Tag Archives: Slavonian Grebe

16th Nov 2019 – Autumn vs Winter, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Late Autumn / Early Winter Tour. It was a much nicer day today, dry with much lighter winds, and even some sunny moments in the afternoon. We spent the day on the coast between Holkham and Stiffkey.

With some new members of the group joining us this morning, we stopped again just on the outskirts of Wells first thing. There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard at first – the raptors were mostly sitting around this morning, and it felt a bit cooler than yesterday. A Red Kite was perched up in a tree by the old railway cutting and a Common Buzzard was down in the long grass on the edge of one of the fields. A Kestrel landed in the bushes just in front of us.

There were quite a few Golden Plovers and Lapwings in the wetter fields again, and periodically they flew up and circled round. A Great White Egret flew over from the direction of Wells Harbour and we watched it disappear off towards Holkham. A small flock of Greylags was feeding in the cover crop showing off their carrot-like bills, with a Muntjac just behind them. There were several Grey Partridges in the field too but they were very hard to see in the vegetation unless they moved.

Two Fieldfares appeared in the top of a tree by one of the houses on the edge of Wells, behind us. A Bullfinch called from the thick hedge in front of us, and then flew out and past us. A Great Spotted Woodpecker then did exactly the same. There were lots of finches in the bushes, Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, and a few Linnets out in the field.

As the temperature started to increase so the raptors started to become more active. The Red Kite took off and flashed its forked tail as it circled, and several Common Buzzards came up now. The Marsh Harriers started to hunt too – we watched a distant dark male, then a paler male flying in along the bank. When the Marsh Harrier dinked down at the bank, we figured there must something there but we couldn’t see it, hidden by bushes in front of us. We walked just into the edge of the field to look round the brambles and realised it was the Rough-legged Buzzard!

It was perched in a bush half way down the bank, and we had a good view of the Rough-legged Buzzard through the scope. We could see the way its pale head contrasted with its dark, blackish belly. Eventually it took off, and we could see its pale tail with black terminal band as it flew up and over the bank and disappeared.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched in a bush

We decided to move on, and drove round to Holkham, where we parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. After all the recent rain, there is a good amount of water now on the grazing marshes and there were lots of Wigeon and a couple of Shoveler around the edge of the pools. A small flock of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits was feeding on the edge of the water just beyond the fence.

Four Grey Partridges flew across and landed just behind a gate back along the road, but ran back out into the middle as people approached. Further up, another larger covey of Grey Partridges was out in the middle of the marshes, well camouflaged among the clods of earth where the channels have been excavated recently.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – there were a couple of coveys by Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked up towards the pines, there were a couple of Brent Geese and an Egyptian Goose out on the grazing marsh, and a Brown Hare too. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew in and circled over the marshes calling. A few Jays back and forth in and out of the trees.

As we walked west along the path on the inland side of the pines, the trees were rather quiet today. Presumably most of the tits were feeding up in the pines. There were several Little Grebes on Salts Hole, along with a couple of Coot and a few Wigeon. We wanted to try to see the Hume’s Warbler which had taken up residence in the trees just beyond the crosstracks and, knowing we might need a little bit of time to pin it down, we pressed on west without stopping in the hides.

There were a few people looking for the Hume’s Warbler when we got there. It had been seen earlier but had disappeared into the bushes. A Chiffchaff was flitting around where it had been seen. Then we heard it call briefly from the back of the sallows. A tit flock came out – Long-tailed Tits, Blue, Great and Coal Tits too. There were one or two Goldcrests in the bushes. We got a glimpse of something small and pale which flew across, but we couldn’t find it again.

We walked round to the back of the sallows and met another couple of people who told us they had just been watching the Hume’s Warbler in one of the oak trees but it had now disappeared through the sallows. Back round the other side again, it reappeared, flying up out of the sallows and back up into the oak briefly. We could see it flitting around in the leaves but only a few of the group got onto it before it disappeared deeper into the tree.

It was a frustrating few minutes. We walked round to the back of the oaks but the Hume’s Warbler had now disappeared again. There was a shout to say it had been found, but there were just a couple of Goldcrests.

Then we heard it calling further back behind us. We hurried back round to where we had started and sure enough it had just reappeared. The Hume’s Warbler was flitting around in the tops of some sallows, against the light. Then it flew across the path to some thicker bushes. It seemed to have disappeared again, but then appeared on some brambles growing up between the sallows. Finally, we got a good view of it.

Hume's Warbler

Hume’s Warbler – eventually showed well in the bushes at Holkham

Hume’s Warbler is a rare visitor here, mostly in late autumn. They breed in the mountains of Central Asia and winter mostly in India, so this one was well off track. It seemed to flick off to the right and into the sallows, but when we looked back there was still a Hume’s Warbler in the brambles. Could there be two? We assumed we were just mistaken, but it turned out later that the Hume’s Warbler had indeed been joined by a second bird.

We made our way back to the crosstracks and up to Joe Jordan Hide next. As we looked out across the marshes, we could see a Great White Egret half hidden in the rushes. When a second Great White Egret flew in and landed nearby, the first took off and flew straight at it, chasing it back off over the hedge before returning to its feeding spot.

Great White Egrets

Great White Egrets – one chased off the second when it flew in

Two Marsh Harriers were in the bushes along the line of the ditch just behind and several more were in the taller trees behind the old fort. A Red Kite was perched up in the tress too, and a second one drifted across in front of the hide.

It was time to head back for lunch. We stopped in the Lookout cafe for a hot drink, and after lunch we headed out through the pines. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and there were lots of people at Holkham now, but they were mostly heading straight out to the beach. We walked west along the edge of the saltmarsh, where a large flock of Linnets wheeled round and disappeared back down into the saltmarsh vegetation.

When we got to the cordoned-off area, the Shorelarks were down at the far end. We walked round for a closer look and got them in the scope. There were six of them again, feeding in the short vegetation, looking for seeds, occasionally stopping to preen. Smart birds, their bright yellow faces were shining in the sunshine.

Shorelark

Shorelark – six were on the saltmarsh at Holkham again

After enjoying the Shorelarks for a while, we continued on through the gap in the dunes, and stopped to scan the sea. There were lots of gulls on the beach – Black-headed, Common, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls. A few Sanderlings were running around on the sandbank in between them, and a few more were whirling round in a tight flock flashing white in the bright light.

There were a few Common Scoters out in the breakers, diving for shellfish. Much further out, we could see a load more, looking a bit like a big dark oil slick, possibly around a thousand birds. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers very close in, just off the beach, and a Great Crested Grebe nearby too.

Then a diver appeared – rather black and white, with a prominent white rear flank patch, it was a Black-throated Diver. It was very close in too, so we walked down teh beach to the edge of the water for a closer look. The Black-throated Diver had moved off to the left, back towards the sea, as we approached, but then came back up the channel and resurfaced right in front of us. Fantastic views, so close in – a real treat!

Black-throated Diver

Black-throated Diver – diving just off the beach at Holkham

There were two of three Slavonian Grebes further out. They are so small, they were hard to see. They kept diving and kept disappearing behind the waves, but eventually everyone got a look at them through the scope. There was a Red-throated Diver further out too, much paler than the Black-throated Diver, with a much whiter face.

As we walked back round via the cordon, the Shorelarks were still there, but with the sun having gone behind a cloud they weren’t shining as brightly now and didn’t attract as many admiring glances as they had done on the way out. Lots of Pink-footed Geese were flying in over the pines, calling. After a quick stop to use the facilities in the Lookout cafe, as we drove back up Lady Anne’s Drive, there were now quite a few Pinkfeet on the grazing marsh nearby.

Our last stop of the day was round at Stiffkey. After all the distractions at Holkham out on the beach, we were later than we had planned and the light had already started to go. We had already missed a couple of Hen Harriers flying in, but we were pointed out a very distant Merlin, which was little more than a dark dot out on a bush on the saltmarsh.

A Peregrine flew in off the beach over the saltmarsh away to the west and disappeared off inland. Then another Merlin flew across in front of us, a male this time, grey backed. It flew quickly, dropping down low over the ground, before landing on a bush away to our left.

A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in from the west, over the saltmarsh and out to the low dune ridge out in front of us, before disappearing away behind. A short while later, presumably the same bird came back in over the saltmarsh, off to the east of us, then flew across low over the vegetation in front of us. It was getting dark now, but we could see the white patch at the base of its tail.

As the light faded, more and more Little Egrets flew past, heading in to roost. It was time for us to call it a day too. It had been another exciting one, and we still had another day to look forward to tomorrow.

27th Feb 2019 – Has Spring Sprung?

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. A glorious sunny day, unseasonably warm with temperatures up to 16C by the afternoon. With lots of birds singing now, it felt like spring had sprung! But it is not set to last, so we had a good day out trying to make the most of it.

There have been lots of birds on the sea in NW Norfolk in the last few days – divers, grebes, seaduck – so we decided to start the day up there to try to see some of them. On our way west along the coast road, we stopped to admire a Barn Owl which was dozing on a post, warming itself in the early sunshine.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – enjoying the morning sun on a post by the road

The Barn Owl stared at us for a while, seemingly unhappy at being rudely awoken from its slumbers, then flew back across the field and landed on another post on the other side.

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was at Titchwell. As we walked down the path towards the Visitor Centre, a Chiffchaff was singing from somewhere deep in the sallows. They have started singing early this year, lulled into thinking spring is here already with all the recent warm weather. We could hear our first Mediterranean Gulls of the day flying over too.

The feeders had been taken down for refilling, so there were no birds coming in, but there was lots of chattering from high in the trees around the Visitor Centre. We heard a redpoll singing and looked up to find a Lesser Redpoll perched in the very top of one of the trees. There were quite a few redpolls here this morning and several Siskins too. They were very mobile, flying around in the trees. When a little group of redpolls came down into the bushes lower down, we picked up one or two Mealy Redpolls too.

There have been small numbers of finches on the move in the last week or so, birds starting to head back north after spending the winter further south. We would hear small numbers of Siskin in particular moving through the day.

Stopping to scan the Thornham grazing meadow, a distant Common Buzzard was down in the grass in the middle and another was even further off on a bush at the back. Looking down into the ditch below the path, a Water Rail was picking around in the leaves in the bottom. We stopped to watch it, and a second Water Rail ran across the path a bit further up, which we could then see down in the water in the bottom as we walked on.

Water Rail

Water Rail – one of two in the ditch this morning

A couple of Cetti’s Warblers were calling from the edges of the reedbed, but despite one being very close to the path typically it kept well hidden. A male Reed Bunting was more obliging, perched in one of the small bushes. Through the scope we could see that its black head was still partly obscured by brown fringing which it still gradually wearing of.

Several Marsh Harriers were up beyond the bank at the back, over Brancaster marsh. Then another Marsh Harrier appeared closer to us, up from the reedbed. It was a male and as it flew across we could see it was carrying a couple of pieces of reed in its talons. It dropped down again into the reeds, presumably busy building up a nesting platform.

The old pool on Thornham grazing marsh is now getting overgrown and hard to see anything, but a quick look across as we passed revealed a Redshank down on the pool at the front and a smaller birds picking round the edge nearby. It was a Water Pipit. We had a good look at it through the scope, before it worked its way further back into the vegetation and disappeared.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – a nice surprise on the old pool on Thornham GM

The Water Pipit in recent days has mostly been seen feeding on the cut reed by the reedbed pool on the other side of the path, but they can be very difficult to see out here. There was one out here too, this morning. But it wasn’t until the first Water Pipit flew over from the Thornham side that we could see it. It flew across and chased off the new arrival, which returned across the path. What was possibly a third Water Pipit then flew up from the back and disappeared back over the reeds.

Several Common Snipe were also well hidden, roosting in the cut reeds. There were a few ducks out at the back of the reedbed pool – Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks. A Little Grebe was hiding behind the reeds on one of the small pools just below the path. A few Wigeon were feeding out on the saltmarsh behind us.

The Water Level on the Freshmarsh is still very high, although it has started to go down a touch and there was a little more mud exposed around the tallest of the islands. The Avocets were still roosting in the deeper water, with a good number now back here. On the small island by the junction with the path to Parrinder Hide, we could just see a small group of Knot busy bathing and preening on the mud at the back. A lone Golden Plover was standing with the Lapwings on the drier mud in the middle.

Avocets

Avocets – more are back now, roosting out on the Freshmarsh

Some people returning from the beach told us there were a couple of Black-throated Divers offshore, so we decided to head straight out there. We had a quick look at the Volunteer Marsh on our way past. It looked pretty empty at first, apart from a few Redshanks, until a flock of Knot appeared from out of the vegetation and whirled round before flying back out towards the beach. There were more waders along the channel at the far end, more Redshanks, several Curlews, one or two Black-tailed Godwits and a little group of six Dunlin.

With the tide coming in, more waders were roosting on the non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’. The water level has dropped here a little in the warm weather and there is a bit more space for them on here at the moment. There were several more little groups of Knot, with a few Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plover standing with them. A few diminutive Dunlin were running round the mud next to them.

By the time we got out to the beach, the Black-throated Divers had drifted east towards Scolt and further out. It was also very hazy offshore, but we managed to get one of the divers in the scope and get a good look at it – we could see the distinctive white flank patch. Several Great Crested Grebes and a single Razorbill were closer in, but everything else was rather distant. There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye and three Eider flew past in the distance.

High tide was not until midday today, so we decided to make our way slowly back and head round to Holme to see if there was any more to see on the sea there. We called in at Parrinder Hide to admire the Mediterranean Gulls. Numbers are growing steadily now and it will be interesting to see how many pairs breed in 2019, after the big increase in pairs last year. We could see several pairs displaying in with the more numerous Black-headed Gulls on the fenced off Avocet Island, and we got a couple in the scope to look at the differences between the two species.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gulls – displaying on Avocet Island in with the Black-headed Gulls

There were a few ducks still on the Freshmarsh. A good number of Teal were sleeping along the edge of the bank either side of the hide. Several pairs of Gadwall were roosting on the smaller islands along with a few Shoveler.

As we came out of the hide, we could hear a Marsh Harrier calling high above. We could just see it way up in the blue sky. It was flapping steadily and calling at first, but as it got back over towards the reedbed it started to tumble and twist, skydancing. A couple of Common Buzzards appeared in the sky too, circling over the path before drifting off west, possibly birds on the move.

We cut across by Meadow Trail, where there was no sign of the Woodcock now, round to Patsy’s Reedbed. There were not so many ducks on here today – just a few Gadwall, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck. Several Common Snipe were hiding in the cut reeds along the edge. Two or three Marsh Harrier circled up over the reedbed, and one drifted closer over the back of the pool.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the back of Patsy’s Reedbed

The highlight here though was the Bearded Tit. We could hear two birds pinging, one in the reeds in front of the right of the viewpoint and a second back on the edge of the reeds on the left of the pool. That second Bearded Tit worked its way closer along the edge of the pool and then perched up for a few seconds in full view – a smart male with powder blue-grey head black moustache. It zipped across the open water and disappeared into the reeds where the first bird had been calling, at which point both then went quiet.

Back to the Visitor Centre and after stopping to get a quick cup of tea, we headed round to Holme. It was lunchtime now, so we walked out to the beach with our food and scanned the sea while we ate. A Red Kite circled over the pines and drifted out over the beach, perhaps another raptor on the move taking advantage of the warm weather.

There were more birds on the sea off The Firs, but it was very hazy here too. The highlight was a Red-necked Grebe, which at one point swam up to join a small group of Great Crested Grebes, giving us a great comparison. There were lots more Red-breasted Mergansers off here and several more Eiders too. We still hadn’t found the Long-tailed Ducks, so once we had finished eating we decided to walk up through the dunes to Gore Point to try our luck there.

Another Marsh Harrier was calling from high over the grazing marshes, and we looked across to see several geese out on the grass. They were mostly Greylags but there were a small number of Pink-footed Geese still here too, smaller, darker-headed and darker-billed. Most of the winter’s Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, but a few are still lingering along the coast. The Brent Geese stay here a little longer and there was a tight flock out on the grazing marshes and several smaller groups flying in and out from the beach.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flying past as we walked up to Gore Point

There were a lot more birds on the sea off Gore Point, and it didn’t take long to find the Long-tailed Ducks. They were diving regularly and hard to count, but eventually we got to a total of 21 together. The long tails of the drakes were hard to see when they were diving but when they stopped a couple of the drakes appeared to be displaying, swimming after a female with their tails cocked in the air.

There were even more Red-breasted Mergansers here – there seemed to be a very good number of them today, though they were too spread out to count easily. A distant Velvet Scoter appeared too briefly, but disappeared again when we took our eyes off it. A single Great Northern Diver was very distant, but a closer Slavonian Grebe then appeared. A Fulmar flew past low over the water. Non-avian interest included a Harbour Porpoise which rested at the surface for a few seconds before diving again.

Having walked up to Gore Point, we were a little later than planned leaving Holme which meant we could only enjoy a brief visit to Holkham on our way back east. There were lots of Wigeon still out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive as we parked, but not so many geese here now.

Out through the pines, we walked east on the edge of the saltmarsh. As we got closer to the cordon, we could see lots of pipits out in vegetation. A closer look revealed they were a mixture of Scandinavian Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits. It was interesting to compare the two side by side, and also to compare and contrast the Rock Pipits with the closely related Water Pipit which we had seen earlier. There were a few Skylarks here too and one or two were singing in the sunshine.

There were a few people watching the Shorelarks already. They were quite a long way back in the taller vegetation before the cordon again, and a couple of people couldn’t resist the temptation to walk out onto the saltmarsh to get closer. We stood on the path and admired them through the scope. It was lovely afternoon light now and their bright yellow faces glowed in the sunshine when they lifted their heads.

Shorelark 1

Shorelarks – still out on the saltmarsh

The best strategy with the Shorelarks is to wait and let them come to you, and we could see they were gradually working their way towards the path further along. We walked up and watched them, busily picking around and creeping through the vegetation. We carried on a little further to see if the Dartford Warbler was still around, despite the fact it has not been reported here for a week or two. There was no sign of it and no sign of the Stonechat which has previously helped to tempt it out of the dense buckthorn, so we didn’t linger here.

Shorelark 2

Shorelarks – great views when they worked their way closer to the path

When we returned to the Shorelarks, they were very close to the path now and walking very slowly we were able to position ourselves without disturbing them. It was a great view of them from here. We tried to count them – there were at least 10 in the closer group, but there were still some further back on the saltmarsh which were mostly hidden. We still had one last thing we wanted to try to do today, so we eventually had to tear ourselves away

Continuing on along the coast, we parked and made our way down a track towards the saltmarsh. A male Marsh Harrier was still out hunting and crossed the track ahead of us. A few Chaffinches and tits flew in and out of the hedges ahead of us. We could hear a couple of Yellowhammers singing and had nice views of one of the males perched in the top of the hedge, bright yellow in the evening sun.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – one of two males singing in the hedge

As we got down to the edge of the saltmarsh, a Barn Owl flew past across the grass in front of us. A nice start! A Peregrine was perched out on one of the sandbanks in the distance, but it was a long way off and little more than a blob in the misty haze even through the scope. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the back of the saltmarsh and a couple of late Common Buzzards circled over the edge of the field behind us calling.

Then a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, flying in across the back of the saltmarsh. It was a long way off, but through the scope we could see the white square at the base of its tail. Shortly after, a second ringtail flew in a bit closer. It landed down in the vegetation for a few minutes and when it flew up again it came across and flushed the first Hen Harrier from where it was hiding. We saw the two of them several times over the next 15 minutes or so.

We really wanted to see a Merlin here, but they were a bit elusive this evening. Eventually the one other person down here with us spotted one, right at the back of the saltmarsh, perched on the top of a small bush. It was a long way off, but we could see what it was through the scope.

That was a great way to end, so with the light starting to go now we walked back up the track. There were loads of Brown Hares out in the fields here now. We stopped to listen to a couple of Grey Partridge calling from the next field over, which were then accompanied by a Red-legged Partridge calling too. Then it was time to head for home.

20th Dec 2018 – Two Winter Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour in North Norfolk today. We were lucky with the weather today – dry with some bright spells and even some blue sky at times, albeit with a rather fresh southerly wind and cloudier in the afternoon.

Our first destination for the day was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, a pair of Egyptian Geese were out on the grass in one of the fields and we could see several Teal and a larger group of Wigeon around the edges of the pools.

As we got out of the car, we could hear lots of Pink-footed Geese calling. As it is full moon in a couple of days time, they had possibly been feeding inland overnight rather than roosting here and were therefore in no hurry to head out to the fields again this morning.

The Pink-footed Geese were rather jumpy this morning. Something disturbed them, although we couldn’t see what it was, and about 10,000 birds took off and filled the skies. It was an impressive sight, and sound. A small number flew off over our heads, but most settled straight back down on the grass. A little group landed much closer and we got them in the scope. We could see their pink-legs and feet in the short grass, glowing in the morning sunlight, as well as their small, dark bills with a narrow band of pink.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – there were thousands in the fields still this morning

A large white bird came up out of the reeds in the distance, in front of Washington Hide. A Great White Egret, it circled round but quickly dropped back down again behind the line of sallows. A very pale buzzard flew over, flashing a white base to the tail as it disappeared off towards the Park, but it was just the regular pale Common Buzzard which can usually be found hanging around here, rather than something rarer.

As we made our way up to the pines, a big flock of Lapwings flew up from the grazing marshes over towards Wells. There were lots Curlews out here too, on the fields beyond The Lookout café, although it is rather hard to see past the new building! Walking along the boardwalk through the trees, we flushed several Jays from the ground which flew up into the pines.

Out on the saltmarsh the other side, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding in the short vegetation. We stopped to look at them, all the regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese, here for the winter from their breeding grounds in Siberia. We could see a good number of stripy-backed juveniles in with the adults, suggesting it was a better breeding season in 2018 than it had been last year.

We walked east on the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. As the new cordoned off area came into view, we spotted a large flock of small birds whirling around out in the middle. They were Snow Buntings, we could see the white flashing in their wings as they turned, at least 60 of them. They landed back down on the open sand at the far end of the cordon, so we made our way over for a closer look.

When we got to the fence, we noticed some other birds moving about on the edge of the vegetation out in the middle, the Shorelarks, just what we were hoping to see here today. They were very well camouflaged, and hard to see until they moved, but through the scope we could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks. Smart birds!

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – there were at least 7 already out on the saltmarsh when we arrived

There were at least seven Shorelarks already here, possibly more hiding in the vegetation beyond. Scarce winter visitors here from Scandinavia, this is one of the best places in the country to see them.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, as usual, and the next thing we knew they flew back over and landed on the sandy path ahead of us. They were feeding along the edge of the dunes, on the tideline, presumably looking for seedheads washed up from the saltmarsh. It looked like they might come straight past us, but then they were off again.

Once we had finished admiring the Shorelarks, we set off towards the beach. The Snow Buntings had landed again on the sand at the far end of the cordon and seemed completely unfazed by us walking past. We could see a variety of different shades, some much paler, whiter birds, some browner – a diverse mixture of ages and sexes, as well as birds from both the Scandinavian and Icelandic races.

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting – just part of the big flock at Holkham at the moment

The tide was out, which meant there was quite a bit of beach between us and the sea. There were lots of gulls and Oystercatchers down by the sea, and several Cormorants drying their wings on the sandbar beyond. A large flock of Sanderlings whirled round on the shoreline off to the east.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Guillemots on the water, their white faces catching the light. A much larger bird was swimming just offshore beyond the sandbar, a Great Northern Diver. Similarly black above and white below, we could see its large dagger of a bill and black half collar.

There were a few ducks on the sea too, but they were a long way offshore today. We got a distant flock of Common Scoter in the scope, and could see the pale cheeks and dark caps of the females and young birds. One of the scoter flapped its wings and flashed a white panel, a Velvet Scoter, but it was impossible to pick out of the flock on the sea at that distance and unfortunately it didn’t repeat the wing-flap which singled it out from the others. A female Red-breasted Merganser much closer in was much easier to see.

There were several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too, black and white too but much longer-necked than the diver. Then we picked up two much smaller Slavonian Grebes just off the beach a long way off to the west around the bay. We had a look at them through the scope and thought about walking over to get a bit closer but it would probably have meant getting wet feet so thought better of it!

It had been a very productive couple of hours at Holkham, and we still had an hour before we had to pick up someone else in Wells. We decided to pop into the woods there for a quick look to see if we could find any redpolls – they are very mobile and consequently very hit and miss, so they would either be there or not!

The Brent Geese were starting to gather on the old Pitch & Putt course along Beach Road as we drove past. As we walked into the woods, a couple of Little Grebes were on the edge of the reeds on the boating lake, with some Tufted Ducks over towards the back.

It was very quiet at first, as we made our way through the trees, just the odd Robin or Wren calling, and one or two Blackbirds. As we approached the Dell though, we could hear Redpolls calling quietly, and we looked up into the birches ahead of us to see several of them feeding on catkins in the tops. They were against the light here and hard to see clearly, but the more we looked the more we could see. There appeared to be at least fifty of them in total.

We walked quietly underneath them and up onto the dune the other side, where the light was better. From here, we could see they were mostly Mealy Redpolls (the Scandinavian race of Common Redpoll), and we had a good view of several through the scope, including one male with a lovely pinky-red wash on its breast. A smaller, browner one with them was a Lesser Redpoll.

The Redpolls were mobile, moving through the trees, and it was impossible to get a good look at all of them from any one point. They were busily feeding on the catkins and we could see showers of chaff falling like snow from the birches. We couldn’t see any sign of an Arctic Redpoll from here though, so we moved round again to get a different angle and try some other trees.

It took a bit of searching, but eventually we found a much paler Redpoll in with the others. Through the scope, as it moved, we could see it had a plain white rump and thick undertail coverts with a single narrow dark streak. It was the Arctic Redpoll we had been looking for. More specifically, it was a Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, the race we get most often here, also from Scandinavia but from further north than the Mealies. We all managed to get a good look at it before it moved back into the tops. Then suddenly the flock erupted from the trees and flew off.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – we eventually found one in with the Mealy Redpolls

We still had enough time to walk a quick loop around the far side of the Dell, but we couldn’t find any sign of a tit flock in here today. Then it was back up to Wells to pick up the other member of the group. After a quick break for lunch in the pub in Stiffkey, we carried on east along the coast road to Cley.

We didn’t have enough time to explore the reserve at Cley today, but we wanted to have a quick look at the sea. A Common Buzzard was perched on a post by the Beach Road, and another large flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the Eye Field. From up on the shingle, it didn’t take long to find our target here – a Red-throated Diver. There were actually quite a few here, mostly a long way offshore, but we eventually got a decent view of one through the scope. There were several Guillemots offshore too.

As we made our way back along Beach Road, we looked across to see all the ducks flush off the reserve. A Marsh Harrier was flying over and had spooked them, surprisingly the first we had seen today. We headed round to Blakeney, and as we pulled up we noticed a male Stonechat on the brambles on the edge of the grazing marshes, right next to where we had parked.

Stonechat

Stonechat – feeding on the edge of the grazing marshes

We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl out here this afternoon, and as we stopped to look at the Stonechat, one flew across the grazing marsh right in front of us. A very good start! It headed off towards the seawall, so we walked round that way to see if we could find it again.

Despite the fact they don’t count, it is impossible not to admire some of the captive ducks and geese in the rather random wildfowl collection by Blakeney Harbour. The large gull on the platform here was also an oddity – with a darker mantle than a Herring Gull, but lighter than a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and odd pinky-yellow legs, it is a Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid. It is a regular here, coming back each winter, to take advantage of the food put out for the ducks.

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid – the regular bird at the duck bird

Out on the seawall, there was no further sign of the Barn Owl. A Curlew was feeding on the sand on the far side of the channel. Several Marsh Harriers were circling out over the reeds in the middle of the Freshes, gathering to roost, and a couple more were having a last patrol out over the saltmarsh. One Marsh Harrier landed in a bush, where we could get it in the scope.

Their high-pitched yelping calls announced a group of Pink-footed Geese coming up off the grazing marshes. We looked across to see several hundred more hiding out in the grass. As we walked out along the seawall, more and more of them took off and headed off inland.

Out over the saltmarsh, a flock of about twenty small birds flew up and circled round, their distinctive bouncy flight helping to identify them as Linnets. From the corner of the bank, we stopped to scan the open mud. There were lots of waders out here, a mixture of small Dunlin running around, larger Grey Plover and Redshank, and larger still Black-tailed Godwits and Curlew, all with different shaped bills and different feeding actions. There were lots of Shelduck too.

It was a great view as the sun set behind the clouds away to the south-west as we walked out, but with the shortest day tomorrow, the light started to go quickly now. We started to make our way back. As we looked across to the far side of the Freshes, we could see another Barn Owl hunting as it came up from behind the reeds. It was a long way off though.

We thought the Barn Owl might come round to our side, but it turned and went back the other way. As we stopped and watched it, we could hear Bearded Tits from the reeds nearby, although they typically kept themselves tucked well down out of the wind. It was time to call it a day, so we made our way back to the car. We had enjoyed a good day out today – let’s see what else tomorrow brings.

24th Nov 2018 – Out for a Lark (or Twenty)

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. It was a rather grey morning, with a moderate and rather blustery east wind, but dry and fairl. the wind dropped in the afternoon and the sun even came out for a time!

Our main target for the morning was to see a Shorelark, so we headed straight round to Holkham first. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, the grazing meadows either side seemed rather quiet today. There were no ducks around the pools and no Wigeon out on the grass. A pair of Greylags and an Egyptian Goose flew over, but there were not many Pink-footed Geese out here this morning. A lone Brent was feeding on the grass close to the Drive.

We decided to head straight out towards the beach. Just before we got to the pines, we stopped to scan the hedges either side and we could see several Blackbirds flying back and forth across one of the ditches, between the hawthorns which are still laden with berries. These are presumably migrants which have stopped here to refuel.

On the other side of the pines, we could see a lot more Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh. Most were regular Dark-bellied Brents but in with them was our old friend, the Black Brant hybrid, noticeably darker, with a slightly more contrasting white flank patch and more striking white collar. The fact that it returns here each winter shows just how site faithful all these Brent Geese are.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – the usual bird, out on the saltmarsh again

The saltmarsh was very wet this morning, as there had been a big spring tide overnight. There had been comparatively few reports of the Shorelarks in the last couple of days, perhaps as a consequence of the tides, and when we got to the area which has been cordoned off for them, we found lots of standing water and no larks! They were clearly going to take a bit more finding today.

We headed straight on to the beach, picking our way round the pools and puddles. The beach itself was also rather quiet, with fewer gulls than recently and a distinct lack of waders, despite the comparative lack of dog walkers out on the sand today. The Cormorants were standing out on the sand off Wells Harbour today. It was much windier than the last few days, which perhaps was the reason for the relative dearth of birds.

The sea was rather choppy out in the bay, but we did manage to find a few things out here. A line of Eider were riding the waves, and we found a group of Common Scoter further out. Several Red-throated Divers flew past, as did a few Gannets. A Guillemot just offshore was hard to see as it was diving constantly.

We were just wondering which way to go, when a large group of walkers appeared round the dunes from the Wells direction. They didn’t seem to be flushing anything ahead of them and we figured it was unlikely there would be any birds left on the beach that way. So we walked west instead.

There was nothing on the beach or along the edge of the dunes ahead of us. We kept stopping to scan and looking out to sea. We did find three Slavonian Grebes in a group just offshore, which was a very nice bonus. We decided to try along the edge of the saltmarsh, on the inland side of the dunes where it was more sheltered, and we flushed a large flock of Linnets which was slightly more promising. But there was still no sign of any Shorelarks.

When we got to the Gap, we started to walk back out onto the beach. We noticed some movement on the stones ahead of us, around the corner of dunes and looked across to see Shorelarks. Success! They were moving fast over the stones, or flying round in twos and threes, chasing each other. We got them in the scope and managed to see their distinctive yellow faces with black bandit masks before they took off and flew, heading away across the beach and over the dunes other side. We counted at least 20 Shorelarks again as they flew off.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we finally found them out on the beach

There was still a lot of water draining off the saltmarsh. We thought about crossing to the other side of the Gap but when we got half way over we found that we couldn’t all get across the channel flowing out across the beach without getting wet feet. So we turned to head back the way we had come, and as we did so the Shorelarks flew in again and landed back where they had been.

We stood and watched the Shorelarks again, feeding on the stones. There didn’t seem to be much food here for them, but presumably there were seedheads from the saltmarsh in the sand. They gradually worked their way along the beach away from us, so we decided to leave them to it and head back along the other side of the dunes.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, lots of Pink-footed Geese were now dropping in to the grazing marshes, so we stopped for a good look at them through the scope. It had taken a bit of time to find the Shorelarks today, but with our main target in the bag, we decided to explore the coast to the west, looking for waders and wildfowl, taking in the reserve at Titchwell. As we drove west along the coast road, we saw a couple of Red Kites hanging in the air over the fields.

There was still an hour or so before lunch, so we figured we would explore a couple of the harbours before going to Titchwell. At Brancaster Staithe, the tide was out and there were lots of Brent Geese bathing in the channel or loafing around on the sand beyond. A large group of Teal was asleep on the mud bank, and Wigeon were liberally scattered around the harbour.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding in the thick mud

There were a few waders, but still not so many as there are usually through the winter. A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were wading in the thick mud, there were several Redshanks further up the channel and three Oystercatchers were roosting by the water. A Curlew picking around on the mud dwarfed a Dunlin next to it. A Turnstone flew in and started feeding on the piles of discarded mussels.

Our luck was in when we got to Thornham Harbour. As we drove up along the road, a flock of small birds flew across in front of us and landed on the top of one of the wooden jetties. They were Twite, fourteen of them, and there looked to be three colour-ringed birds in with them too.

Twite 1

Twite – flew across in front of us as we drove in

We parked the car and got out very quietly, so as not to disturb them. We got the Twite in the scope from here, noting their orangey breasts and yellow bills. They dropped down one by one to the vegetation below, to feed, and we walked over very slowly for a closer look, to try to get the colour ring combinations.

Twite 2

Twite – feeding on the seedheads on the edge of the saltmarsh

We had a great look at some of the Twite as they fed, although it was hard to see all the rings with them down in the vegetation. Fortunately, two of them had already been reported and we had got enough information to identify the third. They were all ringed in Derbyshire, two of them in the spring and one back in 2016. The latter bird spent last winter here too.

It is great to be able to contribute sightings, as they are helping us to learn more about these birds, where they spend the winter and how they move. The Pennines breeding population of Twite has dropped sharply in recent years, and they are much more scarce here in winter than they used to be as a consequence.

There were not many waders here now, perhaps because it was just after low tide. There were several Redshanks in the various channels we checked. We walked up along the seawall as far as the corner and looked out across the harbour. There were plenty of Shelducks out on the saltmarsh, and we noticed a large flock of Brent Geese flying out over the shore line beyond the dunes. A flock of Linnets circled round overhead and a few dropped down to drink at the puddles on the bank.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed round to Titchwell. There were a few finches on the feeders, including one or two Greenfinches which are always good to see these days. A Coal Tit came in too. After lunch, we headed out to explore the reserve.

In the winter, it is often possible to see a Water Rail in the ditches by the path here. We scanned carefully as we walked along, and quickly found one just below the path. This is the first time we have seen it here this winter. We had a great look at it, as it fed in the water in the bottom, throwing leaves out of the way to see what it could find underneath.

Water Rail

Water Rail – back in the ditch by the main path

There were a few more birds on the reedbed pool today, so we stopped for a look. As well as several Mallard and Coot, we could see a pair of Gadwall and a single drake Common Pochard in the far corner. Looking across to the back of the reedbed, we could see a surprising number of Marsh Harriers in already. There are over 30 roosting here at the moment apparently, and we counted at least 12 and it was still early afternoon.

When we got to the Freshmarsh, we popped in to Island Hide. The water levels have not yet been raised for the winter, so there were still lots of waders on here. Large flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwings were standing around – separately – in the shallow water. There were several small parties of Dunlin working there way round the muddy edges of the islands and we found a single Ruff on the middle of one of them. Most of the Avocets have departed for the winter, but twelve are currently still trying to remain.

Golden Plover 1

Golden Plover – roosting on the Freshmarsh

There are lots of Teal still on the Freshmarsh, with several dabbling in the mud in front of the hide. The Wigeon are feeding mainly on the fenced off island, and there were a few Shelduck over the back. But there aren’t many other ducks on here at the moment. A lone Greylag was feeding right outside the window, and small groups of Brent Geese flew in from time to time.

With the light good at the moment, we decided to head straight out to the beach. With the tide out, there was not much on the Volunteer Marsh – a single Curlew feeding quite close to the path, and a few Redshanks along the channel.

Curlew

Curlew – pulling worms out of the mud on the Volunteer Marsh

With the big tides, the now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full with water. There were a few ducks roosting on the one remaining island. We could see a few Shoveler, which was new for the day, and we eventually found the drake Pintail fast asleep.

The tide was still out and all the waders were still on the beach. Possibly it was a bit less disturbed here today, because there were some big flocks of Knot out on the wet sand to the west. There were good numbers of Grey Plover in with them, and Bar-tailed Godwits closer to the sea beyond. We could see several Sanderlings running around on the shore too.

There had been some good birds on the sea today, so we scanned the water from the shelter of the concrete blocks. We found a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers, a drake Goldeneye and one or two Great Crested Grebes, but we couldn’t immediately see any sign of any divers, other grebes or the Long-tailed Ducks.

We walked down to the mussel beds, to get a better look at some of the waders. We got a nice little group of Knot in the scope, and then a Bar-tailed Godwit. The Knot were rather flighty and kept flying round.

Knot

Knot – there were good numbers on the beach today

It was exposed to the elements out on the open sand, so we walked back up the beach to the edge of the dunes to scan the sea again. We finally managed to find where the Long-tailed Ducks were, but they were a long way off to the west, half way to Thornham Point, and impossible to see with the light starting to go now. There was a diver and a couple of more interesting looking grebes even further off that way. We did discuss whether we wanted to walk up along the beach to try to see them, but it was getting late now. We decided to head back.

We called in at Parrinder Hide on our way. There were lots of gulls gathering to roost now, and in amongst the Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls, we found an adult Yellow-legged Gull. We hadn’t seen a Common Snipe today, so we scanned along the margins where the reeds have been cut this week, to no avail. Then one flew out of the vegetation on one of the islands and landed in with the Lapwings, before scurrying back in to cover.

The Golden Plover and Lapwings all spooked and whirled round over the Freshmarsh, silhouetted against the last of the light. We couldn’t see what caused it, possibly just a Marsh Harrier drifting over, but they settled down again quite quickly.

Golden Plover 2

Golden Plover – silhouetted against the last of the light

As we walked back along the main path, we looked across to the back of the Freshmarsh to see a small falcon flying fast and low along the bank, a Merlin. It cut the corner over the Freshmarsh and dropped over the top of the bank towards the Volunteer Marsh. We stopped by the reedbed to watch the Marsh Harriers and Little Egrets gathering over the back. More were still arriving, flying in from the west over the path as we made our way towards the trees. Unfortunately, it was time for us to head for home too.

2nd Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a glorious sunny day today, with blue sky and with winds falling light. A great day to be out.

As we made our way west along the coast road, we stopped briefly just outside Burnham Overy Staithe to admire a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field by the road. We could see their dark heads and small, mostly dark bills.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding in the stubble as we drove past this morning

Our first destination for the morning was Holme. As we got out of the car, a large flock of Starlings flew low over us, heading west. It was to be a feature of the morning, with a constant stream of Starlings moving, many passing low over the  beach. These are birds arriving from the continent for the winter, coasting here before turning inland.

There were small numbers of Chaffinches moving too first thing, and three Jackdaws west over the beach looked like they might be migrants too. A Skylark was singing, but others looked like they might be fresh arrivals, also on the move. As we walked across the golf course, a Sparrowhawk flew low over the fairway and into the dunes, presumably hoping to find some tired migrants in the bushes.

When we got over to the saltmarsh, we could see several people with binoculars and telescopes walking through the vegetation. They flushed several small groups of birds as they went – mainly Skylarks and Linnets. But as one flock came up, we heard a Shorelark call and it seemed to drop over the dunes towards beach with all the other birds.

We walked over the dunes but all we could see were a couple of Skylarks down on the high tideline. We couldn’t see where everything else had gone.

We stopped to scan the beach, looking through the waders dotted about on the sand. There were lots of Oystercatchers and Redshank, several Turnstones, silvery white Sanderling running up and down in front of the waves and a single Knot. All along the shoreline, Cormorants were standing, drying their wings in the morning sunshine.

There were lots of dog walkers out now, particularly on the beach towards Old Hunstanton. As the dogs raced around on the sand, they flushed all the birds down that end, which flew up past us. As well as lots of Oystercatchers and Brent Geese shining in the morning light as they passed by, we could see a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits with them too.

There didn’t seem to be much on the sea, looking out from here. A lone Red-breasted Merganser flew past. As we stood and watched, we started to notice flocks of Teal coming in low over the waves, 20-50 at a time. They poured past all the time we were watching, hundreds by the time we left, all birds arriving here from the continent for the winter. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese came in off the sea too – we watched one flock all the way in from out towards the wind farms. Real migration in action

Then we noticed a large, dark bird coming along the beach straight towards us. It was a juvenile Pomarine Skua, presumably blown inshore by last week’s storms and now scavenging along the shoreline here.

There was no sign of any Shorelarks out on the beach here, so we started to walk back the other way. As we did so, a Shorelark flew over calling and we watched it drop down over the far side of saltmarsh, on the edge of the dunes. Unfortunately, by the time we got round there, we found two people walking along the tideline, and there was no sign of it. We turned back to continue east and we hadn’t gone more than a few metres when the Shorelark flew past again.

This time it dropped down on an open area of saltmarsh, and we could see where it landed. We walked over and had a good look at the Shorelark through the scope out in the open, before it ran across and disappeared into the vegetation. We made our way round to the other side, to see if we could find it again, and it ran out of the saltmarsh right in front of us. It was just a few metres away and we had a great view of it through our binoculars. We could see its bright yellow face catching the sun as it turned, with a black bandit mask.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we could only find one on the beach today

Eventually the Shorelark ran back into the vegetation. There has been a flock of over ten here in recent days, so this one was probably looking for the rest of them. We decided to walk up a little further along the beach, to see if we could find the flock and to have a look at the sea up towards Gore Point.

We didn’t quite get that far, but we stopped to scan the sea from the beach. There were lots of Great Crested Grebes offshore, their white winter faces and necks shining in the morning light as they crested the waves. There were three grebes together not far offshore, diving and drifting with the tide. One looked much smaller than the others and through the scope we could see it was a Slavonian Grebe with two Great Crested Grebes.

Otherwise, all we could see off here today was a young Gannet diving offshore, way off in the distance. We decided not to continue along the beach, so we turned and headed back to the car. As we got there, we heard Fieldfares chacking, and looked up to see a large flock flying over. They were quite spread out, but they continued to pass overhead for several seconds. A couple of Redwings flew over with them, teezing.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare – a large flock flew over as we got back to the car

Our next stop was at Thornham Harbour. All we could find in the channel by the road was a single Common Redshank, perhaps because there were several people walking around here now, out enjoying the lovely morning. There were a couple more Redshank by the sluice and further out along the edge of the harbour, two Greenshank were roosting on the muddy bank. They really stood out, their much whiter underparts glowing in the sunshine.

Up on the seawall, we made our way along to the corner where we stood for a while and scanned. A large flock of Curlew flew past with a single Bar-tailed Godwit in with them. They circled round and landed down on the saltmarsh out in the middle, joining an even larger group which was already roosting there, well camouflaged in the vegetation. There were two Grey Plover feeding down on the muddy island in the harbour channel and they were joined by a couple more Bar-tailed Godwits which gave us a chance to get a good look at them in the scope. Further out, a couple of Ringed Plover were roosting on the edge of the channel.

Looking out to the middle of the harbour, we could see lots of gulls roosting, mainly Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. Around the edges of the channels, we could see lots of Brent Geese, lots of Wigeon and a few Shelducks. A Little Egret flew in, flashing its yellow feet, and landed in the mud just below the bank.

Little Egret

Little Egret – flew in and landed in the muddy channel next to us

Several Linnets flew back and forth across the saltmarsh, in small groups. But when another four small finches flew past, their distinctive call immediately attracted our attention. They were Twite, once a common wintering bird along the coast here, but now mainly restricted to a handful of sites of which this is the best.

The Twite flew past us and out over the saltmarsh, getting almost to Holme before they circled back round and flew in past us again. They had picked up a few friends, as there were eight of them now. They wouldn’t settle though, and they circled round and back out towards Holme again. When they came round past us for a third time, this time they headed for their favourite tree in the field nearby and landed. They were silhouetted against the sun though, so it wasn’t a great view.

The Twite showed no sign of moving, so we turned our attention back to the harbour. Eventually, they took off again and we heard them calling as they flew in behind us. This time, two of them dropped down to the puddles on the seawall to drink. We had a quick look at them through the scope – their yellow bills catching the sun – before they flew off again and disappeared out over the saltmarsh.

As we made our way back, a small flock of Linnets flew in and landed on some seedheads on the edge of the saltmarsh below the path. Through the scope, we could see they were duller and darker, with grey bills. Tide coming in fast now.

Our final destination for the day was Titchwell. It was time for lunch when we arrived, and we ate watching the finches and tits on the feeders by the Visitor Centre. After lunch, we made a quick trip back to the car park to get the scope, where a Chiffchaff was calling in the sallows by the path.

Walking out along the main path, we couldn’t see anything of note on the former pool on the Thornham grazing marsh, which is now getting very overgrown. A Cetti’s Warbler was calling in the reeds, but there was nothing at all on the reedbed pool. A couple of Coot were feeding in one of the reedbed channels.

Avocets

Avocet – there were still seven on the Freshmarsh today

The Freshmarsh looked rather quiet today, when we arrived. The reeds in front of Parrinder Hide looked freshly cut, so we suspected the wardens had been clearing vegetation on here and had probably scared a lot of birds off. There were still a few waders on here, most notably seven lingering Avocets and a small flock of Bar-tailed Godwits which had presumably flown in to roost from the beach on the rising tide. A single Dunlin was feeding in front of Parrinder Hide.

While we were watching, a few Ruff flew in and landed down onto the mud, winter adults with pale scalloped upperparts. Several groups of Golden Plovers dropped in too, but they were rather nervous and wouldn’t settle, flying up again and whirling round in the sunshine, flashing alternately golden brown and white. Great to watch!

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – a large flock whirled round over the Freshmarsh

Small groups of Brent Geese commuted in and out from the saltmarsh too. There are plenty of ducks here now, as birds have returned for the winter – Teal, Shoveler and Wigeon. The drakes are now moulting out of eclipse plumage and back into their breeding finery, slowly getting back to their best. A single Greylag and one of the two injured Pink-footed Geese, which have spent the whole year here, were feeding on one of the closer islands. There were two Egyptian Geese here too.

We had already seen one Red Kite, very distantly hanging in the air over the fields inland. Then when everything flushed from the Freshmarsh, we looked up to see a Red Kite drifting over. It made a beeline directly out towards the beach, and was swiftly followed by a second Red Kite which followed it.

Red Kite

Red Kite – one of two which passed over the Freshmarsh this afternoon

It was nice in the sunshine up on the West Bank path today, so we didn’t feel any rush to go into the hides. With the weather so calm and the light so good, we decided to head straight up to the beach. The tide was in when we got to the Volunteer Marsh, but a nice close Common Redshank was feeding along the muddy edge just below us.

Common Redshank

Common Redshank – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh on the way out

All the waders were roosting on the one remaining island on the no-longer ‘tidal’ pools today, which was why they were not on the Freshmarsh. There were lots of Oystercatchers, Grey Plover and Dunlin. Several much paler birds really stood out and through the scope, we could see they were four Spotted Redshanks and three Greenshank. We had a good look at the Spotted Redshanks, noting their longer, needle-fine bills and white stripe over the lores.

Carrying on to the beach, the sea was in and covering all the mussel beds. The Turnstones had taken to roosting on the concrete blocks of the old bunker and looking more closely we could see there was a single Purple Sandpiper hiding in with them. We walked down the beach and got it in the scope for a closer look.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – on the concrete blocks out on the beach

The Purple Sandpiper dropped down to feed on the beach with the Turnstones, picking around in the pile of razorshells left behind by last week’s storms. There were several Sanderling running around on the sand too, in and out of the waves like clockwork toys, and a larger group trying to roost on the beach further down. A couple of Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding along the edge of the water.

Looking out to sea, we could still see lots of Great Crested Grebes, but with the sea much calmer than this morning they were all now very distant. Three Razorbills in a small group were diving offshore, not easy to see despite the gentle swell, and three Common Eider flew east offshore. There were still more small skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in off the sea – we could hear their high-pitched yelping calls as they flew in over the beach.

As we walked back along the main path, we stopped to admire one of the Spotted Redshanks which had now moved to the Volunteer Marsh. It was feeding with a Common Redshank in the channel just below the bank, very close to the path, giving us a great, close-up, side-by-side comparison. We could even see the small downward kink in the tip of the Spotted Redshank‘s bill through our binoculars – it was too close for a scope!

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – showing very well on the way back

A Little Egret was fishing here too. As the tide was going out, small fish and invertebrates were trapped in the pools or trying to escape over the small weirs created by the mud, providing easy prey for the birds. We watched the Spotted Redshank catch a large shrimp. It seemed to play with it for several minutes, dropping it back in the water, picking it up and turning it in its bill, then dropping it again. We thought it might lose it at one point but eventually it seemed to have enough and with a bit of effort, managed to swallow it.

Lots of other waders had gathered in the wider channel which runs back away from the path too. We stopped to admire a Bar-tailed Godwit on the mud, and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the deeper channel nearby. A Grey Plover was positively glowing in the last of the afternoon’s light, and there were plenty of Redshank and a few Curlew here now too. A couple of smart drake Teal swam past.

Suddenly a large dark shape came hurtling towards us low over the Volunteer Marsh. It turned at the last minute and crash-landed on the path beside us, just a couple of metres away. It was a Woodcock, presumably a fresh arrival in off the sea from the continent. It took a couple of seconds to get its bearings, saw us, and then flew off quickly over the bank.

Back at the Freshmarsh, the gulls were starting to gather to roost. We stopped to look through them. They were mainly Black-headed Gulls, with an increasing number of larger ones, mainly Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. One caught our eye – slightly darker than the Herring Gulls but not as dark as a Lesser Black-backed Gull. It was chunky too, with a heavy bill, and a rather white head with limited and fine dark streaking around the eye. It was an adult Yellow-legged Gull, but unfortunately it waded into the deeper water and hid its yellow legs from view.

The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost too now. We could see three or four over the back of the reedbed or over the trees beyond. The light was starting to go, so we made our way back to the car. As we got back to the car park a flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the trees and we managed to pick out a Blackcap feeding in the sycamore with them just as we packed up to go.

12-16th Apr 2017 – Easter in Scotland

Not a tour, but we spent three days in Scotland catching up on some of the local specialities over Easter, with another day either side journeying up and back from Norfolk. As I haven’t been up to Speyside for a few years, it seemed about time for a return visit.

Arriving early for our overnight stop on the way north, we decided to have a quick look up on the moors. We were quickly rewarded with good views of at least 10 male Black Grouse. They were not doing much this evening, but we had high hopes for more activity the following day! Heading on higher up, we found our first Red Grouse of the trip too, though they too were keeping their heads down from the blustery wind.

It was an early start the following morning, to get up onto the moor for dawn. As we drove over the ridge and looked down into the valley below, we could see a scattering of black dots in the grass – 19 displaying male Black Grouse on the lek. They are far enough away here so as not to disturb them, so we got out of the car and could immediately hear their bubbling calls. We got them in the scope and watched them running round, flapping their wings and leaping in the air, with their body feathers puffed out, tail fanned and white undertail feathers fluffed up. It was quite a sight! There were a smaller number of grey-brown females there too, looking slightly non-plussed by all the action around them.

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6O0A5073Black Grouse – great to watch them displaying on the lek

A little further along, we managed to find a single male Black Grouse closer to the road, so we could get some photos. The Red Grouse up on the tops were now calling and displaying. There were also displaying Common Snipe in the valley and several Curlew and Golden Plover on the moors. It had certainly been well worth the stop here. Then it was on with the journey up to the Highlands.

One of our main targets for our stay here was Ptarmigan. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for our stay was not ideal – windy with blustery showers. Not great for hiking up to the Cairngorm plateau. The best day appeared to be on our first full morning there, but it didn’t look good first thing with snow overnight on the tops and low cloud lingering. Thankfully, after breakfast, the cloud base lifted and we could see a short window of opportunity.

We had hoped we might find a Ptarmigan on the slopes below the fresh snow this morning, but it didn’t help that there were lots of people walking up despite the weather today, it being Easter weekend. We got up to a plateau above 1000m where it was safer to stray from the path and a bit of exploration was quickly rewarded with a Ptarmigan running away from us over the snow. We followed it slowly and were eventually able to get quite close to it. A smart bird!

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6O0A5511Ptarmigan – on the Cairngorm plateau above 1000m

The view was impressive up here too, with all the snow on the mountains. However, we could see some darker cloud approaching, so we decided to call it a day and head back down. We were glad we did, as it started to spit with rain for a time and the tops disappeared again into the cloud.

Scotland April 2017 Cairngorms ascent_4Cairngorm Plateau – still with plenty of snow

On our ascent, we had seen a few Red Grouse, but on the way back down we were able to appreciate just how many of them there were on the moors here, and watch them displaying.

6O0A5354Red Grouse – plentiful on the moors lower down

Back down near the car park, a Ring Ouzel flew up from the shorter grass below the ski lifts.

6O0A5570Ring Ouzel – this smart male was feeding around the ski lifts

Crested Tit is one of the other key target species for any visit to the Highlands and we were not disappointed. They can be harder to see in the summer months, and familiarity with their distinctive call certainly helps in locating them. We heard quite a few Crested Tits, when we were in the Caledonian Forest, and got great views of two pairs. The second pair, we watched collecting nest material and the male courtship feeding the female. They are certainly full of character!

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6O0A5922Crested Tits – great birds to watch, we found this pair collecting nest material

As well as the Ospreys at the RSPB’s Loch Garten reserve, we saw several elsewhere. The best moment was probably one flying past the window of our B&B while we were eating our breakfast one morning!

6O0A6028Osprey – a female, calling from the nest, while the male was presumably off fishing

With just a couple of days to play with in the Highlands, and the best morning reserved for the hike up into the Cairngorms, we were always likely to be at the mercy of the weather with our other targets. On our second morning, despite cloud and showers, we headed up to the Findhorn Valley to look for eagles. As we drove up, we could see dark clouds over the head of the valley and when we got there the wind was whistling in and regular sleet showers were blowing through. Not ideal!

We sat in the car for an hour, scanning the hills, but a brief brighter interval produced just a couple of Common Buzzards. Two Wheatears were feeding on the grass in front of the car park and a pair of Common Gulls were hanging around there too. It seemed unlikely there would be any eagles this morning, so we decided to move on.

As we headed down the valley, it brightened up a little lower down. We made our way up over the hills and down the other side to the RSPB reserve at Loch Ruthven. Between the showers, we walked along to the hide. We could see three Slavonian Grebes out on the water, but they were all rather distant while we were there. There are still a lot more to return here yet. A summer plumage Red-throated Diver was fishing on the loch too, along with a few ducks – Goldeneye, Wigeon, Teal and Mallard.

6O0A5850Slavonian Grebe – one of three out on the loch today

With the weather improving a little, and after lunch back at the car park, we decided to have another go at the Findhorn Valley. As we arrived, the head of the valley was still in cloud and another wintry shower blew through. But we could see some blue cloud coming in from behind us and we hadn’t been back five minutes when a 1st winter Golden Eagle appeared over the ridge at the back of the car park. Unfortunately it didn’t hang around and we just got a quick look at it as it disappeared back over the top. A short while later, the Golden Eagle reappeared much further down and we watched as it flew across the valley being mobbed by a Raven. A Peregrine was flying around the hill behind us too.

It seemed unlikely we would better that today and with the day getting on, we headed back down the valley. We took a different route back and stopped off by another loch on the way. It was very windy and  the wind was whipping up the water so it was quite choppy. Scanning with the scope in the lee of the car we were able to locate a single Black-throated Diver, a stunning bird in full summer plumage.

There were various other birds which we caught up with on our travels around Speyside. We heard lots of crossbills, but they were rather flighty and often hard to see. We had nice views of Common Crossbill in the forest and of a family which came down to the small deciduous trees alongside the river in Carrbridge, presumably to drink. There were more crossbills in Abernethy Forest, and we heard both Common and Scottish/Parrot Crossbill flight calls from birds passing overhead. Some larger billed birds resembling Scottish Crossbill were feeding in the trees around the car park at Forest Lodge on a couple of occasions but did not hang around long enough for us to get a prolonged look at them.

6O0A5621Common Crossbill – along the river at Carrbridge

Exploring along various rivers produced a few additional species too, including Goosander, Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail. However, the pick of the bunch was Dipper – it was great to watch them feeding in the shallows, dipping under the water.

6O0A5830Chestnut-bellied Dipper – the native British subspecies of Dipper

Mammalian interest on this trip was provided chiefly by the Red Squirrels which we saw at several sites. Two Mountain Hares were seen at the top of the Findhorn Valley. We also saw the herd of (re)introduced Reindeer in the Cairngorms and a few Bank Voles running around under the feeders at Loch Garten.

6O0A5599Red Squirrel – thankfully not uncommon around the forest here

After that, unfortunately our short visit to Scotland had to end and we started to make our way south…

27th Feb 2017 – Seaducks, Divers & Grebes

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. The request was particularly to look for seaducks, divers and grebes, but there would be time for other birds too. It was cloudy but bright in the morning, but heavy showers were forecast for the afternoon. As it was the weather gods were smiling on us – we sat out one brief shower in the hide at Titchwell and didn’t see another until we were back in the car at the end of the day.

With the target to see some birds on the sea, we started the day at Thornham Harbour with a walk out towards Holme Dunes. As we parked the car, a lone Brent Goose was feeding on the saltmarsh by the road close by. It looked up briefly, but seemed disinterested in our presence.

6o0a8198Brent Goose – feeding in the harbour at Thornham

The tide was just going out and the tidal channel was still full of water. From up on the seawall, we could see a few waders on the areas of open mud – Curlew, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as several Redshank. The Twite have been rather elusive here this winter, tending to come and go, so it was no surprise that two small birds feeding down on the edge of the saltmarsh were a pair of Linnet.

6o0a8206Curlew – several were feeding on the mud in the harbour

Looking out across the harbour towards the sea, we could see a few ducks diving in the deeper part of the channel in the distance. Through the scope, we could see there were several Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of female Goldeneye. A Great Crested Grebe was just offshore beyond.

As we walked along the seawall, there were Skylarks singing over the grazing meadows behind us. A couple of Reed Buntings flew out from one of the bushes below the bank, as did a Wren. When two more small birds flitted across the saltmarsh below us, we expected those to be Linnets again, but a quick look revealed they were Twite. Through the scope, we could see their yellow bills and orange-washed breasts. They fed for a time in the vegetation on the edge of the mud, before eventually disappearing off back into the saltmarsh.

img_0953Twite – we found a pair on the saltmarsh on our walk out

Six geese flying in from the east over the harbour were Pink-footed Geese. We heard them calling and watched as they dropped down towards the grazing marshes to the west. Looking across, we could see a large flock of geese already down on the grass. Through the scope, we could see that the vast majority were Pink-footed Geese too. But then a head came up with a distinctive white surround to the base of the bill – two White-fronted Geese were hiding in with the Pinkfeet.

A shrill call high overhead alerted us to a displaying Marsh Harrier, a male, flying up and down with exaggerated, flappy wingbeats. Two more Marsh Harriers, females, flew in over the saltmarsh and, behind us, another two circled up over the grazing marshes. The bright conditions were obviously encouraging a burst of Marsh Harrier display activity this morning.

6o0a8240Marsh Harrier – this male was displaying overhead

A quick look out across Broadwater from the edge of the dunes added Tufted Duck and Common Pochard to the day’s list. A few Mallard and a pair of Shoveler were lurking in the reeds. A few Greylag Geese and a big flock of Curlew were in the fields beyond.

From the top of the dunes, we set ourselves up to scan the sea. Almost the first bird we set eyes on was a Great Northern Diver. It was not far offshore, but diving regularly and drifting east. It was clearly big and we got it in the scope and could see the contrast between the blackish upperparts and white throat and breast, with a black half collar.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water. Five large, heavy ducks flying in from the east were Eider – three all dark females and two 1st winter drakes, with contrasting white breasts. They landed on the sea further out where we could see them distantly. A little later, we looked back and found two smart drake Eider in the same area. There were a couple of Common Scoter out here too today, a blackish drake and a pale-cheeked female.

The Long-tailed Ducks have become more elusive in recent days. It is possible they have already started to move back north, although they may just have moved further offshore. Fortunately a few obliged us by flying in this morning. First, we picked up a lone Long-tailed Duck flying in from way out to sea, but it turned east and eventually landed some way away, off Thornham Point. We could just make it out through the scope. Then a pair flew in and landed out beyond the Red-breasted Mergansers. They were still distant, but we could see there was a smart male and browner female. The fourth Long-tailed Duck, a female, was even more obliging, and landed with the mergansers where we could get a much better view of it. To round out the total, a fifth flew past a little later.

While we were looking through the ducks, we picked up a Slavonian Grebe on the sea. It was clearly small, next to the Red-breasted Mergansers. It had a flat crown, white cheeks and a neatly defined black cap. Red-throated Diver is the most regular diver species here and we found one or two out on the sea. Black-throated Diver is the rarest so it was a bonus to find one just as we were about to call it a day. We were alerted to it by a flash of its white flank patch as it dived. It was rather distant, but when it surfaced again we could also see its very contrasting black and white colouration, and sleeker, slimmer structure compared to the Great Northern Diver we had seen earlier.

After such a fantastically productive morning here, we decided to head back to the car. Three species of diver and an excellent selection of seaduck was a great return for our efforts. A Little Grebe on Broadwater on the way back made it three species of grebe for the site today too!

As we walked back along the seawall, we could hear Twite calling. We assumed it would just be the pair we had seen earlier, but a flock of around 25 Twite flew up from the saltmarsh and across the path in front of us. A couple of males flashed bright pink rumps as they flew past. They dropped down by a pool on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back to the saltmarsh again. We had another good look at them through the scope.

6o0a8254Twite – a flock of about 25 had appeared on the walk back

There had been a Glaucous Gull reported by some pig fields inland from here yesterday, so we decided to have a quick drive round to see if we could find it. We did find a large flock of gulls loafing in a field by an irrigation reservoir, but all we could see there were Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls. There didn’t appear to be many gulls around the pig fields today.

The buntings were more obliging. There has been a big flock of Yellowhammers here through the winter and there must have been at least 60 here still today. Several were bathing in a puddle as we arrived, including some stunningly yellow males. They were rather flighty, constantly flying between the hedges and the field the other side. However, when they perched up in the hedge we could get a good look at them.

6o0a8275Yellowhammer – at least 60 in the flock today

As well as the Yellowhammers, there have been good numbers of Corn Bunting here and there were still at least 6 here today.We could hear one singing when we got out of the car, the song often compared to jangling keys, but we couldn’t see it through the hedge. Then one flew over as we walked along the road, we were alerted to it by its distinctive liquid ‘pit’ call. Finally we managed to get three in the scope, perched up together in the top of a small tree. They are getting so scarce now, it is always a delight to see Corn Buntings.

There were other things to see here too. There were several Reed Buntings in with the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in a recently sown field, much more delicate birds then the similarly grey Woodpigeon. A couple of Red Kites hung in the air over a nearby wood. When a Kestrel flew over the field, all the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings scattered.

Our destination for the afternoon was Titchwell. After lunch by the visitor centre and a welcome hot drink, we made had a look at the feeders. There were a few Greenfinches with the Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but the highlight was a couple of female Bramblings which dropped in to join them. The Water Rail was in the ditch by the main path as usual, but was lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing today.

6o0a8282Water Rail – lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing

The dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ looked devoid of life at first. We repositioned ourselves further along the path, so we could see round behind the reeds at the front. At that point, one of the group spotted a bird right down at the front – the Water Pipit we had been looking for. We had a great view of it through the scope, noting its white underparts neatly streaked with black, and well-marked white supercilium.

img_1011Water Pipit – showed very well on the grazing meadow ‘pool’

A single Great Crested Grebe was at the back of the reedbed pool, asleep amongst the ducks. While we were scanning around the edges of the pool, a small wader flicked up and dropped down on a patch of cut reed at the front. We had a very restricted view, with a line of reeds in front. Looking through with the scope we managed to see there was a Common Snipe feeding there, but the bird we had just seen fly in was smaller than that. Then, just behind it, we caught sight of a Jack Snipe.

The Jack Snipe flew across the water at the front and landed on another patch of cut reed the other side, out of view. By walking a little further along the path and looking back, we were able to find it again, though we still had to look through the reeds in the front. It was very well camouflaged, with its bright golden mantle stripes in amongst the reed stems, but the Jack Snipe was feeding with its distinctive bobbing action. Great to watch!

We could see dark clouds approaching from the west, so we made our way quickly round to Parrinder Hide to scan the Freshmarsh from there. As we walked round, a huge flock of Golden Plover flew up from the fenced off island and most of them seemed to drift off inland. We got into the hide just in time, as a squally shower blew in.

There is still a good variety of ducks on the Freshmarsh at the moment – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. The birds huddled up against the rain. There were also good numbers of gulls again, but we couldn’t find anything other than Black-headed Gull, Common Gull and Herring Gull on here today.

6o0a8324Teal – a smart drake, huddled up facing into the rain

There were lots of Redshank in particular on the Freshmarsh today. Perhaps they had been flushed off the Volunteer Marsh by something? Several Knot flew in too and landed in with the gulls. A noisy little group of Oystercatcher were gathered in a circle giving a piping display. There were also lots of Avocet on here – numbers are continuing to increase as birds return after the winter. A colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwit stood pointing into the rain.

img_1018Black-tailed Godwit – a colour-ringed bird in the rain

Thankfully the rain blew through quickly. Once it stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were several Knot, Grey Plover and Curlew on the mud in front of the hide when we walked in, but almost immediately something flushed all the birds and the waders all flew off. The Redshanks had gone over to join the others on the Freshmarsh – we could see them all busy bathing and preening from the window at the back of the hide.

As it was starting to brighten up again, we decided to make a bid for the beach. From round on the main path, we stopped to watch a couple of Knot and a couple of Dunlin which dropped back in together on the mud, a nice chance to compare the two species.

6o0a8332Shoveler – several were out on the Tidal Pools

The Pintail were all out on the Tidal Pools today, along with more Shoveler and Mallard. There were also a few waders on here, in particular several Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. This provided a good opportunity to compare the two species – the Bar-tailed Godwit being obviously smaller, shorter-legged and with paler, buffier upperparts streaked with dark.

The tide was coming in again out at the beach. Large groups of Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit were gathered along the shoreline. There was quite a lot of seaweed scattered across the sand today and we could see several silvery Sanderling feeding in amongst it.

There was a flock of Scoter further offshore and through the scope we could see they were mostly Velvet Scoter with a smaller number of Common Scoter in with them. Even better, a single Velvet Scoter was much closer in and we could see the distinctive twin smaller white spots on its face. A couple of Common Scoter were closer in too, and when it turned head on, we could see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill on the drake. Otherwise, the sea here was much quieter than it had been at Holme this morning – just a few Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Still, Velvet Scoter was a nice bird to round out the set of our seaduck for the day.

As we made our way back along the main path, we stopped for another look at the Jack Snipe. There were now two Common Snipe on the same side of the pool as the Jack Snipe, we could see their pale central crown stripes. The Common Snipe were out in the middle of the patch of cut reed, but typically the Jack Snipe was more secretive, still keeping nearer to cover at the edge of the tall reeds. However, it had worked its way out to the edge of a little puddle where we could see it better, its shorter bill and dark central crown.

img_1043Jack Snipe – feeding on the edge of the reedbed pool

On the way back, we cut round via Meadow Trail and out to Patsy’s Reedbed. The water level is being kept high on here this year – attractive for the Tufted Ducks, Common Pochard and Coot which were all diving on here. Several Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the reedbed, ahead of going to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler sand from the bushes.

The afternoon was getting on and it was starting to get dark, but when we turned to look behind us we could see another bank of dark clouds approaching from the west, so we decided to make our way back. We had heard Bullfinches calling on the way out and seen a couple of shapes disappearing off into the bushes. On the way back, they were more helpfully feeding in the top of a small tree, picking at the buds. The three females were perched in full view, while the pink male lurked a little further back. A couple of Jays called noisily from the sallows and we flushed a Muntjac from beside the boardwalk, which scuttled off into the undergrowth.

We got back to the car just in time, as a wintry shower blew through. We had been remarkably lucky with the weather today and we didn’t mind a bit of rain now we were on our way home.