Tag Archives: Snow Bunting

17th Nov 2019 – Autumn to Winter, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. After a misty start, the sun came out and the skies cleared, and it was a lovely bright sunny late autumn / early winter’s day. Great weather to be out.

It was very misty out on the grazing marshes when we arrived at Holkham and drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive. The sun was already starting to burn off the mist as we parked and got out of the car. We could see a couple of Pink-footed Geese in the field right by the north end of the Drive, along with a lone Brent Goose. Another two Pinkfeet flew over calling.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – two were feeding right by Lady Anne’s Drive

There were clearly lots of birds in the hedge on the south side of the trees, so we stopped for a closer look.  The hawthorns were full of Redwings, feeding on the berries, along with a few Song Thrushes, presumably all fresh arrivals from the continent overnight, coming in for the winter. One Redwing was perched on the edge, enjoying the early sun as the mist lifted. Several then dropped down onto the grass in the middle of the grazing marsh to feed, in amongst the ubiquitous Woodpigeons.

A small group of Bullfinches flew along the hedge, flashing their white rumps. A smart pink male perched up in the hawthorns briefly, but quickly dropped back into cover. Four Greenfinches appeared in the trees nearby but quickly flew off east. Then a flash of a small pale bird flying along the brambles stretching out across the far side of the grass, turned out to be a female Blackcap once it landed and we got it in the scope.

The new café, ‘The Lookout’, wasn’t open yet, but we took advantage of the raised ground around it as a vantage point to scan the grazing marshes to the east. A couple of Stonechats perched up in the top of the reeds, waiting for it to warm up. A Common Buzzard flew across and landed on a concrete block out in the middle; nearby a second Buzzard was perched in the top of the hedge.

As we walked through pines, we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees. Out onto the edge of the saltmarsh, we turned right and walked along the path below the pines. It was rather quiet along here today, and when we got to the new cordon, erected to help protect the Shorelarks from disturbance, there was no sign of them.

The Shorelarks often like to feed on the beach too, so we continued on to look for them there. We could see a long line of Cormorants drying their wings out on the sand bar beyond. Several gulls were feeding just offshore, mainly Black-headed Gulls, flying up and down over a narrow strip of water, dipping regularly down to pick food from the surface. A couple of gulls were slightly larger, bulkier, with pure white wing tips – two adult Mediterranean Gulls. Then a much smaller gull flew in to join the same group, a dainty Little Gull flashing its dark underwings.

While scanning back and forth through the gulls, another white shape bobbing on the sea caught our eye. As we focused in, we could see it was an Avocet! Swimming out on the sea! This is not something Avocets normally do, although most waders are capable of swimming short distances if required. We assumed it had only landed briefly, but over the following 15 minutes or so we were on the beach, it remained happily out on the sea. Seemingly there were a few Avocets on the move today, with other birds seen flying along the coast, so perhaps this was just a tired migrant stopping for a rest? Whatever it was doing there, it was bizarre to see it!

With a very calm sea, there were not so many duck visible today (they were presumably feeding further out). We did find a flock of Red-breasted Mergansers closer in, off the sandbar. There were a few Gannets flying back and forth offshore too, and when we focused the scope on two distant Gannets resting on the sea, we could see one or two Guillemots on the water in front of them.

There had been a few Meadow Pipits and Skylarks flying over calling, but then we heard the Shorelarks and we turned to see them flying in to the cordoned off area on the saltmarsh behind us. We walked back round for a closer look, and when we got to where the Shorelarks were, we heard Snow Buntings calling. We looked across to the other side of the cordon to see three Snow Buntings fly in and drop down on the edge of the dunes at the back. We didn’t know where to look first!

After a look at the Snow Buntings first, we turned our attention back to the Shorelarks. Very obligingly, they flew across and landed down on the saltmarsh in front of where we were standing. They are very well camouflaged when they are feeding down in the vegetation, and they were hard to count at first, but eventually everyone who was counting managed to see all 12 of them. When they put their heads up, you can see their yellow faces and black bandit masks, and it was a perfect day for watching them today. Their yellow faces glowed in the morning sun, which was shining from behind us. Stunning!

Shorelarks 1

Shorelarks – there were 12 today on the saltmarsh

Shorelarks 2

Shorelarks – their yellow faces shone in the sunshine

Shorelarks are very scarce winter visitors from Scandinavia, in variable numbers from year to year, and Holkham is a very traditional site for them. They feed on the seedheads out on the saltmarsh here. Hopefully the new cordon will encourage them to remain here through the winter again.

Having enjoyed great views of the Shorelarks, we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive. ‘The Lookout’ café was now open, so we made a quick stop to use the facilities. A Kingfisher shot across the top of the Drive and disappeared west behind the trees, down the line of the ditch, unfortunately too quick for most to get onto it. A Sparrowhawk was perched on a post in the middle of the grazing marsh.

We walked west from there, on the inland side of the trees. We flushed lots of Blackbirds from down under the trees or the hawthorns as we went. There had clearly been a major arrival overnight from the continent, and more seemed to be arriving now, coming in through the tops of the pines. Three Jays flew across the path and one landed in the poplars.

We could hear tits in the pines and looked up to see a flock of mainly Long-tailed Tits working its way through the tops. A Treecreeper called from somewhere deep in the trees, but we couldn’t see it. A Goldcrest appeared in the pines right above our heads and dropped down to feed low down in a tree right beside us.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – fed just above our heads

There were lots of Mallard on Salts Hole today, and in with them we found at least six Little Grebes, several Coot and three Tufted Duck. A small flock of Wigeon was feeding on the grass beyond, and three Egyptian Geese were calling noisily just behind them. One of the Egyptian Geese flew up into the pine tree, perhaps checking out a potential nest site already.

Two Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds in front of Washington Hide, flushing all the ducks. We could see a small flock of Shoveler circling round. As we started to walk in that direction, we looked back at Salts Hole to see two Water Rails fly out of the reeds. One flew across to the other side but the other turned back. Both disappeared straight into the reeds unfortunately, but we could then hear them squealing to each either from either side.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – there were at least six on Salts Hole today

There were some more Long-tailed Tits in the Holm Oaks along the side of the track and we stopped to watch two Coal Tits chasing each other in and out of the trees. A quick scan from the gate overlooking the grazing marshes revealed a distant flock of Pink-footed Geese and more Wigeon out on the grass.

From up on the boardwalk to Washington Hide, we watched one of the Marsh Harriers quartering over the reeds. It hovered for a couple of seconds and looked like it was going to drop down after something, but then drifted away to the grazing marshes beyond. We were looking straight into the low sun from here – one of the disadvantages of such a nice day at this time of year – so we decided to press on west. There were a few Common Darter dragonflies still out, enjoying the late sunshine, and one was basking on the wood of the boardwalk by the track.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – hunting over the reeds in front of Washington Hide

The pools and grazing marshes in front of Joe Jordan Hide looked rather quiet at first, but a scan of the grass to the west of the hide revealed eight Russian White-fronted Geese with the Greylags. Compared to the Greylags, the Whitefronts were noticeably smaller, with a more delicate pinkish bill surrounded with white at the base. The White-fronted Geese are just returning now for the winter, but numbers here will depend on the weather and food availability on the continent.

There were a couple of people already in the hide when we arrived, and they told us we had just missed a Great White Egret flying past. It was still almost visible away to the east of us, but hidden behind hedge. When a second Great White Egret was then flushed by a Marsh Harrier from the reeds closer to us, the first flew back in and the two of them chased round over the edge of the grazing marsh and in and out of the hedge. One eventually flew back and landed on the far side of the marshes.

Great White Egrets

Great White Egret – two were chasing around the grazing meadows

On the walk back, we bumped into the tit flock again, where we had seen the Goldcrest earlier. It or another Goldcrest was still in the same tree! A Treecreeper appeared in one of the poplars above us and we watched as it worked its way out along the underside of one of the branches. It was then joined by a second Treecreeper briefly, before the two of them flew back deeper into the trees.

Back at ‘The Lookout’, a large flock of Blackbirds came in over the pines and headed off inland. Unfortunately, with the opening of the new café, the picnic tables by Lady Anne’s Drive have been removed (presumably to encourage people to frequent the new establishment!), so we decided to find somewhere else to eat our lunch. There are still some benches at Burnham Overy Staithe, which had the added advantage of a lovely view overlooking the harbour, particularly on a glorious day like today.

After lunch, we had a quick walk out along the seawall. With the tide in, there were a lot of boats sailing up and down the harbour channel and a lot of disturbance as a consequence. There were not to many waders along the sides of the channel at first – a couple of Grey Plover over the far side, and a Curlew down below us which was catching the afternoon sun.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding on the edge of the harbour channel

As we got a bit further out, more waders started to appear. A couple of small flocks of Dunlin flew out of one of the side channels and across the harbour towards us. Several Bar-tailed Godwits landed out on a sandbar in the middle of the channel out towards the dunes and were joined by a few Grey Plover. When another boat sailed towards them, they flew again and came across to our side of the harbour.

Round the corner of the seawall is a muddy bay which is less disturbed by passing boats. A large flock of the Dunlin had all gathered here, feeding feverishly on the mud. Looking through we could see several Ringed Plover with them, their distinctive black ringed faces instantly setting them apart. A few more Grey Plover and Redshanks were scattered around the mud too and the Bar-tailed Godwits flew in to join them. It was nice to see all the waders together, to compare sizes, bill shapes and watch the different ways in which they were feeding.

Bar-tailed Godwits

Bar-tailed Godwits – flushed by a boat and flew in over the harbour

One of the group spotted an Avocet flying across the harbour towards us. It looked like it might drop in with the other waders, but changed its mind and continued on over the seawall towards Holkham.

At the next corner on the seawall, where the path across the grazing marshes meets the bank, a large flock of Brent Geese had gathered to feed on the grass just below us. We could see several stripy-backed juveniles in with the plainer adults, which suggests they have had a better breeding season this year than last. There were also ten or so Barnacle Geese further back, most likely feral birds hopped over the wall from Holkham Park.

One of the adult Brent Geese stood out from the others – it had a much more striking white collar, a slightly paler flank patch and appeared slightly darker, more blackish overall. It is a hybrid Black Brant, an intergrade between two forms of Brent Goose, between our regular Dark-bellied Brent and a Black Brant from NE Siberia or NW North America. It is an old friend – it returns to exactly the same fields every winter, showing us just how site faithful all these geese are.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – the regular returning bird was on the grazing marshes

The afternoon was getting on and had we wanted to fit in one more thing before it got dark, so we headed back to the car and drove along the coast to the other side of Wells. As we walked down the track heading towards the coast, we flushed several Goldcrests which flew along the hedge ahead of us. There were also a few Blackbirds and Redwings which flew out of the hedge calling, presumably feeding up on the berries after their journey across from the continent. Another large flock of Brent Geese was feeding in the winter wheat here, chattering noisily.

When we got down to the edge of the saltmarsh, there were already a few people gathered here. A Merlin was perched up on the top of a very distant bush, having just been flushed by a wildfowler walking around out on the marshes.

Apparently a male Hen Harrier had flown past before we arrived, but then a second one appeared perched on a bush, also rather distant though clearly visible through the scope. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in from the east, across the back of the saltmarsh, and dropped straight into the grass, straight to bed. With the clear weather, it appeared the birds had been making the most of it, hunting late rather than coming in early and flying around before going in to roost. The first male Hen Harrier flew back in from the west, and the second came up so we could see the two males flying round together

A large skein of Pink-footed Geese came over from the fields behind us calling, and flew out across the saltmarsh and landed on the flats beyond to roost. One of the group, looking the other way from the rest of us, spotted another Merlin coming in from behind us too. It came over our heads, turned out over the saltmarsh and we watched it fly across against the sky, before it dropped down and landed on a bush, where we got it in the scope. It was much closer than the first one we had seen, but the light was starting to go now.

A Green Sandpiper flew west calling, but we couldn’t see it in the gathering gloom, so we decided it was time to call it a day and head back.

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9th Nov 2018 – Late Autumn Rarities

A Private Tour today on the North Norfolk coast. It was a lovely sunny start to the day, and very mild out of the SE breeze, although there was a bit more cloud around at times in the afternoon. With several lingering rarities still along the coast, we decided on a day catching up with some of our scarcer winter visitors together with a bit of ‘twitching’!

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see some groups of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. Several birds were right next to the road, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see their pink legs (and feet!), and small, dark bill with a pink band.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – showing well by Lady Anne’s Drive

While we were watching the Pink-footed Geese, we looked up to see a large white bird flying away from us across the grazing marsh. It was a Great White Egret – we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill. Great White Egrets have bred here for the last couple of years, but can be harder to find in winter, so this was a bonus.

Several small groups of Wigeon flew in to the pool on the other side of the road, but by the time we turned our attention to that side, they had gone back out to graze on the grass. We carried on up to the end of the Drive. A digger was clearing one of the ditches, piling the mud out on the bank, and two Grey Herons were standing by to take advantage of anything edible which it scooped out. As we got out of the car and scanned, a Marsh Harrier was quartering the marshes and a Kestrel was hovering nearby.

We walked through the pines and out onto the beach. Several Brent Geese were feeding out on the saltmarsh, so we stopped briefly to look at them through the scope. As we set off again, walking east, two Red Kites were hanging in the air over the dunes, flashing burnt rusty red as they circled in the morning sunshine. A Marsh Harrier flew past, a young bird, chocolate brown with a pale head, and then a rather pale Common Buzzard flew in over the saltmarsh and almost over our heads. The raptors were obviously out in force this morning enjoying the fine weather!

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – this very pale bird flew in off the saltmarsh

When we got out to the newly cordoned-off area of the saltmarsh, we could see a couple of small birds creeping about in the vegetation which caught the light. Looking more closely, we could see they were Shorelarks. We got them in the scope and could see their bright yellow faces, shining in the morning sunshine, contrasting with their black bandit masks and collars. Looking carefully, we counted six at first but then another five or so more flew in to join them.

Shorelark

Shorelark – one of at least eleven at Holkham today

Shorelarks are scarce and localised winter visitors to the UK most winters, and Holkham is a very traditional site for them. However, they are very vulnerable to disturbance and the beach here has become increasingly popular, particularly with dog walkers. Hopefully, the new fence, which was erected this week by the wardens, will help to keep disturbance to a minimum and will encourage them to remain here again for the winter.

While we were watching the Shorelarks, we could see a flock of Snow Buntings feeding further over, but by the time we had finished looking at the Shorelarks, they had disappeared. We walked over to the beach and scanned the shingle, as Snow Buntings can be very hard to spot when they get in the stones. But the next thing we knew they flew back in, flashing white in their wings and twittering, and landed behind us on the edge of the saltmarsh again.

Snow Buntings 1

Snow Buntings – flew back in to the saltmarsh

We stopped to admire the Snow Buntings for a while, as they fed on the sparse seedy vegetation. They were very active, running around on the sand, occasionally flying up and landing again, always on the move.

After watching the Snow Buntings for a while, we turned our attention to the sea. Scanning the water, we spotted a few seaduck out in the Bay. They were not easy to see at first though – even though the sea looked fairly flat, it was surprising choppy, enough to hide the birds. First we came across two female Eider, with long wedge-shaped bills. Then we found three darker birds with two white spots on their faces, Velvet Scoter. They were busy diving for shellfish, but the white spots caught the sunlight when they surfaced.

A couple of Gannets flew past, white adults with black wingtips. Then we noticed a larger gathering of Gannets further out. One had obviously found a shoal of fish and attracted the others as they were all busy feeding. We watched as one after another folded back its wings and plunged headlong into the water.

There were a few other birds out on the sea too – a winter plumage Red-throated Diver, its white face catching the light, and several Great Crested Grebes too. A couple of Guillemots were not playing ball though, diving constantly so that they were impossible to see.

There were lots of gulls out on the beach too, plus several Oystercatchers, and a few Sanderling and Turnstone were flying back and forth out along the shoreline. A small group of Brent Geese were fast asleep right down by the water’s edge. Something had obviously spooked the Snow Buntings again, because they suddenly flew up over the dunes and landed out on the beach in front of us. We watched them busily preening in the sunshine before they eventually plucked up the courage to fly back again.

Snow Buntings 2

Snow Buntings – flew out onto the beach to preen for a while

As we made our way back towards the Gap, the two Red Kites were still circling over the dunes – there must have been some carrion out there which they couldn’t resist. When we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, three more were circling out over the grazing marshes on the other side of the pines.

Then, as we drove back towards the main road, we stopped to watch yet another Red Kite circling very close by. It dropped down into the grass and came back up with a rat in its talons. We couldn’t tell whether it had already been dead or not, but the Red Kite carried it out into the middle of the field and started to devour it.

Red Kite

Red Kite – feeding on a dead rat it found out on the grazing marshes

From Holkham, we headed east along the coast road to Kelling. There have been some Waxwings here for the last few days and we could see several large lenses pointed up into the dead tree right next to where we parked. They were right above our heads as we got out! Thankfully they didn’t seem to be in the least bit worried by us, and we walked across the road from where we could get a better angle to look at them.

With their punk haircuts and multi-coloured wing markings, Waxwings are one of the most charismatic birds and always worth a diversion to see. There were at least five of them here today. They occasionally dropped down to a neighbouring garden to feed on the rowan tree, then flew back up into the top of a dead tree, where they perched, digesting.

Waxwing 1

Waxwings – we saw at least five at Kelling today

Up close, through the scope, we could make out all the details of the Waxwings wings – including the small red waxy tips to its secondaries, from which it gets its name, as well as the yellow tip to the tail and the rusty undertail.

Waxwing 2

Waxwing – showing the small red waxy tips to the secondaries

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from admiring the Waxwings. We were heading back to Cley for lunch, so we stopped at Salthouse on the way there. There had been no mention of the ‘Eastern’ Stonechat all morning, so after a clear night last night it seemed like it had most likely gone, continuing on its journey.

We had a quick look anyway, and there was no sign. Hopefully the Sparrowhawk which was in the bushes close to where it had been favouring, had not had a Stonechat shaped meal! There was a family of Mute Swans on duck pond and a flock of Canada Geese out on the grazing marshes. A Lapwing and a Curlew both flew past, and several Meadow Pipits came up ‘seep-seeping’ out of the grass.

We carried on to Cley for lunch. As we sat down at the picnic tables, a slightly ominous line of dark grey cloud blew in from the south. It hung over us for precisely as long as we sat out eating and then, as soon as we stood up, it cleared again and went back to sunshine!

While we were eating, we could see a couple of flocks of Black-tailed Godwits busy feeding on Pat’s Pool. There were obviously lots of ducks out on North Scrape, as we could see when they were flushed by a Marsh Harrier, and flew round, mainly Wigeon and Teal.

After lunch, we went for a quick walk up along the East Bank. We stopped to look at some Greylag Geese out on the grazing marsh, with their large orange carrot-bills, very different from the Pink-footed Geese we had looked at earlier. There were lots of ducks out on Pope’s Pool, mainly Wigeon and Teal again. There were some closer Shoveler and Gadwall on the Serpentine, as well as more Teal. As we stopped to admire them, a Common Snipe flew across the water but ran straight into the long grass on the other side.

Teal

Teal – feeding on the Serpentine

It had clouded over again now, and with the wind seemingly having picked up a touch, we headed for the shelter to scan Arnold’s Marsh. There were plenty of Dunlin on here, scattered about in the shallow water, as well as a Grey Plover walking along the near edge, just beyond the vegetation. There were also several Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits, three Shelduck asleep at the back, and a few Cormorants drying their wings on the island.

Continuing on out towards the beach, a Little Egret was feeding in the reeds on the brackish pools. It seems to like it here!

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding in the reeds on the brackish pools

Looking out to sea, we spotted two Common Eider just offshore. They were drifting quickly west, but through the scope we could see their wedge-shaped bills. A female Common Scoter was also close in on the sea, dark-capped and pale-cheeked. More Gannets circled out over the sea and a large bull Grey Seal swam past.

We had one last target for the day, so we turned to head back. Suddenly, all the ducks erupted from North Scrape again. We scanned over the marshes, but we couldn’t see a Marsh Harrier out there this time. Then we noticed a Peregrine come up from behind the reeds. We watched as it circled round a couple of times, then it powered down towards the other scrapes and we lost sight of it behind the reeds as it shot across in front of Dauke’s Hide.

On the way back, we had a quick scan of the main drain, which produced a couple of Little Grebes. Then we drove further east along the coast road to Sheringham. There has been a young drake King Eider lingering off here for the last week or so. There were only one or two people looking for it now, late in the day, and they had lost sight of it. We scanned up through the flags, marking the position of the crab pots, and quickly relocated it again.

The King Eider is not at its smartest at the moment. It is just in its second winter and is still moulting out of its duller eclipse plumage, but it was still a treat to be able to watch this high arctic species so well south of its normal range. It was busy diving, presumably looking for the very crabs for which this area is so famous!

The light was fading fast now. Lots of Black-headed Gulls were gathered down on the beach below the cliffs, for a quick bath before heading off to bed. It had been a very enjoyable day out, but it was time for us to head off too now.

4th Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk, our last day today. It was another mild and dry day, with some brighter spells in the afternoon. The weather gods had clearly been looking favourably on us this weekend.

The plan was to spend the morning at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a few Greylag Geese and Wigeon feeding out in the wet grass. Wigeon numbers are just starting to climb here now, as birds return for the winter. At the north end, as we parked and got out of the car, we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese in the field. Most were asleep or loafing, but a small number were awake and busy feeding on the grass.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – quite a few were feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

We walked through the trees to the beach and turned east on the edge of the saltmarsh. A small flock of Brent Geese dropped in ahead of us, so we stopped to look at them. There were at least two family parties with several juveniles, which is always good to see. We stood on the path, scoping them out in the middle, looking at the striped backs of the juveniles compared to the plain adults.

Then we noticed a couple striding out across the saltmarsh straight towards the geese, their dog running backwards and forwards ahead of them. Presumably they noticed us, because they stopped, called their dog back and put it on the lead. We thought they were going to walk round, but they marched straight up to the geese and flushed them. Then they immediately let their dog off the lead again. Bizarre behaviour and very rude too!

A little further on, we heard a Green Woodpecker calling towards the pines. We followed the sound and spotted it perched in a dead tree in the edge of the dunes. We got it in the scope and had a quick look at it.

Green Woodpecker

Green Woodpecker – perched in a dead tree in the dunes

There were lots of people and lots of dogs out walking already – lots of disturbance around the beach and the saltmarsh. Thankfully we found the Shorelarks feeding quietly on an area of saltmarsh away from the main dog walking route, but the Snow Buntings we had come to see were further out on the edge of the beach and were flushed as we arrived. We watched them fly off and disappear away over the pines way off to the east of the Gap.

We stopped to watch the Shorelarks. There were nine of them, feeding in the low vegetation, picking at the seedheads. When they lifted their heads, we could see their canary yellow faces shining in the morning sun, contrasting with their black masks and collars.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – there were nine feeding on the saltmarsh this morning

While we were watching the Shorelarks, we heard a twittering call and looked up to see three Snow Buntings flying back in. They landed back over towards the beach and were quickly followed by another two. We walked over to get a closer look at them and were  admiring them through the scope when the rest, another 18, also returned. They dropped in with a flurry of variably white wings and we watched all 23 Snow Buntings scurrying about on the sand in a tight group.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – eventually they all flew back in

We left the Snow Buntings where they were and walked over the dunes to the beach. The tide was out and their were lots of gulls and Oystercatchers out on the sand. A few Sanderling were running around too.

Looking out to sea, we spotted a small flock of Common Scoter flying off east towards Wells harbour mouth. We then scanned across and found about another 1,000 Common Scoter still offshore! They were too far out to see if anything different was in with them today. Something had obviously disturbed the Shorelarks, because while we were standing on the edge of the dunes we saw them fly over and land on the beach right out by the sea.

We made our way back to the Gap and walked west on the track on the inland side of the pines. We hoped to find some tits and smaller birds here, and we made a good start. A Blackcap was calling from the bushes, a Goldcrest flicked in and out of a briar climbing up one of the pines and we could hear a Treecreeper calling from deeper in the trees. There were lots of Jays too, busy collecting and stashing acorns at this time of year.

Jay

Jay – we heard and saw several in the Meals today

At Salt’s Hole, there were at least five Little Grebes on the pool, one of which obviously found something amusing because it laughed at us maniacally! There were a few Wigeon with the assembled Mallard on the bank at the back. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling a little further along the path, so we walked over to see if we could catch up with a tit flock but they had disappeared into the pines by the time we got there.

Scanning from the gate just before Washington Hide, a Marsh Harrier was circling over the reeds and landed in one of the bushes. A Common Buzzard and a Red Kite were circling over the trees in Holkham Park beyond. We popped into the hide, but there wasn’t much out on the grazing meadows – a few Pink-footed Geese were hiding behind the sallows beyond the pool.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – perched in the bushes in front of Washington Hide

As we continued west along the track, a Cetti’s Warbler was singing from the reeds, and we could hear a Water Rail squealing too. We stopped again in Joe Jordan Hide, but it was very quiet here too. A couple of Egyptian Geese were down on one of the pools and two Magpies were busy pecking at some bones on the bank in front of the hide.

We decided to walk back for lunch. On the way, there were a few Blackbirds in the bushes and a Redwing perched up nicely for us in the top of a hawthorn by the path. There were still some Starlings coming in over the trees, but otherwise it was fairly quiet here today.

We stopped for lunch at Lady Anne’s Drive. It was to be an early finish this afternoon, so people could get away in good time, but we still had over an hour to play with. We were planning to head along the coast to Kelling to try to see some Waxwings which had turned up there this morning, but over lunch a message came through to say they had flown off, so we decided to head round to Wells instead, to look for the redpolls we had seen earlier in the week.

As we walked in from the car park, there were lots of Little Grebes on the boating lake, along with three Tufted Duck which were a welcome late addition to the weekend’s list.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – there were several on the boating lake

When we heard its plaintive piping call, we looked over to see a very smart male Bullfinch perched in a hawthorn by the path. We could hear a Chiffchaff calling from the bushes too, but otherwise there seemed to be very few birds in here this afternoon. It felt like there had been a big clear out of all the migrants which had stopped in here in the last few days. There were still one or two Blackbirds and Redwings, but a lot fewer than had been here earlier in the week. We couldn’t find any sign of the redpolls.

There was not much time left now, but we decided to try somewhere else instead, and headed over to the other side of Wells. Looking round the pools there, we could see lots of Greylags and a good number of Egyptian Geese. Duck numbers here appear to have dropped a bit, but there was still a nice flock of Wigeon and Teal and a single Pintail was asleep in with them. There were still a few Lapwings and one Ruff around the muddy edges or in the wet grass beside the water.

A mixed flock of Greenfinches and Linnets flew round, and the Greenfinches landed on the fence, where we got them in the scope. We had seen a Yellowhammer briefly when it dropped down into the grass, but helpfully two then flew up and came over towards us, landing in the hawthorns by the path. One, a smart yellow-headed male, landed in the top where we got it in the scope. A pair of Stonechats were feeding along the fence line here too, dropping down to the grass below to feed.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – this smart male perched up in the bushes by the path

Unfortunately, we were now out of time, as we had promised to get everyone back in good time today. Thankfully, it wasn’t far back to Wells, where we said our goodbyes. It had been a very enjoyable three days out, with a good selection of lingering autumn rarities and arriving winter visitors.

 

 

27th Oct 2018 – Autumn Weekend, Day 1

Day 1 of a weekend of Autumn Tours today. It was a wet and windy day, with a cold and gusty northerly bringing squally showers in off the North Sea. Perfect seawatching weather – but we had a few other things we wanted to try to do today as well.

With seawatching in mind, we made our way over to Sheringham first thing. It was a big tide this morning and with the strong north wind, the waves were crashing over the prom. It meant we couldn’t get along the prom to the shelter, so we had to drive round to the other side, and it also meant there were already a lot of people taking shelter here. We managed to find a spot out of the wind and settled in to scan the sea.

It was immediately clear there was a lot of wildfowl moving this morning, birds arriving from the continent, coming in over the North Sea to spend the winter here. We saw a steady stream of flocks of Wigeon and Teal flying past, mostly low over the waves. A couple of groups of Common Scoter coming past further out, and then some flew through with a group of Teal, providing a nice size and colour contrast.

The Brent Geese are arriving for the winter too at the moment, flying in short lines, and there were a small number of Shelducks, sometimes mixed in with them. Two Goldeneye flying past were the wildfowl highlight.

There was a steady movement of commoner seabirds passing by this morning too – mostly Gannets, Kittiwakes and Guillemots, blown inshore by the wind. Two dark juvenile Arctic Skuas came through reasonably close and disappeared off east. A single Manx Shearwater was too far out for everyone to get onto. A Great Northern Diver flew west, typically flying strongly well above the waves, despite the wind. But there was no sign of any Pomarine Skuas or Little Auks while we were watching, which we had thought we might see this morning.

There are always a small number of Purple Sandpipers along the shoreline here through the winter and a much larger number of Turnstones. The Turnstones will often run along the prom but the Purple Sandpipers are normally down on the rocks below. However, the crashing waves were obviously too much even for the hardy Purple Sandpiper today, and a couple of times it was pushed up onto the prom in front of us. When it flew back down onto the rocks, we had a good look at it over the railings.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – on the rocks just below the Prom

We only spent an hour seawatching this morning, then with other things we wanted to try to see, we decided to move on. As we drove west along the coast road, we could see a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field. We found somewhere to pull in and would down the windows. The geese nearest us flew up and settled again towards the back of the field, out of view, but it was clear we couldn’t get out of the car without flushing the rest of the flock. We could still see quite a few geese from the car, but most of them were hidden now in a dip in the field.

There were several Red-legged Partridges feeding in the stubble too, and we heard Skylarks calling as we opened the windows. A couple of smart Yellowhammers perched in the hedge nearby, calling..

Continuing on to Salthouse, we parked by the duck pond. As we got out of the car, a Woodcock shot past. It felt like it might almost have crashed into us, but veered round, over the road and into the gardens beyond. Another bird arriving from the winter, possibly from as far away as Russia, presumably fresh in and looking for somewhere sheltered to rest. Several Black-tailed Godwits were standing around in the pools behind the duck pond.

There has been an ‘Eastern’ Stonechat here for the last week or so, which we were keen to see. As we walked down along the track, we could see quite a crowd gathered already, but they didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, mostly standing around chatting. Apparently the Stonechat had not been seen for the last 15 minutes – it was clearly keeping down out of the wind today.

We walked up to where it had last been seen and scanned the edge of the grazing marsh, but couldn’t see any sign of it. Then we walked back to where it had been favouring in previous days, out from one of the field gates. It wasn’t out there either, but scanning back along the reedy ditch which runs beside the path, we spotted the Stonechat down in the vegetation.

It was obviously more sheltered down in the ditch but you could only see the Stonechat looking back from the gate and it kept disappearing into the reeds. When it did finally venture out onto the edge of the grazing marsh where it was more visible, a Sparrowhawk promptly appeared just beyond it, flying out low over the grass. The Stonechat sensibly dived back into the reeds, but then went made its way further back along the ditch away from us, where we couldn’t see it.

About half the group had managed to see the Stonechat, but there was a big crowd by the gate so not everyone had got onto it. Climbing up onto the top of the bank, we walked along level with where it had been. After a few minutes scanning, we spotted it again out in the middle of the grazing marsh this time.

The Stonechat was well camouflaged against the dead sedges, shades of orange and brown. But the wind seemed to have dropped, and it became more active, perching up on the top of the vegetation like a good Stonechat should! Finally, we all got nice views of it through the scope.

Stejneger's Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – this photo taken yesterday, hopefully DNA will confirm its identity

‘Eastern’ Stonechat is the name currently being used for a group of species, including Siberian and Stejneger’s Stonechats, both of which can turn up here. It used to be much simpler, as they were all lumped together under the title ‘Siberian’, but DNA analysis has shown Stejneger’s to be distinct from Siberian and it is now treated as a full species in its own right. Unfortunately, our ability to identify these birds in the field has not kept up with the pace of taxonomic change driven by genetics!

The Salthouse Stonechat appears to be a Stejneger’s Stonechat – at least it looks similar to Stejneger’s Stonechats which have been confirmed by DNA testing recently. Hopefully, DNA has been collected and will be able to confirm it’s identity. If it is not Stejneger’s, then it will be back to the drawing board with the ID criteria!

Either way, it is an interesting and well travelled bird. ‘Eastern’ Stonechats breed across Russia to Japan and China, mostly wintering on the Indian subcontinent, with the range of Stejneger’s being further east than Siberian.

Once we had all enjoyed good views of the Stonechat, we drove on to Cley and stopped at the Visitor’s Centre for an early lunch. There were lots of birds on the scrapes and, with the wind having dropped a bit, we could even eat at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve.

A Marsh Harrier drifted across the scrapes, causing a mass panic, flushing  lots of Black-tailed Godwit and Wigeon. Thankfully, as it drifted off, the birds all seemed to settle back down. Two Lesser Redpoll flew over calling and eight Golden Plover circled over. The surprise here was a Gannet circling over the fields behind the Visitor Centre, presumably blown inland on the wind.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the scrapes, flushing everything

After lunch, we could see black clouds approaching from the north, so we decided to head out to the hides, where we could get some shelter. As we walked along the Skirts path, a Spoonbill flew past over the reserve. Most of the Spoonbills which spent the summer here have departed now, with many of them heading down to Poole Harbour for the winter. There are only one or two still lingering on, so it was nice to see one today. It circled over the scrapes and looked like it might land, but then continue on east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – flew east as we walked out to the hides

By the time we got out to Dauke’s Hide and looked out, we were surprised by the comparative lack of birds, particularly compared to the masses we had seen when we were eating lunch. Talking to one of the volunteers in the hide, it seems the Marsh Harriers had made several more passes over the scrapes and eventually succeeded in scaring off most of the birds. We could still see a couple of Marsh Harriers quartering the reedbed in the distance.

There were still a few waders left. A couple of little groups of Dunlin were picking around on the muddy edges of the islands. Several Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the deeper water. The Lapwing were mostly asleep on the grass and a lone Avocet was standing in the water behind one of the islands. Like the Spoonbills, most of the Avocets have gone south now for the winter, but a very small number always try to remain as long as it doesn’t get too cold. A Common Snipe dropped in at back, but quickly disappeared into grass.

Avocet

Avocet – just the one left at Cley now

There were still a few ducks left on the scrapes too, mainly Wigeon and Teal, along with a few Shelduck. The Black-headed Gulls were joined by a couple of Common Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull was asleep on one of the grassy islands. The Spoonbill came back west and headed off towards Blakeney Harbour.

While we were in the hide, it started to rain, so we stayed in the dry until it eventually eased. Then we headed back to the car, and drove round to the East Bank car park. As we got a short distance up the bank, it started to sleet, so heads down, we walked quickly up to the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh.

The forecast was for heavy showers, but the weather seemed to set in for a while now. There was lots of water already on Arnold’s Marsh, which was good for the ducks, presumably with many coming over here when they were flushed from the scrapes. There were lots of Wigeon and Teal again, but with a few Shoveler here too. Scanning through carefully, we found a female Pintail and four Gadwall in with them. A group of Brent Geese dropped in, possibly fresh arrivals stopping for a rest. With the high water levels, the Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the tall vegetation around the edges.

We had been told about two Snow Buntings feeding at the end of the bank, by the beach. When the rain finally eased again, we walked up to look for them but as we arrived we could see two walkers had just come up off the beach and gone right through the area. There was no sign of any Snow Buntings, presumably having been flushed.

We set off east along the grassy part of the old shingle ridge, but there was no sign of them along here. When we got back to the East Bank,  the Snow Buntings flew up from the shingle ahead of us, presumably having flown back in. They landed back on the north end of the path just a few metres ahead of us and we had nice views of them as they fed on amongst the stones, picking around the clusters of vegetation. They were looking a bit bedraggled, but we were probably too!

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – out on the beach, looking a bit bedraggled

While we were watching the Snow Buntings, we noticed a large dark bird drifting west right past us, with the gulls over the beach. It was a Pomarine Skua. We watched it as it hung in the wind – we could see it was heavy, bulky, especially compared the Arctic Skuas we had seen earlier. It landed on the beach and we could just about see it in the scope from here through the sea spray, so we walked over for a closer look.

After we had all had a good look at the Pomarine Skua in the scope, it took off and flew further west again. It looked like it went down towards the beach car park, so we  decided to head back to the car and drive round there to see if we could find it again.

As we walked back along the East Bank, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and looked up to see a small skein coming in from the east. They came in overhead and dropped down towards the reserve. Four Marsh Harriers were already gathering to roost out over the reeds.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Geese – flying in to the reserve, late afternoon

By the time we got round to the beach car park at Cley, the Pomarine Skua had taken off and gone further west again. Looking out to sea, there were still lots of Kittiwakes & and Gannets pouring past. Lines of Brent Geese were still moving west offshore too.

We were just about to leave when someone seawatching there shouted that there were two Little Auks on the sea. They were in the surf just offshore, drifting west towards us, but despite being close they were still hard to see in the crashing waves. We managed to get the scope on them, and you could see them as they rode up the face of the waves.

They seemed to swim a bit further out and we lost sight of the Little Auks. Then we noticed a Great Black-backed Gull drop down into the breakers, followed by three more. When they came up again, one of them was carrying a Little Auk in its bill! We didn’t see what happened to the second one, but Little Auks are always vulnerable when they are blown in by gales. They breed in the Arctic and spend the rest of their lives far out at sea, away from predators like gulls. They are often exhausted when they are close inshore and easy pickings for the gulls.

That was a fairly gruesome end to our seawatching today – nature red in tooth and claw! We still had one more stop to make on our way back. With the blustery wind and rain, the Peregrine was in its usual spot on the sheltered side of the church tower, tucked in an alcove between the stone pillars. We stopped and had a nice look at it through the scope.

Peregrine

Peregrine – tucked in out of the wind, on the south side of the tower

We had done well today, despite the wind and rain. The weather forecast is a bit better for tomorrow, so let’s see what the wind had brought us!

14th Oct 2018 – Four Autumn Days, Day 4

Day 4 of a four-day Autumn Tour today, our last day. It was meant to rain all day today and, although it was wet at times, it was nowhere near as bad as we might have feared based on the forecast. The wind was very light in the morning, but swung round to the north and picked up a bit more in the afternoon.

With the forecast of rain, we headed over to Cley first thing, so we could take shelter in the hides. But when we got there, it wasn’t raining, so we decided to make the most of it and drove round to the beach first.

As we walked along the shingle, a large flock of Linnets came out of the weedy vegetation the other side of the fence accompanied by Goldfinches and followed by a number of Meadow Pipits. We were looking for a Snow Bunting, which had been here for a few days, but there was no sign of it with these other birds here.

Continuing on to where the vegetation grows out over the open shingle, we walked through amongst the sparse tall weeds around the edge. A couple of Skylarks came up from the edge of the grass and disappeared off towards the Eye Field, and then a Wheatear flew out and landed on a lump of concrete on the beach. It was looking rather bedraggled, presumably from the wet vegetation, and stood there watching us.

Wheatear

Wheatear – this bedraggled individual was feeding out on the edge of the beach

Just a couple of metres further along, we noticed something moving on the shingle right in front of us, as we almost trod on the Snow Bunting. It was feeding quietly on the top of the beach, where some low weeds were growing through the stones. Snow Buntings are often very tame, coming from places where they probably are not used to seeing people, and this one was very accommodating. It was a male, but rather dark grey and brown, an Icelandic Snow Bunting of the insulae subspecies.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – feeding quietly on the top of the shingle ridge

A large flock of Ringed Plover flew round over the sea and landed back on the beach some distance further up ahead of us. Looking through the scopes, we could see there were a few Dunlin with them too, but the birds were remarkably hard to see on the stones and part of the flock was hidden from view over a rise in the beach.

There was quite a bit of activity over the rather calm sea this morning, so we stood for a while and scanned out over the water. A steady stream of Gannets came past, mostly flying east, a variety of different colours and ages, from dark grey-brown juveniles, to the white adults with black-tipped wings, and various stages in between.

Gannet

Gannet – several dark grey juveniles were among those flying past

Several Red-throated Divers were swimming on the water and we had a closer look at both an adult still mostly in breeding plumage and one already in grey and white winter attire. A Shag flew west along the shoreline, past us.

At this time of year, birds are arriving from the continent for the winter and there was a nice selection of wildfowl coming in over the sea today. A steady stream of small lines of Brent Geese flew past low over the sea, coming back from their breeding grounds in Russia, and we saw several flocks of Wigeon and Teal too. Two Red-breasted Mergansers flew past just off the beach together with a couple of Teal and a few Common Scoter went past further out.

Looking inland, a Marsh Harrier was standing down on the short grass on the edge of North Scrape, but there didn’t seem to be much else on there today. A Common Snipe and two Redshank were feeding on Billy’s Wash. Remarkably, the rain was still holding off – despite it being forecast to rain all morning – so we thought we would push our luck and head round to the East Bank for a walk. A pair of Grey Seals was bobbing in the water just off the beach, watching the people walking past, as we made our way back to the car.

The East Bank car park was quite full, so we parked at Walsey Hills instead. We stopped to have a look at Snipe’s Marsh first. We could see a Little Egret feeding on the mud amongst the cut reeds, but there didn’t appear to be any waders here at first. However, a careful scan around the edges eventually produced the hoped for Jack Snipe, well spotted by one of the group, asleep in the reeds on one side.

Jack Snipe

Jack Snipe – showed well, sleeping on the edge of reeds

We had a good look at the Jack Snipe through the scope. It woke up at one point and we could see its bill, thicker and shorter than a Common Snipe. We could also see the distinctive head pattern. A Water Rail ran across the mud the other side but disappeared into the reeds before anyone could get onto it. Helpfully it re-emerged a little later and walked back the other way.

There seemed to be some smaller birds on the move this morning, and we could hear Chaffinches calling overhead as we stood by Snipe’s Marsh. One or two Bramblings gave their wheezy calls too. A Cetti’s Warbler was singing from time to time from the reeds and a Bullfinch was calling over by North Foreland wood.

There looked to be some darker clouds approaching now, so we decided to have a quick look in the trees at Walsey Hills. As we walked along the footpath, we could hear Robins and a Chiffchaff calling. We had been lucky with the weather up until now but at this point it finally started to rain. We walked up to the top to have a look in the trees, but beat a hasty retreat.

It was time to head for the hides and get out of the weather. Having been to the Visitor Centre to get our permits, we walked quickly out along the boardwalk and straight into Dauke’s Hide. As soon as we got inside, someone very kindly pointed out a Kingfisher, which was perched down on the mud right in front.

The Kingfisher was wrestling with a stickleback. It had dropped it on the mud, but hopped down and picked it up and proceeded to beat it against the small mound it was standing on. It dropped it again and stood looking down at it, before finally picking it up once more and eating it.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – was wrestling with a stickleback on the mud in front of the hide

We enjoyed stunning views of the Kingfisher – it kept coming closer to the hide, perching on a post in the channel just in front. Eventually, it flew off up the channel but a few minutes later it was back again on its favourite post.

Dragging our attention away from the Kingfisher, we noticed a Little Stint with ten Dunlin on Whitwell Scrape. It was hard to see properly from Dauke’s, particularly to get an angle for the scopes, so we hurried round to Avocet Hide for a closer look. The Little Stint was noticeably smaller than the accompanying Dunlin, with a shorter bill and cleaner white underparts.

Little Stints have been thin on the ground this autumn. The passage of juveniles through here way outnumbers adults, so it could be that they have had a poor breeding season, or perhaps just the persistent westerlies mean that the numbers reaching here have been low. Either way, it was nice to catch up with one today.

Little Stint

Little Stint – a juvenile with 10 Dunlin on Whitwell Scrape

The Dunlin and Little Stint were spooked by something and flew back across to Simmond’s Scrape, so we went back round to Dauke’s Hide. The Kingfisher had disappeared, but a Water Rail was now running around down in front of the hide, giving great views.

There were a few other waders out on Simmond’s Scrape today, including a Curlew, and a couple of Ringed Plovers. A flock of Golden Plover dropped in. Several Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the deeper water on Pat’s Pool.

There are lots of ducks back for the winter already, mainly Wigeon and Teal, along with a few Shoveler. Looking through them carefully, we found a single Pintail, a drake starting to moult out of eclipse plumage. There was a big RSPB group in Dauke’s Hide today, so there was nowhere for us to sit. They had given up looking at the birds though and had settled in to eat their lunch. Eventually, all the loud discussions about double cherry bakewells and their different home made chutneys started to make us hungry, so we decided to head somewhere more appropriate to eat our lunch. Thankfully, the rain had now stopped again.

The shelter round at the beach car park was the perfect spot, out of the wind, which had now swung round to the north. After lunch, we had a quick look out at the sea. There were still lots of Gannets moving, plus one or two plunge diving just offshore now. Several Sandwich Terns were patrolling up and down. A Razorbill flew past, and a Guillemot was diving, out on the sea just off the beach.

There had apparently been an arrival of Blackbirds and Robins overnight, with a few seen around Cley first thing, so we thought we would see if there was any sign of activity down at Kelling Water Meadow. However, the lane was disappointingly quiet, just a few Chaffinches in the trees. Perhaps it had been too disturbed during the morning to hold anything here. There were lots of Pheasants in the fields, and Red-legged Partridges calling – this is a shooting estate after all. Rooks and Jackdaws were flying around the trees or on the hillside beyond the Water Meadow.

Down at the pool, the first thing we noticed were the gulls. There were quite a few Black-headed Gulls, but one young bird immediately stood out. It was a young Mediterranean Gull, a 1st winter. Continuing down to the corner for a better look, we found another two Mediterranean Gulls on here as well, a second 1st winter and also a 2nd winter. There were a few Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls too.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – one of three immatures on the Water Meadow this afternoon

It was rather exposed when we got out of the shelter of the lane, and it was spitting with rain again. With the lack of any obvious sign of any migrants, we decided to head somewhere more sheltered.

On our way back west, we had a look up at the church tower and could see the Peregrine back again. It didn’t look particularly happy though, facing in to the wall and hunched up, presumably sheltering from wind & drizzle. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it – eventually it even turned its head to look round.

Peregrine

Peregrine – back on the church tower, sheltering from the wind & rain

Wells Woods seemed like a good place to finish, where we could get out of the northerly breeze. Several Little Grebes were diving out on the boating lake as we passed. We made our way in and up to the Dell, before we came to a tit flock. One of the first birds we got our binoculars on was a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was feeding in a small birch and we all managed to get a good look at it. A Goldcrest flew into one of the low bushes right next to us to feed, giving us a chance to appreciate just how small they are.

Their glipping calls alerted us to some Common Crossbills in the pines and we quickly realised they were right above our heads. We watched them flying down to the lower branches to find cones, before taking them higher up to deal with. They have been rather few and far between over the last year or so here, so it was great to see them and quite well.

Crossbill

Common Crossbill – feeding above our heads in the pines by the Dell

We followed the tit flock as it made its way through the trees for a few mins. As well as all the Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits, we could hear Treecreeper and Chiffchaff calling. Eventually, the Long-tailed Tits led the other high up into the pines and they disappeared.

It was a productive few minutes, and a nice way to end the tour, in Wells Woods. We got as far as the drinking pool, but it was time to head back, with people wanting to get away quickly. It had been a very good four days too, with a nice selection of different Autumn birds.

6th March 2018 – Winter Coast & Forest #1

Day 1 of two days of Private Tours today. It was mostly cloudy, with some brighter intervals, at least until late in the day when it cleared to blue sky and low sunshine. Another very pleasant day to be out, particularly after all the snow last week.

With lots of gulls reported along the NE coast yesterday, we decided to head over to Sheringham first thing. The storms last week washed up large quantities of sealife onto the beaches – fish, starfish, urchins, etc – and the gulls have been gathering in their hundreds to feed on the bounty, bringing a few of their scarcer cousins with them. We particularly hoped to catch up with one of the two Iceland Gulls here this morning.

As we walked down to the prom, we could immediately see lots of gulls on the sea just offshore. The tide was in, but rather than feeding on the fish washed up on the beach, the birds were busy picking food from the surface. We looked through them as we made our way east along the front – plenty of Black-headed, Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. A Rock Pipit flew in and landed on the concrete below us.

Gulls

Gulls – there were hundreds feeding on the sea off Sheringham this morning

A quick stop to scan the rocky sea defenses, just below the prom, revealed a Purple Sandpiper with all the Turnstones. It was just below the top of some steps, so we walked over for a closer look. Two more Purple Sandpipers were roosting here too, partly hidden on the back edge of one of the large blocks. We had a great view of the three of them here – smart birds, with their yellow-orange legs and bill base, more subtle shades of grey than really purple!

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – one of three along the prom this morning

The other two Purple Sandpipers did wake up when a large wave crashed in beneath them, but quickly went back to sleep. The original bird continued feeding, clambering around the faces of the blocks. It then flew down to a small shingle beach where it started to pick around in the detritus washed up here, finding a worm to its liking, before flying back up onto the blocks again.

Continuing on east to the end of the prom, we couldn’t find any other gulls of note among the throng – there was no sign of the Iceland Gull which had been here yesterday. We did spot a couple of Fulmars and a distant Red-throated Diver flying past offshore. We decided to head back and try our luck further along the coast, but at that point we had a message to way that there was no sign of any of yesterday’s gulls at Cromer either.

A change of plan was in order, so we turned round and headed west. Our next stop was at Salthouse. As we got out of the car on Beach Road, a scan of the wet grazing marshes revealed several Wigeon and Teal hiding in the pools and three Ringed Plovers out on the mud. Walking out towards Gramborough Hill, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass calling. A Linnet landed on the fence in front of us. Three Dunlin were feeding on the pool beside the path, along with two more Ringed Plovers and a Redshank.

Another pipit flew up from the back of the pool, with shriller call and not repeated like the Meadow Pipits. It was a Rock Pipit. It landed on the shingle at the back of the pool and we could get a closer look at it. When it turned in the light, it was possible to make out a pinkish-apricot wash behind the streaks on the breast. The Rock Pipits here are winter visitors from Scandinavia, of the race littoralis, and they can get very pink below in spring, leading to much potential confusion with Water Pipit.

As we rounded Gramborough Hill, we could see several small birds picking around the grassy patches on the remains of the shingle ridge just beyond. These were the Snow Buntings we had come here to see. They are very well camouflaged against the stones, but watching carefully, we could see that there were actually at least 30 of them here.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – some of the 30 still on the shingle ridge today

With a bit of care and patience, we managed to slowly edge ourselves into a position just below the grass where the Snow Buntings were feeding. They came down the ridge back towards us, giving us great close views. We could see they were a mixture of darker brown birds and paler white/grey/orange ones, the former from Iceland and the latter Scandinavian birds.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – a young male of the Scandinavian race

After enjoying the Snow Buntings for a while, we backed away carefully and left them to feed in peace. We planned to head for Holkham next, but on the way was drove round via the beach road at Cley. There were just a handful of Brent Geese here today, on Cricket Marsh, and nothing in the Eye Field. No sign of the main flock, which was probably feeding further inland.

We turned inland and headed up towards Wighton. A quick stop on the way produced a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming in the trees. There had been a Great Grey Shrike seen just west of Wighton a week ago, before the snow, so we thought we might have a quick look in passing to see if it was still in the area. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was no sign of it – in previous years, it has appeared to roam over a vast area.

We had stopped by a small farm reservoir. There were lots of Greylag Geese and Shelducks around the top of the bank, a few small gulls were flying in to bathe and a couple of Tufted Ducks appeared, diving out on the water. Then we noticed another duck right in the far corner. It was face on to us and fast asleep with its head tucked in. Like this, it could easily have been overlooked as another Tufted Duck, but we just caught a flash of what looked like grey on its shoulder. Reaching for the scope, we could confirm it was actually a Scaup.

Scaup

Scaup – a 1w drake, asleep on a farm reservoir

There have been a few Scaup seen along the coast in the last few days, so this one had possibly sought shelter from the weather on this small reservoir. It bobbed along the back edge of the water and turned sideways so we could see its grey back properly, very different from the black back of the Tufted Ducks. It appeared to be a young drake, still with some darker brown feathers in the flanks and mantle.

Dropping down to the coast at Holkham, there were various ducks and geese out on the marshes as we made our way up Lady Anne’s Drive. A pair of Egyptian Geese were out in the field just inside the gate. Further up, several Teal and Shoveler were feeding on the pools. A big flock of Wigeon was out in the grass at the north end, in front of where we parked.

Wigeon

Wigeon – a large flock was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

It was time for lunch, so we made good use of the picnic tables here. While we were eating, we heard a call high above and looked up to see a Marsh Harrier displaying way up the sky. We watched as it tumbled and twisted, calling periodically. There were lots of other raptors here too. A Common Buzzard was also displaying over the edge of the pines and a Red Kite drifted in over the trees and across the grazing marshes. At one point, they were all in the air circling together!

A lone Pink-footed Goose was sitting down in the grass not far from the path, which meant that we could get a really close look at it. When it got up and started feeding, we could see it was not holding its left wing properly. Possibly it had been shot and injured, and had now recovered sufficiently to get around but unable to join the rest of the flocks on their way back to Iceland.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – an injured bird, feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

A single Brent Goose the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive was similarly very tame, but showed no sign of any obvious injuries to explain why it was on its own here.

Brent Goose

Brent Goose – also on its own right by Lady Anne’s Drive

After lunch, we made our way out through the pines and down onto the saltmarsh. As we walked east another five Rock Pipits were feeding in the vegetation on the edge of the path. A party of six Skylarks were incredibly well camouflaged against the browns of the saltmarsh plants.

The Shorelarks were not in their favoured spot today, so we continued on a little further and quickly located them on the edge of the dunes. We walked over for a closer look. They were initially feeding on the high tide line, picking at the line of dead vegetation looking for seeds, but then they ran up into the dunes and started to poke around in the marram grass.

Shorelark 1

Shorelark – one of the 9 which were still on the beach at Holkham today

We edged our way a little closer and had great views of the Shorelarks as they emerged from the grass and stood preening on the edge of the dune. We could see their yellow faces and black masks and collars, and we could even make out the small black horns on one or two of them. Then they ran down onto the beach and started to feed along the high tide line again.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from enjoying watching the Shorelarks. As we walked back towards the pines, we had a quick look out towards the sea through the gap in the dunes. A single Great Crested Grebe was diving offshore. Back at the car, a scan of the grazing marshes again revealed a Common Snipe tucked down on the edge of one of the pools.

Common Snipe

Common Snipe – out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive

There were several options for the rest of the afternoon, but with a report of one of the Iceland Gulls seen flying past Cromer again, we decided to head back for another look. On our way back east, we noticed a white shape on a gatepost beside the road as we passed, a Barn Owl. After struggling to hunt in the snow, they have been hungry since and have been spending much more time out in daylight hours. We turned round and tried to sneak up on it in the car, but with another car coming past the other way, it flew off over the field as we approached.

When we arrived at Cromer, there were surprisingly few gulls on the beach. With the tide out, we had assumed that lots of birds would come in to feed on all the storm debris again. We spoke to one of the people who had seen the Iceland Gull fly past earlier, but there had been no further sign of it.

We decided to try our luck back along the coast at West Runton instead. The clouds had cleared now and the sun was out, bathing the beach in glorious late afternoon light. There were lots more gulls here, so we set about scanning through them. We hadn’t gone too far, when we spotted a smart adult Mediterranean Gull.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – one of three on the beach at West Runton today

The Mediterranean Gull‘s bright red bill and white wing-tips particularly stood out, relative to all the commoner Black-headed Gulls. It was still mostly in winter plumage, with a black bandit mask behind the eye and peppering of dark in the rear crown.

There were lots of waders around the rock pools down on the beach too. Several Grey Plover, Knot, Redshanks and Dunlin, feeding in between the gulls. Another Purple Sandpiper was harder to see among the rocks. A flock of Sanderling appeared, running around on the sand over towards the water’s edge.

We couldn’t find any sign of the Iceland Gull here, but we did manage to pick out a 2nd winter (3rd calendar year) Caspian Gull among the Herring Gulls. It stood out immediately with its long legs and long neck, standing tall. It also had a distinctive long, pointed face with a long bill, exaggerated by its white head and small dark eye. Unfortunately, we were just admiring it when a dogwalker came around the end of the groyne and flushed all the gulls from that part of the beach.

The school group which had been out on the beach had just left, so a lot of the smaller gulls flew in to feed on the sand just beyond the access ramp. In with all the Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, we found another two more Mediterranean Gulls. These had much more black on the head that the one we had seen earlier, meaning there were at least three different individuals here this afternoon.

It was lovely out on the beach in the late sunshine, but the owner of the car park came down to tell us that it was about to be locked up, so it meant we had to walk back up to the top of the cliffs to get the car out. It had been a great day, but it was now time to head for home anyway.

5th-6th Dec 2017 – Two Winter Days

A Private Tour across two days, this was not a standard tour but we had a specific list of birds we wanted to see. December can be a very good month to go looking for some of our scarcer wintering species. We were blessed with good weather too – a bit dull under the blanket of cloud, but dry and rather mild for the time of year.

Tuesday 5th December

Our first destination was down in the Brecks at Santon Downham. We wanted to catch up with the Parrot Crossbills which have been here for a couple of weeks now. They were initially to be found around the picnic site at St Helen’s, but have started to wander more widely into the forest now, where they can be much harder to locate. Fortunately, our luck was in today. As we drove into the car park we could see a cluster of long lenses by the side of the road, pointing up into a small clump of trees.

As we got out of the car in the car park, we could hear Parrots Crossbills calling – they have a deeper and less sharp call, more of a ‘peek, peek’ than the familiar ‘glip, glip’ of Common Crossbills. We looked across and could see one or two perched in the top of the beech tree in the corner of the car park by the road.

There seemed to be more Parrot Crossbills – and better light – on the other side of the trees, where all the cameras were focused, so we started to make our way round. Just at that moment, the Parrot Crossbills started to drop down to a tiny puddle in the road, right in front of the assembled photographers (though it took them a while to notice!). We were a little further away, but still only about 10 metres from them. Stunning!

6O0A3517Parrot Crossbills – coming down to drink at the puddle in front of us

We had a great view of the Parrot Crossbills while they were drinking. A couple of times they spooked, for no apparent reason, and flew back up into the trees but quickly returned to the puddle again. It was amazing how many could pack themselves into the tiny area of water! We could see their deep, heavy bills, much bigger than a Common Crossbill’s, and their big heads with thick necks. Parrot Crossbills use their large bills and cheek muscles to prise open the tightest of pine cones to get at the seeds.

6O0A3546

6O0A3528Parrot Crossbills – amazing how many could fit into a tiny puddle!

There were a variety of different colours amongst the Parrot Crossbills. The more obvious males were red or orange, some of the latter with a scattering of golden yellow feathers. The females were grey-green, with a brighter yellow-green rump. There seem to be a high proportion of young birds in this group, 1st winters, with a varying number of pale tipped greater coverts forming a pale bar across the wing.

After dropping down to drink several times, the Parrot Crossbills flew up into one of the beech trees and sat around preening and calling. One or two of them started to pick at the beech nut capsules, trying to extract the seeds. Then most of them flew and landed in some pine trees in the middle of the car park where we could watch them doing what they do best, snipping of the pine cones and then taking them to a convenient branch where they could methodically work their way round them prising open the scales and extracting the seeds.

Having succeeded with our first target so quickly, we now had time on our side. We decided to head straight on to the Broads to look for the next bird on the list – Taiga Bean Goose. After the long drive across to Buckenham Marshes, we parked in the car park and headed out along the track. A Marsh Harrier drifted across the grazing marshes, flushing all the Rooks from down in the grass.

A short way down the track, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes, particularly looking out towards the corner by the railway which the Taiga Bean Geese usually favour when they are here. There was no sign of them, although they do have a remarkable ability for such a large bird to hide in the dips in the ground. There was a big flock of Canada Geese and a small group of feral Barnacle Geese further over towards the river. A pair of Pink-footed Geese flew in calling and landed out on the grass in the distance.

At that point, we received a message to say that the Taiga Bean Geese had not been seen at either Buckenham or nearby Cantley so far this morning. They had done something similar yesterday, only appearing later in the day, and we had plenty of time on our hands, so we were not completely discouraged. We walked a bit further and stopped to scan for the geese again, on the off chance that they had reappeared and were just hiding. A smart adult Peregrine flew across and landed on one of the gates out in the middle.

IMG_9171Peregrine – landed on one of the gates in the middle of the grazing marsh

We decided to walk out to the river, checking for the geese on the way, and hoping they might fly in while we were there. If not, we could always then go somewhere else for a couple of hours and come back for another go later in the day.

Something flushed all the ducks from the pools down by the river – a good number of Wigeon and Teal, plus a few Shoveler with them. They all gradually settled back down again and when we got down to that end of the track, we had a better look at them. There were a few Greylags out here too and another three Pink-footed Geese flew in to join them. But there was still no sign of the Taiga Bean Geese hiding out on the grazing marshes the other side.

6O0A3560Wigeon – there were several hundred on the marshes by the river

A couple of Dunlin were still left on a muddy island on one of the pools and the Lapwing which had also been disturbed gradually started to settle down around them. Two Ruff flew in across the grazing marshes and dropped down out of view. We had a quick look out across the river, then turned to head back. We heard a Water Pipit call earlier, on the way out, but hadn’t seen it, and at that moment either it or another Water Pipit flew over our heads calling and disappeared off towards Strumpshaw.

We stopped to scan the grazing marshes again, as we had done several times on the way out, but this time we noticed a line of geese had appeared while we had been looking out across the river, right over the far side, against the reeds. Where they were, they could only really be one thing and, setting up the scope quickly, we confirmed they were the Taiga Bean Geese. We could see their rather wedge-shaped heads and long bills, and as they turned and caught the light, we could see the quite extensive patches of orange on their bills.

IMG_9227Taiga Bean Geese – at the far side of the grazing marsh, against the reeds

A little further back along the track, we were a little bit closer and stopped for another look. We could see at least 13 Taiga Bean Geese, but some were well hidden down on the edge of the ditch, so there were possibly the full 18 which is the maximum which have been reported in the last few days.

Taiga Bean Geese are a declining winter visitor to the UK. They have particular habitat requirements and only winter regularly at two sites – here in the Yare Valley in Norfolk or up on the Slamannan plateau in Scotland. The numbers coming here have dropped steadily in recent years, from several hundred in Norfolk in the 1980s and 1990s to just around 20 in the last few years. In milder winters, they have often only stayed for a shorter time, but recently have sometimes departed in early to mid January, having just arrived in late November.

The Taiga Bean Geese will probably take on an increased significance from the start of 2018. When the BOU British List moves to adopt the IOC World Bird List taxonomy from 1st January, Taiga and Tundra Bean Goose will be treated as separate species (they are currently treated as two subspecies of Bean Goose). For those who are interested in ‘ticks’, it will be prudent to come and see the wintering Taiga Bean Geese while you still can!

As we walked back to the car, a pair of Stonechats were feeding along the side of the track, perching up in the tall dead willowherb seedheads. We had enjoyed a remarkably productive morning, with the two of our main target species already under our belts, either of which could easily have taken us much of the day to find.

6O0A3567Stonechat – perched in some dead willowherb

Snow Bunting was the next species on the list, so we headed down to the coast. There are several beaches where you can see flocks of these winter visitors here, but the best option today seemed like the area around Happisburgh and Eccles, where a large group had been seen in recent days. There had also been a Desert Wheatear at Eccles in recent days, but it appeared to have done a bunk overnight – fortunately it was not a target for us today. However,  there were a couple of other things of peripheral interest which we could also possibly see in the area.

Cart Gap seemed like the best place to park, so we stopped for lunch there. After we had eaten, we noticed another Norfolk birder returning to his car and went over to ask for an update on what was about. He told us that he had seen the Snow Buntings but they were a good distance south of us, so we got back in the car and drove round closer to Sea Palling.

As we crossed onto the beach, a beach buggy of sorts was being driven north along the sand. We had no idea what it was doing out here, but as it disappeared round the corner of the dunes, we saw a flock of small birds fly up from the beach and land back down again. The Snow Buntings. We walked further up and found them on an area of shingle on the top of the beach. They flew towards us and landed on the sand up by the dunes. We could see a patch of the sand which looked a different colour there and they gathered into a tight group around it, feeding – someone has put seed out for them here.

6O0A3580Snow Buntings – coming in to seed put out on the beach for them

There was a good size flock of Snow Buntings here – probably at least 60 birds in total. They flew off and landed on the stones again, before coming back to the seed. We watched them for a while – there appeared to be a mixture of paler Scandinavian and darker Icelandic birds in the flock. Eventually, they flew up and landed back in the dunes.

It had been cloudy all day, but the sky seemed to have darkened and the light was fading already. We had a quick scan of the beach and out to sea, but couldn’t immediately see anything beyond a few gulls and a single seal just offshore. Rather than try to drive back round to Eccles, in the limited time we had before it was likely to get dark, we decided to walk back up there along the beach. It wasn’t too far and it was nice to have a walk after spending quiet a bit of time in the car today.

We crossed to the track inland of the dunes and stopped briefly by the field where the Desert Wheatear had been. Three Shorelarks had been reported here earlier this morning, but there was no sign of those either now, thankfully also not a target for today, though always nice to see. What we really hoped to see here was the Arctic Redpoll which had been feeding in the edge of a beet field a little further north, so we didn’t linger here.

When we arrived at the beet field, there was no sign of anything feeding in the weeds along the edge and at first the hedge looked empty too. There was a large bush sticking out from the hedge much further down and we could see there were some birds perched on the near side of it. We got them in the scope and could see they were Redpolls, a good start.

There appeared to be a mixture of darker Lesser Redpolls and slightly paler Mealy Redpolls, but one bird in the middle of the bush stood out. It was face on to us, busy preening, but looked much paler, whitish below, paler faced. It turned briefly and puffed itself up and we could see a large pale rump. It was the Arctic Redpoll. Once again we were fortunate, because after watching it for a few minutes, all the Redpolls took off and flew away across the field, presumably heading off to roost.

It was starting to get dark by the time we got back to the car, passing the Snow Buntings again on our way. It had been a very successful day.

Wednesday 6th December

With the pressure off, after all our successes yesterday, there was only one more species on the list of the most likely targets which we really wanted to find today, Lapland Bunting. There have been a few in the clifftop fields at Weybourne for a few weeks now, but they can be very mobile and elusive. We headed over there to see what we could find.

As we walked down the track towards the Coastguards Cottages, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling. We looked across to see hundreds of them circling over the fields before dropping down out of view to feed on an area of recently cut sugar beet. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling, an odd place to find this species, so possibly a migrant.

When we got to the gate, the stubble field which the Lapland Buntings have been favouring looked quite deserted. Appearances can be deceptive though. We could see some Skylarks flying round and landing in the grass on the clifftop, so we made our way round to that side. Unfortunately, as we walked over the hill, we met a dog walker coming the other way right along the edge of the stubble, just where we had planned to look, flushing all the Skylarks and Meadow Pipits out of the grass as he approached us.

Most of the birds appeared to drop back down into the stubble, down at the bottom of the hill. Then we spotted a flock of Linnets down there too, which flew up, circled round, and dropped back in to the stubble not far in from the grassy edge. That looked the best place to try. Finally, as we walked slowly down the hill, carefully scanning through the Skylarks which flew up from the stubble as we passed, we heard a Lapland Bunting calling, a distinctive dry rattle, followed by a clipped ringing ‘teu’. It didn’t appear to have come up out of the field but flew in from behind us, high overhead, and dropped down into the stubble over where we were headed.

At least we had seen a Lapland Bunting in flight – now finding one out in the middle of the stubble would be a bigger challenge. We continued on down the hill and stood on the grass opposite where it had seemed to land, scanning the field, but we could barely see anything in the vegetation. We needed a break, and after a while we got one. The Linnets took off and whirled round over the field. As they came back in low over the stubble, a Lapland Bunting flew up to join them and this time we could see where it landed.

Even though we had seen roughly where it had landed, it still took us quite a while to find the Lapland Bunting on the ground. We scanned back and forth across the area repeatedly, at first finding nothing but Skylarks and the odd Linnet. Finally it came out of the thick stubble into a slightly more open patch, and we got a good look at it through the scope. It was creeping around like a mouse, head down, not like the much bolder Skylark just behind it. We managed to stay on the Lapland Bunting for several minutes, despite it disappearing in and out of the stubble and furrows at times. Eventually we lost sight of it again and we decided to head back to the car.

Black Redstart was also on the wanted list, but we knew it would be unlikely we could find one at this time of year. There had been the odd one reported in very disparate parts of the coast in recent weeks, but they all seemed to be one day birds, possibly just passing through. As we still had some time available, we thought we might as well give it a go on the off chance. Sheringham can be a good place for them sometimes and, although there had been no reports from there for over two weeks, it seemed worth the long shot – especially as it was not far away.

We had a good look around the Leas, the ornamental garden and the boating lake, round the back of some of the buildings they sometimes favour, but not surprisingly we drew a blank. We decided to have a walk along the prom and a look out to sea. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving offshore and a Guillemot was diving out on the sea. Four Common Scoters flew east.

6O0A3604Turnstones – feeding on seed put out for them on the Prom

There were lots of Turnstones along the Prom, with a large group feeding on some seed put out for them by ‘The Tank’. There are usually at least a couple of Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences along here too and just past there we found one, feeding on one of the seaweed encrusted slipways. It flew back towards ‘The Tank’ and we followed it, finding it feeding on the concrete blocks just below the Prom.

We started to make our way back and a second Purple Sandpiper was feeding on the blocks further back. We watched it slipping and sliding on the seaweed as it tried to clamber up and down the faces of the concrete.

6O0A3618Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the seaweed-encrusted sea defences

We had already found all the target species which we had identified as likely possibilities prior to the tour. Rather than enjoy a couple of hours of general birding on our way back along the coast for the rest of the afternoon, looking for some of the other specialities you can find on a winter’s day in North Norfolk, with a long drive ahead, the decision was made to head for home. We called it a day: mission accomplished.