Tag Archives: Slavonian Grebe

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.

Advertisements

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.

6O0A5178

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!

6O0A5499

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!

6O0A5939

6O0A5931

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.

22nd Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 3

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, our final day. Once again, it was a frosty start and then a gloriously sunny winter’s day, great weather for being out. We headed up to north-west Norfolk today.

Our first destination was Titchwell, but on the way there we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese in a field beside the road. The winter wheat was coated with frost and they were huddled together in a tight group. We stopped for a quick look – they looked quite smart in the early sunshine.

6o0a4152Brent Geese – huddled together in a tight flock on a frosty morning

The car park at Titchwell wasn’t too full yet. A couple of Long-tailed Tits appeared on the sunny edge of the trees opposite as we parked up. Then we made our way down to the visitor centre. There were not too may birds on the feeders yet, a few tits and a Goldfinch or two, but more action below where several Moorhens, Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Chaffinches were tidying up the spillage.

There were a few birds up in the alders nearby, mostly Goldfinches. But a careful look through revealed a Redpoll. It was quickly joined by three more. We got them in the scope and confirmed they were Mealy Redpolls, quite pale around the face, grey brown above with prominent pale lines down the middle of their mantles and, when they hung upside down and parted their wings, we could see the pale ground colour to their rumps. One was a smart male, with a lovely pink wash on its breast, in addition to the darker red poll on the front of its head.

img_0081Mealy Redpoll – four were feeding in the alders by the visitor centre

img_0098Mealy Redpoll – one of the four was a very smart pink-breasted male

When the Mealy Redpolls flew back away from us through the trees, we set off onto the reserve. A careful look in the ditch by the path revealed a Water Rail. We watched it for a while, digging in the leaf litter on the side before running further along in the water in the bottom. While we were standing there, a Sparrowhawk zoomed low through the trees only a few metres in front of us.

6o0a4234Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path

As we came out of the trees, the reserve was quite a picture, with the low winter sun catching on the tops of the reeds. A quick stop by the now dry again Thornham grazing marsh pool revealed a single Water Pipit feeding out on the mud. We had a good look at it before it wandered over to one side and disappeared into the rushes.

On the other side of the path, the reedbed pool was almost completely frozen. A pair of Mute Swans had managed to crack through the ice and created a small pool for themselves right in the middle. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reeds at the back. We heard a Cetti’s Warbler sing half-heartedly from the brambles in the reedbed and looked across just in time to see it fly down and disappear into the reeds.

The freshmarsh was also almost completely frozen. A Little Grebe was diving in the one area of open water around the tallest island over in the back corner. It was surrounded by ducks – Mallard, Gadwall and Teal – also trying to feed. More ducks were standing around in groups on the ice, sleeping.

A large flock of waders flew up from the fenced off island. We could hear Golden Plover calling and a couple of smaller groups broke away from the larger numbers of Lapwing and headed off inland. With the water levels still very high on here, there were not very many islands left poking out of the ice. A small muddy remnant over towards Parrinder Hide held three Ringed Plover, as well as a few Lapwing and a lone Golden Plover. Otherwise, that was about it for waders on here today, not a surprise given the ice.

6o0a4170Bar-tailed Godwit – our first of the day, on the Volunteer Marsh

There was more to see on the Volunteer Marsh, though that too was fairly icy today, despite the salinity of the water on there these days. A Bar-tailed Godwit seemed to be finding plenty of food in the mud, despite it sliding around on the ice. A couple of Knot down on the edge of the channel below the path were joined by two Dunlin, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them side by side. There were also a couple of Grey Plover and several Redshanks on here.

6o0a4184Knot – one of two along the edge of Volunteer Marsh today

More birds were hiding out on the Tidal Pools, which had not frozen. The Avocets had come on here from the freshmarsh, about 13 of them braving out the winter in Norfolk, and they were sleeping on the spit at the back. There were also more godwits on here, as well as a few more Bar-tailed Godwits there were a couple of close Black-tailed Godwits too, always good to get a chance to compare these two very similar species.

There were more duck on here than usual, lots of roosting Teal and Shoveler around the edges. Over towards the back, we could see several Pintail asleep too. The Little Grebes are always on here in the winter, but they were very close to the path today. We watched them diving, puffing out their feathers when they surfaced and then flattening them down again just before going back underwater.

6o0a4197Little Grebe – diving close to the main path on the Tidal Pools

Our main targets here today were out at the sea. We stood up in the dunes with the sun on our backs and scanned the water. There have been good numbers of sea duck here in recent weeks and counts have continued to climb in the last few days. They were a little distant today, but we were not disappointed. The first thing we saw were the Long-tailed Ducks. They were hard to count, as birds were diving constantly, but there were at least 100 all together in one enormous raft, probably more. In recent years, numbers of wintering Long-tailed Duck in Norfolk have been quite low, so to see this many together is a real treat.

Further out we could see a huge raft of scoter. They would be predominantly Common Scoter, but they were too far off to sort through properly. Thankfully, there was a long line of much closer birds. Again, they were mainly Common Scoter but looking through them carefully, we could see a good number of Velvet Scoter with them too. The female Common Scoter have extensive pale cheeks, but the female Velvet Scoter have two smaller white dots on their faces. On some, you could also see the white wing flash on the Velvet Scoter and one helpfully flew past, showing off the white patch in the wing perfectly.

In with the closer group of scoter was a single Scaup. It was a first winter drake, its upperparts now quite extensively grey as it gradually moults out of its brown juvenile plumage. We could also see a few Goldeneye scattered over the sea. Four Common Pochard flew round out over the rafts of seaduck, presumably looking for somewhere to go, with so much water inland frozen over.

There were plenty of Great Crested Grebe out on the water, but one of the reserve volunteers picked up a couple of smaller grebes with them, two Slavonian Grebes. We had hoped to see some divers too, but they were all rather distant. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving again, but eventually we located a single Black-throated Diver on the sea. Even if it was a long way off, we could see the distinctive white rear flank patch between dives.

That seemed like a great selection of birds for the sea, so we decided to make our way back. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a Kingfisher whizzed in from the saltmarsh and disappeared away over the mud, too fast for everyone to get onto. Thankfully, as we were almost back to the grazing marsh pool, another Kingfisher flew right past us and dropped down into one of the channels on the saltmarsh. Again, they were probably looking for places to feed with much of the fresh water frozen over.

There was a small crowd on the main path staring out at the saltmarsh, so we stopped to look. Down in the grass, we could see a Jack Snipe. They have a very distinctive feeding action – bobbing up and down all the time, as if their legs are on springs – so we knew immediately what it was. Through the scope, we had a great view of it.

img_0122Jack Snipe – feeding out on the edge of the saltmarsh

Then it was back to the car, stopping briefly to admire another Water Rail on the other side of the path to the one we had seen earlier this morning. There were also two Muntjac under the sallows and while we were looking at them, yet another Water Rail scurried past.

It was already lunchtime, but we decided to drive the short distance to Thornham Harbour and eat there. We couldn’t find any sign of the Twite around the harbour, but it was perhaps not a surprise as it was unusually busy here today, with lots of people out for a walk in the winter sunshine. We did hear a Spotted Redshank calling and turned in time to see it fly round over the saltmarsh and drop down out of view. Another Kingfisher was perched on a mud bank out along the edge of the harbour, glowing electric blue in the sun.

After lunch, we walked out along the bank towards Holme. When we got out to the dunes where we could look out over Broadwater, we were not surprised to find that it was mostly frozen. A few ducks, mostly Mallard and Gadwall, were sleeping around the edge of the reeds. There were more ducks further over, but the light was not so good from here – we were looking into the sun. Still, we could see a nice selection, including a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard. But there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck from here, so we decided to walk round to the other side of Broadwater for a better look.

From round on the boardwalk by the NOA Car Park Hide, it didn’t take us long to find the Ferruginous Duck. It was asleep at first, over by the edge with all the other ducks, but we could see its distinctive rust-coloured body plumage and bright white undertail. Even with its head tucked in while sleeping, it would open its eye occasionally and we could see the white iris. Then it was disturbed by one of the Mallards and woke up, swimming out into the middle of the water to join the local Tufted Ducks. It didn’t stay there long and promptly swam back to the bank and went back to sleep.

img_0152Ferruginous Duck – woke up and swam out into the middle with the Tufted Ducks

Ferruginous Duck is a very scarce visitor to the UK, from southern Europe and further east. However, it is also a very common duck in captivity, and it is always hard to tell whether the ones which turn up here have come from the wild population or escaped from someone’s collection. Still, it is an interesting bird to see.

While we were watching the Ferruginous Duck, we could hear a Fieldfare calling. We looked round to see it perched in the top of a bush by the car park. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but as soon as the camera came out, a Magpie hopped up through the bush and flushed it. It was a shame, as it looked very smart in the winter sunshine.

We walked back to the beach and stopped for a quick scan of the sea. One of the first birds we set eyes on was a Black-throated Diver. It was much closer than the one we had seen earlier at Titchwell. It was still hard to get everyone onto, as it was diving constantly, but we all got a really good look at it in the end. There was another first winter male Scaup off Holme too. We could also see quite a few Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water and a small group of Eider. A close-in Guillemot was nice to see too.

There were a few seals out to sea as usual. We could see a crowd gathered further along the beach to the east, on the edge of the water, but only when they moved round could we see that they had been surrounding a Grey Seal pup. We walked over and the crowd had largely dispersed as we arrived. The pup seemed to be breathing heavily and had shown no signs of moving when everyone had been so close to it, so we messaged one of the reserve wardens about it, just in case.

6o0a4240Grey Seal pup – on the beach at Holme

We left the seal pup on the beach and made our way back up through the dunes and along the seawall back to Thornham Harbour. There was still not sign of the Twite, but we did see a Greenshank in the harbour and a Stonechat perched on a bush by the seawall. Out across the grazing marshes, a Sparrowhawk was perched on a post in the distance.

The sun was already starting to sink in the sky and the temperature was dropping again. We made our way inland and started to drive round the farmland inland. We could see lots of Yellowhammers flying round in the hedges and so we pulled up in a convenient layby. In the small tree in the hedge nearby, we could see a single Corn Bunting – it was immediately obvious, given its much larger size. Then all the buntings flew and disappeared across the field behind the hedge.

We carried on our drive and eventually came to another place where lots of birds have been feeding in a plot planted with wild bird seed cover. The hedge beside the field was full of birds, masses of Reed Buntings and a good number of Yellowhammers too. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling and looked along the hedge to see several perched up with all the buntings, we counted at least eight there and at least another two calling in the hedge behind us. Tree Sparrows are an increasingly rare bird in southern Britain, so it was great to see them still clinging on here.

img_0160Buntings – the hedge was full of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers

The birds in the hedge would gradually thin out, as they flew down into the field to feed. Then, periodically something would spook them and the field would erupt and everything would fly back to the hedge. When it did, we could see there were lots of Chaffinches here too, but they would fly up into the tops of the trees rather than into the hedge with the buntings.

It was great to watch all these birds – bringing back memories of how winter flocks in farmland used to be everywhere. But the light was starting to fade now as the sun began to set, so it was time to head for home, after a fantastic three days of winter birding.

17th Dec 2016 – Birding through the Mist

A Private Tour today with a regular client, with some particular target birds we wanted to see. Unfortunately, there was some intermittent and patchy thick mist along the coast for a time today, but by trying to dodge it and making the most of the sunnier spells, we still managed to amass a great tally of birds for the day.

We met in Wells and made our way west along the coast. There were lots of Blackbirds and a few Redwings in the hedges as drove along, feeding on the berries. Our first destination for the day was Titchwell.

As we walked out along the main path, a Water Rail ran along the bottom of the ditch beside us, a nice way to start the day. The grazing meadow pool had been flooded by the high tide, which was just receding, so there were no birds that we could see. It was still a bit misty, so we thought we would have a look on the way back. As we passed, a juvenile Peregrine flew in over the saltmarsh and headed off towards Thornham.

img_9434Sunrise – over Island Hide and the reedbed

There was a lovely hazy sunrise looking out over the reedbed as we headed out to the freshmarsh. The water level is very high still at the moment, but still there were lots of Lapwings on here. They were very nervous and kept flying round calling. Twelve Avocets, bravely hanging on through the winter, were not so fidgety and stayed mostly asleep in the shallows. There was a nice selection of wildfowl on here as usual – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and three Pintail, a drake and two females.

6o0a2235Teal – lots on the freshmarsh, the drakes are looking very smart now

Volunteer Marsh was still under water, so we hurried past to the tidal pools beyond. There were lots of waders on here, roosting over the high tide. A line of godwits consisted of a mixture of both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, a nice comparison side by side. A single much smaller Knot was in with them. Further over, a couple of Grey Plover were roosting with a little mixed group of Turnstones and Dunlin.

Over at the back, we could see a flock of sleeping Common Redshank and nearby were several noticeably paler birds.  Two Greenshank  were roosting up on the mud behind. Another paler bird was in the water just behind the line of duller grey Common Redshank, and through the scope we could confirm it was a single Spotted Redshank. When looked back again later, two more Spotted Redshanks had appeared with it.

6o0a2115Common Redshank – its legs shining in the morning sunshine

The main point of our visit here today was to have a look at the sea and our primary target was Long-tailed Duck. There have been up to 70 here for the last couple of weeks, an unprecedented number in recent years. We were not disappointed. As we climbed up into the dunes, we could see that the sea was alive with ducks, including lots of Long-tailed Ducks. Amazing!

6o0a2010Long-tailed Ducks – around 70 were on the sea here today (these from yesterday)

We managed to get onto one or two adult male Long-tailed Ducks – stunning birds with their incredibly long and narrow tail feathers. The drakes are much whiter than the females and immature birds which make up the majority of the birds here. They also have a striking pink saddle over the bill, and we could even make that out on them as it glowed in the sunshine.

Apart from the Long-tailed Ducks, there were hundreds of Common Scoter offshore. In with them, there are also an impressive number of Velvet Scoter too, many more than we usually get here at this time of year. We got some great views of them too today, with the sea flat and calm.

The rest of the gathering was made up of five Scaup, plus several Eider, Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. It is amazing to watch all these ducks out on the sea at the moment. Many of them are diving for shellfish and we saw several coming up with large razorshells in their bills. The staff and volunteers on the reserve were doing a wildfowl count while we were there today and their final tallies were impressive, including 73 Long-tailed Ducks and 46 Velvet Scoter! We just enjoyed watching them all.

As well as the ducks, there were other birds on the sea too. A Slavonian Grebe was diving in with the ducks and several Great Crested Grebes were offshore too. A lone Guillemot drifted past. There were several divers too, though they were mostly a bit more distant and harder to see on the edge of the mist. There were three Great Northern Divers, and thankfully one of them appeared in front of the ducks straight out from us, giving us a great look at it.

6o0a2134Bar-tailed Godwits – gathered on the shore as the tide started to go out

The only Black-throated Diver today was quite a long way out and further to the west from where we were standing, so we decided to walk along the beach to try to get everyone onto it. There were more waders on the shore now, with the tide starting to go out, including a nice flock of Bar-tailed Godwits.

We had just positioned ourselves to start scanning the sea again, level with where we thought the Black-throated Diver should be, when the fog descended around us, blowing in over the saltmarsh behind us. We waited here a few minutes to see if it would clear. A couple of times, the sun looked like it would break through, but each time it disappeared again into the mists and our hopes were dashed. We amused ourselves watching several Turnstones and Sanderling picking along the pile of razorshells washed up along the high tide line. Finally, we came to the conclusion it wasn’t going to clear any time soon, so reluctantly we started to walk back.

6o0a2153Sanderling – feeding on the piles of shells along the high tide line

On the way back, we stopped briefly in the Parrinder Hide. From here, you couldn’t even see across the freshmarsh today. A nice Common Snipe feeding on the bank just outside the hide was some compensation.

6o0a2228Common Snipe – feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

The grazing meadow pool was now hidden in thick fog. So much for our hoped for better look on the way back! We had a quick look in the alders by the main path and visitor centre but couldn’t find any redpolls here today. We did find a single Siskin feeding in amongst the Goldfinches up in the tops of the trees.

While we waited for the fog to clear, we decided to have a quick look round in Thornham Harbour. A single Greenshank was feeding in the bottom of the harbour channel by the car park, along with a Redshank, a Curlew and a Little Egret. Several Rock Pipits were flying round, landing on the boats or the old barn. We had hoped to catch up with the Twite here,  but despite being seen earlier they had disappeared again. Two Linnets were the best we could manage.

6o0a2241Greenshank – feeding in the channel at Thornham Harbour

The fog seemed to lift a little, so we decided to have a go for the geese up at Choseley. As we drove up away from the coast however, we ran into the fog again, which seemed even thicker than before. We could see a few Pink-footed Geese out in the recently harvested sugar beet field, feeding on the discarded tops, but there were a lot fewer geese here than yesterday and we couldn’t see all of them. There was no sign of the Todd’s Canada Goose here today, amongst those Pink-footed Geese that we could see.

The Pink-footed Geese will usually return to the same field to feed for several days, so many had presumably been put off from landing by the fog. While we were there, we could hear calling constantly overhead, and saw several groups fly over in occasional breaks in the sky. Many geese were presumably loafing in other fields nearby, but we just couldn’t see them today. We decided to try something different instead.

As we drove back east along the coast road, the sun finally broke through the fog and it suddenly became bright and clear. Another target for the day was Snow Bunting, so we made a beeline for Salthouse where we knew we could find some. There were some dog walkers going through the area as we walked up, the dogs off the lead and running all over the shingle ridge. Needless to say, there was no sign of the Snow Buntings at first.

Thankfully, after just a couple of minutes, three Snow Buntings flew back in. They perched nervously on the top of the ridge at first, checking to see if the coast was clear, before coming down to a pile of seed which had been put out for them. Great stuff.

6o0a2254Snow Buntings – coming to seed on the shingle ridge

The days are short at this time of year, so we wanted to make the most of the remaining light. We headed swiftly round to Blakeney for our final stop. Walking past the duck pond, a lone large gull sitting on the top of a severed tree trunk caught our eye. It is a regularly returning bird and it does not fit any species – among other things, its mantle is too dark grey for Herring Gull and slightly too light for Lesser Black-backed Gull, and its legs an odd fleshy colour. It looks like a Herring Gull x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrid.

6o0a2262Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrid – most likely

As we walked out along the seawall, a Water Rail appeared in one of the channels on the edge of the saltmarsh. It started to walk along in the water at the bottom, until something spooked it and it darted quickly back into cover.

It was very disturbed along the bank this afternoon, with loads of people out for a walk. We did manage to find 12 Barnacle Geese with a flock of Brent Geese out on the Freshes. We could hear Pink-footed Geese further over, towards Cley, and they started to fly off overhead, skein after skein, heading west. We managed to find a handful of Skylarks on the rough ground on the edge of the grazing marsh, but nothing else today.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have long here today. Very quickly, we started to lose the light as the sun dropped. The temperature fell and the mist started to return. We walked back to the car, led by a pair of Stonechats, flying ahead of us along the fence just below the seawall. It was a slightly frustrating day, given the weather, but looking back at what we had seen, we had amassed an impressive total for the day, including most of our main targets. All on one of the shortest days of the year!

6o0a2276Stonechat – led us back along the seawall