Tag Archives: Slavonian Grebe

7th Oct 2016 – Arrivals from the East, Part 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of Autumn Migration Tours today. With the wind in the east, it felt like there should be some interesting birds about today. It was cloudy and cool, but the wind had dropped from recent days and we had no more than a few spots of rain.

Our main destination for today was Titchwell. We arrived in the car park to be told by one of the volunteers that the Red-breasted Flycatcher which had been seen yesterday was still present and had just been seen in the picnic area, but had moved through towards the access road. We joined him round on the road, but there was no sign of it there, so headed round to the picnic area instead. There were a few people gathered there and we could just hear the Red-breasted Flycatcher calling, but it was deep in the trees and flew across back towards the access road!

Back out on the tarmac, we could hear the much Red-breasted Flycatcher better and worked out where it was in the trees. It was not visible from where we were, so we walked round the other way via the visitor centre to the path known as bug alley. We could hear it calling all the time here and eventually it appeared in the trees right above our heads. Most of the group got a good look at it here, but it was hard to get onto at times, high up in the trees. We followed it back towards the picnic area. After a wait while it went deeper into the trees towards the car park, it came out and showed much better for us.

6o0a3249Red-breasted Flycatcher – the best shot from today, without much light in the trees

That was a great way to start to the day – and worth the extra effort to find it. We set off to explore the rest of the reserve, stopping briefly to scan the feeders by the visitor centre, which had a few Long-tailed Tits and finches. Out on the main path, in the trees, a Brambling gave its wheezy call from high above us. Then a Yellow-browed Warbler called too and we managed to get a quick glimpse of it before it dropped out the back.

There was very little to see on the still dry grazing meadow ‘pool’, but we stopped to watch a couple of Marsh Harriers. As one quartered over the reeds at the back, we spotted a second perched in a bush nearby. It too took off and the two of them flew round for a time, before the second bird landed again. This time we got a good look at it in the scope – all dark brown apart from an orangey-yellow head, a juvenile.

6o0a3251Marsh Harrier – one of two hunting over the reeds on the Thornham side

The reedbed pool held a single Little Grebe, right at the back with a Shoveler, and several Mallard. While we were standing there scanning, a small snipe flew straight towards us from the direction of the freshmarsh and as it passed we could see that it was a Jack Snipe. It dropped down on the grazing marsh ‘pool’ but only a minute or so later we picked it up again as it flew back past us to the freshmarsh.

A particular request today was whether we might be able to see a Bearded Tit. Walking past the reedbed, we heard a couple calling and just saw the back end of them as they flew low and fast across the reeds, before dropping back in. We stood on the bank just before Island Hide, scanning the freshmarsh and heard more Bearded Tits calling – again, we saw them zipping across over the reeds, fairly typical views of Bearded Tits.

Then three Bearded Tits flew towards us and landed in the reeds not far from the bank. This time, they climbed up into the tops of the reeds and started to feed on the heads – a couple of browner females at first, then a stunning male. The next thing we knew, another seven Bearded Tits flew over towards us in a single flock, calling, and dropped down with the ones we were watching. We didn’t know where to look, they seemed to be everywhere, and at one point had at least three males perched up together. Cracking stuff!

6o0a3287Bearded Tit – great views from the main path today

Scanning the freshmarsh from the path, we could see lots of ducks – mainly Teal, but good numbers of Wigeon and Shoveler too now. More Wigeon were flying in from the saltmarsh in small flocks, and one little group of ducks flying in turned out to be a single Wigeon with three Pintail, as they came overhead. We could see lots of Brent Geese out on the mudflats in Thornham Harbour and an occasional group flew in and landed on the freshmarsh too.

There was a nice selection of waders too. A large flock of Bar-tailed Godwits were mostly sleeping out in the middle. We had seen a couple of flocks of Golden Plover flying in as we walked out, and they were now gathered on the islands. There are still a few Avocets here, but numbers have dropped sharply now as most of the birds have moved south for the winter. Right at the back, against the reeds, two pale looking waders were Spotted Redshanks, in their silvery-grey and white winter plumage.

A Little Stint was picking around on the edge of one of the grassy spits, but was a little distant until it helpfully flew in and landed much closer to us. Even better, it had a Dunlin for company – which allowed us to see just how small the Little Stint was by comparison. It was a juvenile, stopping off here on its way south from the arctic tundra to Africa for the winter. There were several little groups of Dunlin out on the islands and a single Ringed Plover on here too.

The Pectoral Sandpiper and Jack Snipe had both been seen on the weedy mud just beyond Island Hide earlier, but we couldn’t find them there on the walk out. We did have great views of a couple of Common Snipe feeding down amongst the vegetation just below us.

6o0a3292Common Snipe – feeding just below the main path

We could not see any sign of the Curlew Sandpipers on the freshmarsh and when we got to the junction for the path to Parrinder Hide we found out why – they were on the Volunteer Marsh! We had a nice view of them feeding out on the mud, looking back towards Parrinder. There were a couple of Grey Plover and a Curlew out there too.

Round at Parrinder Hide, there was no sign of the Pectoral Sandpiper in its usual favoured spot here either when we arrived. We had a good scan of the freshmarsh from here, which produced several Knot with the flock of Bar-tailed Godwit and three Ruff dropped in nearby too. From this side, we could see there were actually two Little Stints.  A Black-tailed Godwit was feeding right in front of the hide, giving us the opportunity to look at the differences from the Bar-taileds.

6o0a3353Black-tailed Godwit – feeding right in front of Parrinder Hide

There were lots of Meadow Pipits out on the grassy islands and a single Rock Pipit was with them – slightly larger and darker, with oilier brown and plainer upperparts. When all the waders took off and whirled round over the scrape, we saw a young Peregrine disappearing off inland over the reedbed.

We had almost given up hope of seeing the Pectoral Sandpiper from here, when it flew in and landed on the muddy edge of the island in front of us. It didn’t seem to like being out in the open, and ran quickly along the shore, across the water, and into the reeds below the bank. It looked like that might be it, but after a couple of minutes we could see it creeping furtively about in the vegetation and it gradually made its way closer and into full view, where we could get a great look at it through the scope.

pectoral-sandpiper-titchwellPectoral Sandpiper – here’s a photo of it from a few days ago

Breeding in North America and also just over the Bering Strait in NE Siberia, it is always interesting to speculate whether Pectoral Sandpipers which turn up here have come across the North Atlantic or across from Russia.

After all the excitement of the morning so far, time was getting on now, so we decided to have a quick walk out to the beach. However, there were still more distractions on the way. First, we had a quick look at a Common Redshank on the Volunteer Marsh, on the edge of channel by the path. A little further back was a nice close Bar-tailed Godwit and a Turnstone was preening on the edge of the mud. A Greenshank flew in calling and landed with a Common Redshank in one of the pools.

6o0a3396Bar-tailed Godwit – this one was feeding on the Volunteer Marsh

As we stood watching the Turnstone, one of the group spotted a small bird on the path just ahead of us. It was a Wheatear, possibly a new arrival fresh in from the continent, as it looked absolutely exhausted. It hopped along the path towards us, occasionally darting into the grass. Thankfully it appeared to be finding food. Then two people walked past us along the path and flushed it out onto the Volunteer Marsh.

6o0a3424Wheatear – an exhausted migrant on the path

A Little Egret was fishing it its usual spot, where the water flows out of the channel. The three Curlew Sandpipers were now over here too, at the further side of the Volunteer Marsh, close to the main path. We stopped to have another look at them and they came closer and closer until they were right below us on the mud. It was nice to see them so well. All juveniles, one still had a brighter orangey wash across the breast then the other two, which were more faded. Having been raised this summer way over in arctic Central Siberia, like the Little Stints they have stopped off here to feed on their way south to Africa for the winter.

6o0a3531Curlew Sandpiper – three juveniles were on the Volunteer Marsh today

Moving swiftly on, a Kingfisher called and shot low across the water as we got to the tidal pools. Thankfully it landed on the edge of the small island over the far side and we got a good look at it in the scope. A little group of Knot were roosting on one of the spits.

As we arrived at the beach, we heard someone pointing out a Slavonian Grebe on the sea and quickly got the scope onto it. Thankfully it was not very far offshore and it was possible to see it even with binoculars, between dives. An unexpected but very nice bonus! A little further along we picked up a much bigger Great Crested Grebe too. A single Common Scoter was further out and harder to see in the choppy sea and three dark ducks further west, towards Thornham, turned out to be Eider when we got them in the scope.

The tide was out now and there were quite a few waders down on the shore. We could hear as well as see all the Oystercatchers, which were piping away. Several very pale grey/white winter Sanderling were running around on the beach, in with some more larger and greyer Knot.

We were already late for lunch, but as we hurried back we were distracted again. Just before we got to Island Hide, a small crowd was gathered on the path. They had been watching the Jack Snipe but we arrived just in time to see it disappear into the vegetation. We did see the Pectoral Sandpiper again, which had returned to this side now, and a Water Rail which appeared briefly out of the vegetation where the Jack Snipe had gone. Then it was back to the car for a rather later than planned but very well-deserved lunch.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent back at Wells Woods. As we walked into the trees, we could see the birches were alive with Goldcrests, 3-4 to a tree, everywhere we looked. In with them, we found a few Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps too. And there were lots of Robins. The vast majority of them presumably migrants, stopping off on their way south or come here for the winter.

On the edge of the Dell, we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling. We followed the sound and had a quick glimpse of it in the top of some sallows before it flitted away out of view. We carried on in the direction where we thought it had gone and heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling further still ahead of us, which we assumed initially was the same one. We made our way through the trees to the meadow, where we thought we might be able to see it, but got distracted by a pipit which flew out of the birches and straight back into the trees, landing high up in a birch out of view. As we tried to get a better look at it, it flew again, calling this time – it was just a Meadow Pipit.

When we heard calling again, the Yellow-browed Warbler appeared to have gone back to where we first saw it. It was only when we got back there ourselves, that we realised there were two. This time, we could see the first Yellow-browed Warbler flitting around in the tops of the sallows and birches. It was hard to see in amongst the leaves at times, but most of the group got to see most of it!

We walked on round, out of the Dell and back onto the main path. As we approached the corner, we could see lots of thrushes in the hawthorns and brambles ahead. Something must have spooked them, because suddenly about fifty more flew up from the field beyond the reeds and joined them in the bushes. We could see they were mostly Redwings, together with a smaller number of Song Thrushes and Blackbirds.

6o0a3539Redwing – 50+ were in the field and bushes on the south edge of the woods

Continuing on a little further along the path, we cut through the bushes, flushing thrushes left and right as we did so, until we found a gap in the hedge from where we could see the grassy field beyond. The Redwings were all returning to the ground to feed – it was amazing to watch them coating the field, spread out over the grass. They had probably arrived overnight, or during the day, and were refuelling here before continuing on south. It was a nice way to end the day, in the woods surrounded by autumn migrants of various shapes and sizes.

15th November 2015 – Three Harrier Day

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, the last day. It was forecast to be windy, and that was certainly the case, gusting up to 48mph at times. It was also forecast to be mostly dry, but once again the Met Office let us down! At least it was just showers, and most of them were light. Still, it is worth going birding in almost any weather, because you never know what might turn up – and today was a very good case in point, with a surprise in store at the end of the day…

We started at Holkham. There were a few Pink-footed Geese along Lady Anne’s Drive as is usual at this time of year, loafing around on the grazing marshes, so we stopped to get a good look at them in the scope. Conveniently, there were some Greylag Geese nearby for comparison. We could see the smaller size, darker head and smaller darker bill of the Pink-footed Geese. We could also see their pink legs, if not their feet. A little further over were some feral Egyptian Geese as well.

IMG_2921Pink-footed Goose – we stopped to look at them along Lady Anne’s Drive

There was a big flock of Wigeon out by the pools along the road as well, along with a few Teal and Mallard. A few raptors were even braving the wind – a couple of Marsh Harriers circling distantly and a Common Buzzard hanging on the wind over towards Wells. A second Common Buzzard was more sensibly perched in a tree nearby.

IMG_2886Common Buzzard – perched in the trees by Lady Anne’s Drive this morning

We parked down at the north end – there were not so many cars there this morning – and walked out through the pines towards the beach. It was more sheltered on the north side of the trees and we could hear Coal Tits calling as we walked. There were several tiny Goldcrests feeding down low in the brambles by the path and we paused to watch one just in front of us – the UK’s smallest native bird, it was probably a struggle for them to find food in the conditions this morning.

We walked out across the saltmarsh and flushed a Rock Pipit from beside the path, which flew off calling. Several Skylarks also took off as we passed. There was a small party of about 20 Brent Geese feeding nearby, so we stopped to have a quick look at them. One was subtly different – a fraction darker on the back and belly, with a slightly whiter flank patch and collar – but it was not as striking as a Black Brant, like the one we had seen the other day. This was a Black Brant hybrid or intergrade – the offspring of a Black Brant which had paired with one of our more typical Dark-bellied Brent Geese several years ago. Brent Geese are remarkably site faithful, often returning to exactly the same place every winter. This Black Brant hybrid is a regular in these parts, so it was nice to see it back here again.

IMG_2899Black Brant hybrid – among the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

We watched them for a while, and the Black Brant hybrid reacted aggressively when any of the other geese got too close. It gradually became clear it was part of small family group, paired to a regular Dark-bellied Brent Goose and with a couple of juveniles in tow. It would be interesting to see what these birds look like when they are grown up, but it seems likely that they are largely indistinguishable from normal Dark-bellied Brents, which can be rather variable in appearance themselves anyway.

Out on the beach, we found some shelter in the lee of the dunes and scanned the sea. It was much rougher than yesterday, but similarly quiet bird-wise at first. After a while we picked up several Great Crested Grebes – and a couple of them were very close inshore, only just off the beach. A Red-throated Diver was a bit further out and diving constantly, which meant it was nearly impossible to see among the waves. We walked further west and stopped to scan again. This time, a smaller grebe further along caught our attention – looking through the scope we could see it was a winter plumage Slavonian Grebe, a scarce winter visitor here and a nice bird to see.

We made our way even further west, to try to get a better look at the Slavonian Grebe. We got another brief glimpse of it and decided to brave the top of the dunes to get a bit of height. This should make it easier to see things in the waves, but this time it didn’t help us and there was no further sign. At that point a squally shower rolled in, so we beat a hasty retreat to the shelter of the pines. Just into the trees, a tit flock was moving through – we could see Long-tailed Tits, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Goldcrests as they moved quickly through. We only heard a Treecreeeper calling as the flock disappeared further in.

On the other side of the trees, we made for Joe Jordan Hide – just in time, as the rain picked up again for a while. It was a good opportunity to sit and scan the grazing marshes, and there was a nice selection of commoner birds to see here. The highlight was a small party of White-fronted Geese, though they were hard to see at times feeding down in the wet boggy bits. When they stuck their heads up, we could see the distinctive white surrounding the base of the bill, from which they get their name.

When the rain stopped, we started to make our way back. A tit flock was calling from the trees on the south side of the path and we watched as they flew one by one back towards the pines across in front of us. As well as all the species we had seen previously, a Treecreeper flew out and landed on a pine tree briefly.

We stopped again at Washington Hide. There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the marshes and we picked up a female on a kill out in the grass. We could see her bending down to rip at whatever she had caught, then looking round nervously. A very pale, white-breasted Common Buzzard was perched in the trees over the other side. A striking bird, again in its regular spot here, but a pitfall for the unwary. We had hoped the Great White Egret might put in an appearance, but it was very exposed on the pool in front of the hide and the wind was whistling around the edges of the reeds.

On our way back to the car, we had a quick look at Salts Hole. As well as a few Wigeon and Mallard, there were several Little Grebes as usual. Only one was braving the middle of the pool today, the others lurking around the edge of the reeds where it was more sheltered.

IMG_2907Little Grebe – only this one braved the choppy waters out on Salts Hole today

We drove to Wells beach for lunch. The car park is still in the process of being dug up and resurfaced and the acres of tarmac feel a little too metropolitan – it would now not be out of place in the city centre. Certainly, there is no chance of any puddles any more for the birds to come down and drink. Still it was a little more sheltered here than at Holkham.

We had a look out in the harbour afterwards. With the choppy conditions out at sea, we thought there might be some ducks or grebes taking shelter, but there were perhaps too many dog walkers out on the shore today. However, there was an excellent variety of waders feeding on the exposed mud or roosting on the sand. The first thing that struck us was the large flocks of Oystercatchers. Scanning through, we found one Bar-tailed Godwit and a single Knot in with them.

IMG_2925Oystercatchers and Knot – roosting on the beach at Wells Harbour

Further over were more Knot and lots of Dunlin. In among the latter were several similarly sized Ringed Plovers. Out on the sand were a few silvery white Sanderling, running around like clockwork toys. Down along the edge of the harbour channel were several much darker Turnstone. There were also a few Grey Plover, and lots of Curlew and Redshank. Not a bad selection of waders – a fairly typical variety for intertidal mud flats. Further out across the harbour, a large flock of Brent Geese were lining the channel.

We scanned across to the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour, beyond East Hills, where a Marsh Harrier was quartering. As we panned over, a smaller, slimmer harrier appeared. As it banked we could see it was paler below than the Marsh Harrier and then we caught sight of a white square at the base of the tail above – it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. Further over through the scope, we saw a Merlin towering up into the sky chasing after a small bird, probably a pipit. They were a little distant, but we hoped to see them close later.

On our way back to the car, we stopped to look at a Common Seal on the sandbank of the outer harbour. It had presumably hauled itself out when the tide was high and was now looking a little stranded at the top of the bank. A large mechanical digger was edging its way towards it – pulling up the sand from along the edge to try to keep the access channel open. Hopefully the seal would be able to get away before it reached it.

IMG_2935Common Seal – pulled out on the bank of Wells Outer Harbour

We had planned to go along to see the harrier roost at Warham Harbour this afternoon. It seemed like a good way to round off the tour. So with the afternoon getting on we went back to the car and made our way east along the coast road from Wells. As we walked down towards the sea, a flock of tits made its way ahead of us along the hedgerow, making the most of the last hour or so of daylight. We flushed a little party of Redwings, which flew off overhead calling. Perhaps fresh arrivals from Scandinavia, coming here for the winter.

When we arrived at the edge of the saltmarsh, one person we know well, Graeme, was already there. Fortuitously, as it would turn out, we stood next to him. Immediately, he drew our attention to a Peregrine perched on a tangle of dead branches out on the beach. As we got our scopes onto it, a second Peregrine appeared and started mobbing it. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared, much closer than the one we had seen from the other side at Wells Harbour. We got a really good view of this one through the scopes.

IMG_2946Hen Harrier – a ringtail, out over the saltmarsh

A male Hen Harrier had been showing before we arrived and after a while it got up from the ground and flew past us – a striking, ghostly, pale grey bird with contrasting black wing tips. They are really stunning birds and such a shame they are so badly persecuted in this country. There were now a few hardy souls gathered to watch the roost, and a shout from further long the line drew our attention to two Merlins chasing each other across the saltmarsh away to the east. The first surprise of the evening was a Bewick’s Swan which flew west along the edge of the saltmarsh, presumably a fresh arrival from the continent coming in for the winter.

Apart from the swan, it was all much as we had hoped, until Graeme mentioned that he had a smaller, slimmer winged harrier out with one of the ringtail Hen Harriers. He knew what it was going to be, but we got onto it and when it turned we could see the distinctive pale collar and solid dark patch on the side of the neck behind, the so called ‘boa’ – we shouted ‘PALLID HARRIER‘ but at that moment it dropped down into the vegetation and disappeared before the rest of the group could get onto it.

There followed a very frustrating 20 or so minutes when neither the Hen Harriers nor the Pallid Harrier were flying. The tension rose as it seemed like the Pallid Harrier might not fly again before dark, until finally all the harriers decided to have a fly round. It was fantastic to see the Pallid Harrier with the Hen Harriers, and at one point it even had a tussle with a ringtail Hen – it was slightly smaller and noticeably slimmer winged, with a more pointed ‘hand’. We could see its plain, pale orangey underparts, as well as the head/neck pattern. Wow! What a great bird to see and such a surprise.

Pallid Harriers breed from Eastern Europe across into Central Asia, wintering in India and Africa. They appear to have spread west in recent years and have been turning up more often in UK, though it is still a rare bird here – it is only the ninth to have been seen in Norfolk! The first of those spent the winter of 2002-03 at the same site, Warham Greens, the only one to have over-wintered in the UK. Lets hope this one sticks around for a while as well.

What a great way to end the weekend. It just goes to show that, however unfavourable the weather may seem, it is still worth going out because anything can, and sometimes does, show up.

3rd-5th November 2015 – Titchwell Manor Tour

This year’s Titchwell Manor Tour started on Tuesday night, with a short meeting to discuss the plans for the next two days followed by a delicious dinner in the award winning restaurant at the hotel. The following morning, we met at 8.30am for a full day’s birding in the field. The weather was not at its most accommodating. We were forecast showers – we ended up getting light rain and mist most of the day. As usual, it didn’t stop us getting out and seeing some very good birds.

We headed east along the coast to Holkham first. We stopped half way along Lady Anne’s Drive to admire a flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding on the grazing marshes. There were several hundred on either side of the road today – but many more had probably roosted here and flown inland to feed at first light. It was nice to get a good look at them through the scope. Helpfully, a couple of Greylag Geese were even in the same view to compare at one point.

P1120427Pink-footed Geese – along Lady Anne’s Drive this morning

While we were watching them, two Fieldfare flew over calling and dropped down onto the grass. Thrushes and Blackbirds are continuing to trickle in over the North Sea from Scandinavia for the winter.

There was light rain falling as we walked west on the inland side of the pines. We heard the odd Goldcrest calling, but otherwise the trees were rather quiet today. The tit flocks often seem to retreat deeper into the pines when the weather is inclement. We stopped at Salts Hole to admire a flock of Wigeon which had dropped in to bathe, the drakes now looking very smart as they finish emerging from eclipse plumage. As usual, there were several Little Grebes on here as well today.

IMG_2610Little Grebe – at least 5 on Salts Hole today

It was hard to see right across the grazing marshes this morning because of the mist. However, a white shape in a distant tree stood out even through the gloom. It was a very pale Common Buzzard, with almost completely white underparts. It flew down onto the grass and we got the scope on it. Well known to us, it is often in the trees here. Common Buzzards are variable in appearance and very pale birds are increasingly common, creating a pitfall for the unwary.

The rain started to fall harder, so we sought the shelter of Washington Hide only a little further along the path. There were several ducks on the pool below the hide, including several Shoveler and Shelduck. The drake Shoveler is rather similarly coloured to Shelduck, so it was good to have an opportunity to compare the two. A Marsh Harrier was perched in the top of one of the bushes, getting wet. For a while it stood with its wings outstretched, presumably trying to shake off the water. A second Marsh Harrier appeared nearby and began to do the same.

It was while we were watching the Marsh Harriers that a large white shape suddenly flew in towards us and started to drop down towards the pool below. This Great White Egret has been hanging around at Holkham for over two months now, but it is not always in view and spends lots of its time out in the ditches, so it was nice to catch up with it today. It did a nice circuit walking round the pool for us – we could see just how big it was and admire its long dagger-shaped yellow bill.

IMG_2629Great White Egret – dropped in to the pool in front of Washington Hide

After a short while, the rain eased a bit, so we set off again to walk a little further west. The view from the Joe Jordan Hide seemed rather quiet at first. Carefully scanning the fields, we spotted the head of a small dark goose appear from the grass and, as it turned to face us, we could see it had a distinctive white surround to the base of its bill. There is normally a small flock of White-fronted Geese at Holkham through the winter, visitors here from their breeding grounds in Russia, but this was the first returning one we had seen this autumn. As we watched, we could see that there was actually a small family party of White-fronted Geese, two adults followed by 3 juveniles.

When the skies started to brighten up a fraction, that seemed to be the cue for several raptors to appear, as if by magic. A Sparrowhawk flew up into the tops of the trees in front of the hide briefly, an adult male with slate grey upperparts and orange-barred underparts. The scaffold tower had been devoid of life since we had arrived in the hide, but scanning again and an adult Peregrine had appeared on the top of it, presumably coming out to try to dry itself off.

The rain seemed to have eased as well, so we decided to start making our way back. There were a few more birds about along the path now. We stopped to listen to a couple of Goldcrests and heard our first tit flock of the morning approaching. There were several Long-tailed Tits calling but at first they flew past us through the very tops of the pines. We watched as they moved ahead of us and saw the flock drop down into the bushes near Meals House. We walked back quickly and could see Long-tailed Tits in the birches first, quickly joined by a few Goldcrests. Then we picked up first one then two Chiffchaffs in amongst them. The flock was moving quickly all the time, and as fast as they had arrived they disappeared back in the direction they had just come.

The other side of Meals House, almost back to Washington Hide, we heard more Long-tailed Tits calling and stopped to watch a small flock drop down to feed in a small sycamore by the path. Suddenly a Yellow-browed Warbler appeared in the same tree, a real bonus. Breeding in Siberia and migrating down to Asia for the winter, they are an increasingly regular visitor here mainly in Autumn, but always a great bird to see. It flicked about among the branches for a few seconds, easier to see now that there are much fewer leaves left on the trees. We could see its bright supercilium and double wing bars. This flock was not hanging around either and quickly moved off along the path towards Washington Hide. We walked back that way, but couldn’t find the Yellow-browed Warbler with the tits again.

Yellow-browed Warbler Tresco 2015-10-22_4Yellow-browed Warbler – here’s one from a couple of weeks ago

We decided to have a quick look at the beach, so walked along to the end of the boardwalk. There were only a few people on the beach today, and a single horse rider. Scanning the edge of the sea beyond the sand, we picked up a moulting Red-throated Diver just offshore. A single Gannet flew past, just on the edge of the mist. Further along, we found a Slavonian Grebe on the sea, another nice surprise. Unfortunately it was a little distant and, being so small, it was hard to see at times among the waves. We might otherwise have been tempted to walk out for a better look, but it started raining again at that point and it was already getting on to lunch time, so we decided against it.

As we made our way back along boardwalk, the tits had appeared in the sycamores again. There was no sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler at first, but then it flew across the clearing into the pines on the other side, before quickly disappearing into the trees.

We stopped for lunch in Wells, then walked out to have a look at the harbour. Despite the tide being just past high, there were lots of birds along the shoreline. In particular, there was a fantastic selection of waders. Scanning through the throng, we could see lots of Oystercatcher, several Ringed Plover, a few each of both Grey and Golden Plover, a good number of dumpy Knot and several small flocks of silvery grey Sanderling, with a smattering of browner Dunlin in amongst them, lots of Curlew and Redshank and singles each of Bar-tailed Godwit and Turnstone. Not a bad haul! There were also plenty of Brent Geese feeding out on the mud.

IMG_2636Brent Geese – there were many feeding on the mud by the harbour

As we had been scanning harbour, the mist started to descend again. As it did so, despite it being over two hours to sunset, the light started to fade rapidly. Our hope had been to catch some raptors coming in to roost to finish the day, but now it looked like we would need to hurry if we were to catch them. We bid farewell to the harbour and made our way further east along the coast to Stiffkey.

By the time we got there it was raining again. Visibility was so poor we couldn’t even see the trees on East Hills, it seemed like we might be out of luck. There were lots of Little Egrets, Brent Geese and Curlews. A lone Greenshank was feeding quietly in one of the deeper channels – more common here as  a passage migrant, a few do stay right through the winter out on the saltmarshes. We also heard Rock Pipits calling overhead.

Then a positive sign as a Marsh Harrier flew west across the marshes in front of us – perhaps we might still see some raptors come in to roost. A Short-eared Owl also appeared briefly, perched up on the top of a bush. It sat there for a while, then dropped down again out of view as the rain picked up once more. Again, it felt like we might be out of luck and we walked back to the car to take shelter.

As we stood there watching, finally the weather brightened up a little. The rain stopped and the mist lifted, and there was even a little patch of clear sky which appeared above us. We heard Mistle Thrushes calling, and one flew into the top of fir tree in front of us; a single Redwing flew overhead; a Song Thrush darted across the car park and dived into the hedge.

As the mist lifted, we scanned the marshes to the west again and over towards East Hills, which had emerged from the clouds. Almost immediately we picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier. It flew back and forth for a while, chased by a Carrion Crow. Smaller and slimmer than a Marsh Harrier, we could see the distinctive square white patch at the base of the tail through the scope.

We thought that might be the best of it given the weather this evening and were just thinking about leaving when the bird we had been hoping to see appeared. A stunning silvery-grey male Hen Harrier flew in from the east, chased by a Herring Gull. It shook off its pursuer, then decided to drop in onto one of the low posts out on saltmarsh to preen and dry off before going into roost. It sat there for ages, giving us great views through the scope. Then, with the light fading, it was time to call it a night.

IMG_2645Hen Harrier – a male out on the sat preening out on the saltmarsh

We were still not completely finished. On our way back to Titchwell Manor, we stopped to admire a Barn Owl quartering the fields beside the road. Then it really was time for a well deserved rest.

The following morning, Thursday, we met again and made our way the short distance down the road to the RSPB reserve at Titchwell Marsh. Although the main car park was starting to fill up (even on a damp mid-week November morning!), it was still early enough that the overflow car park was quiet. There were lots of finches feeding in the bushes which were still full of berries – Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Goldfinches. We could hear two Bullfinches calling from opposite sides and a female hopped up into the sallows in front of us before flying off in the direction of the other call. We heard a Brambling call, but it flew off unseen as we rounded the corner.

There were several thrushes here too – Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, and one or two Redwings calling as they flew out of the bushes. A smart Jay flew down to the grassy edge in front of us, where it picked up an acorn and flew off with it. There were no oak trees nearby – perhaps it had stashed it there earlier?

P1120291Jay – picked up an acorn from the grass

We walked out onto the reserve and stopped by the still drained grazing marsh pool. Almost the first bird we saw as we scanned across was a smart Water Pipit. The more we looked, the more we saw – there were at least four Water Pipits out on the mud this morning. We got a good look at them in the scope, noting the neatly black-streaked white underparts and pale supercilium. At one point we even had two Water Pipits and a duller, darker, swarthier Rock Pipit in the same view together – a great comparison of these closely related species.

With only a few puddles, there were not surprisingly few other birds – singles of Redshank, Dunlin and Little Egret. We had heard several Cetti’s Warblers singing as we walked out and one flew across the reeds in front of us, giving the classic glimpse of a Cetti’s Warbler. It was another cloudy morning, but then it started to rain so we made a dash for Island Hide and some shelter.

We had seen lots of Lapwings take off from the reserve and fly off inland as we walked out. Once we got near the hide, we could hear why. The reserve staff were strimming the vegetation along the edge of freshmarsh and all the birds had fled over into the far corner. They were all bunched up together, a huge flock of mainly Teal and Lapwing.

As we started to scan through, we began to pick up some other birds amongst them. There were six Avocets, all asleep at first although we did manage to see them awake later. A few Black-tailed Godwits were feeding up to their bellies in the deeper water, all mostly in grey winter plumage now. A little flock of Dunlin was scampering about on the exposed mud. Among the Lapwing, we managed to find a single Ruff. In with the Teal, there were lots of Gadwall and a few Shoveler. A flock of Brent Geese flew in from the direction of Brancaster and dropped down onto the water to bathe and preen.

Thankfully it didn’t rain for long, and that was to be the only rain we saw this morning. After it stopped, we decided to make our way out towards the beach while the weather was clear. At the Volunteer Marsh, we paused to admire a Greenshank tucked down in a little muddy channel. It was trying to sleep but kept getting buffeted by the wind. It was standing on one leg, but we could see that that one at least was reassuringly the correct colour – green.

IMG_2651Greenshank – trying to sleep in a muddy channel on the Volunteer Marsh

A single Black-tailed Godwit was feeding in the channel right beside the path, giving us a great chance to watch it up close. As it bent down to probe its bill deep into the mud it would periodically lower its tail so we could see the black feathers from which it gets its name.

IMG_2668Black-tailed Godwit – showing off how flexible its bill is

Scanning across the mud, we could also see lots of Shelduck and a scattering of waders – several Curlew, Grey Plover and Redshank.

P1120306Redshank – note its rather dark grey colouration

Out on the Tidal Pools, there were more birds today, with some of them probably sheltering from the disturbance out on the freshmarsh as well as roosting over high tide out on the beach. There were several little groups of Wigeon and Brent Geese feeding on the islands of saltmarsh. In with the Teal out on the water, we picked out five Pintail. Unfortunately there was no sign of a smart drake today, but they are still very elegant ducks.

There were a few waders out on the mud – several more Black-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Redshank and Dunlin. Then out in the deeper water we spotted two paler waders, feeding feverishly up to their bellies, jabbing their bills rapidly into the water. We couldn’t see their red legs at first, until one of them came out onto the mud to preen, but they were Spotted Redshanks – much paler than the Common Redshanks, whiter below and silvery grey above, with a longer, needle fine tipped bill.

IMG_2682Spotted Redshank – paler than Common Redshank with a longer, finer bill

Out on the beach, the tide was fast coming in. The rocks were covered but there were still lots of Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits standing on the water’s edge. Several silvery-white Sanderling were running in and out of the waves and a single Turnstone was patrolling the beach. Pushed up by the rising tide, they eventually had enough and flew off to roost as we stood there. A few Knot flew past as well.

Out on the sea, the first thing we could see was a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers. They were not too far out and correspondingly easy to see, although they were diving constantly. In fact, there were pretty good numbers of Red-breasted Merganser offshore today. Also close in, a single winter-plumaged Red-throated Diver was preening just offshore. Further out, there were several Great Crested Grebes on the water and we picked up a single Long-tailed Duck, though it was hard to make out much detail on it at that range. Small flocks of Common Scoters were flying round but even further out in the haze, towards the Lincolnshire coast! A couple of Gannet flew past.

We wanted to have a look in at Parrinder Hide, so we set off back. We stopped briefly to admire a Little Egret feeding on the Volunteer Marsh on our way. It was using its feet to try to disturb fish from the muddy bottom of the channel – we could see it moving its legs whenever it stood still, staring down into the water.

P1120318Little Egret – fishing on the Volunteer Marsh

The warden had stopped strimming now and the birds had started to spread back out over the whole of the freshmarsh. There were a few more waders in, including several bright-spangled Golden Plover, but nothing else that we hadn’t seen more distantly earlier. However, the highlight was a very smart Common Snipe which walked along the water’s edge and started feeding just below the front of the hide, giving us stunning close-up views. When it wasn’t moving it was remarkably well camouflaged in among the dried out cut rushes and reeds.

P1120405Common Snipe – feeding right in front of Parrinder Hide

We walked back round via Meadow Trail and out towards Patsy’s Reedbed, stopping on the way to watch a flock of Long-tailed Tits which came through the trees above our heads. There were fewer ducks on Patsy’s than in recent weeks, though three Tufted Ducks provided a welcome addition to the trip list. A couple more Snipe were feeding along the shore and lots of Black-tailed Godwit and Lapwing were mostly sleeping on the islands.

Then it was time for us to head back for a late lunch at Titchwell Manor before the tour concluded. Despite the weather being at times inclement it had been a remarkably successful couple of days with an excellent list of species seen, including a couple of more unusual visitors, late migrants and a selection of our regular wintering birds. Great birding.

21st November 2014 – Raptors, Geese & Ducks

Day 1 of a 3 day tour today. With the number of birds at Holkham recently, this seemed like a great place to start – to try to get some of the local specialities and lingering rarities in the bag.

No sooner had we arrived at Lady Anne’s Drive than a large flock of ducks and geese erupted from the grazing marsh. It might have been expected to have been due to one of the local Marsh Harriers which are ever-present here, but a quick look revealed it actually to be a ringtail Hen Harrier, a real treat. We watched it as it flew towards us, across Lady Anne’s Drive and away to the east. A Marsh Harrier duly followed behind shortly afterwards.

P1090882Hen Harrier – over the grazing marsh this morning

With the weather this morning proving to be surprisingly bright, we decided to head out to the beach first thing to scan the bay. On our way out, there were lots of Skylarks and we stopped to watch a small group feeding on the edge of the dunes. A small flock of Brent Geese flew in and landed on the saltmarsh. Once again it was pleasing to see a nice proportion of stripy-backed juveniles amongst them, and to watch the various family squabbles as they fed.

P1090886Brent Geese – lots of stripy juveniles were in the flock on the saltmarsh

Scanning through this group, one bird stood out. It was subtly darker, slightly more blackish on the back and belly than the other Brents – our regular wintering birds are from Russia, of the ‘Dark-bellied’ bernicla race. Its white flank patch was more obvious and contrasting and the white collar more striking. We get occasional birds, so-called Black Brants from North America and East Siberia (of the race nigricans), amongst the wintering Brents here, but these are even blacker with more solid and brighter flanks and collars. Our bird was actually a hybrid Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent, a returning bird and the product of a lost Black Brant from some years before which had paired and subsequently bred with one of our Brents. It was great to see it again and a very interesting and instructive bird for the group.

P1090897Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid – lurking amongst the Brents

Out on the beach, we scanned the bay for ducks, grebes and divers. There are lots of Common Scoters now gathered offshore and it didn’t take us long to pick up several Velvet Scoters in amongst them, including several very smart drakes. There is also a good number of Great Crested Grebes in the bay and several were diving just off the beach. Suddenly a much smaller grebe appeared amongst them – a winter-plumaged Slavonian Grebe. Being so close inshore, we got a great view of it and it was particularly good to be able to compare it to the much larger Great Cresteds. The Red-throated Divers were not quite so accommodating, and kept diving!

Looking out to sea, we could see a steady trickle of Blackbirds and thrushes flying in from Scandinavia, in ones and twos. Suddenly a Peregrine appeared, flying fast low over the waves. Following it, we could see that it was after a Blackbird which was struggling in low over the water. Then a second Peregrine appeared and the two of them took turns to swoop down at the poor bird. Somehow it made it to the beach, but there the falcons would surely be able to catch it as it would have to cross the vast open expanse of sand? At one point, they forced it down into a pool but miraculously it took off again and, jinking out of the way of the harrying Peregrines it dived into the dunes. Quite an amazing thing to watch!

At first we couldn’t locate the North American Surf Scoter which has been hanging out with the local Velvet Scoters for some weeks now. However, a timely phone call alerted us to its presence further up the beach. A quick walk along and we could see the bird slightly distantly offshore. Thankfully the group it was with took off and flew towards us – we got a great view of the Surf Scoter as it came past. It was also good to see the Velvet Scoters in flight, showing the diagnostic white trailing edge to their inner wings. A Scaup was also hiding in with them, but we couldn’t find it as the flock landed again on the sea. Having enjoyed the ducks, we had a quick walk along the beach to see if we could locate any Snow Buntings, but by now it was rather too disturbed with dog walkers, so we headed back to the car for lunch.

P1090899Pink-footed Geese – a small group were close to Lady Anne’s Drive

In the afternoon, we headed west on the inland side of the pines. There were a few Pink-footed Geese in the fields by Lady Anne’s Drive as we set off which we got a closer look at. At Salts Hole, we stopped to look at the Little Grebes and a pair of Wigeon out on the water. There were large flocks of Wigeon out on the grazing marsh and the walk was accompanied by their incessant whistling, as well as the high-pitched honking of more Pink-footed Geese which were starting to gather on the marshes. On the edge of the pines, we paused to watch several Goldcrests and a Treecreeper. We encountered several mixed tit flocks and heard a couple of lingering Chiffchaffs.

At the western end of the pines, we stood for a while and scanned over the grazing marshes. There was a good selection of raptors on view – several Marsh Harriers, a couple of Common Buzzards, Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk. We walked a bit further and climbed up into the dunes to get a better view and finally the Rough-legged Buzzard appeared, initially flying off and disappearing into the dunes before returning a short while later. We watched it for some time, hunting out over the grazing marsh and hovering repeatedly, occasionally landing on the ground.

From our position in the dunes, we also got a great view of the bushes on the inland side, which were now alive with recently arrived thrushes, those that had escaped the trials of marauding Peregrines and gulls offshore. There were lots of Blackbirds, together with a few Redwings, plus a couple of Fieldfare and Song Thrush. A scan through the groups of Pink-footed and Brent Geese on the marshes revealed a couple of Barnacle Geese amongst them.

With the light starting to go, we headed back. Many more Blackbirds and thrushes were looking to go to roost in the bushes by the track. Large flocks of Pink-footed Geese were continuing to arrive in the gloom and the cacophony of noise suggested a significant gathering out on the marshes. Finally a Barn Owl flashed out in front of us. Fortunately, we got back to the car just before the rain started.

P1090902Jay – there are lots in the pines at the moment