Then they started to gain height. The Peregrine flew up too, trying to get above them, but it had lost the element of surprise now and eventually gave up.

The Peregrine started to fly in towards us, away from the swirling flocks of waders, high over the water. As it got in over the saltmarsh, it started to fly down until it was skimming low over the ground as it came in over the grass. It accelerated as it flew in, up over the bank before it turned sharply and disappeared down into the pit where the waders were all roosting.

Presumably mass panic ensued, but it was a surprising few seconds before we saw anything. Perhaps they were just hidden from our view, behind the bank, but at first the few Oystercatchers we could see over the far side did not seem to react. Then a large flock of Knot burst over the bank and low over the grass right past us. All we could hear was the whoosh of thousands of pairs of wings beating. A second flock of Knot followed a second later, the same noise. What a sight!

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Knot – thousands of birds flew right past us

The Oystercatchers were up too now, as were flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover. Most of the waders headed out over the water again and circled as the Peregrine climbed into the sky again and flew off north, empty talonned. We could see it was a young bird, still a juvenile, so rather inexperienced.

We headed in to the hide now. Once the Peregrine had disappeared, many of the waders settled back down onto the pit. There were lots of Oystercatchers on the shingle banks around the south end of the pit and in one corner they were accompanied by some large and tightly packed groups of grey Knot.

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Knot & Oystercatchers – packed into tight flocks to roost on the pit

Up the other end, there was a sizeable party of Redshank asleep on the tip of one of the spits. A single Ruff flew in and landed right in the middle of them – we could see its paler face and scallop-patterned back. There were also lots of Turnstone on the rocks out in the middle and a good number of Lapwing scattered all around.

There were plenty of ducks out on the water here too. Lots of Wigeon and Mallard, a few Shoveler and eventually we found a lone pair of Gadwall too, asleep on the bank at the back. There were diving ducks too, a liberal scattering of Tufted Ducks and a good number of Goldeneye. We got a couple of the male Goldeneye in the scope for a closer look – very smart ducks!

The geese on here were almost all Greylags, but a single Canada Goose was with them too. One of the group then spotted a much smaller Barnacle Goose, hiding in amongst the Greylags. We do get wild Barnacle Geese here sometimes, usually with the Pinkfeet, but given the company it was keeping this one was most likely a feral bird.

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Barnacle Goose – most likely a feral bird, associating with the local Greylags

It had felt quite mild here at the start of the day, despite the light mist and a patchy frost inland, but we noticed the wind in our faces on the walk back to the car. It had picked up while we were in the hide, and there was now a noticeable chill. A small flock of Fieldfares flew south over our heads, possibly cold-weather migrants arrived from the continent – we have seen a few along the coast in the past few days.

Round at Titchwell, we stopped at the visitor centre for a warming coffee. The feeders were just in the process of being filled, and as soon as they were they were covered in the usual selection of finches – Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch. After the coffee break, we had a look in the ditches either side of the main path on our walk out onto the reserve. We couldn’t see any Water Rails at this point, but a Redwing flew in and landed in the trees in front of us before dropping down onto a post on the edge of the grazing marsh.

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Redwing – landed in the trees by the main path briefly

As we walked up along the main path, we could see a few people with telescopes gathered overlooking the grazing marsh pool. They were looking at a Rock Pipit out on the bare ground and as we set up the scope to get a better look at it, we noticed something else moving down at the front, much closer to us. A quick look through binoculars confirmed it was a Water Pipit, the bird we really wanted to see here.

We got the Water Pipit in the scope first and all had a really good look at it down on the mud. We then turned our attention back to the Rock Pipit which was still feeding a little further behind. It was really good to be able to compare these two similar species – the Water Pipit was noticeably much paler below, less dirty looking, and greyer above.

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Water Pipit – great views feeding at the front of the grazing marsh pool

Several Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed and a Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from deep in the reeds. We stopped again to scan around the edges of Lavendar Marsh next. There were lots of Lapwing down in the vegetation and on closer inspection we found four Common Snipe in with them too, feeding in between them, probing vigorously in the mud with their long bills. They were very well camouflaged against the yellow and browns of the vegetation.

There is a lot of water on the freshmarsh at the moment, which the ducks seem to be enjoying. As well as the usual selection of dabbling ducks, particularly Teal and Wigeon, we found a smart pair of Pintail which we had a look at it in the scope. Further back, there were a few Common Pochard in with the larger raft of Tufted Ducks. Several Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh and landed out on the water.

Avocets

Avocets – the five that are currently hanging on here

With most of the islands under water, there are not many places for waders to rest here at the moment. Five Avocets were asleep on the small remnant of one of the islands by the path to Parrinder Hide, the brave souls which are hanging on here through the winter, and a couple of Snipe were feeding on there too. We wanted to have a quick look at the sea first, so we continued on up the main path.

There were more waders on Volunteer Marsh – several Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Curlew. We had just stopped to look at them when we heard a Spotted Redshank call. We looked across to see it fly in and land in the channel at the far end of the marsh. We hurried up there and got it in scope – we could see its pale silvery grey upperparts spotted with white, paler than the Common Redshanks next to it, and its much longer, finer bill.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – flew in and landed on Volunteer Marsh

It was cold in the wind out at the Tidal Pools, so we hurried straight on to the beach. Unfortunately the sea was rather choppy now that the wind had picked up and it was harder to see the ducks. The Common Scoter were easier to see, dark black and brown, contrasting against the water, but even they kept disappearing in the waves. Several Long-tailed Ducks were with them and were more difficult to pick out in the swell, despite being mostly white. Eventually everyone got their eye in and managed to see them.

There were a few Goldeneye out here too and we managed to find a single Red-throated Diver on the sea close enough in to see. The tide was still fairly high, so there was not so much to see on the beach today – lots of gulls, and a few Sanderling running in and out between them. It was rather cold and exposed out here today, so we beat a hasty retreat to somewhere warmer!

Back at the Parrinder Hide, with the sun shining now we were looking straight into the light. As well as all the ducks as before, we had a closer look at the Golden Plover and Lapwings which were roosting on the bits of the fenced off island which were not under water. A single Snipe was on the island too.

The light was better on the other side of Parrinder Hide, looking over the Volunteer Marsh. A close Bar-tailed Godwit gave us a good opportunity to look at it in detail. There was also a Grey Plover and two Knot in front of the hide, as well as the usual Redshanks. A small flock of Linnet flew across in front of us.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – showing well in front of Parrinder Hide

It had been an action packed morning and we still hadn’t managed to stop for lunch, so we headed back towards the visitor centre. As we got into the trees, we scanned the ditches carefully again and this time we spotted a Water Rail just below the path. It was skulking underneath a tangle of branches, and hard to see until you knew exactly where it was. Eventually we all got good views of it feeding in the rotting leaves on the edge of the water.

Water Rail

Water Rail – skulking under a tangle of branches

We retired to the pub for a late lunch today. A nice opportunity to warm up over a plate of sandwiches. It was tempting not to venture out into the cold again but we did!

After lunch, we headed inland. We stopped by a cover strip sown on the edge of a field. The hedge alongside was full of birds, mainly Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers, which kept dropping down into the field to feed. A few Tree Sparrows were in with them, we could see their chestnut caps and black cheek spots. A nice bird to see – once a common countryside bird, just a few years ago, they are getting very scarce here now.

Carrying on inland, our next stop was at Roydon Common. The afternoon was already getting on, and the sun was starting to drop in the sky as we walked out across the heath. It was quiet at first as we made our way to the ridge, but we didn’t have to wait long. A Hen Harrier appeared up out of the vegetation in the bottom, a ringtail. It flew across, flashing the distinctive white square at the base of its tail, before landing again on the top of the heather.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – a ringtail, out over the heather

We had a good look at the Hen Harrier in the scope while it perched for some time. Then it took off again and flew low out across the heath, possibly a late hunt for food, over to the far side where it dropped down again out of sight.

As we waited to see if it or another Hen Harrier would appear, we could see a band of dark clouds to the north. It looked like they might miss us at first, but we were just caught by the edge and a mercifully brief shower. It passed through quickly, but the light was really going now, so we decided to head for home.

Sunday 7th January

The next morning, we met in Thornham again and this time headed east along the coast road to Holkham. It was a lovely morning, mostly clear with some patches of cloud, heading in to a beautiful sunrise. It was certainly nice in the car, but cold out of it in a blustery NE wind!

As we drove along the main road, we could see lots of geese in the fields alongside. We pulled up and had a quick scan – they were mostly Greylags, a few Pink-footed Geese too, and then we spotted two White-fronted Geese in with them. This was a species we were hoping to see here today, so we found somewhere to park off the road and walked back to look at them.

White-fronted Goose

White-fronted Goose – one of two by the road this morning

We had great views of the White-fronted Geese through the scope – we could see their black belly bars and the white surround to the base of their bills. We had a close look at the Pink-footed Geese and Greylags too. It was great to see the three species side by side, and get such good comparisons.

After watching the geese for a while, we continued on to Lady Anne’s Drive. As we turned off the main road, we could see several thrushes on the wet grass field next to the drive, so we pulled up for a look. There were several Fieldfares, possibly more fresh arrivals fleeing cold weather on the continent, and two Mistle Thrushes were with them. A little further along and four Grey Partridges were feeding on the edge of the drive, before running off into the field as we approached.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridges – feeding beside Lady Anne’s Drive early morning

As we parked at the top end of the Drive, we could see three Brent Geese feeding very close to the fence, a nice chance to take a good look closely at our smallest geese, dark slate grey with a white half collar and paler streaked flanks. There were lots more Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and a single Egyptian Goose too.

We made our way out towards the beach first, through the pines before walking east along the edge of the saltmarsh. There were quite a few Skylarks tucked down in the saltmarsh vegetation, along with a couple of Rock Pipits and a Meadow Pipit flew off ahead of us calling.

Our target out here was Shorelark. There has been a flock of eight of them here, on and off, for the last few weeks, but there was no sign of them in their favoured spot when we arrived. We carried on east. As we got out of the lee of the trees, it was cold with the wind in our faces, so we headed across to the comparative shelter of the dunes, where we thought they might be hiding. There was still no sign of the Shorelarks along the high tide line here. We got almost to the beach huts at Wells, but it was exposed and windswept out on the beach beyond here, with lots of people too.

We started to walk back. We hadn’t gone far before we spotted another birder in the distance ahead of us stop and put up his scope. Scanning in front of him with binoculars, we could see eight tiny pale dots running around on the flats – the Shorelarks. We had a quick look through the scope, even though we couldn’t make out any detail at that distance but just in case they flew off, and then we hurried over.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – five of the eight birds feeding out on the mudflats

When we got within range, we stopped and got the Shorelarks in the scope. We all had a good look at them, their bright yellow faces catching the sun and contrasting strongly with the black mask and bib. It was just in time – suddenly, for no reason, they took off and flew in the direction we had just come, landing back down on the tideline by the dunes in the distance.

Shorelark

Shorelark – flew past us and back down the beach

On the walk back, we stopped for a more leasurely look to admire the Skylarks and Rock Pipits on the saltmarsh. We got the scope on them, and looked at the differences between larks and pipits. When they spooked and suddenly all took off, we were amazed at how many had been hiding in the stunted vegetation – at least 40 Skylarks appeared from nowhere!

Once we got back to the pines, we caught some movement in the trees and looked across to see a Treecreeper scaling a trunk. It flew across to another tree and, in typical fashion, disappeared round the back! After we encircled the tree, it had nowhere to hide and it came out so we could get a good look at it.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – scaling the trunk of a pine tree

There was more movement above the Treecreeper in the pines and we looked up to see two Goldcrests flitting around in the branches. Unfortunately, just at that moment, two people with a dog walked right in front of us, just where we were looking with our binoculars, and underneath the Goldcrests, flushing them up into the tops. Very helpful!

On the other side of the pines, we walked west along the track. It was nice in the sun here, sheltered from the wind. A pale Common Buzzard flew overhead and disappeared over the tops of the trees. We found a couple more tit flocks in the trees beside the path – Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits, and another Goldcrest flashing its golden yellow crown stripe in the sun.

We stopped for a couple of minutes by Salts Hole. Several Little Grebes were out on the water, diving. We watched their feathers puffed out when they were up and the surface and then how they flattened them just before they dived. There were also lots of Wigeon sleeping out on the pool here, the smart drakes with chestnut heads and a creamy yellow stripe up their foreheads looking like it had been painted on. A Marsh Harrier hunted over the grazing marsh behind.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – several were diving out on Salts Hole

It was surprisingly warm in Washington Hide, the dark boards had obviously absorbed a lot of heat from the sun’s rays, a great place to rest for a few minutes. Unfortunately, we were looking straight into the sun, but the light catching the reeds in front of us was stunning. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the breeze just beyond and a Common Buzzard was perched on bush behind that. As we were looking at it, a Red Kite was flushed from the grassy field behind by another Marsh Harrier. It landed again, and was mobbed by a third Marsh Harrier having a go at it.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the warmth of the hide and we made our way back to the car. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, a Red Kite was hanging in the wind over the grazing marsh in front of the car, possibly the same one we had just been watching.

We only had a half day out today, so we started to make our way back west. We arrived back in Thornham with a little bit of time to spare, so we made our way out to the Harbour. There was no sign of any Twite around the car park today, but it was very busy with lots of people out for a Sunday stroll. There was lots of disturbance – a couple of boys strangely decided to walk right out across the thick mud from the car park to the seawall – and in entirely unsuitable footwear!

Up on the seawall, it was exposed and very windy now. There were several Redshank scattered around the harbour channel and a lone Curlew was huddled up asleep, trying to shelter behind a spit of saltmarsh vegetation, out of the wind but catching the sun.

Curlew

Curlew – asleep in the sunshine, trying to shelter from the wind

We walked a short distance out along the seawall. A female Stonechat was working her way along the fence line on the edge of the grazing marsh below the bank, flying down to the ground and back up to perch on the next post along. This is another area the Twite often feed, but it was no quieter here – a dog ran down the bank and out onto the saltmarsh, chasing back and forth across the muddy channel trying to catch the Redshanks, which just flew off calling.

Unfortunately, we were out of time, so we turned and headed back to the car. We were almost back to the car park when we glanced across the saltmarsh to see a bright blue jewel sparkling on the mud the other side. It was a Kingfisher. It looked absolutely stunning in the sunshine, against the dark oily brown muddy bank on which it was perched. We stopped to admire it.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – glowing in the winter sunshine

The Kingfisher was a fitting way to end the tour, one and a half days of great winter birding on the North Norfolk coast. Then it was off to the warmth of the pub for Sunday lunch.

17th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. The flipside of waking up to a cold, crisp and frosty morning was that we enjoyed blue skies and sunshine during the day, great weather to be out birding.

Our destination for the day was NE Norfolk. On our way east along the coast road this morning, we passed through Stiffkey. The cows are still out on the wet meadow just to the east of the village and we managed to pull up and scan the grass from the car. We were looking towards the morning sun, low in the sky, but still it didn’t take long to spot a Cattle Egret in with the cattle, a nice way to start the day. There are two here at the moment, and they have been lingering here for some time now, but it is always worth a stop to look at them.

As a couple of cars appeared down the road behind us, we had to move on. We managed to see some other things on our journey though. As we passed through Cley, a big group of Curlew flew across the road in front of us and landed in the winter wheat on the other side where they started feeding. We could see several skeins of Pink-footed Geese making their way inland as we headed towards Sheringham.

Passing Cromer, we decided to have a quick look through the gulls down by the pier. There has been a Caspian Gull or two here in recent weeks, though they can be a bit erratic in their appearances. As we got down onto the Prom, we could see a group of gulls loafing on the rocks away to the west. They were rather distant, but looking through them with the scope, we couldn’t see anything unusual with them.

Out to sea, a small crab boat was tending to its pots and a large mob of gulls was following behind. We had a quick look through those too, but all we could see were Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew east offshore and a Cormorant flew past heading west.

There are normally a few gulls on the beach by the pier but someone was walking his dog there today and just a handful of Herring Gulls were just offshore, waiting for him to leave. There was no sign of the Caspian Gull which is often here. The crab boat had finished its work and moved on, but we could still see lots of gulls on the sea further out. Another careful scan through and this time we managed to find a juvenile Glaucous Gull in with them. Great – one of the birds we had hoped to see this weekend. One had been reported flying off west from Sidestrand earlier, so this was possibly the same bird.

The gulls were just loafing on the sea now, with the prospect of food having departed with the crab boat, and the Glaucous Gull started to have a quick bathe. The sea looked fairly calm but there was still enough swell for the gulls to disappear in the waves. Still, we managed to get it in the scope and get a good look at it. We could see it was a rather uniform dark biscuit colour with paler wing tips. Even at that distance, we could see the distinctive black-tipped pink-based bill as it caught the morning sun.

TurnstoneTurnstone – several were around the picnic tables on the pier

We were right by the pier so we figured we would get a slightly closer view of the gulls from out on the end. Unfortunately, by the time we got out there the gulls had mostly dispersed and there was no further sign of the Glaucous Gull. However, we did get a good look at several Turnstones which were looking for scraps around the picnic tables outside the cafe on the pier.

It was then a rather slow drive along the winding coast road to Happisburgh. We parked in the car park by the lighthouse and set off down the coast path along the top of the cliffs. The winter wheat field here has been home to a group of Shorelarks in recent weeks and we were hoping to see them. But as we walked beside it, there were few birds present beyond a scattering of Black-headed Gulls. A couple of Gannets flew past offshore.

As we got towards the south end of the field, we met a couple of birders coming back the other way who told us that four Shorelarks had earlier been down on the beach but had flown up and out across the field. We stopped and had a good scan, but there was still no sign of them, so we continued on to the end. We could see a muck spreader haring up and down the next field inland and it put up a large group of Skylarks ahead of it. While we were scanning over in that direction, we heard Shorelarks calling and someone shouted to say they had dropped back down on the beach.

From the top of the cliffs, we could see two Shorelarks now picking their way along the high tide line. We got them in the scope and had a good look at them, their bright yellow faces glowing in the morning sunshine. They worked their way along, picking at the dead vegetation left behind by the sea, before turning round and coming back towards us. Even better, they then decided to run across the sand towards us, looking for food at the base of the cliffs, right below us. Great views!

ShorelarkShorelark – one of two feeding on the beach below us

A Meadow Pipit flew in to join the two Shorelarks but it was quickly spooked by a dogwalker out on the beach and flew off, taking the Shorelarks with it. They were quickly replaced with a small flock of eleven Snow Buntings which flew in and landed on the tide line, where the Shorelarks had earlier been feeding. We got the Snow Buntings in the scope and watched them as they picked their way along the vegetation, before flying off back up the beach.

The Snow Buntings have been feeding on some seedy weeds at the base of the cliffs, so on our way back we had a look for them – carefully, not getting too close to the edge as the cliffs here are rather unstable! The Snow Buntings we had just seen had joined up with another group and we found them just where we had expected. There were at least 25 now, and we had a great look at them feeding just below us. There was a noticeable mix of paler and darker birds, a mixture of two races from Scandinavia and Iceland respectively.

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting – one of about twenty five on the beach today

Having successfully caught up with the two species we had hoped to see here, we made our way back across country to Felbrigg Hall. We had lunch at one of the rather rustic picnic tables in the car park. The trees here can hold a nice variety of woodland birds at times but it was rather quiet here today.

After lunch, we set off to walk up to the Hall. A couple of Goldcrests flew across the road in front of us and disappeared into a holly tree. As we passed by a small pond we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and looked across to see them feeding in the brambles by the water. There were Great Tits, Coal Tit and another Goldcrest in the trees too.

This autumn saw a massive arrival of Hawfinches, coming to the UK from the continent. Where exactly they have come from and why is still not entirely clear, but some of them have taken up temporary residence in suitable areas across the country, including a small number in Felbrigg Park. They have been rather mobile, but have been seen most often in the trees by the Orangery, which is where we found a small expectant crowd waiting for them.

Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long before a Hawfinch flew in. It went back and forth a couple of times over the wood, flashing its bold white wing flashes, before landing in the top of one of the trees. We got it in the scope and could see its huge nutcracker of a bill. A second Hawfinch flew in and joined it, before the two of them dropped down out of view, possibly to feed on the berries in a yew tree.

HawfinchHawfinch – two flew in and landed in the trees by the Orangery

There were a few other birds around the house too. A Mistle Thrush flew out of one of the yews and away across the grass. A couple of Siskins flew over our heads calling, as did two Chaffinches. A Pied Wagtail was catching insects around the chimneys on the roof of the house.

We had been lucky that we did not have to wait too long to see the Hawfinches, so we decided to make the most of our time and move on to have a look down at the lake. We hadn’t gone more than about fifty metres when another Hawfinch flew in and landed in the trees in front of us. We just had time to get it in the scope before it flew off again. A Jay was hiding in the trees by the gate but flew off as we approached.

As we walked down past the wet meadows above the lake, a tight group of Teal wheeled round several times before eventually landing down on the water. There was a family of Mute Swans and a few Greylag Geese down on here too. We had a careful look to see if we could find a Common Snipe in the grass by the water but we couldn’t see one at first. Only when we had carried on down towards the lake did one of the group look back and spot a Common Snipe feeding surreptitiously in the grass.

There were more ducks out on the lake – lots of Mallard and Gadwall, a few Wigeon and three Tufted Ducks. We could hear Siskin calling and looked across to see a group fly up out of the alders on the other side of the reeds and disappear back over the trees. It is a nice walk around the lake here, but with the evenings drawing in quickly these days we decided to move on and make the most of the afternoon.

On our way back west, we stopped in Sheringham and walked down to the Prom. Our main target was Purple Sandpiper – there are usually a few which spend the winter on the sea defences here. However, as we got down to the edge of the beach and scanned the sea, we spotted a pale gull flying around the sea defences a short distance to the west. It was an Iceland Gull, a juvenile. It disappeared behind one of the shelters on the Prom, so we set off in pursuit.

When we got round to the other side of the shelter we could see the Iceland Gull now having landed on the rocks a bit further along with a few Herring Gulls. We stopped and had a quick look at it through binoculars. It was noticeably paler than the Herring Gulls, a pale biscuit colour with paler wingtips, like the Glaucous Gull we had seen earlier. However, it was a much daintier bird, not bigger than the Herring Gulls, quite long-winged in appearance and with a mostly dark bill. We had been very lucky to see both Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull today!

Iceland GullIceland Gull – flushed by people on the sea defences as we approached

We hurried on round the prom to where the Iceland Gull was on the rocks below, but as we came round the corner we saw a couple carrying their toddler down the steps right by the rocks. As they proceeded to jump up and down in front of the sea, standing on the steps, the Iceland Gull decided it had seen enough and took off. The Herring Gulls simply flew along a little further and landed on the beach, but the Iceland Gull continued on west until we lost it from view.

Our journey along the Prom to here wasn’t entirely in vain though. As we looked down onto the rocks right below where we were standing, a Purple Sandpiper climbed out! It proceeded to walk around on the faces of the large boulders, picking at the seaweed occasionally, giving us a great up close look at it. Then with the couple with the toddler having moved on, the Purple Sandpiper flew out onto the rocks with the Turnstones, where the Iceland Gull had just been.

Purple SandpiperPurple Sandpiper – feeding on the sea defences at Sheringham

Having found our main target species here, we returned to the car and continued on our way west. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese were loafing in a winter wheat field by the coast road. We managed to pull up and have a look at them from the car, but there was nowhere convenient to stop. A few miles on, we saw more skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in and we watched from a layby as they dropped down into a recently harvested sugar beet field to feed.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – dropping into a recently harvested sugar beet field

The light was starting to go now, but we thought we would try our luck with a quick diversion down the Beach Road at Cley, to see if we could find the Black Brant which has been feeding here. There was no sign of any Brent Geese in the fields at first, but then we spotted a group flying over the Eye Field and they landed down in the grass. They were quickly joined by another couple of small groups and it felt like we might be in luck, with the geese perhaps having a last feed before heading off to roost.

We climbed up onto the West Bank for a better look. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Black Brant with them. There were several hundred geese now but this was only part of the flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese which has been feeding here. No more geese flew in to join them – presumably the rest had already gone off to roost.

Brent GeeseDark-bellied Brent Geese – part of the flock, feeding along Beach Road

Still, we spent an enjoyable 20 minutes or so here, enjoying the comings and goings at the end of the day. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grass. Further back, we spotted a pair of Pintail on one of the pools and a single drake Shoveler with some Teal on another. A small group of Golden Plover flew up and whirled around repeatedly over the Eye Field calling plaintively. Several Redshanks called noisily from the saltmarsh the other side of the bank. A couple of Water Rails squealed from the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost now. We could already see at least five out over the main reedbed, flying round or perched in the bushes in the reeds. While we stood on the West Bank, another two Marsh Harriers flew in from Blakeney Freshes, past us and out towards the reserve. Then a Barn Owl appeared, over the bank the other side of the Glaven channel. It flew up and down a couple of times before dropping down into the grass out of view.

When the Brent Geese decided it was finally time to stop feeding and head off to roost, taking off and flying right over our heads with a whoosh of wingbeats, we decided it was time to call it a day too.

3rd Mar 2017 – Winter & Brecks, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter & Brecks Tour, aiming to catch up with some of our wintering birds in North Norfolk, as well as the specialities of early spring in the Brecks. The weather forecast was dreadful for today, heavy rain pretty much all day, but while it did drizzle for most of the day, it was generally light and nowhere near as bad as we had been led to expect. Yet another ‘fail’ for the MetOffice, but a welcome one!

Our first stop of the day was at Holkham. As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive, a pair of Grey Partridges were in one of the fields next to the road. A little further over, there was a good number of Pink-footed Geese too. Many of the Pinkfeet have left on their journey north already, but there are still a few left here. We pulled up and had a quick look at them from the car.

6o0a8610Pink-footed Geese – still a few at Holkham today

Once we had parked, we got out and scanned the fields at the north end of the Drive. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grass, plus a few Teal and Shoveler on the pools. Several Oystercatchers were piping noisily, and we could see a few Redshanks around the wetter bits. A Common Buzzard perched up on a bush.

A pair of Egyptian Geese started hissing and honking and, as we walked through the pines, another pair answered them from up in the trees. There were a few small birds on the north edge of the pines. We could hear a Goldcrest singing and saw a couple flitting around in the low bushes. A Treecreeper was singing from deeper in the trees.

As we walked along to the east end of the saltmarsh, there was a large gang of Shelduck out in the low vegetation. A Sparrowhawk circled up out of the trees. Several waders were feeding on the pools, mostly Redshank, but in with them we found a group of 10 Ringed Plover and a lone Dunlin. A Stonechat was busy feeding on the edge of the dunes. There were plenty of Skylarks but no sign of any Shorelarks in their favoured spot today. The Shorelarks had been reported further west at one point yesterday, so we decided to walk that way and try our luck.

Coming out through the dunes, we stopped to scan the sea. A single female Common Scoter was quite close inshore, but we could see a much larger raft, 80-100 strong, some way further out. In amongst the gulls on the beach, we could see several silvery white Sanderling running in and out between them. There were also more Ringed Plover on the beach and a little group of Turnstone flew past and landed on the tideline ahead of us.

There was still no sign of the Shorelarks where they had been yesterday, but we continued our way west. We were aiming for Joe Jordan Hide next, so we figured we could cut directly through the pines further along. It was a good move. As we came round a corner and could see the the high tideline stretching away in front of us, we spotted a flock of small birds some way ahead. Through the scope, we could see they were the Shorelarks.

img_1135Shorelarks – some of the 32 on the beach at Holkham today

At first we could only see 14 Shorelarks but then we noticed another 18 further along. Gradually the two groups caught up with each other and merged. It was great to see all 32 Shorelarks together, a very good sized flock by the standards of recent years. We walked further up towards them, to where we could get a good look at them through the scope, admiring their bright yellow faces and black bandit masks.

After enjoying the Shorelarks for a while, we took the path up over the dunes and through the pines and emerged at the cross-tracks right by the Joe Jordan Hide. As we walked up to the steps, we could see several large white shapes on the pool out in front – Spoonbills. They were doing what Spoonbills seem to like doing most, namely sleeping! From up in the hide, we got them in the scope.

img_1149Spoonbills – these five spent most of the time asleep

There seemed initially to be only four Spoonbills, but on closer inspection there were two asleep in front of each other, meaning five birds in total, one more than there has been in recent days. Occasionally, one of them would wake up briefly, have a quick stretch or a preen, and then go back to sleep. We could see the bushy nuchal crest on a couple of them blowing in the breeze and when one of them woke up, we could see the yellow tip to its blackish bill, confirming it as an adult. A juvenile Spoonbill nearby, one of last year’s brood, had no crest and, when it woke briefly, a fleshy coloured bill.

There were fourteen Avocets on the pool too. Like the Spoonbills, they are starting to return now after the winter. In contrast, a couple of Ruff out on the wet grass with the Lapwing have probably been here all winter and should be heading off north to breed in a month or two.

The other thing which immediately struck us when we got into the hide was the number of geese. They were predominantly White-fronted Geese, probably at least 500, scattered in groups all over the grass. There were several right down in front of the hide today, which meant we got a great view of them, their white blaze around the base of the bill and the adult’s with their black belly bars.

6o0a8658White-fronted Goose – an adult, with black belly bars

We could hear the distinctive yelping calls of the White-fronted Geese as they bickered among themselves. We talked a little about different races of these geese and the fact that the birds here are Russian White-fronted Geese. They should be off back to Russia for the breeding season soon. Looking through the flock down below us, there was a single Pink-footed Goose in with them and three Greylag Geese nearby for comparison.

Despite the light drizzle which was falling, there was still a little bit of raptor activity. Several Marsh Harriers were flying and at one point one male even started displaying. We could hear it calling first and then saw it flying with distinctive flappy wingbeats and doing some half-hearted swooping up and down.

The one bird we hadn’t seen from the hide which we might have hoped to was a Great White Egret. However, we had only gone a short distance along the path on our way back when we spotted one on the edge of a reedy ditch not far away on the grazing marsh. We got it in the scope and admired its long, yellow bill. It stretched its neck up, so we could see just how tall it was.

6o0a8713Great White Egret – on the edge of the grazing marsh on the way back

Then the Great White Egret flew. As it took off, we could see from the effort required just how big it was. It flew off east and, as we got back to Washington Hide we saw what we presumed was the same bird dropping down away from us over the reeds. The next thing we knew another Great White Egret appeared from the ground below and the two of them flew off together, back in the direction from which we had just come.

Another couple of Goldcrests were feeding with some Long-tailed Tits in a bush beside the path. A quick look at Salts Hole on our way past added Tufted Duck, Coot and Little Grebe to the day’s list. Then we headed back to the car.

There has been a Pallid Harrier in the last few days, seen occasionally in the area behind Holkham and Wells. We were heading west to Titchwell for the afternoon, so we had a quick drive round via that way. It was always going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, and it was still drizzling, so it was perhaps no surprise that we didn’t find it. We did see a Red Kite over the fields.

It was time for lunch when we got to Titchwell. While we were eating the rain picked up a bit – it was still not heavy, but just heavier drizzle than it had been. After lunch, we set off to explore the reserve. The feeders in front of the visitor centre were fairly quiet, but there was much more activity around the ones the other side. Mostly Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, but we soon found a couple of Bramblings too.

Unusually, there was no sign of the Water Rail in the ditch by the path today – perhaps it was hiding from the rain? The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ was exposed to the elements and consequently also quiet. We had a quick look for the Bittern in the ditch across the reedbed, but that was empty too. Three Marsh Harriers circled up at the back of the reeds. The reedbed pool was a little more productive, but the two drake Red-crested Pochard flew off just as we arrived.

Given the rain, we made our way quickly round to Parrinder Hide from where we could have a good look at the Freshmarsh. It looked rather quiet here at first, with fewer gulls and Avocets than there have been in recent days. However, as we scanned across we found a few birds and a steady succession of different things dropped in.

There was a nice little flock of Dunlin feeding feverishly around the muddy islands, occasionally swirling round and landing again somewhere nearby. A couple of larger Knot appeared nearby briefly. A Bar-tailed Godwit dropped in for a quick bathe and preen too. Most of the Black-tailed Godwits were right over the far side, but two landed with the gulls in front of the hide so we could get a good look and see the differences between the two species.

img_1158Common Snipe – one flew in and proceeded to try to hide on one of the islands

A Common Snipe flew in and landed on the mud as we arrived at the hide. When we went to have a look at it, we found it had walked up onto the middle of one of the islands and was trying to hide in the cut vegetation on top. The other wader highlight was a single Spotted Redshank which was feeding along the edge of the reeds opposite the hide. Even from a distance, it was strikingly pale, silvery grey above and white below.

The smaller number of gulls here today consisted of just Black-headed Gulls plus a few Herring Gulls. But while we were watching the waders, we heard a loud ‘keeyu’ call and looked up to see a smart adult Mediterranean Gull flying in. It landed on the edge of the other gulls but attracted the attention of a particularly aggressive Avocet which decided to chase it off. The Mediterranean Gull flew a short distance away and the Avocet went after it, before the whole process repeated itself.

Eventually the Mediterranean Gull was able to settle briefly so we could get a look at it in the scope. It was a full summer adult, with a complete and jet black hood, a bright red bill, thicker than a Black-headed Gull‘s, and distinctive pure white wingtips. However, possibly as a result of the Avocet‘s earlier aggressive pursuit, the Mediterranean Gull didn’t stay long and soon flew off back west again.

6o0a8718Teal – a little group of drakes were displaying today

There were not so many ducks on here today. There are still a few Teal, though numbers appear to be dropping. A little group of drakes in front of the hide were busy chasing each other and displaying. There were also a few Gadwall and Shoveler and a little group of Wigeon over in the far corner. A pair of Red-crested Pochard dropped in briefly, over by the reeds.

As the rain had eased, we made our way across to the other side of the Parrinder Hide, to have a look at the Volunteer Marsh. There was a good selection of waders on here at first. Several Avocets were obviously preferring to feed here rather than the Freshmarsh, and were vigorously sweeping their bills back and forth over the mud in front of the hide.

6o0a8736Avocet – feeding on the Volunteer Marsh today

A smart Grey Plover was also feeding just in front of the hide. We watched it standing motionless, then stepping forward and picking at the ground, before taking another couple of quick steps and then standing still again. At one point it managed to find a large worm. There were also several Dunlin, a few Knot, a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits, plus assorted Redshank and Curlew. Then suddenly everything took off and all the waders flew towards the Freshmarsh. We scanned the sky, but couldn’t see what might have spooked them.

6o0a8732Grey Plover – feeding in front of Parrinder Hide

With most of the birds having flown, and the rain having eased back to a light and intermittent drizzle, we decided to make a bid for the beach. The Tidal Pools were unusually quiet today. It was just after low tide, so most of the waders were on the beach, but there were fewer ducks and no Pintail. A single Little Grebe swam across quickly and dived into cover beneath the path.

Out at the beach, the sea was still a long way out. We stood in the shelter of the dunes and scanned the water. As we arrived, we could see a large flock of ducks flying. They only went a short distance before landing again, but long enough for us to see the distinctive white wing flash on most of them – they were Velvet Scoters. There were probably around 100 still today, with just a few Common Scoter mixed in with them, and a few more Common Scoter nearby.

Otherwise, we could see several Red-breasted Merganser distantly, over in the mouth of Brancaster harbour channel. A few Great Crested Grebes were on the sea, as was a single Red-throated Diver, which we got in the scope.

The rain had stopped by the time we started to make our way back. The Pintail were out on the saltmarsh, which was why we hadn’t seen them on the Tidal Pools earlier. A pair flew in and over the bank towards the Freshmarsh, giving us a great view of the male’s long tail as they passed. Back at the Freshmarsh, a large flock of Brent Geese flew in from the east and landed on the water. A pair of Red-crested Pochard were preening on the edge of the reedbed pool.

6o0a8740Brent Geese – a large flock flew in to the Freshmarsh

There was still no sign of the Bittern in the reedbed channel, but there were two Kingfishers perched up in the reeds either side on the way past. Then it was back to the car.

We still had enough time to swing round via the back of Holkham and Wells on our way back. The Pallid Harrier had been reported again briefly at lunchtime. As we turned off the coast road, we spotted a harrier flying low along the edge of a field. Unfortunately, it was clearly too big and broad winged, and a quick look through binoculars confirmed it was a Hen Harrier. Still a great bird to see!

We found a few people looking for the Pallid Harrier, but they confirmed it had not been seen again, so we decided to call it a day and made our way back to Wells. It had been a good day and we hadn’t even got too wet!

24th Feb 2017 – Wildfowl, Waders & Larks

A Winter Tour today in North Norfolk. After Storm Doris had blown through yesterday (thankfully, with no tours arranged!), bringing gusts of up to 81mph, it was a welcome return to calmer conditions today. It was mostly cloudy, but we did enjoy some nice sunnier intervals later in the afternoon.

Our first stop was at Holkham. As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see large flocks of Wigeon still on the grazing marshes. It won’t be too long now before they will start to depart for their Russian breeding grounds.

6o0a7998Wigeon – still large flocks on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Most of the Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, although they will stop off in northern England or Scotland before continuing on their way to Iceland. However, there are still a few around and we managed to find a small party of Pink-footed Geese further over on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope, and we discovered there were a couple of White-fronted Geese with them too and a single Brent Goose.

Walking through the gap in the trees towards the beach, there were lots of small branches and leaves scattered over the path, the remnants of last night’s storm. We made our way east, along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. Out in the vegetation, we could see a small group of Brent Geese and Shelduck. Most of the geese were Dark-bellied Brents, the commonest subspecies here in winter, they breed in northern Russia. There is also a regular Black Brant hybrid here, the returning progeny of a vagrant Black Brant which had paired up with a Dark-bellied Brent Goose many years ago, this hybrid now comes back every year to the same place.

img_0920Black Brant hybrid – the regular returning bird, still with the Brent flock at Holkham

It didn’t take long to find the Black Brant hybrid in with the small flock of Brents. It has a noticeably whiter flank patch and more extensive collar, as well as being a touch darker above and on the belly than the accompanying Dark-bellied Brent Geeese. However, it is not quite dark or contrasting enough to match a pure Black Brant. It is always an interesting bird to see here.

As we walked along, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the saltmarsh, but it wasn’t until we got to the east end that we found the Shorelarks, in their regular spot. They are currently feeding mostly in the slightly taller vegetation, so can be hard to see. Thankfully we were able to find them before some other birders walked right through the area they were hiding.

img_0906Shorelark – still 29+ here, feeding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

We watched the Shorelarks for a while. At first, it looked like there were only 5-6 of them again, but gradually we spotted more creeping around in the sea lavendar seed heads. With their heads down, they were particularly hard to see, but occasionally a bright yellow face with black bandit mask would pop up out of the vegetation.

When a Common Buzzard drifted out from the pines and across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks all took off and only at that stage could we see how many there really were. They landed on a slightly more open sandy ridge and a quick count suggested there were 29, although we could easily still have missed one or two. Then they scuttled quickly back into cover.

We walked over to the dunes and had a quick look at the sea. It was still rather rough after yesterday, and there didn’t appear to be a lot visible today. We did find a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers feeding in the breakers. There were also lots of Oystercatchers and gulls on the beach, feeding on shellfish washed up after the storm, and several Sanderling were running in and out of the waves between them.

As we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, a small bird came zipping low across the saltmarsh and out towards the dunes. It was a Merlin. Often that is all you see of them, as they disappear off into the distance, but this one helpfully decided to land on a small Suaeda bush, where we could get a great look at it through the scope. It perched there for several minutes, before flying off over the dunes and away west over the beach. As we got back to the boardwalk, a Sparrowhawk was circling over the pines.

img_0932Merlin – perched up for us to get a great look at it

From Lady Anne’s Drive, we walked west on the inland side of the pines. A tree was down across the path and the wardens were in the process of clearing it with chainsaws. Despite the noise, we could hear Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits in the trees. Further along, a Treecreeper was singing. Salts Hole held a Little Grebe, a pair of Tufted Ducks, plus a few Coot and Wigeon. A Jay flew across, over the back of the water.

As we approached Washington Hide, we saw a Spoonbill fly up briefly, which appeared to drop down again, possibly onto one of the pools. We had a scan of the grazing marshes from the boardwalk by the hide, but couldn’t see it from there. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reedbed. Then the Spoonbill flew up again and disappeared off further west.

At Joe Jordan Hide, there didn’t seem to be as much activity as recent days at first. There was a scattering of commoner geese – Greylags, Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese – out on the grass. A small group of White-fronted Geese were feeding on the old fort, but as we sat and watched, a steady stream of small groups flew in and joined them, mostly from the other side of Decoy Wood.

6o0a8013White-fronted Geese – flying in to land on the grazing marshes

A juvenile Peregrine was standing by the edge of one of the pools further over, but took off just as we turned the scope onto it. It proceeded to have a go at most of the other birds in the vicinity, swooping down at ducks and geese, but didn’t really seem to know what it was doing. We also saw several more Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards from here – it is often a good spot for raptors.

Finally, we managed to find the Spoonbill. It was right out across the other side of the grazing marshes and feeding in a small pool. With its head down, it was impossible to see, but just visible occasionally as it lifted its head up. Thankfully, after a while it flew out and landed on the open grass where we could get a slightly better look at it. It was a juvenile, lacking the yellow bill tip and bushy crest of the adults. There was no sign of the other three Spoonbills today, or any Great White Egrets from here.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables over looking the grazing marshes. As well as the Wigeon still, there was a selection of waders out on the grassy pools, including Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew down out of the pines. After lunch, as we drove back towards the coast road, the Pink-footed Geese were now close to Lady Anne’s Drive so we stopped quickly for a better look.

6o0a8028Pink-footed Geese – nice views close to Lady Anne’s Drive after lunch

From the road, we pulled up to scan the other side of the marshes and quickly spotted a very tall white shape, a Great White Egret. We stopped and got the scope on it. Helpfully, there was a Grey Heron just next to it for comparison and we could see that the Great White Egret was as tall or even slightly taller! The long yellow-orange bill also really stood out.

img_0934Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Scanning across the marshes, we found a second Great White Egret, hiding in a reedy ditch. There were also lots more White-fronted Geese this side, which is why there were not so many visible from Joe Jordan Hide today. Amongst a flock of Lapwings and Starlings down on the wet grass, we found a little group of Ruff too.

As we made our way further west along the coast road, a shout from one of the group alerted us to a Barn Owl perched on a post right beside the road as we drove past. Never an easy place to stop, we managed to reverse back to it. It sat for a few seconds looking at us, but then flew a little further along as another car pulled up behind. Driving forwards very slowly, we were able to watch it only about 10 metres away from us. Stunning views! Eventually, the growing number of cars stopping to look seemed to spur it into action and it flew across the road and started hunting over the marshes.

6o0a8049Barn Owl – perched on a post right beside the road in the middle of the day

There has not been as much daytime Barn Owl activity this winter, which may reflect the generally mild and clement conditions we have enjoyed. It they are not hungry, then there is no need for them to hunt during the day. Presumably Storm Doris had made hunting very difficult yesterday and overnight, so this Barn Owl had come out to try to catch something during the day. We could see that it was ringed, but unfortunately couldn’t read the full number from photos. Many wild Barn Owls are ringed in the nest in North Norfolk.

After that unexpected bonus, we continued on to Titchwell, where we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon. The feeders round the visitor centre held a selection of the commoner finches and tits, but no sign of any Brambling today. The Water Rail put on a good show, feeding out in the open in the ditch by the main path, probing in the decaying leaves, seemingly unconcerned by the large lenses pointed at it.

6o0a8104Water Rail – still in the ditch by the path

The grazing meadow was rather quiet again but the reedbed pool did at least provide Common Pochard as an addition for the day’s list. The water levels on the freshmarsh have been slowly coming down and there was a nice selection of birds on here today.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived was the gulls. There were large numbers of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls loafing on the edges of the islands or in the shallow water. In with them were a few Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We had a scan through from Island Hide, but it was only from further up that a Mediterranean Gull was visible. It was an adult, with white wing tips and bright red bill, just moulting in to summer plumage, with white speckling still around the front of its jet black hood.

img_0949Mediterranean Gull – an adult moulting into summer plumage

There was still the usual variety of ducks on the freshmarsh. The Teal were looking particularly smart, in the afternoon sunshine, just below the path. Further over, we could see a selection of Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler and a pair of Pintail. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster, calling noisily, and landed on the water to bathe and preen.

6o0a8122Teal – a smart drake in the sunshine

Wader numbers on the freshmarsh are increasing now, in particular the number of Avocets, as birds return north. There were also more Black-tailed Godwits today, though mostly sleeping in amongst the gulls. A small group of Dunlin included a single Knot for comparison. Singles of Grey Plover and Turnstone had presumably flown in from the beach ahead of high tide. The fenced off Avocet Island at the back was packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing, with more small flocks of Golden Plover dropping in to join them all the time.

6o0a8190Curlew – on the Volunteer Marsh

There were more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. As well as more Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover, there were lots of Redshank and Curlew. A single Ringed Plover was a welcome addition to the day’s list. With high tide approaching, more waders were roosting on the Tidal Pools, particularly several Bar-tailed Godwits. This gave us a great opportunity to compare them to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding nearby. Even without seeing their respective tails, the buffier tones, black streaked upperparts, shorter legs and upturned bill all quickly distinguish the Bar-tailed Godwits.

6o0a8144Avocet – on the Tidal Pools

There were also more Knot and Redshank on the Tidal Pools, and several Avcoets feeding, including one close to the path.

We wanted to have a look at the sea, but there was not as much activity out here as there has been in recent weeks. There was still a big swell running, after the storm yesterday, and several of the ducks appeared to be quiet a way offshore. Fortunately, there was a nice group of about twenty Velvet Scoters close in, diving for shellfish. Several were holding their wings loosely folded, revealing the white wing flash as a stripe on their flanks. The face pattern is rather variable, particularly at this time of year, but it was possible to see the distinctive white spot at the base of the bill on some.

Helpfully, there was also a female Common Scoter with them for comparison, with a very extensive pale cheek and dark cap, and no white wing flash. There were more Common and Velvet Scoters in a larger raft much further out. A female Goldeneye drifted past in front of them, but most of the other Goldeneyes were a long way offshore today. A Fulmar flew past too.

Back at the Tidal Pools, we stopped to look again at a group of roosting waders, particularly with Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit side by side. But a scan further along revealed that a Spotted Redshank had flown in while we were out at the beach. We walked back and had great views of it feeding in the shallows not far from the path. With a Common Redshank nearby for comparison, we could see that the Spotted Redshank was noticeably paler, more silvery grey above and whiter below, with a longer and finer bill and a better marked, brighter white supercilium.

6o0a8170Spotted Redshank – had flown in to the Tidal Pools while we were on the beach

As we passed the freshmarsh on our way back, the Golden Plovers and Lapwings all spooked, They took off and whirled round in flocks overhead, the Golden Plovers particularly tight packed. We couldn’t see anything which might have alarmed them, although they had been jumpy all afternoon, and they quickly settled back down again.

6o0a8192Golden Plovers – whirling around over the freshmarsh

A quick look down along one of the reedy channels in the reedbed revealed a Kingfisher, perched up on a reed along the edge. We had a quick look at it through the scope, before another bird spooked it and it flew off across the reeds. We looked back to see a second Kingfisher had appeared, presumably having chased off the first. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home.

21st Feb 2017 – From Heath to Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The brief was to avoid the main nature reserves on the coast. The forecast was for it to be “rather cloudy with outbreaks of light rain at first” according to the Met Office. How wrong it was! Instead, when we met up in the morning it was wall to wall blue sky and crisp sunshine. With weather like that, there was only one place to start the day.

As soon was got out of the car up on the Heath, we heard a Woodlark calling as it flew away. A dog was running across the cleared area nearby and had probably just flushed it. Still, it seemed an auspicious start. A Yellowhammer flew in and landed in the top of one of the bushes by the car park. A smart male, we got it in the scope and its yellow head was positively glowing in the morning light. Stunning!

6o0a7787Yellowhammer – a smart male glowing yellow in the morning sun

A couple more Yellowhammers dropped in to join it, another male and a duller female. While we were watching them, we heard the Woodlark calling again as it flew back in. We saw where it landed in the long grass and walked a little closer to where we could see it. Thankfully, it was standing up on a slightly taller tussock and it started to sing softly as it stood there. We got it in the scope and all had a good look at it.

When the Woodlark took off again, it flew straight towards us and gained height. Then it started singing as it came right overhead, hovering above us for a minute or so. The Woodlark‘s song is not full of the joys like a Skylark but slightly more melancholy. It is still a beautiful sound, a real delight to stand and listen to it on such a sunny morning, one of the real sounds of early spring on the heaths. As it hung overhead, we could see the Woodlark‘s comparatively short tail and broad rounded wings.

6o0a7796Woodlark – hovering over our heads this morning, singing

After a while, the Woodlark flew down and landed again at the back of the clearing. We were planning to be greedy and go over for another look at it, but we were distracted by another smart male Yellowhammer hopping around on the ground in front of us. While we were watching it, the Woodlark took off again, calling. A second Woodlark got up from the ground and followed it – clearly the male had been singing while the female was feeding quietly over the back of the clearing all along.

Sunny mornings on the Heath at this time of the year are a great time to look for Adders. Having emerged from hibernation, they like to bask in the sunshine and warm themselves. We walked round to an area where we can often find them, a slope angled towards the morning sun. Very quickly we spotted one close to the path, but despite the early hour of the morning it was surprisingly lively already and quickly slithered off into the undergrowth. As we walked round this quiet corner, we heard a Bullfinch calling and looked across to see a smart pink male picking at the buds in the top of a dense blackthorn thicket.

After such a successful start to the morning, we decided to turn our attention to Dartford Warblers next. They are resident on the heaths all year round, but harder to find when it is cloudy and cold. At this time of year, on sunny days, they are starting to sing again. Walking round through the centre of one of their regular territories, all seemed rather quiet at first. Then we heard a distinctive rasping call and looked across to see a small dark long-tailed bird dart across a clearing between two gorse bushes. Our first Dartford Warbler.

Repositioning ourselves to where it had flown, we could soon see the Dartford Warbler flitting between the gorse bushes. As we followed it, it soon became clear there were actually at least three Dartford Warblers in the same area. They can be hard birds to track, as they are constantly on the move, disappearing into the dense vegetation for periods and then, just when you think you have lost them, flying out again. Occasionally one would perch out in the open for a couple of seconds – we could see there was a male, darker slate blue grey above and richer burgundy below, a duller female, and a young bird, much browner above and paler below, one of the juveniles from last year.

6o0a7835Dartford Warbler – the male singing from the top of a gorse bush

The male Dartford Warbler started singing. We could hear the bursts of scratchy song. At one point, we thought there might be two males, as we heard different bursts of song coming from different places in quick succession. After following them for a while, and having all enjoyed good views, we left them to it and continued our circuit of the Heath. As we walked round, were accompanied by the song of Woodlarks and Yellowhammers.

It was a perfect day for finding Adders today. We bumped into one of the local birders who is a regular on the Heath and he showed us three Adders basking round the base of a birch tree. A larger, darker female was stretched out on her own. Nearby, what looked like one snake turned out to be two curled up together as they moved – a large, dark female, and a smaller, slimmer, paler silvery male. A little further on, we found another two Adders, curled up in a couple of bare patches on a south facing bank. We had a great look at them.

6o0a7846Adder – we found at least six out basking this morning in a brief look

We had a quick look round another Dartford Warbler territory the other side of the Heath, but it was quieter here. There has been a pair of Stonechats here and the warblers have been following them round, but we couldn’t find any sign of either in their favourite area. Having enjoyed such a great session with the Dartford Warblers earlier, we weren’t overly concerned.

While we were walking round, another pair of Woodlarks flew over. The male landed on a post, where we could get him in the scope, while the female dropped down to the ground to feed. We were just watching them, when a third Woodlark started singing just behind us. These three were almostly certainly different to the pair we had seen earlier, which would mean potentially three pairs of Woodlark here this morning. It had been a great morning on the Heath and we could easily have stayed here all day, but we had other things we wanted to do today, so we made our way back to the car.

Our next destination was Holkham. As we drove down along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a large flock of geese on one of the grazing meadows nearby, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see they were mostly Brent Geese, smaller and darker, but nearby were a few grey-brown Pink-footed Geese too. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese which have spent the winter here have already departed on their way back north, so it was nice to be able to get a good look at some. We could see their delicate mostly dark bills with a pink band around and, when one stood up in the grass, its pink legs.

6o0a7850Pink-footed Geese – a few were still by Lady Anne’s Drive today

The vast majority of the Brent Geese here during the winter are Dark-bellied Brent Geese which breed up in arctic Russia. Occasionally, we get one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose in with the flocks, perhaps a Black Brant from NE Siberia or Alaska. In the past, some of these Black Brants have paired up and subsequently bred with one of the Dark-bellied Brents to produce hybrid young. One of these hybrids is a regular here at Holkham and a careful scan through the Brent flock revealed it. Subtly darker bodied than the others, it has a better marked white collar and more obvious whiter flank patch then the others.

img_0864Black Brant hybrid – a regular in with the Dark-bellied Brents at Holkham

While we were watching the geese, we could hear Lapwings starting to display on the fields behind us, giving their distinctive song. There were also still some big flocks of Wigeon grazing close to the road, whistling occasionally. Several Common Buzzards were enjoying the sunshine, circling up into the blue sky and even starting to display, swooping up and down. It was getting on for lunchtime already, so we decided to have an early lunch here before setting off to explore.

After lunch, we walked out onto the beach and made our way east alone the edge of the saltmarsh. At first there was no sign of the large flock of Shorelarks which has been feeding here for the last few weeks. We were told they had earlier been flushed by an errant dog running around there. We walked across for a look at the sea, in the hope that they might return. The tide was in and there was not so much activity here today – a few Great Crested Grebes and a single drake Goldeneye were all we could find riding out on the slightly choppy sea.

There were three birders eating their lunch in the dunes nearby, looking out through their scopes at the saltmarsh, so we walked back round to see if they had seen anything. Very helpfully, they got us on to six Shorelarks which were feeding half hidden in the taller vegetation out in the middle. We were looking into the sun from here, so we walked back round to the other side.

6o0a7902Shorelark – six were hiding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

The Shorelarks were hard to see with their heads down while feeding, but occasionally one would look up and a bright yellow face would catch the sun. Then we could get a great look at them through the scope, admiring their black bandit masks and even occasionally get a glimpse of the black horns on the side of their heads. A Skylark was feeding nearby and a second flew in to join it, perhaps a male as it raised its crest and drew itself up erect, looking like it might be about to display to the first, before the two of them resumed feeding. As the Shorelarks gradually worked their way back deeper into the vegetation, we left them to it.

Back at :Lady Anne’s Drive, we made our way west along the path on the inland side of the pines. At this point it started to cloud over from the west. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits feeding high in the poplars as we passed. At Salts Hole, we stopped to watch a Little Grebe diving on the edge of the reeds. A couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Curlew were feeding on the grassy field beyond.

We had a quick scan from the raised boardwalk by Washington Hide. A Marsh Harrier circled up from the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew past with something in its talons, trailing several long strands of grass with whatever prey it had grasped. Two Pintail flew in and landed on the pool, an adult drake with a long pin-shaped tail and a younger male without.

6o0a7917Spoonbills – 2 of the 4 circling round over the trees

As we approached Joe Jordan Hide, we got a glimpse through the trees of four white shapes taking off from the pool in front and through binoculars we could see they were Spoonbills. From up in the hide, we watched them circling round over the trees beyond, long white necks held outstretched in front. Eventually they landed again on the edge of the pool and started to preen before quickly going to sleep – which is what Spoonbills seem to like to do best! Two were adults and through the scope we could see their bushy nuchal crests flapping around in the breeze. When they did lift their heads we could see the yellow tips to their bills.

img_0889Spoonbills – the adults with bushy crests and yellow-tipped bills

There were lost of geese out on the grazing marshes all around, mostly White-fronted Geese. They were hard to count, as they kept flying round in small groups and landing in different places or dropping down out of view. Sitting in the hide, we could hear their yelping calls every time a party flew past, a constant backdrop to our visit. There were several hundreds here today, more than there seem to have been through much of the winter, perhaps boosted by other groups stopping off before departing back to their breeding grounds in Russia.

We got some of the White-fronted Geese in the scope, so we could see the white surround to the bill from which they get their name, and the black belly bars on the adults. At one point, a small group landed next to some Greylags and we could see the White-fronted Geese were notably smaller and darker overall, as well as having a smaller pink bill compared to the large orange carrot sported by the Greylags.

6o0a7924White-fronted Geese – their were large numbers at Holkham today

Scanning through the White-fronted Geese, we found a couple of smaller white-faced Barnacle Geese in with them. It would be nice to think that these also might be winter visitors from the arctic, but their status is complicated by feral populations, including in Holkham Park. There were also some Canada Geese here and several pairs of Egyptian Geese – a couple of more obviously feral geese species to round out the overall variety.

While we were looking through the geese, we noticed a large raptor flying low over the grassy ridge in the distance. It was clearly slimmer winged and tailed than the commoner Marsh Harriers and, as it turned, we could see a square white rump patch. It was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail. Unfortunately, it continued off away from us and it was not a great view, but a nice bird to see out hunting here nonetheless.

We had hoped we might see a Great White Egret here, but there was no sign at first. We were just thinking about leaving, when a large white shape walked out of some dense reeds on one side of the marshes. It was clearly huge, even with the naked eye, but through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. It was strutted across and went back into some deeper reeds, where it stood motionless fishing and it was surprisingly hard to see for such a large bird.

After a short while, the Great White Egret flew across and landed on the far side of one of the reedy ditches. Then a second Great White Egret flew out from nearby and chased after it, the two of them flying off together before eventually disappearing disappearing round behind the trees.

6o0a7954Great White Egret – a second flew in and chased off the first

Time was getting on now, so we decided to head back to the car. We still had time for one more stop on our journey back, so we turned off the coast road at Stiffkey Greenway on our way back east. Scanning the saltmarsh, we first picked up a Marsh Harrier working its way slowly along the grassy ridge at the back. It didn’t take us long to pick up our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, hanging over the saltmarsh away to the west. We got it in the scope and got a good view of it, much better than the one we had seen earlier at Holkham. Even better, it then drifted back east and started hunting the saltmarsh out in front of us.

6o0a7986Hen Harrier – a ringtail hunting over the saltmarsh

At one point, as it quartered the saltmarsh, the Hen Harrier flushed a Merlin from the bushes below. Small and dark, it flew off swiftly low over the vegetation. It looked like it would disappear into the distance, but thankfully it landed on a dead branch and started preening, so we could all get a look at it through the scope.

As we looked out over the marshes, another ringtail Hen Harrier made its way in purposefully from the east and across in front of us. We were really hoping to see a male Hen Harrier, but they kept us waiting a bit this evening. We did get an early glimpse of one, but it disappeared down into the vegetation very distantly to the west and didn’t reappear. Eventually one flew in from the west towards us, at the back of the saltmarsh. It flew past a male Marsh Harrier, giving a nice comparison of size and shape, the Hen Harrier a ghostly grey apparition. When it flew up against the grey sky, it almost disappeared.

After quartering the saltmarsh for a while, the male Hen Harrier dropped down into the vegetation at the back. We saw it fly up again briefly and we could just see its pale head in the grass occasionally, but it was clearly in no rush to fly again. It was a nice way to end the day, watching the harriers, so with the light fading we decided to head for home.