Tag Archives: Smew

16th Jan 2019 – A Big Day on the Coast

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

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

barn owl

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

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

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

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

snow buntings 1

Snow Buntings – very well camouflaged on the shingle

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

glaucous gull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

black brant hybrid

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

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

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

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

shorelark

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

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

snow buntings 2

Snow Buntings – another 20 were at Holkham today

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

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

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

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

white-fronted geese

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

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

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

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

water rail

Water Rail – lurking in the ditch by the main path

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

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

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

redshank

Common Redshank – on Volunteer Marsh as we passed

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

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

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

twite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

smew

Smew – still at Snettisham on one of the pits today

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

short-eared owl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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13th Jan 2019 – Midwinter Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Winter Tour today, our last day. Having explored the North Norfolk coast to the east yesterday, we were heading west today. It was a very windy day today, and mostly cloudy although we thankfully managed to almost all of the showers.

We made a quick visit to Wells Harbour first thing. There has been a Glaucous Gull around the Wells / Holkham area the last few days and, although the seal pup carcass it had been feeding on is now all gone, we thought there was an outside chance it might be roosting with the other gulls in the harbour still. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Glaucous Gull, but we did see a Guillemot diving among the boats in the outer dock, along with a couple of Little Grebes.

We had a quick look out on the sandbanks in the harbour, and could see a good number of waders feeding out there. They were mostly Oystercatchers, but we found a few Curlews and a single Bar-tailed Godwit feeding along the edge of the channel and two more distant Grey Plovers, up on the mudflats beyond.

A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers were diving on the far side of the channel, moving quickly with the tide but hard to see in the choppy water. When they got to the tip of the sandspit, they hauled themselves out onto the point where they were a bit easier to see. Another pair of Red-breasted Mergansers swam across the channel much further out.

red-breasted mergansers

Red-breasted Mergansers – this pair were in the harbour channel

As we carried on our way west, we turned inland and had a quick drive round some of the minor roads through Choseley. There had been a Rough-legged Buzzard seen here a couple of times over the last few days, but there was no obvious sign of it where it had been.

The hedges along the roadsides were rather quiet today. We found a small flock of Chaffinches and Goldfinches, and four Skylarks fluttering up over a grassy meadow by the road. A cover strip planted by a thick hedge held lots of Reed Buntings and a couple of Yellowhammers, which were nice to see, but even here there were not as many birds as usual. Perhaps it was due to the wind? A Fieldfare in the top of a tree across the road was calling.

Our first destination proper for the morning was Snettisham. As we made our way down towards the Wash, we stopped to look at a smart drake Goldeneye on one of the gravel pits – the first of many we would see here! Three Tufted Ducks were on the pits too, an addition to the weekend’s list.

goldeneye

Goldeneye – there were several on the pits at Snettisham

Up on the seawall, it was just a little before high tide but it was not going to be a big tide today so a large expanse of mud would remain uncovered. Several thousand Golden Plover were gathered in a huge flock on the mud, and a big black smear on the beach to the north was a large roosting flock of Oystercatchers. When we turned the scope to look towards them, we could see a small group of eight Pintail on the edge of the water too.

golden plover 1

Golden Plover – several thousand were resting out on the Wash

There were more waders down along the edge of the channel below us. Here we could see several Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Dunlin. We were just having a closer look at them in the scope when suddenly everything spooked. The waders all took off and the huge flock of Golden Plover whirled round in the sky out over the mud. A Sparrowhawk flew in over the seawall, and disappeared off inland – that was why! A Red Kite drifted south just inland of the Pits too, but didn’t cause the same sort of commotion.

golden plover 2

Golden Plover – swirled round when a Sparrowhawk flew over

Continuing on down towards Rotary hide, we could see the Smew on the pit north of the causeway with a small group of Goldeneye. It was diving periodically, but helpfully also staying up for long periods today so we could get a really good look at it through the scope. It is a ‘redhead’, a term which includes both adult female Smew and first winter birds which are rather similar. We could see its rusty cap and white cheeks.

smew

Smew – the ‘redhead’ still on the pits

The Goldeneye were mostly drakes, with one female. The female appeared to be paired up already and when one of the other drakes started displaying, swimming around with its head up, the drake from the pair swam after it, with its head held down close to the water, neck outstretched. There were lots of other birds on the pits. Lots of Wigeon and Greylag Geese, together with smaller numbers of Shoveler. A couple of Little Grebes were busily diving here too.

We had a walk round to look for the Short-eared Owl which normally roosts here, but strangely there was no sign of it in its usual spot today. There is lots of disturbance at the south end of the Pit at the moment, as contractors have begun work on the foundations of the new hide, so perhaps all the commotion has disturbed the owl. It began to drizzle very lightly at this point, so with all the disturbance we decided against walking all the way round the Pit and headed back to the car. Thankfully the drizzle quickly cleared.

Our next stop was at Thornham Harbour. It was very exposed out on the open saltmarsh in the wind. Several people with binoculars and cameras were milling around in the car park. The tide was still high in the harbour channel, but there was a bit of exposed mud by the sluice, where a couple of Redshank and a Curlew were feeding. We managed to get a good look at a Black-tailed Godwit feeding down on the mud here too.

We were about to walk up onto the seawall when we noticed some movement down in the vegetation on the edge of the saltmarsh below. We looked down to see a Goldfinch and a Twite feeding together. The more we looked, the more Twite we could see, but they were perfectly camouflaged and mostly hidden in the dead vegetation.

With a bit of patience, one or two of the Twite emerged to feed on some stems where we could see them, and we got a good look at them through the scope. We could see their orange breasts and distinctive yellow bills. Three of the flock were colour-ringed – showing these are birds which breed in the Pennines and come here for the winter.

Suddenly for no reason the Twite flew up and out across the harbour. Now we could see there were 14 of them in total. They circled round and landed on the roof of the old coal barn, where we could just see them through the scope on the tiles. Then after a few minutes they came back again, flying round in front of us, before they landed on the top of some seedheads right by the path just below us. Great views! Then they flew back down to where they had been feeding before, below the bank out of the wind, and mostly disappeared again.

twite

Twite – the flock of 14 was feeding in the harbour again

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way round to Titchwell. A Robin was perched in the tree by the car as we got out, and as we looked over at it one of the group spotted something look out round the back of one of the trees beyond. It was a Woodcock, but unfortunately it immediately disappeared back behind the tree before anyone else could see it and despite looking from various angles it didn’t reappear.

We made good use of the picnic tables by the Visitor Centre for lunch. There were lots of birds on the feeders – Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches, plus a few tits too – Blue and Great Tit, Coal Tit and Long-tailed Tit. A Brambling appeared briefly on the ground with the Chaffinches, but unfortunately it was behind a tree from where we were sitting and flew back into cover. Thankfully it reappeared after a couple of minutes and we had good views of it, on the ground, in the bushes, and then up onto one of the feeders. Bramblings have been rather scarce here so far this winter, so this was a good one to see.

brambling

Brambling – on the feeders by the Visitor Centre

After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. Scanning the ditch by the path as we went, we quickly located a Water Rail. It was well hidden under a tangle of branches at first, though the ripples in the water gave its location away. Eventually it came out more into the open where we could get a really good look at it. A few metres further on, we then spotted another Water Rail in the ditch on the other side of the path – two for the price of one!

water rail

Water Rail – one of two in the ditch by the path today

We had a quick look on Thornham grazing marsh where the drained pool is now getting very overgrown. We could hear Bearded Tits ‘pinging’ from the reeds but they were keeping tucked well down out of the wind today – not an ideal day to look for them! Four Marsh Harriers were already hanging in the air over the reedbed the other side – at least they appeared to be enjoying the wind. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in chattering, and landed on Freshmarsh.

The water level on the Freshmarsh is high for the winter at the moment. There were a few ducks on here – mostly Teal, plus a few Shoveler and Shelduck – but otherwise it looked fairly empty. A handful of Lapwings were roosting on the one remaining small island close to the path.

We made our way round to Parrinder Hide, where we could get out of the wind. Looking into the larger fenced-off island, we eventually found the Water Pipit. It was tricky to see, feeding down in the cut vegetation, but eventually we all got a good look at it. Two Skylarks were creeping around on there too. And there were several Golden Plover and a few Wigeon on the island as well.

On our way out to the beach, we had a quick look over the wall where a Grey Plover was feeding on Volunteer Marsh the other side. There were more waders along the channel at the far side, looking out from the main path – Black-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Redshanks and several more Grey Plover. We got one in Grey Plover in the scope for a closer look. A Little Egret was feeding down in the muddy channel too.

little egret

Little Egret – on the Volunteer Marsh

There didn’t seem to be much on the no-longer-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ – they are very full of water at the moment after recent big tides, and the water doesn’t drain off any more. There were a few more ducks on here, including four Pintails. We watched one pair feeding out on the water, upending, the drake showing off his long tail.

Out at the beach, the tide was still just going out. The first thing we saw was two female Common Eider on the beach, shortly after joined by a third which flew in and landed with them. The mussel beds were still covered by the sea, but there were plenty of Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling down on the sand. More Bar-tailed Godwits were flying in, presumably coming out of their roost sites on the falling tide, and a flock of Knot flew past just offshore.

There was not much out on the sea this afternoon. Scanning over the water, we found a single Common Scoter and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser. When a squall appeared out over the mouth of the Wash, we could just see one or two Little Gulls way out on the front edge of it. As the squall passed over the sea, three Little Gulls came past much closer. As they dipped down to the water, we could see the black underwings of the adults.

The light was starting to go now, so we made our way back to the Freshmarsh. We were planning to watch all the birds coming in to roost here this evening. As we stood on the bank, we could already see lots of Marsh Harriers whirling around over the reedbed. More and more came up into the air, until we counted over 40 in the sky together, quite an impressive sight!

There were a few gulls in already, bobbing on the water, but none seemed to be coming in from the fields yet, waiting perhaps due to the wind. An Avocet had now appeared on the small island close to the path, sheltering behind the far edge with the gulls. The wind seemed to pick up again now and we looked round behind us to see a patch of threatening cloud coming in from west, so we retreated to the shelter of Parrinder Hide again.

We continued to watch the Marsh Harriers from the hide, and after a while a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared in with them. It whisked through very quickly though, away over the bank towards Brancaster. We waited to see if it would return and then two ringtail Hen Harriers appeared again, in with the Marsh Harriers. All the birds were very active, flying back and forth over the reeds, in and out of the bushes, occasionally breaking the skyline. The light was really going now, but we could see the pale underside of the Hen Harriers flashing as they turned, and the distinctive white square at the base of their tail on the upperside.

The trees behind the harriers were filling up with Little Egrets, coming in to roost too. As it started to get dark, the gulls finally started to fly in from the fields, but it was getting too dark to see clearly now. It was time to head for us to head for home.

6th Jan 2019 – Looking for Owls

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

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

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

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

little egret

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

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

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

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

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

little owl

Little Owl – hiding in a stack of wooden pallets

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

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

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

red kite

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

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

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

golden plover

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

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

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

smew

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

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

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under its usual bramble bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

great white egret

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

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

white-fronted geese

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

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

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

barn owl 1

Barn Owl – just waking up before heading out to hunt

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

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

barn owl 2

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

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

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

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

4th Feb 2017 – Four Owls & More

An Owl Tour today. It was a nice start to the day, with a light frost and some sunshine first thing. It did cloud over during the day, but then the sun came out again late afternoon – good owling weather!

The day started with a drive round some grazing meadows which are regular hunting grounds for Barn Owls. With the bright start to the day, we thought this might have persuaded them to stay up, but it appeared they had gone in to roost already. We stopped for a short walk at one point, which did produce a nice selection of other birds. A Treecreeper feeding in an alder by the path, a flock of Long-tailed Tits moving quickly through the trees, Siskins flying over, a Little Egret and several Curlews feeding in a field.

6o0a6030Treecreeper – feeding in the alders by the path this morning

We decided to head off to look for Little Owls instead, in the hope we could still find one perched out enjoying the warmth after a frosty night. There was also a chance we might encounter a Barn Owl on our drive.

At the first set of barns we tried, we were in luck. Tucked up under the lip of the roof tiles was a Little Owl. We stopped some distance back along the road and got out of the car, so we could get it in the scope. We all had a good look at it, and with dog walkers going past without disturbing it, we decided to get a little closer. It stayed put, watching us, its feathers fluffed up.

img_0334Little Owl – watching us from under the lip of a roof

At one point the Little Owl hopped up and disappeared into the roof, under the tiles, but a few seconds later it came out again and resumed watching us. It seemed perfectly happy sitting out, despite the fact the sun had gone behind the clouds now. After a while, when it disappeared into the roof a second time, we decided to move on.

After our session with the Little Owl, the morning was getting on now, and it seemed less likely we would find a Barn Owl still perched out, particularly in the absence of the sun. Still, there is another complex of barns just a short distance from here and we thought it was worth a look anyway. It was lucky we did. As we pulled up in front, there were no owls perched around the barns but we looked up along the road to see a Barn Owl coming towards us, hunting the verges.

We hopped quickly out of the car, but it looked like the Barn Owl was heading directly in to roost, as it flew into the back of the barns. We were pleasantly surprised therefore when it flew straight through and out again on our side, where it landed on a wall right in front of us. Stunning views!

6o0a6100Barn Owl – landed on a wall right in front of us

The Barn Owl stood for a couple of minutes on the wall, looking round, seemingly unconcerned by our presence, before flying round and disappearing into one of the farm buildings to roost. We had got there just in the nick of time! While Barn Owls will regularly hunt during daylight hours if they need food, particularly at this time of year, they have not been doing it so regularly this winter. It may be because they are not hungry this year, possibly after rather mild and clement weather. To see one like this was therefore a real bonus.

That was a great way to start an Owl Tour – with such good views of Little Owl and Barn Owl already by this stage of the morning. As we stood reflecting on our fortune, a couple of Common Buzzards circled up out of a wood beyond and a Red Kite appeared over the field behind us. We decided to make our way back towards the coast.

As we drove through farmland, we saw several Brown Hares in the fields, reminding us that mad March is not far away now and ‘boxing’ season is almost upon us. We flushed several Bullfinches from the hedgerows as we passed, disappearing ahead of us with a flash of white rump. We did make one more stop on our way, at another regular site for Little Owls, but there was no sign of any here while we were there. We did see a couple of Stock Doves on the roof of one of the buildings. Given the great views of Little Owl we had already enjoyed, we weren’t too worried about not seeing another here and therefore didn’t linger long.

Down at Cley, there had been a Glaucous Gull in the meadows along Beach Road for the last couple of days. As we drove down towards the beach, there was no sign of it, just a first winter Great Black-backed Gull where it had been. We turned round in the car park at the end, noting the way the recent storm surge had pushed the shingle further into the parking area and beach shelter. As we drove back up the road a large pale shape appeared from the other side of the West Bank and flew over the road in front of us. It was the Glaucous Gull, right on cue.

The Glaucous Gull landed down on the grass, beside the Great Black-backed Gull. We found a convenient place to park and got out. The Glaucous Gull was completely unconcerned at our presence, and soon another couple of cars had joined us. We had great close-up views of it – a juvenile, pale biscuit coloured with paler wing tips and a distinctive pink-based, black-tipped bill.

6o0a6164Glaoucous Gull – this juvenile showed very well by Beach Road

A big bruiser of a gull, Glaucous Gulls breed in the arctic. Several were blown south by strong northerly winds earlier in January and continue to delight the crowds here. This particular Glaucous Gull has apparently been feeding on the carcass of a dead seal, washed up after the floods. We decided to leave the gathering crowds and move on.

Round at the other side of Cley, we headed out for a walk along the East Bank. There were lots of Blackbirds alarm calling in North Foreland wood, but we couldn’t see what they were agitated by. A Grey Heron flew up out of the trees circled round and landed in the tops, and that seemed to calm them somewhat.

There were not so many ducks out on Pope’s Marsh and the Serpentine today, but still there was a nice selection. A smart drake Pintail woke up and swam out onto the water just to show off its long tail to us! Several Shoveler were asleep as were most of the Teal, but a couple of drakes were swimming around at the front of the Serpentine. But there was no sign of the Smew in with them today. A female Marsh Harrier circled round over the reedbed in front of us. We could hear Bearded Tits calling, and glimpsed them several times as they flew quickly over the tops of the reeds, but they didn’t come down to the ditch to bathe or drink today.

6o0a6168Marsh Harrier – a female, quartering over the reedbed

Arnold’s Marsh was full of waders. They were mostly Dunlin and Redshank, but we managed to find a couple of Ringed Plover in with them too. Over at the back, we could see lots of Gadwall and several Shelduck. A quick look at the sea produced a handful of Red-throated Divers and a Guillemot out on the water. As it was nearing lunchtime, we made our way back to the car. As we got back to the car park, a Tawny Owl hooted from North Foreland Wood. A nice surprise, though it is not that unusual to hear them hooting in the middle of the day sometimes.

We stopped for lunch at the Visitor Centre. We had a quick scan of the pools from the car park when we arrived, but could not see anything out of the ordinary. Some Black-tailed Godwits feeding on Simmond’s Scrape were a nice addition to the day’s list. However, while we were eating, one of the helpful staff from the Cley Spy shop next to the visitor centre came out and shouted across to us. The redhead Smew had appeared on Pat’s Pool – and he had spotted it from his vantage point higher up above us. We had a good look at it through the scope, swimming out on the water amongst the Shelduck. Then as quickly as it had appeared, the Smew disappeared from view again. A real bonus, with many thanks to Cley Spy staff!

After lunch, we made our way further east. We made a quick stop at the Iron Road to admire the large flock of Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh by Attenborough’s Walk. A Ruff was nearby on the wet grass, at least until it flew off, but not before we had a look at it through the scope.

6o0a6193Brent Geese – feeding on the grazing meadows at Salthouse

There has been a large flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding in a harvested sugar beet field at Weybourne for several weeks now. When we pulled up, we were glad to see there was still a good number here today, although possibly down a touch in total, but perhaps still a thousand or more. The Pink-footed Geese are characterised by their pink legs and feet, plus the pink band around their otherwise mostly dark bill. They come here in the winter in their thousands from Iceland, particularly to feed on the tops and bits of beet left over after the sugar beet has been harvested.

A quick scan through them revealed a couple of pairs of day-glo orange legs, a pair of Tundra Bean Geese. They are superficially very similar to the Pink-footed Geese, but the Tundra Bean Geese have bright orange legs and feet and an orange bank around the bill. We had a look at them in the scope, a great opportunity to compare side by side with the Pinkfeet. A careful scan of the flock also revealed another three Tundra Bean Geese further over, towards the back of the field.

img_0369Tundra Bean Goose – in with a large flock of Pink-footed Geese

Tundra Bean Geese breed on the arctic tundra and winter mostly on the continent. We are at the western edge of the wintering range and get a variable number of them each year in with the bigger flocks of Pinkfeet. This has been a great winter for them, and they are always nice birds to see in the huge flocks of geese.

While we were watching the geese, all the Woodpigeons suddenly erupted from a neighbouring field. We looked up to see a Peregrine flying steadily across the field in front of us. All the geese looked distinctly unconcerned! The Peregrine flew down towards the cliffs, but then turned and came back past again. It was staring down intently and obviously thought it was on to something because it made another pass across the field and back again, before disappearing inland.

6o0a6224Peregrine – made several passes over the field in front of us

With one eye on the clock, it was getting on towards owl time again, so we made our way back along the coast to Blakeney. At the duckpond, the regular presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull was standing around waiting for feeding time. Darker backed than a Herring Gull, it is not as dark as a Lesser Black-backed Gull and its legs are an intermediate colour, neither pink nor yellow. It is a regular source of confusion for the unwary!

6o0a6243Presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull – often at the duckpond

As we walked out along the seawall, one of the group asked if there was any chance of seeing some Bearded Tits, having missed them at Cley earlier. We don’t often see them here but, just by coincidence as we were walking along, another birder called to us to say he was watching a group of Bearded Tits just a short distance further ahead of us. We were soon watching them too through the scope, feeding on the tops of the reeds, swinging around and clambering about in the stems.

img_0385Bearded Tit – a male feeding in the reeds

There were three Bearded Tits at first, two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and a paler female. Then we heard calling and another pair flew in to join them. Great to watch! There were also a couple of Little Grebes and a Tufted Duck on the larger pool at Blakeney Barnett and a couple of Water Rails squealed unseen from the reeds.

Further along, we stopped at the corner and scanned the harbour. The tide was out and there were lots of waders on the mud. Amongst the masses of Dunlin on the near edge of the channel, we found a few Grey Plover and a single Knot. There were quite a few Black-tailed Godwits close to, but the Bar-tailed Godwits were further over, in the bottom of the Pit.

As the sun started to drop towards the west, it came out below the clouds and we were treated to some glorious winter afternoon light. Perhaps this would tempt the owls out early this afternoon? As we stood and scanned , we could see a Marsh Harrier perched on a bush out in the reeds. Another Marsh Harrier perched out on the saltmarsh the other side was bearing green wing tags but was unfortunately too far away to read the code. A Common Buzzard was perched on a bush nearby. Then we picked up a Barn Owl. It was a long distance away, across the other side of the Freshes, but we could see it as it flew up over the reeds and it seemed to be working its way round to our side.

While we were trying to keep tabs on the Barn Owl, we caught sight of another pale bird way off in the distance, flying low over the reeds. It was a male Hen Harrier. Thankfully it made its way steadily towards us, hunting low over the grass. It crossed the path ahead of us and did a circuit of the saltmarsh before cutting back and out across the Freshes again. It looked truly stunning in the afternoon sun, occasionally jinking from side to side and even flipping over at one point! Such a shame these magnificent creatures are still persecuted, such a delight to watch.

6o0a6268Hen Harrier – a stunning male hunting in the afternoon sun

After watching bewitched by the Hen Harrier for several minuted, when we looked back towards where the Barn Owl had been we couldn’t see any sign of it any more. However, while we were scanning we caught a half glimpse of a shape disappearing behind a bank low over the grass in the distance. It was a Short-eared Owl.

We walked quickly round to the other side to look for it and although there was no sign of it hunting one of the group quickly spotted the Short-eared Owl perched on a post. We just had enough time to get it in the scope and everyone had a quick look at it before it was flushed by some walkers on the bank ahead of us. It flew across the Glaven channel and started hunting along the edge of Blakeney Point. We watched it flying up and down, the distinctive rowing flight action on stiff wings, dropping down into the grass occasionally.

Time was getting on now. We had a long walk to get back to the car and an appointment with some Tawny Owls to keep. So we left the Short-eared Owl to its hunting and made our way back. We got to the woods just in time for the start of the evening’s activities, with a Tawny Owl hooting already just as we got out of the car, the earliest riser of the three regular hooting males here. We made our way round to the area where one the males has been roosting. After a short wait, we got a quick hoot from him, alerting us to where it was hiding. It had moved roosts again, back to where it had been a couple of weeks ago, high in the top of an ivy-covered tree. After a couple of minutes it flew out and landed on a bare branch briefly, before dropping back through the trees.

The Tawny Owl flew towards the other area where it likes to roost and it wasn’t long before we heard it hooting again. This time we managed to get it in the scope, although it was silhouetted against the last of the afternoon’s light. When it flew again – a surprisingly big and heavy owl on broad rounded wings – it landed much closer to us in the top of a tree, where we could see it perched. It then flew across in front of us and over the path, disappearing into the trees the other side. That might have been it, but a quick whistle and it flew back across the path again, perched up briefly, before dropping back away through the trees.

The light was fading fast now but, as we walked back to the car, we were serenaded by three different Tawny Owls hooting all around us. A great way to end a very successful Owl Tour.