Tag Archives: Short-eared Owl

16th Jan 2019 – A Big Day on the Coast

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. It was to be a different day to normal, as we were planning to try to catch up with a selection of the scarcer winter visitors along the coast, as well as aiming to see as many different species as possible. We would need to cover quite a bit of ground, a bit of a whistle-stop tour of North Norfolk. After a grey start, it brightened up for a time during the morning, though it was rather breezy all day. We were forecast rain in the afternoon, and it arrived a bit earlier than forecast, but it didn’t stop us having a great – and very successful – day out.

It was an early start. As we drove up towards the coast, it was just getting light. We stopped off on the way, just in time to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, before it went in to roost. An over-wintering Chiffchaff was calling from some trees nearby and the first Pink-footed Geese flew over, heading inland to feed.

barn owl

Barn Owl – one of the first birds we caught up with, early this morning

At our next stop, as we walked out beside the grazing marshes, the first bird we saw was another Barn Owl out hunting. It flew round over the field, disappeared over the bank, then came back again and did a couple more circuits before landing down in the grass. It stayed there for a minute, looking round, before flying off round the trees beyond. It was still early and rather cold here, and there didn’t seem to be many other birds awake yet. A Marsh Harrier quartered the grazing marshes.

We looped round to Cley and headed down to the beach. There has been a large flock of scoter on the sea here in recent days, but there was no sign of them this morning. While we were scanning, we noticed a flock of small birds fly up from the beach away to the east. Snow Buntings. We walked down along the shingle for a closer look.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, flying up well before we got anywhere near, and heading further down the beach. Thankfully, as we got to where they had been feeding, they flew back in and landed on the shingle right in front of us. They were remarkably well camouflaged against the stones, but they were really close so we got a good really look at them. We counted at least 70 of them in the flock here today, although it was hard to get an accurate figure as they wouldn’t stop moving!

snow buntings 1

Snow Buntings – very well camouflaged on the shingle

While we were walking out for the Snow Buntings, we noticed a couple of gulls on the beach beyond. One was rather pale, and through the scope we could see it was the juvenile Glaucous Gull which has been hanging around here for a few days now. It has been feeding on dead seals washed up on the beach in last week’s storms, but this morning it was loafing. When we got down the beach, it was lying down on the beach, dozing. Still, we could see its very pale wing tips, much paler than the rest of the bird.

glaucous gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile was dozing on the beach first thing this morning

Looking out across North Scrape, there were several Shelducks scattered around the water. A small group of ducks closer to the front were all Pintail, busy upending in the shallows. As we turned to walk back, several groups of Brent Geese flew in, from the direction of the harbour where they had presumably roosted last night.

We stopped to have another scan of the sea when we got back to the beach car park. There was still no sign of the scoter flock, but we did pick up a Red-throated Diver on the water just offshore. A Guillemot flying past was a nice bonus too.

It was a very successful stop at Cley, but we had a busy day ahead and no time to explore the rest of the reserve today, so we moved on. We headed inland again next, to check out some farm buildings where there are sometimes Little Owls. It didn’t feel like a particularly good day to be looking for them – given the grey skies and wind – and they have not been very active recently anyway, but we thought we would have a quick look. Our luck was in. The first place we stopped, we spotted a Little Owl. It had found a sheltered spot, out of the wind, in the window of an old barn.

We moved on again, heading back across and down to the coast at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see more Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grass too, and a scattering of Teal around the pools.

Parking at the north end of the drive, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese feeding in the field next door. Most of them are Dark-bellied Brents, the regular form here which breeds in Siberia and spends the winter along the coast here. Looking through them carefully, we found one which was noticeably paler below, brighter white on the flanks and round under the belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent, a scarce visitor here.

There was also a darker goose with them, with a more striking white collar than the others – one of the regular Black Brant hybrids, the result of a past pairing between a Black Brant (the third form of Brent Goose, which normally winters along the Pacific coasts) and one of our Dark-bellied Brents. They are regular here, with as many as three in the Wells / Holkham area, returning to the same fields each winter. A pitfall for the unwary, they are often misidentified as pure Black Brants.

black brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – one of the regular birds, with the Brents by the Drive

A careful scan around the field produced a Grey Partridge, over towards the back. We could see its orange face and the distinctive dark kidney mark on its belly through the scope. We were heading out for the beach, so we cut through the trees, which were quiet today.

Since Christmas, the Shorelarks have been more elusive and spend a lot of their time feeding in the taller saltmarsh vegetation where they can be hard to see. Thankfully, as we walked out towards the cordon, someone had already found them and a small group of people had gathered to watch them.

The Shorelarks were only a few metres out from the path, but were still very difficult to see, creeping around in the vegetation. Thankfully, one stopped to preen on a little tussock and we were able quickly to get it in the scope. We could see its bright yellow face and distinctive black mask. Once we had found one, we could see there were more around it. Probably there were all 26 here, but we could see no more then 3-4 at any time and at times it was hard to see any at all!

shorelark

Shorelark – hard to see in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

Continuing on to the cordon, a flock of small birds flew up from the edge of the sandy path ahead of us, and landed back down again. More Snow Buntings. There were eighteen here now (they were joined by another two when we walked back), the flock having declined since Christmas as some of the birds seem to have moved on. They are very obliging though, and let us walk right past them without flying off.

snow buntings 2

Snow Buntings – another 20 were at Holkham today

The sea at Holkham has been quiet in recent days, but we thought we would try our luck here, as we were doing so well. There were several Cormorants out on the sandbar just offshore, drying their wings. A few Oystercatchers were out there too, and a small flock of Sanderling whirled round and landed in with them.

Having set up the scope, we found it happened to be pointing right at a small party of Red-breasted Mergansers which were bobbing about on the water in front of the sandbar. Otherwise, the sea looked pretty empty on our first scan – just a single Common Scoter offshore.

On our next scan across, we spotted a diver quite close in, behind the breakers. We assumed it would be one of the two Great Northern Divers which we have seen here regularly in the last couple of weeks, but when it surfaced again from behind the waves we realised it was actually a Black-throated Diver. We could see the distinctive white patch on the rear flanks. A good bird to see here, the rarest of the three regular divers in Norfolk. Further down the beach, we then found a Great Northern Diver just offshore too. A three diver day – a rare treat indeed in this part of the world!

Back at the car, we made our way on west. We could see a lot of geese in one of the fields by the road, more than usual, so we pulled into a conveniently placed layby to check them out. A quick scan with binoculars revealed there were several Russian White-fronted Geese in with the regular Greylags and Egyptian Geese. Unfortunately, just at that moment a Marsh Harrier drifted across. The geese put their heads up and, as the harrier began to circle over them, they were off.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – flushed by a Marsh Harrier as we pulled up

As we quickly got out of the car, we realised there were more White-fronted Geese out here – probably at least 120 in total. We watched as they all disappeared off over the grazing marshes towards the pines. The one thing we failed to find here was a Great White Egret, but rather than linger we figured we could have another quick look on our way back later.

A quick diversion down to the harbour at Brancaster Staithe added Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit to the day’s list, as well as Little Egret. But there didn’t seem to be anything much else here, so we continued on to our next destination, Titchwell.

The feeders in front of the Visitor Centre were well-stocked but rather unusually devoid of birds when we arrived. There were a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a single Greenfinch on the feeders the other side, as well as Blue Tits and Great Tits for the list. We headed straight out onto the reserve, and a quick look in the ditch by the main path as we passed quickly revealed a Water Rail lurking in the water in the bottom.

water rail

Water Rail – lurking in the ditch by the main path

The sun was out as we walked along the path by the reedbed. It almost felt for a moment as if the forecast of rain later might be too pessimistic. The reedbed pool produced Gadwall and Tufted Duck, and we could see a single Grey Plover and a Curlew on Lavendar Marsh, but was otherwise fairly quiet, so we continued out to Parrinder Hide.

The Freshmarsh is very full of water at the moment, so there are not many places for waders here currently. There were a few Lapwings and a little group of Dunlin on the small remaining muddy island by the junction to the hide. Scanning through the ducks on the bigger, drier fenced-off island we were struck by the lack of Golden Plovers today – they must all have been feeding in the fields inland. Well, almost all, as we eventually found just a single one pretending to be a Wigeon.

There has been a Water Pipit regularly on this island, but it can be very elusive in the vegetation. Thankfully today, we found it pretty quickly, feeding on the spit on the front edge.

redshank

Common Redshank – on Volunteer Marsh as we passed

With not much else on here, we decided to head straight out to the beach. Apart from a few Redshanks and a couple of Grey Plover, there wasn’t much to see on Volunteer Marsh either. The now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water after last weeks high tides, which means there is very little island space left for roosting waders. There had apparently been some Knot on here earlier, but all we could find now was Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits, along with a small number of Dunlin and a couple more Grey Plovers.

The sea has been very productive at Titchwell in recent weeks and was one of the main reasons for coming here today, but when we got to the dunes one of the reserve volunteers was just leaving and told us there wasn’t much out there. He wasn’t wrong. All we could see on the sea was a single Common Scoter. We could see some cloud building from the west, and it started to spit with rain, so we decided to cut our losses. On the walk back to the car, the raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Duck which hadn’t been on the Freshmarsh on our way out had now reappeared.

We did a quick loop inland via Choseley on our way to Thornham, but the hedges along the side of the road here were quiet again, as they had been at the weekend. We decided to stop for lunch at Thornham Harbour and try for the Twite. While we were eating, the Twite first flew up and landed on the fence by the old sluice gate, then flew in over the saltmarsh and over to the coal barn, where they landed on the roof. After a couple of minutes they flew back in past us and landed down by the puddles in the car park for a drink, where we finally got a good look at them.

twite

Twite – flew in and landed in the car park while we were having lunch

After lunch, we headed round to Holme. As we drove down the track towards the Firs, we could see a photographer with a long lens pointing it into one of the gardens, his car abandoned in the middle of the road with the door still open. As we passed, we looked across to see what he was trying to photograph and saw a Barn Owl on a pile of brash in the back garden. A couple of Mistle Thrushes were in one of the trees on the other side of the road.

When the seaduck are not at Titchwell, Holme can be a good place to look instead. As we got down to the beach, there didn’t seem to be much offshore at first, apart from a trawler being followed by a huge mob of hungry gulls. As we scanned across, we first found a few Great Crested Grebes out on the water. Then we picked up some Eider a bit further offshore, which helpfully started to fly in much closer after the trawler had passed, lots of females, several 1st winter drakes and one or two very smart adult drakes.

A paler bird caught the light a bit further out, on the sea away to the east. It didn’t look like a gull and when it surfaced again from behind the waves we could see it was a drake Long-tailed Duck, one of the birds we were hoping to see today.

There were more waders on the beach here, over towards Thornham Harbour, with a small group of Knot in with the Grey Plover and Dunlin. It had brightened up again while we were at Holme, but now we could see some very dark clouds heading our way. We got back to the car, just as it started to rain.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got out onto the seawall, the tide was well out. There was a big flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, and a large huddle of Oystercatchers on the beach away to the north. More waders scattered liberally around, mostly Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Dunlin. But it was raining hard now and windy and exposed up here, so we couldn’t spend long standing and scanning without risking getting very wet.

We had come here mainly to try to see the Smew which has been at Snettisham on and off for several weeks now. It can disappear at times, but thankfully today it was on the first pit just south of the cross bank, diving with three drake Goldeneye. We had a quick look at it – it was a bit more sheltered on the inland side of the seawall – and then continued on down towards the hide.

smew

Smew – still at Snettisham on one of the pits today

The Short-eared Owl, which had gone missing at the weekend, was apparently back under its usual bramble bush yesterday, so we made our way round to see if we could see it. Sure enough, there it was. It looked a bit bedraggled in the rain, and we were in danger of becoming the same, so with our mission here accomplished we made a swift retreat. Still, it meant we had racked up three different owls on our travels today.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – back under its usual bramble bush in the rain

Back in the car, we made our way back east inland. We made a quick stop by a field with a strip planted with seed mix. We were looking mainly for Yellowhammers, and could see lots of birds in the hedge right at the back. They were mainly Reed Buntings, but as we scanned through them we found several Yellowhammers in with them. Even in the gloomy conditions, the bright yellow males really stood out.

Then we spotted a Tree Sparrow too. It dropped straight down out of sight, but as we scanned back we found a second Tree Sparrow a bit further back which stayed put until we all got a look at it. We could see the black spot on its white cheek. Not a great view in the driving rain, but a real bonus and not one we were expecting to get today.

There were a few common farmland birds which we had missed on our way out, so we had a look to see if we could find them on the way back, cutting across back to the coast road at Holkham. But it was a bit of a struggle to find much in the rain now. A quick stop back at Holkham was more productive though. Having drawn a blank on Great White Egret this morning, we found four together out on the grazing marshes this afternoon. For what was not that long ago a rarity in the UK, four together is quite a sight (well, away from Somerset at least)!

We had planned to finish the day at one of the raptor roosts, but when we got there the conditions were really dreadful. It was getting dark, but the driving rain meant visibility was much worse than it should have otherwise been. We headed for shelter and were told by the two people already there that they had just seen a male Hen Harrier land out on the marshes. Unfortunately they couldn’t find it again now – they couldn’t even find the post it was next to at first!

Thankfully, as we scanned across trying to find it, we spotted a harrier fly up at the back of the saltmarsh. It was not the male, but it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. We could see the flash of the white square at the base of its tail. It landed again and we could just make it out, perched on the ground.

That was more than we thought we would see, given the conditions, so we decided to call it a day. When we got back to the warm and dry, we tallied up the day’s list. 100 species! Not bad at all for a mid-winter day, and even more so given the conditions this afternoon. It just goes to show…

 

Advertisements

6th Jan 2019 – Looking for Owls

The first tour of the new year was an Owl Tour today in North Norfolk. It was a largely grey and gloomy day, even if the sun did threaten to show itself a couple of times, but it was reasonably mild (for the time of year) and with lighter winds than the last couple of days. Not too bad a day for owling!

With the recent clement weather, the local Barn Owls appear to be finding plenty of food at the moment and are not having to work too hard during daylight hours. Still, with an early start, we hoped to catch one out hunting first thing this morning. We made our way straight over to a regular site where one has been seen the last few mornings, but when we arrived there was no immediate sign of it. It wasn’t immediately clear whether it had gone in to roost early today, or was still out somewhere, so we decided to have a walk out along the bank and keep our eyes open.

There were lots of other things to look at here. A Brown Hare was surprising hard to see in the grass until it started running. We could see the black tips to its long ears. Several groups of Brent Geese flew back and forth in untidy flocks, presumably just emerging from their roost out on the saltmarsh. A small party landed down on the grass with a couple of the local Canada Geese where we could get a good look at them.

There were several Marsh Harriers patrolling over the reeds and one of last year’s juveniles landed first on a post and then on a bush so we could get it in the scope, it’s pale head contrasting with its rather uniform chocolate brown body. A couple of Little Egrets flew in, presumably also fresh from their roost site, and landed on the saltmarsh, where two Grey Herons had already taken up position.

little egret

Little Egrets – these two flew in, presumably straight from their roost

It gradually became clear that the Barn Owl was not going to put in an appearance – it had obviously decided to turn in earlier than it has been doing recently. We decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere. As we walked back to the car, a large flock of Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass and circled round over our heads calling.

It was not particularly auspicious weather for Little Owls, grey and chilly still. Any early hints that the sun might poke a hole through the clouds had faded. Still, we headed inland to have a look. As we pulled up on a concrete pad by the road to scan some barns, something flew up from the muddy puddles in the middle of it. It flashed blackish and white and flew round with flicking wingbeats. It was a Green Sandpiper, a very scarce winter visitor here. Unfortunately it landed again out of view, but it was a very nice bird to see.

At the next set of barns where there are sometimes Little Owls, another quick look failed to find any sign too, but at our third stop we had more luck. Looking across to some distant farm buildings, we couldn’t see one on the roof where they like to sit, but as we scanned across between the barns we could see a lump on top of a pile of wooden pallets. Through the scope, we could see it was a Little Owl.

A footpath runs round behind the barns, so we decided to walk up along it for a closer look. On our way, we stopped to look at a covey of partridges huddled up on the edge of a small copse and their distinctive kidney-shaped dark belly patches identified them as Grey Partridges, much the rarer of our two partridge species. A couple of Yellowhammers flew up out of a cover strip next to the path as we passed and flew off calling.

little owl

Little Owl – hiding in a stack of wooden pallets

From the footpath, we had a much better view of the Little Owl. It started off facing away from us, so we could see the false eyes on the back of its head, but then it turned to look in our direction and we could see its yellow irises. After a while, it dropped down from the top of the pallets to a spot in between the slats, where we could still see its head and shoulders. It seemed fairly happy with the unusual spot it had chosen to perch in today and appeared to be dozing, with eyes half closed. A large covey of Red-legged Partridges then appeared on the barn roof, where we would normally expect to see the Little Owl!

Back in the car, we meandered our way west. We were ultimately heading for the Wash, but we took an inland route. We did look briefly in passing at a several more Little Owl sites, but we had probably been lucky with the one we had found today. One of the sites where we have seen them in the past is now a building site, as the barns here are being developed into holiday cottages. Unfortunately this is an ever increasing problem, as fewer and fewer old farm buildings are left for wildlife.

We did see a few more different birds on the way, even if the fields were rather quiet today. A Bullfinch flashed out of the hedge ahead of us, flashing its square white rump. Three Red Kites circled lazily over the road. We flushed a Fieldfare out of a berry-laden hawthorn as we passed by.

red kite

Red Kite – one of three which circled over the road in front of us

As we made our way along the path out to the reserve at Snettisham. we stopped to watch a pair of Goldeneye on one of the pits. The female had her neck stretched out in front and held low to the water, possibly in display, although the male next to her seemed to show little interest. A couple of Little Grebes were busy diving a little further on.

Up on the seawall, it was now low tide and a vast landscape of grey mud stretched away ahead of us. With the grey sky above, the whole landscape looked rather uniform. A slightly darker smear across the mud, which could easily be mistaken for part of the grey background, was actually a huge flock of thousands of Golden Plover. Through the scope we could finally make out the golden colour to their upperparts.

golden plover

Golden Plover – a flock of thousands blended in seamlessly with the grey mud

A long line of Teal continued on from the end of the Golden Plover flock and there were lots of Shelducks scattered more liberally and sparsely all over the mud. Scattered groups of Lapwings mostly had their backs to us and looked very dark. Most of the other waders would obviously be out on the waters edge, which was too far off to see today, but we did manage to find a tight group of Knot feeding in the middle distance, much more active, busy than the plovers.

We had a quick look at the north end of the Pits from the causeway. In amongst a noisy gaggle of Greylag Geese and Wigeon, we stopped to look at three more Goldeneye and a different duck surfaced in with them. Small, with a distinctive rusty cap and white sides to the face, it was a ‘redhead’ Smew (a female or first winter male). A scarce winter visitor from northern Europe, this bird has been here for a few weeks now but it very erratic on the Pits, presumably feeding much of the time out on the Wash or on the fishing lakes. Another nice bonus for the day’s list. We watched it for a while as it fed, diving repeatedly.

smew

Smew – a ‘redhead’ feeding on the Pit from the causeway

Our real target here was Short-eared Owl. In the middle of the day, we would be lucky to find one out hunting so instead we went to see if we could find one roosting. It didn’t take long to find it, roosting under its usual bramble bush. It was hunched up in the vegetation and almost like it could be stuffed, until it thankfully moved its head just to dispel that suggestion! It looked over towards us and we could see its yellow irises for  second before it went back to dozing.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under its usual bramble bush

We had a walk round the southern pit to check out the rough grassland surrounding it, but there were no owls out. A feral Barnacle Goose was standing all on its own on the bank. We stopped briefly in South Hide to look at the other end of the Pit, which contained a good number of sleeping Wigeon. We could hear the occasional whistle from them. A couple of Shoveler were tucked up in with them.

A little group of pipits flew up from the bank and in amongst the softer ‘seep, seep’ calls of the Meadow Pipits we could hear the sharper ‘wheest’ call of a Rock Pipit. The latter flew down and appropriately landed on a rock! Then a Meadow Pipit landed on the edge of the water in front of the hide and after picking around on the bank for a minute flew over to join the Rock Pipit, giving us a really nice comparison of the two species together.

It was lunchtime already, so we made our way back to the car for something to eat. As we made our way back along we turned onto a minor road and spotted a commotion on the tarmac right in front. It was a Stoat and it was engaged in a wrestling match with a rather large Brown Rat! The two of them twisted and turned, both seemed to be battling to stay on top.

They writhed across the road and dropped into the shallow gully on the side, so that we could pull up right alongside, just a couple of feet from them. It looked to be a pretty even contest, and after a while the Stoat gave up and disappeared up the bank behind. The Rat paused for a while to recover and then perhaps unwisely went up the bank too.

On our way back east, we stopped in an area of farmland to look at a hedge full of small birds which were flying in and out of a neighbouring cover strip. They were mostly Reed Buntings, but with several Yellowhammers mixed in with them. The birds were flying in and out of the crop all the time, so it was hard to keep up at times. There were a lot more birds down in the vegetation than we could see, as suddenly a large flock of Linnets flew up, circled round, and dropped back in.

Back on the main coast road, as we passed Holkham we could see a huge wave of thousands of Pink-footed Geese coming up off the marshes. We stopped for a look and noticed a long white neck poking out of a ditch out in the grass. It was a Great White Egret – through the scope, we could see its long dagger-shaped bill. A second Great White Egret was feeding on a pool further over.

great white egret

Great White Egret – in a ditch out on the grazing marshes

The Pink-footed Geese disappeared inland over the Park, but there were still lots of geese down on the marshes. In amongst the more numerous Greylags, we found a large party of Russian White-fronted Geese. Through the scope we could see the white feathering surrounding the base of their bills and their distinctive black belly barring. A Goldcrest was singing in the pines nearby.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – feeding out on the grazing marshes

We had hoped to have a bit more time here, to have a look for hunting Short-eared Owls, but time was getting on and we had an appointment with another owl which we had to keep. We managed to stop for a minute at Wells to watch another huge wave of Pink-footed Geese which were flying in from the fields inland. It was too early for them to head in to roost, so presumably they had just been disturbed from the fields where they had been feeding.

The Barn Owl was not out hunting yet when we arrived. We stood at the gate for a minute and scanned the meadows, then we walked down along the path to where we could see the entrance to the owl box. There was the Barn Owl, perched on the platform on the front of the box – prefect timing! It had just woken up and was trying to work out whether to head out hunting. It still looked sleepy, perched there hunched up with its eyes half closed.

barn owl 1

Barn Owl – just waking up before heading out to hunt

Over the next five minutes or so, the Barn Owl gradually got a bit more active, looking round and opening its eyes. Then silently it dropped from the platform and flew out over the meadow. We were treated to a great display over the next twenty minutes as it hunted. At first it flew round over the long grass, once or twice dropping down after something but coming up empty-taloned.

Then it headed over to the edge of the meadow and landed on a post, where it perched looking down into the grass below. Another great look through the scope. The Tawny Owls were already hooting in the trees beyond now – our next appointment – but we still had a few minutes before they would emerge. The Barn Owl moved around between several different posts before resuming hunting more actively, flying round over the meadow again. As if to bid us farewell, it did one last close fly past, flying across silently right in front of us, even stopping to hover for a second, before heading off. Great to watch!

barn owl 2

Barn Owl – a last fly-past before heading off for the evening

The light was starting to go now, so we headed into the wood. We positioned ourselves where we could see a group of trees clad in dense ivy and waited. We could hear more Pink-footed Geese calling and looked out of the trees to see a series of skeins totalling several thousand birds heading off to roost over the hill beyond.

The Tawny Owl dropped out of the back of the trees unseen tonight – suddenly we could hear it hooting further back in the wood. We followed the path in deeper, but despite hearing it hooting still we couldn’t see it through the branches. We changed position again to try a different angle and then suddenly it flew across the path above our heads, with a sweep of its broad, rounded wings silhouetted against the sky.

It landed, but unfortunately chose the top of a tree covered in ivy where we couldn’t see it. Then it quickly flew back into the wood as we moved to try to get an angle. It was getting dark now, and we could still hear the Tawny Owl hooting from the trees as we walked back to the car. A Woodcock zoomed over the tops of the trees above us in the gloom. Then it was time to call it a night.

21st Dec 2018 – Two Winter Days, Day 2

Day 2 of a two day Private Tour in North Norfolk today. As ever, the forecasters couldn’t make up their minds over the last few days what the weather would be doing today, but they had finished up typically pessimistic this morning. It was a damp, drizzly, grey and gloomy start, at which point it looked like they might be right, but then it dried up and brightened up and ended up being not too bad at all in the end.

We were heading west today, but on our way we made a quick stop at Holkham first. As we got out of the car, we could hear a pair of Egyptian Geese calling from the trees. We could hear lots of Pink-footed Geese too, and looked across to see a large flock fly up from the grazing marshes. They came straight over us and headed off inland. A steady succession of skeins flew over, but still more circled back round and landed down on the grazing marshes again. We could still see thousands of geese out on the grass.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – thousands flying up from the grazing marshes again this morning

There were Greylag Geese too, a much smaller flock out in the field in front of us. We could see they were paler grey with a big orange carrot for a bill. Just beyond the hedge, through a gap, we spotted a group of about ten Russian White-fronted Geese. We all had a good look at them through the scope, noting the white surround to the base of their pink pills and their distinctive black belly bars. Then suddenly they took off for no apparent reason and we realised there had been a lot more hidden behind the hedge, about 55 in total. They flew off back over the grazing marshes.

A large white bird also out on the grazing marshes was a Great White Egret. It was obviously very tall and, through the scope, we could see its long yellow dagger of a bill. A Marsh Harrier was perched in a tree in front.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding out on the grazing marshes

By the time we got to Titchwell, it had at least stopped drizzling, although it was still very dull and grey. There were not many cars yet, so we had a quick look round the overflow car park. There were lots of finches in the bushes, feeding on the brambles, mainly Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but with several Greenfinches too. We heard a Bullfinch calling and a smart pink male flew out and across the car park, but disappeared straight into the bushes. We had a couple of brief views of it in the brambles but it would never stay still long enough to get it in the scope.

A flock of Long-tailed Tits came round through the car park, and as we made our way along the path towards the Visitor Centre what was presumably the same flock was calling in the sallows. A Goldcrest appeared in the bushes by the path ahead of us, and we stopped to watch it fluttering around in the branches. A second Goldcrest appeared above our heads, hovering around an ivy-covered trunk. We followed one of the Goldcrests almost all the way to the Visitor Centre.

There were a few more finches on the feeders in front of the Visitor Centre, but the ones the other side had been taken over by a Grey Squirrel. We had a quick look as we passed, but there was no sign of the Water Rail in the ditch, so we continued on out onto the reserve.

As we came out of the trees, several Lapwings and a small group of Golden Plover flew over, heading inland. When we got to the reedbed, we could see a much larger flock of Golden Plover and Lapwing circling over the Freshmarsh. We couldn’t see what had flushed them, possibly a Marsh Harrier, but they quickly landed back down again.

A Water Pipit came up calling from the cut reeds below the path ahead of us. It flew across the path and headed out over the dried up Thornham grazing marsh pool, from where a second Water Pipit flew up to join it. The two of them circled together briefly before the second bird dropped straight back down again, out of view. The first Water Pipit then flew back across the path and disappeared out over the Freshmarsh.

We stopped to look at a couple of Marsh Harriers circling over the back of the reedbed, and noticed four more were perched together in one of the dead trees. Then looking out across the Freshmarsh, four more harriers were hanging in the wind over the bank beyond, at the back of the Volunteer Marsh. One was noticeably smaller, and through the scope we could see the white square at the base of its tail. It was a Hen Harrier, a juvenile, noticeably rusty orange below, streaked darker.

It looked like the three Marsh Harriers were mobbing the Hen Harrier at first, but two drifted off and the Hen Harrier ended up tussling just with one juvenile Marsh Harrier, giving as good as it got. The two of them kept swooping at each other for ages – great to watch and giving us a good view of the Hen Harrier as they did so. At one point, a couple of Carrion Crows joined in too.

Avocet was a key target for the day. Most of them go south for the winter, but a few normally try to cling on here. From Island Hide, we quickly located the group of about 12 Avocets which are lingering here this year. Initially they were rowed up on the end of a long line of Lapwings, but then something spooked all the waders again, and everything took off. The Avocets landed back down with a small group of roosting Shelduck, where the tern island used to be.

Avocet

Avocets – there are still about 12 hanging on here for the winter

The water level on the Freshmarsh is now very high for the winter, and there are not many of the islands left exposed. Consequently, most of the waders are now feeding elsewhere. Apart from the roosting Avocets and the large flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover, we managed to find just one Dunlin this morning.

The wildfowl are enjoying all the water. A small flock of Brent Geese had joined with the Greylags on the water in front of the reedbed. They had just dropped in for a wash and brush up before heading back out to the Thornham saltmarsh to feed. There are more diving ducks on here now, with a small raft of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard next to the geese. The other regular winter ducks here – Wigeon, Teal and a few Shoveler – were mostly over towards the back of the Freshmarsh today.

Brent Goose

Brent Geese – flying back out to the saltmarsh to feed

It didn’t seem like the weather could make up its mind. It had been drizzling again briefly while we were in the hide, but now it seemed to be brightening up. So we decided to try our luck and walk out towards the beach. The tide was out and there was not much on Volunteer Marsh, just a rather tame Common Redshank in the channel just below the path.

The Hen Harrier was still playing with the Marsh Harrier over the bank at the far side. We stopped to watch them again, before the Hen Harrier disappeared behind the bank towards the beach. From the top of the bank, we could see the Hen Harrier hunting along the dunes beyond and when it landed in the top of a bush, we got it in the scope and had another good look at it.

The now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water at the moment, and the one remaining island is getting much smaller. It was fairly packed with roosting duck today – lots of Wigeon, Teal and several Shoveler. A wader appeared briefly on the corner from behind the vegetation, and we had a glimpse of a long, needle-fine bill and distinctive white supercilium. We walked further up for a better angle and our suspicions were confirmed, it was a Spotted Redshank.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – roosting on the ‘Tidal Pools’

Out at the beach, we stopped first to scan the sea. One of the locals was just leaving and informed us that there had not been much of note out here today. We quickly found a small raft of Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of Goldeneye just offshore. Four brown female Eider were close in, just beyond the mussel beds. Another drake Goldeneye flew in to join them, its green head with white cheek patch shining in a welcome burst of sunshine. An adult Mediterranean Gull flew past out to sea, but unfortunately it was too far out for everyone to get onto.

There was a nice selection of waders around the mussel beds, so we walked down the beach for a closer look. There were lots of Oystercatchers and a few Curlew and Grey Plover. Several pale, streaked Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding on the edge of the sand, and a Black-tailed Godwit was on the mussel bed nearby for comparison. A mixture of Sanderling, Dunlin and Turnstones were running around in between. Scanning carefully, we managed to find a small group of Knot too, and it was good to see them through the scope, feeding next to the Dunlin for comparison.

On our way back, we remembered we had not seen the drake Pintail on the Tidal Pools on our walk out. So we scanned again from the inner edge of the dunes, and from this angle we quickly found it fast asleep on the island with the other ducks. Not the best of views, but another one for the list. The Little Egret which was now feeding in the channel on the Volunteer Marsh right next to the path put on a much better show. We got a good look at its yellow feet.

Little Egret

Little Egret – showing off its yellow feet

The other bird we had not seen on the way out was the Water Rail, and that too we found on the way back. It was feeding just where we had looked earlier, in the ditch by the path, but was still hard to see down in the water underneath all the tree branches. With a bit of patience, it eventually showed very well though.

Water Rails are a bit like buses, and there was also a second one here now, in the ditch on the other side of the path. It was right out in the open when we first saw it, but as soon as it noticed us watching it, it scuttled remarkably swiftly across and squeezed through a small gap underneath the muddy bowl of a fallen tree, where it was well hidden.

Water Rail

Water Rail – one of two we saw on the walk back

It was lunchtime now, and we felt like we had earned it this morning, so we headed round to the White Horse in Holme for a very welcome quick bite of lunch and a chance to warm up in front of the fire. Afterwards, we drove back to Thornham Harbour.

It had clouded over again now and was feeling rather grey again. A Curlew flushed from the saltmarsh as we drove in, but otherwise it initially looked rather quiet here. A car load of photographers were huddled in their vehicle in the car park with their long lenses pointed out at an empty puddle, where there was a distinct lack of any Twite action.

We walked across the car park and down to the sluice just beyond. As we did so a flock of small birds flew up from the saltmarsh just in front of us. We could hear Goldfinch and Linnet and also the distinctive ‘tveeet’ calls of Twite (from which they get their name) as they circled round above us.

Twite

Twite – two of at least ten feeding on the edge of the harbour

After circling several times they landed back down on the edge of the saltmarsh and we got a good view through the scope as they perched up feeding on some of the taller seedheads. It was really good to see Twite and Linnet in the scope together, the former richer brown overall with an orangey breast and yellow bill.

There were at least ten Twite today and one of them was sporting a collection of colour-rings which identify it as an individual which was ringed in Derbyshire earlier in the year. The dwindling Pennine breeding population is the source of our declining winter population of Twite here in Norfolk.

Having admired the Twite, we got back in the car and headed on west. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field close to the road so we stopped for a quick look. We were just scanning through when one of the group spotted something different in with them. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose. We found somewhere we could stop and got out for a better look through the scope.

Pale-bellied Brent Goose

Pale-bellied Brent Goose – feeding with Pink-footed Geese on harvested sugar beet

Pale-bellied Brent Goose is a different subspecies compared to our regular wintering Russian Dark-bellied Brents. They breed from Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, across through northern Greenland to Canada. Birds from eastern Canada migrate through Iceland to winter mainly in Ireland and it is probably in Iceland that lone or lost birds may join up with the flocks of Pink-footed Geese (it being better to be with them than travel alone!), which bring them to Norfolk in small numbers. While we were watching the geese, we noticed several Ruff feeding in the muddy field in amongst them.

Our final destination for the afternoon was Snettisham. With all the grey cloud again, the light was already starting to go. It didn’t help that today was the shortest day of the year! From up on the seawall, we could see several Goldeneye on the first pit.

The tide was coming in now but there was still a huge expanse of exposed mud. It was not due to be one the biggest tides today, and it was still a couple of hours to high tide, but the waders were already starting to gather. A large brown slick across the mud out in the middle on closer inspection was a huge flock of Golden Plover. Through the scope, we could also see quite a few Bar-tailed Godwits gathered just behind. More waders down on the water’s edge further back were mostly Knot. A big group of Oystercatchers were roosting on the edge of the beach away to the north.

We were hoping to see a Short-eared Owl here this afternoon, but it was damp and grey with a cool breeze and there was perhaps unsurprisingly no sign of any out hunting. Fortunately we did find one hunkered down under a bramble bush, where it had spent the day roosting. It was only half awake and looking towards us, and we could see the short tufts of feathers on the top of its head, its ‘ears’.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

There were lots of ducks and geese on the pits, mainly Greylags and Wigeon. A feral Barnacle Goose was standing on the grass just beyond. A large number of Cormorants had come in to roost on the islands.

It was starting to get dark now, but we could see two white shapes at the far end of the pit. The first was a Little Egret, but the second looked a bit bigger. Through the scope our suspicions were confirmed, it was a Spoonbill. The vast majority of the Spoonbills which were here in the summer have long since headed off south for the winter, with just one or two still remaining here, so this was a real bonus.

Back at the Wash, a large group of Knot had now gathered together in another dark slick spread across the mud, out in the middle. We had thought we might have a quick look at the pit from Rotary Hide, but just at that point something spooked all the waders. All the Golden Plover took off and started to whirl round in the air, and the Knot zoomed back and forth low over the mud, twisting and turning, flashing dark and light.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – a huge flock gathered out on the Wash

Knot

Knot – twisting and turning low over the mud

It was a nice way to end our two days out, watching the huge flocks of waders whirling out over the Wash. We had hoped we might be able to catch the first of the geese coming in to roost from here, but it was still a bit early and unfortunately we had to get back to the village in time for a pick-up. While we were waiting in the car at the rendezvous point though, the skeins of Pink-footed Geese started to come over calling, thousands of them. One of the real sights and sounds of Norfolk in the winter and a very fitting finish.

12th Dec 2018 – Spectacular Geese

A Private ‘Goose Spectacular’ Tour today, an early start up on the Wash to watch the amazing sight of tens of thousands of Pink-footed Geese leaving their roost and flying inland to feed at dawn. It was a fabulous day too, once the sun came up, with mostly blue sky and sunshine and just a very light easterly breeze.

As we arrived on the seawall, it was still dark but the sky to the east was just beginning to lighten. As we got out of the car and started to don our coats, we could hear thousands of Pink-footed Geese calling out on the Wash. Soon after, the first skeins, the early risers, flew in over us, hard to see in the gloom but we could make out their silhouettes and hear them calling.

As the sun started to come up we were treated to an amazing sunrise. At first the horizon glowed, yellow and orange. There was cloud still out over the Wash which extended slightly inland from us, but to the east the sky was clear. The cloud started off black, contrasting with the dark blue sky, but gradually the light started to catch the edges of the clouds and turned them shades of pink and red, all reflected in the water of the old gravel pit below. Stunning! The sunrise alone was worth getting up early for.

Sunrise

Snettisham – the sunrise alone was worth getting up early for

More waves of Pink-footed Geese came in overhead. They were still all but impossible still to see as they took off from the Wash, in the dark to the west of us, and against the dark brown mud, but as they came into the paler sky above the seawall we could make them out more clearly, in a series of ‘v’ formations, hundreds at a time. We could hear their high-pitched yelping calls.

Pink-footed Geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – an early skein, against the dark grey sky

As the skies continued to lighten, we could see the skeins of geese taking off from the mud now. The waves started to get bigger, thousands of birds at a time, taking off in a rising cacophony of noise.

Pink-footed Geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – thousands taking off from the mud

Pink-footed Geese 3

Pink-footed Geese – flying over us in huge waves

Pink-footed Geese 4

Pink-footed Geese – flying in to the sunrise

With a bit more light now, we could get some of the Pink-footed Geese in the scope, where they were roosting. Even though quite a few had already left, as we scanned across we could still see thousands upon thousands standing out on the mud, like a vast dark smear.

Pink-footed Geese 5

Pink-footed Geese – roosting on the mudflats, out on the Wash

There were several much smaller gaggles of Greylag Geese much closer in, on the near edge of the Wash. They were noticeably paler than the Pink-footed Geese, with large orange carrots for bills. As they took off and flew much lower over the seawall, their calls were much deeper, very different than the Pinkfeet. Coming from much further out, the Pink-footed Geese had more time to gain height out over the Wash before they got to us.

For well over an hour, the Pink-footed Geese kept coming. Each time a huge wave took off and flew in over us, heading off inland, we looked back out to the Wash and could still see thousands and thousands still on the mud. Still they kept coming.

Pink-footed Geese 6

Pink-footed Geese – another wave taking off from the Wash

Pink-footed Geese 7

Pink-footed Geese – flying in over the seawall

Pink-footed Geese 8

Pink-footed Geese – heading off inland to feed

Eventually, gradually, the number of Pink-footed Geese left out on the mud started to dwindle. There are around 30,000 Pink-footed Geese roosting here at the moment, an impressive number and amazing to watch them like this, heading inland to feed. Finally, just a few hundred stragglers were left, so we turned our attention to the other birds.

We could hear Curlews calling while we were watching the geese, and several large flocks flew in from the Wash too, though nothing like on the scale of the Pinkfeet. There were gulls which had roosted out on the safety of the mudflats as well, which flew off inland as the day dawned, in long silvery-white lines catching the early light.

The Wash is also famous for its waders. It was almost high tide now, but not a big enough tide to cover all the mud and push the waders off today. We looked across to the water’s edge and could see some large gatherings of Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers. There were ducks too, mainly Shelduck, Mallard and Teal, but with a few Pintail out on the water.

There had been a light frost overnight and there was still a chill in the air, waiting for the sun to rise fully. We decided to go for a walk to warm up, and have a look in the hides overlooking the pit. There were lots of ducks around the islands and margins, mostly Wigeon, but with smaller numbers of Teal, Shoveler and Mallard.

Wigeon

Wigeon – roosting on one of the islands on the pit

A few Tufted Ducks and Goldeneye were busy diving out in the middle, along with several Little Grebes, one of which helpfully surfaced just below the hide at one point. A large mob of noisy Greylags, birds which had flown in from the mud earlier, were arguing amongst themselves. The waders were mostly out on the Wash today, and there were just a few Lapwing scattered around the islands on the pit.

As we walked round towards South Hide, we stopped at the corner to scan the saltmarsh. A Common Buzzard was perched on a post in the distance and several Marsh Harriers circled up, with four together at one point. Then a smaller harrier appeared, over in the corner, and as it turned we could see it was paler below with a distinctive white square patch at base of tail – a Hen Harrier. We watched it circle for a while before landing down in the vegetation, from where a passing Marsh Harrier stopped to flush it again, the two of them then circling together briefly providing a nice comparison.

It was quiet at the southern end of the pit today. A Little Egret was busy fishing in the pool just below South Hide. We watched as it walked round, stopping regularly and jiggling one foot in the water in front of it to see if it could flush out any prey from the mud.

Little Egret

Little Egret – fishing in the pool below South Hide

We walked back on the path around the other side of the pit. It was rather quiet, although a Ruff flying past was a nice bonus for here. We were hoping perhaps to find an owl still out hunting but it looked like they had all gone to roost. However, we did find a Short-eared Owl roosting under bramble bush. It was very well sheltered from disturbance and looking out to the morning sun for a bit of warmth.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

Then it was back round to the car for a welcome coffee break. Looking out across the Wash, a huge flock of thousands of Knot had gathered to roost out on the middle of the mud over high tide, and were shining in the morning sun.

Knot

Knot – roosting on the mud in a large flock over high tide

After coffee, we made our way round via Hunstanton and up to the north coast, where we popped in to Thornham Harbour to see what we could find. A Black-tailed Godwit and a Curlew were feeding in the channel by the Coal Barn when we arrived, and more waders were in the harbour channel beyond the sluice – several Redshanks, a couple more Curlew, a Bar-tailed Godwit with two Black-tailed Godwits, a Grey Plover and a single Ringed Plover.

Climbing up onto the seawall, a flock of Goldfinches were feeding in the vegetation on the edge of the saltmarsh below the bank. We could see several Linnets with them and then spotted a Twite too. It was colour-ringed – a bird ringed in Derbyshire in May of this year. When something spooked them and all the finches flew up, we realised there were actually five Twite, the others having been hidden from view. They all circled round several times and eventually three of the Twite landed on a wooden post just across the harbour, where we had a lovely view of them through the scope in the sunshine.

Suddenly we heard lots of Pink-footed Geese calling in the distance, and we turned to see a large flock of several thousand come up from the fields inland, beyond the trees. They were presumably birds we had seen flying out from the roost at the Wash earlier. Some circled round and disappeared back down behind the trees, but others flew over towards the grazing marshes at Holme. This is an area they often like to loaf when they are not feeding and we had hoped to find some closer, on the ground today, so we could get a better look at them.

About half of the Pink-footed Geese seemed to drop down in the fields further back, but the rest looked to be landing closer to the bank, so walked along to the next corner of the seawall to see if we could get a look at them. When we got there, we found they were mostly hidden behind a fence, but we could see a few through a gap in the vegetation and got a fairly good look at them in the scope.

There were other birds here to look at too though. Several Skylarks flew up from the grazing meadows and a little group of Meadow Pipits landed in the top of a small bush. A female Stonechat appeared on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds below the bank. There were lots of Golden Plover and Curlew in the field nearest to us.

Pink-footed Geese 10

Pink-footed Geese – coming in to land on the grazing marshes at Holme

Something flushed the rest of the Pink-footed Geese again from the fields inland, and they flew in to join the rest on the grazing marshes. Most landed out of view again but this time some landed in the field in front of the fence, closer to us. We could see their pink legs and feet catching the light in the sunshine as they came in to land, and we had a better view of them through the scope down in the grass.

As we made our way back to the car, we came across some other birders in the car park. The Twite had come in to bathe in the puddles there. We stopped to watch them too – we could see their yellow bills and orange breasts as they flapped and splashed.

Twite

Twite – bathing in the puddles as we walked back to the car park

Our next stop was at Titchwell. There were a few finches and tits on the feeders by the visitor centre as we passed. We then stopped to watch a Water Rail which was feeding in the ditch just below the main path. These are normally very secretive birds but there is often one which can be found here in winter, with a bit of searching. We watched as it rooted around in the rotting leaves in the bottom of the ditch. It was very well camouflaged but we could see the leaves flying.

Water Rail

Water Rail – in the ditch below the main path

There were three Marsh Harriers circling over the back of the reedbed and a small group of Gadwall at the back of the reedbed pool as we walked out.

The water levels on the Freshmarsh are coming up fast now, as they are raised for the winter. Consequently, there are not so many waders. At least 16 Avocets are still clinging on for the winter and were roosting on one of the few remaining islands. The wildfowl doesn’t mind the increased water though. A gaggle of Brent Geese were swimming on the edge of the reeds, chattering noisily. The ducks like it too – there were plenty of Shelduck, Wigeon and Teal, and a few Shoveler.

We called in briefly at Parrinder Hide. In the middle of the day with the sun shining, we were looking straight into the light from here but we wanted to check quickly whether there was anything else on the islands in front of the hide. Several Dunlin were picking around on the wet mud, but not much else different here today.

The Volunteer Marsh in front of the other half of Parrinder Hide was rather quiet, apart from a few Shelducks and Curlews. Back on the main path, another Curlew and a Redshank were feeding in the channel below the bank.

The non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water at the moment. The ducks were all tightly packed in on the last bit of remaining island, and a careful scan revealed a drake Pintail asleep among the Wigeon. Otherwise, there were not many waders here, just a few more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks.

With the sun at our backs, it was glorious out on the beach. The tide was still just going out, and the mussel beds were still covered. The Oystercatchers were still roosting on the sand and looked great in the light. Several Turnstones and Sanderlings were running in and out between them. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were probing in the sand on the shoreline, with another having a bathe in a pool at the bottom of the beach.

Waders

Oystercatchers – roosting on the beach, with Sanderling and Turnstones

In the light winds the sea was calm. We had a quick scan but the birds were a long way out today. A distant couple of Great Crested Grebes caught the light and a Goldeneye was diving offshore.

After stopping to admire the view from the beach, it was time to head back. It had been an early start this morning. Two Egyptian Geese out on the Thornham grazing meadow rounded out the goose list for the day. Three Wrens chasing around the undergrowth just past the Visitor Centre and a Red Kite over the fields on the way home were the final additions to the overall tally on a very enjoyable day out.

21st Nov 2018 – Winter Day Reflated

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. After a very wet and windy day yesterday, we were very fortunate that it was another glorious bright and sunny morning with blue skies today, much better than had been forecast. It did cloud over a bit in the afternoon, but there were still some sunny intervals and with light winds, it was very mild, until the sun started to go down.

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. We could see a number of ducks on the pools by Lady Anne’s Drive as we drove up, so we walked back for a look after we parked. There were plenty of Wigeon feeding out on the grass, although there are hopefully still a lot more to come over the coming weeks, plus a few Teal and Mallard around the pools an ditches.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding in the fields by Lady Anne’s Drive

Two Common Buzzards were perched on the bushes in the distance out across the grazing marsh, one quite dark and the other strikingly pale. The latter really stood out, shining white below in the morning sunshine. A rather dark juvenile Marsh Harrier was quartering the marshes, flushing the ducks further back. A Grey Heron was lurking in front of the reeds on the edge of one of the ditches.

Several small skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew off from the field on the other side of the road, but we got the scope on the small group which remained down on the grass. We could see their dark heads and delicate dark bills with a pink band around. Across the drive, the bigger and paler Greylags were sporting large orange carrots for bills. A couple of Egyptian Geese were out on the grazing marshes too.

As we walked up towards the pines, we stopped to scan the bushes along the ditch to the west. There are still lots of berries here and we quickly spotted a couple of Blackbirds taking advantage of the food to refuel, and a Redwing which perched up nicely so we could get it in the scope. There are still thrushes arriving from the continent for the winter at the moment.

When we got out onto the open saltmarsh north of the trees, we looked across to see a flock of Brent Geese feeding, well hidden in the vegetation across the other side of the path out to the beach. One of them was darker than the others, with a slightly more obvious white flank patch and bolder white collar. This is a regular returning Black Brant hybrid which comes back here each year with the Brents.

The rest of the saltmarsh was rather quiet, as we walked east, but as we got to the new cordon we could see Shorelarks in the distance. They were feeding on the edge of the beach beyond the fence, so we had a quick look at them through the scope from here in case they were disturbed. There have been around 12 Shorelarks here for the past week or so, and we counted the same number this morning.

We walked up a little further, to the end of the cordon, where another birder was already standing watching them. As we got to him, another small group of 9 more Shorelarks flew in, and landed on the sand just in front of us. We could see 21 now, the highest count of winter here so far. Hopefully the number of birds here for the winter might continue to grow yet. We had a great look at them through scope, picking around the small seedheads on the beach. With the low winter sun behind us, it was lovely light and the Shorelarks’ yellow faces shone as they turned to face us.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – another flock of 9 flew in to join the 12 already there

For no apparent reason, the Shorelarks suddenly took off and flew out over the dunes towards the beach. We looked across through the low gap and noticed a flock of small birds fly up around the corner of dunes, but rather than being the Shorelarks it was a flock of Snow Buntings.

We walked up to the beach, hoping to get a better look at the Snow Buntings. We could see them feeding on the edge of the dunes, but we could see a walker approaching with a couple of loose dogs and needless to say the Snow Buntings flew before we could get into position and disappeared off round the dunes. The Shorelarks did reappear though, flying in again from the beach and landed back behind us.

The tide was out and as it was not so busy today there were lots of birds down at the bottom of the beach, by the sea. As well as all the gulls, a line of Cormorants were drying their wings out on the sandbar. There were lots of Oystercatchers too, and several Sanderlings running up and down the shoreline.

A smart drake Red-breasted Merganser in the channel in front of the sandbar was close enough to get a good look at it through the scope, but a small flock of Common Scoter was a bit further out and the line of Common Eider was very distant, the white drakes standing out as they caught the sunlight. A diver busy preening some way off to the west proved to be a Great Northern Diver when it stopped long enough for us to get a proper look at it. Otherwise, there were a few Great Crested Grebes offshore and one or two Gannets drifting back and forth.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – these fifteen were feeding along the beach towards Wells

They hadn’t reappeared where they had been feeding, so we set off along the beach towards Wells to see if we could find the Snow Buntings again. When we got round the corner and scanned the sand, we could see them out on the open beach in a small group, fifteen of them, busy preening in the sunshine. We had a nice look through the scope, before they were flushed by another dog walker, and flew to the edge of the dunes. The Snow Buntings seemed to be settled here, so we walked up slowly and had a closer look at them, running in and out of the tufts of marram grass, picking at the small seedheads growing out of the sand.

As we made our way back towards the car, the Shorelarks were still showing well on the edge of the cordon, so we stopped for another look. They seemed to have picked up a friend as they were flying round, and there were now 22 of them. Watching one of them close up through the scope we could even see the small ‘horns’ from which it gets its alternative name of Horned Lark.

When we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, disaster struck. As we drove back towards the main road, we realised we had a puncture. We couldn’t get the wheel off here, so over a coffee back in The Lookout, we tried to get someone to come out to help. No one locally could come out and fix it on site, so we were faced with a long wait for a tow, which would ruin the rest of the day. It was time for plan ‘B’!

While we waited for someone to pick us up, we went for a quick walk west along the track on the inland side of the pines. Several Jays flew in and out of the trees ahead of and a Common Buzzard dropped out of the pines and flew off across the track.

We hadn’t gone too far before we came across a tit flock. First the Long-tailed Tits came out of the trees, followed by several Blue Tits and Coal Tits. A Goldcrest showed well low in a pine tree by the path. Eventually a Treecreeper followed behind the flock, and stopped to feed along a horizontal branch sticking out high above us in the pines. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called from deep in the trees..

We got back to the abandoned car just in time to meet our lift to Wells, where we picked up alternative transport for the afternoon. We then drove down to Wells Woods, where we had a quick break for a bite to eat. A Chiffchaff was calling from the edge of caravan park, just beyond the car park. After lunch, we headed in for a quick look in the woods.

The boating lake provided a couple of additions to the day’s list. Several Little Grebes were diving out in the middle, and a couple of Gadwall were sleeping along the edge with the Mallards and Mute Swans.

Small numbers of migrant thrushes were in evidence here too, as they had been at Holkham earlier. Along the main track, one or two Blackbirds were coming to bathe in the puddles, and were joined by two Redwings. Just past there, we flushed more Blackbirds and Redwings from the hawthorn bushes where they had been feeding on the berries. A Fieldfare flew up too and landed in a birch tree where it tried to hide in amongst the leaves.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare – hiding in one of the birches

The birch trees around the Dell meadow were quiet. We had hoped to find the redpoll flock here today, but they have been very elusive and are clearly spending a lot of time elsewhere. There was no sign of them in the birches by the toilet block either, and we met another couple of birders who had walked back all the way from Lady Anne’s Drive without finding them.

We looped back round via the Dell and found a tit flock working its way through the trees. A Chiffchaff called and we found it flitting around in the birches with the other birds. We had great views of a Goldcrest too, fluttering around the branches just above our heads. A Mistle Thrush flew across the tops of the pines.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – fluttering around in the birches above our heads

We heard one or two lone redpolls flying overhead, but there was still no sign of the large flock. As we made our way back round on the main path, we stopped to look at a male Chaffinch feeding on apples in a tree. A Bullfinch called and flew up into the top of a hawthorn just behind, a smart male. It perched there for several minutes, mostly back on to us, showing off its white rump, flashing pink underneath as it turned, before it was flushed by a passing dogwalker.

Bullfinch

Bullfinch – showing off its white rump

As we passed the boating lake, we could see a flock of birds circling round over the trees way off in the distance beyond the end of the water. The redpolls.  We watched for a couple of minutes as they repeatedly flew round and then settled back down into the trees to feed. Unfortunately, they were in the private caravan site, and there is no access here. At least we know where they are now!

After Wells Woods, we headed along the coast to Blakeney. As we got out of the car in the car park by the harbour, we could see a strange looking gull on the sand just across the channel. It was too dark above for a Herring Gull, but not dark enough for a Lesser Black-backed Gull, with rather odd-coloured fleshy yellowish legs, neither pink nor properly yellow. It is a hybrid, probably Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull, and returns here each winter. A Common Gull in with the Black-headed Gulls bathing further along the channel was a lot less confusing!

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid

Hybrid gull – probably Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull

The ducks in the wildfowl collection don’t count, but we had a quick look at some of the exotics. A Stock Dove looking for some spare duck food on the bank with the Jackdaws was a nice bonus.

As we walked out along the seawall, a female Stonechat was feeding out in the middle of one of the recently cut meadows. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling distantly over the reedbed out in the middle. A Kestrel perched on a post out on the saltmarsh was doing its best impression of a Merlin.

Several lines of Pink-footed Geese came up from the grazing marshes and headed off inland, calling. A small group of chattering Brent Geese flew around at the same time, before heading out over the bank past us, towards the saltmarsh. The sun was already starting to go down and shining between the clouds, giving us some lovely late afternoon light to illuminate the geese.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flying off from the grazing marshes

Looking out across the Glaven Channel from the corner of the seawall, a Short-eared Owl appeared above the shingle ridge beyond. It had probably just been flushed by a Marsh Harrier, as the two of them circled together for a second. We got the Short-eared Owl in the scope and could see it flying with a distinctive stiff-winged rowing action, before it dropped back down to the bushes on the edge of the shingle.

We turned our attention to the waders out on the mud in the harbour. There were lots of Dunlin scurrying about in big groups. Scattered in with them were several Grey Plover, Redshank and Curlew. Further over, we could see lots of Oystercatchers too.

A Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, flying low over the saltmarsh just beyond the mud. We could see the white square at the base of its tail. It worked its way quickly west past us, then turned in across the harbour and came over to work the saltmarsh to the west of us, presumably having a last hunt before heading in to roost. Further out, across the saltmarsh, we picked up a Merlin very distantly chasing after two Carrion Crows and getting chased in return.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – hunting over the harbour before heading off to roost

There was no sign of the Twite which often come in to drink at the pools on the edge of the grazing marsh path, so we walked a little further along the seawall, scanning to see if the Short-eared Owl might reappear. It was that time of day though, and we turned round to see a Barn Owl approaching instead across the Freshes. We thought it might stop to work the long grass in front of us, but it was clearly on a mission. It flew straight past us and instead started hunting the recently mown banks of the seawall, heading back towards the village.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – flew straight past us, heading for the recently mown seawall

The afternoon was getting on now and the Marsh Harriers were starting to gather ahead of roosting. One harrier was already perched on a bush out in the reeds, a rather dark one with a pale head. A darkish male flew in over the Freshes from the harbour to join it, as another greyer male flew past behind us, still working the sides of the Glaven channel, before turning back and gliding in too.

We couldn’t find any Twite feeding anywhere along the seawall, so we decided we would head back. Just as we were walking past the corner where they often come down to drink, the Twite suddenly flew in. Perfect timing! We counted seventeen of them, as they dropped in around the edge of their favourite puddle. It was just a quick drink though. We barely had time to get them in the scope before they were off again, flying out across the harbour.

A small flock of Golden Plover whirled round over the harbour and dropped down onto the saltmarsh, where they instantly disappeared into the vegetation, beautifully camouflaged. The halfway back to the village, we spotted the Barn Owl again, on a post visible through a gap in the reeds. It had just caught a vole and spent a minute or two playing around with it before swallowing it whole. It perched for a while digesting, before it was flushed by a dogwalker and flew off back across the grazing marshes.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – digesting a vole it had just caught and eaten

It was a lovely late afternoon out at Blakeney, but as the sun slipped down in the sky behind the horizon, the temperature started to drop, so we decided to call it a day.

16th Nov 2019 – Autumn to Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. It still had a distinctly autumnal feel this morning, misty and grey first thing. The cloud gradually lifted a bit and even though it remained cloudy, it was dry and mild.

As we made our way east along the coast road, we could see a couple of large skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in from the coast. They landed in a field by the road and through the hedge we could see thousands of them already packed in there. Unfortunately there was nowhere to pull in and we had someone else right behind us, so we couldn’t stop.

Our first destination for the morning was Blakeney. As we got out of the car by the harbour, it was rather misty further out across the saltmarsh. A lone Curlew was busy feeding down in the harbour channel. We stopped by the wildfowl collection briefly – amongst all the captive exotics there were lots of opportunists come to help themselves to all the seed put out, mostly Mallards and Black-headed Gulls.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding in the harbour channel at Blakeney

A gaggle of Brent Geese was feeding out on the saltmarsh in the middle of the harbour, so we got the scope on them for a closer look. There was a gathering of gulls next to them, again mainly Black-headed Gulls with one or two Common Gulls in amongst them. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were perched on the top of the masts of the yachts pulled up at the far end of the car park.

A slightly paler backed large gull was swimming down in the harbour channel. It was not pale enough for a Herring Gull, and too dark for a Lesser Black-backed Gull, with legs neither pink nor yellow, but a rather insipid fleshy colour. It is a regular here, and has been coming back for years, having found rich pickings on the seed in the wildfowl collection. It is a hybrid, probably Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull.

Looking out across the grazing marshes, we could see three Marsh Harriers circling in the mist, slow to get going this morning. One perched in the top of a bush so we could look at it in the scope. A Common Buzzard flew over, heading for the trees over by the village. Then out over the saltmarsh, we spotted a Merlin hunting, flying across low and fast. We got several flashes of it as it darted back and forth and then it eventually landed, perched on a dead branch out in the middle.

The pools below the bank held a few Teal and one or two Redshank. A Little Grebe was busy diving on the largest of them. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reeds and a couple of Reed Buntings flew up and across to the saltmarsh. A flock of Linnets was feeding out on the edge of the harbour, and whirled round from time to time.

A pipit flew in over the bank calling, and dropped down onto a small puddle in the cut grass on the edge of the Freshes. It was a Rock Pipit – come in from the salty side for a bathe. As it fed round the edge for a couple of minutes beforehand, we could see it was wearing a yellow colour ring and through the scope we could read the black letters. It is probably from Norway – the Rock Pipits which spend the winter out on the saltmarsh here are of the Scandinavian race, littoralis.

Rock Pipit

Rock Pipit – a colour-ringed bird, probably from Norway

Looking out into the harbour from the corner of the seawall, we could see lots of waders on the more open mud. Hundreds of small Dunlin were scurrying around busily, with a scattering of the larger Grey Plover standing or walking slowly around in amongst them. Two slightly larger and dumpier grey birds in with the Dunlin were two Knot. There were more Redshank and Curlew too. When something flushed lots of waders from further out in the harbour, a flock of Black-tailed Godwits circled round and we spotted three Common Snipe which came calling out of the mist.

This is a good site for Twite in the winter and there has been a group here for the last few days. As we stood scanning the harbour, they flew in and landed down by the path in the wet grass briefly. Unfortunately, just at that moment, two people decided to walk down the path and flushed them.

Thankfully the Twite didn’t fly far and landed again in the low vegetation a little further along. We walked over and got great views of them in the scope, sixteen of them in total (although they are very well camouflaged even in the low vegetation and not easy to count!). We could see their yellow bills and orangey breasts. Three Skylarks were picking around in the low vegetation too.

Twite

Twite – there were 16 at Blakeney today

On the walk back to the car, we found a pair of Stonechats feeding in the reeds just below the seawall. We stopped to watch them, fluttering up from the tops, flycatching, before landing back and flicking their tails.

Continuing on east along the coast, our next stop was at Sheringham. We wanted to try to see the King Eider which has been lingering offshore here for a couple of weeks now. It has been favouring the water off the west end of the prom, so we started our search there. There were several Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls on the groynes below the cliffs and a 1st winter Caspian Gull flew past, heading west towards a couple of crab boats which were hauling up their pots away to the west, surrounded by gulls.

Looking out to sea, we could see lots of Starlings coming in over the water, in small groups or larger flocks of 50 or so, birds arriving from the continent for the winter. They seemed to be streaming in constantly. Several groups of Starlings came in right towards us and over the cliffs where we were standing. There were a few thrushes in with them, Redwings and Fieldfares. One or two Blackbirds came in low over the sea too.

We picked up a Woodcock coming in next. It seemed to head straight into the face of the cliffs, but a couple of seconds later it circled over the top and came along the path straight towards us. At the last minute it saw us, just before it crashed into us, panicked and went to land on the path just a couple of metres away, then changed its mind and flew up over the bank and off across the golf course. There was a great variety of migrants arriving this afternoon – this Woodcock had possibly come in all the way from Russia for the winter.

There was no sign of the King Eider on the sea off the lifeboat station, so we walked a little further west along the cliffs until we had a better view beyond. We stopped to scan and could see a few Gannets circling out over the water. A small group of Red-throated Divers flew past. There were a few ducks moving offshore too – a flock of Wigeon, then a line of Common Scoter with several Teal following behind – more migrants arriving for the winter.

Finally we spotted the King Eider, but it was a long way back to the east of where we were now. We had a quick look through the scope, but it was rather distant. So we walked back towards the prom to try to get a closer look. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it had disappeared again. A crab boat had motored out to where it had just been.

There are normally one or two Purple Sandpipers which spend the winter here, so we decided to walk down along the prom to see if we could fine one, while keeping our eyes peeled for the King Eider. Half way along, we met a couple of other birders who had found the King Eider again, but it was now a lot further out. Apparently, it had moved offshore in response to the crab boat. It was also steadily drifting east. We had another look at it, but figured we might be able to get a better view from the east end.

We scanned the rocky sea defences as we made our way further. There were lots of Turnstones along the prom, perched on the wall, or feeding on chips thrown down onto the concrete for them. When we got to ‘the tank’, we looked over the railing and could see a Purple Sandpiper feeding with one of the Turnstones on the seaweed covered rocks below us.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the sea defences along the prom

Thankfully we had already enjoyed good views of the Purple Sandpiper, before something spooked all the birds along the prom – gulls, feral pigeons, waders, the lot. We couldn’t see any likely threat here, but the Turnstones flew off and took the Purple Sandpiper with them.

Finally, we got a good view of the King Eider from here. It is an immature male, still moulting out of eclipse plumage, but over the last couple of weeks it has been here it is gradually starting to look a bit brighter. We could see the bright orange frontal lobes at the base of the bill, between its regular dives to look for crabs.

King Eider

King Eider – the immature male was still off Sheringham

King Eider is a high arctic species, which is very rare this far south. They breed in arctic Russia and winter along the north Scandinavian coast. Presumably, once this bird completes its moult, it will make its way back north. But in the meantime, it seems to be finding plenty to eat here.

Back at the car, we stopped for lunch in one of the shelters on the top of the cliffs, overlooking the sea. Afterwards, we started to make our way back west.

When we got to Salthouse, we turned towards the beach. There were lots of Wigeon on the pools on the edge of the grazing marsh. We parked and walked up over the shingle until we could see the sea. A few Gannets drifted past offshore and one of the first birds we found on the sea was the Great Northern Diver which had been reported here earlier. We had a good look at it through the scope between dives – a big diver with a heavy bill and black half collar.

Great Northern Diver

Great Northern Diver – on the sea off Salthouse today

There were several Guillemots and Razorbills further out on the sea today, all busily diving too. A group of at least 18 Pied Wagtails were feeding further up the beach on the top of the shingle, fluttering about looking for insects on the stones.

As we made our way back to the car, we bumped into one of the locals who informed us that the Yellow-browed Warbler was showing well just the other side of Sarbury Hill. We found somewhere to park and walked along the footpath to where it had been. There were a couple of other people there watching it and after a minute or so it flew up into a sycamore in the hedge.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – in a hedge along the footpath between Salthouse & Cley

The Yellow-browed Warbler was hard to see at first, flitting around in the back of the tree and occasionally disappearing down into some thicker hawthorns next to it, but eventually everyone got a good look at it. This is rather late for a Yellow-browed Warbler – they are regular now between mid September and the end of October, but few linger this long. Hopefully it will still find enough food to fuel up before continuing on its journey.

We headed round to Cley beach next, in the hope we might catch up with a Short-eared Owl here. Half way along Beach Road, we stopped to talk to a couple of people up on the West Bank looking out over the marshes beyond. They had just seen a Short-eared Owl, but it had gone down into the vegetation out along the start of Blakeney Point.

We continued on to the car park, intending to have a look out to sea from here while keeping one eye out for the owl. As we got out of the car, a large flock of Golden Plover whirled over the Eye Field, breaking up into smaller groups and joining up again, before drifting away. Their yelping calls alerted us to several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in from the west. We watched as they whiffled down onto the grazing marshes. Through the scope, we could see a flock of Brent Geese, a couple of Canada Geese and all the Pinkfeet in one view.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – whiffling down to the grazing marshes

Turning our attention to the sea, a quick scan revealed three Velvet Scoters offshore. Through the scope, we could see the two white spots on their dark brown faces and the white in the wing forming a diagonal white stripe on their flanks. A female Common Scoter appeared with them and several Guillemots were offshore too.

With no sign of the Short-eared Owl reappearing, we decided to walk along the shingle to see if we could find the flock of Snow Buntings which had been along here earlier. We had just started walking away when we got a phone message to say the owl was up again and headed our way. We turned back, and had another scan which quickly revealed the Short-eared Owl perched on the top of a post, against the skyline.

One everyone had enjoyed a good look at the Short-eared Owl through the scope, it was off again hunting, flying with distinctive stiff wing beats. It disappeared round behind some gorse bushes and didn’t come out the other side so presumably had landed again. We could see several Marsh Harriers starting to gather over the marshes beyond, before going to roost.

It was getting dark fast now, not helped by the grey and overcast afternoon, but we decided to have a quick look for the Snow Buntings anyway. We got as far as the point where the vegetation is thickest on the top of the shingle, between the pill box and North Scrape, when we head a ‘crest calling and turned to see it fly right past us. It was either a Goldcrest or a Firecrest, though it sounded perhaps more like the latter, presumably fresh in off the sea. It circled round, but unfortunately we lost sight of it in the gloom as it dropped down into the vegetation. We had a quick look where it seemed to go down but there was no sign.

The light was clearly going now, so we decided to call it a day and head back to the car. With more birds arriving this evening, it will be interesting to see what tomorrow brings.

11th Oct 2018 – Four Autumn Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a four-day Autumn Tour today. After a damp and cloudy start, the skies cleared and it was bright, sunny and even quite warm. After heading out with coats and hats, we were desperately shedding layers by mid-morning! There was a rather blustery south wind all day, which meant some of the smaller birds were keeping down in cover though.

We started the day at Holkham. Parking at Lady Anne’s Drive, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling as we got out of the car and several small skeins came over up off the grazing marshes and flew off over our heads, heading out to feed from where they had probably roosted last night.

Pink-footed Geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – flying off from the grazing marshes early morning

At the top of Lady Anne’s Drive, we turned left on the path which runs west on the inland side of the pines. We hadn’t gone more than a couple of metres before we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling in the trees. It came into a large oak above our heads but was high up in the leafy branches and proved impossible to see in the early gloom and wind.

A second Yellow-browed Warbler called from the holm oaks the other side of the tracks. We could see movement in the dark leaves, but it moved through too quickly to get on and both birds went quiet. We decided to try again later, if need be, when it had brightened up a bit. A good start, with two calling Yellow-browed Warblers, anyway.

A little further along the path, we came across a flock of Long-tailed Tits feeding high in the tall poplars. We stopped for a minute to see if we could find anything else with them. There were some other tits, including a couple of Coal Tits, and we heard Goldcrest and Treecreeper calling, but they moved quickly up into the tops of the pines and disappeared deeper into the trees.

At Salts Hole, there were at least six Little Grebes around the pool, back for the winter. A lone Curlew was feeding in the field behind. There were lots of Jays out today, busy collecting and stashing acorns, and we saw three flying across the back of the pool, between the trees.

We stopped again at the gate just before Washington Hide, to scan the grazing marshes. The first thing we noticed was a Short-eared Owl, circling high above the grass, flying with its distinctive stiff-winged action. It seemed nervous, looking round, possibly fresh in over the sea from Scandinavia. It flew back towards the pines and disappeared over the trees.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – out over the grazing marshes, possibly a fresh arrival

A Cetti’s Warbler singing in the edge of the reedbed was good to hear, having lost most of our resident birds over the cold weather last winter. A Marsh Harrier was circling over the reedbed too, a dark chocolate brown young bird with green wing-tags, presumably tagged in the nest here. It was joined by a male and the two of them grappled talons briefly.

A Great White Egret flew in and seemed to land down on the pool, hidden in the reeds. From up on the boardwalk, we could see it perched on a post. It quickly dropped down and we watched it fishing in the shallow water from the comfort of Washington Hide. After a few minutes, it flew off round the back of the reeds.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – fishing on the pool in front of Washington Hide

There was quite a bit of raptor activity visible from here this morning, as well as more Marsh Harriers, we saw a couple of Common Buzzards, including a rather pale bird perched out in one of the bushes on the grazing marsh, a Kestrel hovering out over the grass, and a distant Sparrowhawk circling.

As we carried on west, we could hear lots of Song Thrushes ticking in the trees – there had obviously been a large arrival of them overnight. There were Chaffinches and Bramblings calling overhead too, also freshly arrived for the winter. We heard a couple more flocks of tits from the path, but they were very hard to see in the wind, even if it was now brightening up nicely. They seemed to be hiding up in the pines or in the denser holm oaks, rather than out in the deciduous trees by the path.

At the cross-tracks, we came across another flock and could hear several Chiffchaffs calling here too, with them. Another Yellow-browed Warbler called from just into the trees, so we walked in along the path, but by the time we got round to where it had been the tits had disappeared up into the pines again.

We decided to carry on through to the north side of the pines, where it would be more sheltered from the wind. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling, but we couldn’t see it from deep in the trees. As we emerged from the pines, we flushed several Song Thrushes which had been feeding down on the grass, rather grey-brown birds from the continent, duller than our resident Song Thrushes.

We heard yet another Yellow-browed Warbler calling, but this time it was out in the scattered pines in the open dunes, so we figured we had a chance of getting a look at this one. Thankfully it was quite vocal, presumably another fresh arrival, and we managed to track it down. Eventually almost all the group got a good look at it, as it flitted around among the branches. A second Yellow-browed Warbler was calling in the woods, from the denser pines beyond.

As we walked a short distance through the dunes, more Song Thrushes were coming in overhead in singles or small groups. A little flock of Bramblings flew in overhead, and we heard a small group of Crossbills glipping as they flew west over the pines, although we couldn’t see them above the trees from this angle. A couple of Stonechats were perched on the top of the brambles in the dunes.

Climbing up to the top of the dunes, we stopped to scan the sea. There were quite a few birds out in the bay today – several Red-throated Divers, a Great Crested Grebe, a Guillemot, and a raft of Common Scoter. A Sandwich Tern flew past offshore, presumably a lingering summer visitor, as did a few small lines of Brent Geese, just arriving back from Russia for the winter.

It was quite amazing to just stand here looking out over the sea and just watch the birds arriving in from the continent. In particular, we saw lots of Skylarks coming in, with several flocks flying up over the dunes past us and in over the pines and other groups continuing on west just offshore. A Red Kite circling out over the beach may have been on the move too, before coming in over the dunes past us.

It was windy again back on the south side of the pines, and harder to see the birds again. We did hear several Redwings calling in the trees, and eventually got good views of one perched in the top of a pine tree. Several Song Thrushes were feeding up on the berries in a hawthorn bush, after their long journey.

Continuing on out of the pines at the west end and into the dunes, we flushed lots more Song Thrushes from the bushes as we passed. A Blackcap was calling from the brambles but we didn’t see it. Up on the top of the dunes, we heard a Redstart calling in a hawthorn bush. As we walked round the back, it flew across and disappeared into a dense clump of privet. Two Grey Herons flew in high over the beach, more migrants just arriving for the winter.

Yet another Yellow-browed Warbler called and we turned to see a couple of people looking into a holly bush out in the dunes. The bird was remarkably hard to see, despite it being just a very small bush, but eventually it came out onto the more sheltered side to those members of the group who hadn’t seen the Yellow-browed Warbler earlier could finally get a good look at one.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – one taken a couple of days ago in the woods

These tiny warblers breed over in Russia, just west of the Urals, and should be migrating south east to winter in Asia. Instead some Yellow-browed Warblers head off west and arrive on our shores. They used to be very rare here, but in the last twenty years have become regular visitors at this time of year. Still, they are always a pleasure to see and to marvel at their remarkable migration.

It was already after midday and stomachs were starting to rumble, so we headed back towards the car. It was lovely and sunny now, and warm too if still rather breezy. There were lots of dragonflies along the path in the more sheltered spots, Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters. We saw several butterflies out too, Red Admirals on the brambles, a Speckled Wood and a Small Copper.

A Hobby was patrolling along the edge of pines, taking advantage of the updraft from the wind, probably looking for dragonflies. A couple of times it passed by over us, and we could see its swept back pointed wings and orange trousers.

Hobby

Hobby – patrolling along the edge of the pines

Surprise of the day was a Kingfisher which flew over our heads as we walked back along the path on the edge of the pines – not normally where you expect to see one, although they are often seen out on the marshes here. Almost back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we ran into another tit flock and this time got good views of a Treecreeper climbing up a tree trunk.

It was time for a late lunch when we finally got back to the car. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese still loafing around in the fields alongside Lady Anne’s Drive, while we ate. Afterwards, we set off to explore the coast east of Wells.

Pink-footed Geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – loafing in the fields by Lady Anne’s Drive over lunch

The wet fields east of Wells by the coastal path are full of wildfowl a the moment. We could predominantly see big numbers of Wigeon and Teal, the drakes still mostly in their dull eclipse plumage. In amongst them we found a single Pintail too. There are lots of geese here, but Greylags, Canadas and Egyptian Geese, although we saw plenty of Pink-footed Geese passing overhead calling.

There were a few waders in with all the wildfowl. We could see several Ruff feeding in the long grass around the pools, along with a small number of Lapwing, and three or four Black-tailed Godwits in the edge of the water, hiding in amongst all the Wigeon.

A large flock of Linnets and Greenfinches was feeding in the edge of the field nearby and further back we could see a couple of bright male Yellowhammers perched up in the bushes catching the sun. As we walked down along the track between the pools, we flushed several Reed Buntings from the wet grass. A pair of Stonechats flew along the fence line ahead of us, perching on the posts or on the bushes either side.

Stonechat

Stonechat – a pair flew along the path ahead of us

At the next pool we came too, we were looking into the sun and it was hard to keep the scopes steady in the wind. All we could find here today were Teal and Mallard, sheltering in the grass around the edges. There were lots of Little Egrets and Curlews out on the saltmarsh the other side and a couple of Redshank down in one of the muddy channels.

We decided to have a walk on along the coast path to finish the day. There were still more Song Thrushes and Chaffinches coming in, little flocks flying in over the saltmarsh and disappeared inland over the fields, or flying over our heads heading west along the coast. But there were few migrants in the bushes by the path this afternoon – as well as being windy, there were lots of people and dogs out for a walk and it was probably a bit too disturbed here.

As we walked, we stopped periodically to scan the saltmarshes. We could see several Marsh Harriers circling out in the distance, and eventually we were rewarded with a Hen Harrier too, a ringtail. We stopped and watched it as it quartered low over the marsh, flashing the white square at the base of its tail as it turned. A second Hen Harrier appeared briefly, away to the east in the distance, but didn’t come our way. After a while, the first dropped down into the vegetation.

We continued on as far as Garden Drove, but the trees at the north end were more exposed to the wind, and it was hard to see anything in here. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and saw them as they flew out of the trees and headed off inland along the hedgerow. There were a few other tits with them, but we couldn’t see anything else.

Unfortunately we didn’t have much time here, as we had to get back and a couple of members of the group had decided to stop on the path where we had seen the Hen Harrier rather than continue walking, so we didn’t want to leave them too long. The Hen Harrier was up again, quartering the marshes as we got back.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – a ringtail, quartering the saltmarshes

It was a nice way to end our first day out, watching the Hen Harrier out over the marshes. Let’s see what tomorrow brings…