Tag Archives: Snow Bunting

17th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. The flipside of waking up to a cold, crisp and frosty morning was that we enjoyed blue skies and sunshine during the day, great weather to be out birding.

Our destination for the day was NE Norfolk. On our way east along the coast road this morning, we passed through Stiffkey. The cows are still out on the wet meadow just to the east of the village and we managed to pull up and scan the grass from the car. We were looking towards the morning sun, low in the sky, but still it didn’t take long to spot a Cattle Egret in with the cattle, a nice way to start the day. There are two here at the moment, and they have been lingering here for some time now, but it is always worth a stop to look at them.

As a couple of cars appeared down the road behind us, we had to move on. We managed to see some other things on our journey though. As we passed through Cley, a big group of Curlew flew across the road in front of us and landed in the winter wheat on the other side where they started feeding. We could see several skeins of Pink-footed Geese making their way inland as we headed towards Sheringham.

Passing Cromer, we decided to have a quick look through the gulls down by the pier. There has been a Caspian Gull or two here in recent weeks, though they can be a bit erratic in their appearances. As we got down onto the Prom, we could see a group of gulls loafing on the rocks away to the west. They were rather distant, but looking through them with the scope, we couldn’t see anything unusual with them.

Out to sea, a small crab boat was tending to its pots and a large mob of gulls was following behind. We had a quick look through those too, but all we could see were Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew east offshore and a Cormorant flew past heading west.

There are normally a few gulls on the beach by the pier but someone was walking his dog there today and just a handful of Herring Gulls were just offshore, waiting for him to leave. There was no sign of the Caspian Gull which is often here. The crab boat had finished its work and moved on, but we could still see lots of gulls on the sea further out. Another careful scan through and this time we managed to find a juvenile Glaucous Gull in with them. Great – one of the birds we had hoped to see this weekend. One had been reported flying off west from Sidestrand earlier, so this was possibly the same bird.

The gulls were just loafing on the sea now, with the prospect of food having departed with the crab boat, and the Glaucous Gull started to have a quick bathe. The sea looked fairly calm but there was still enough swell for the gulls to disappear in the waves. Still, we managed to get it in the scope and get a good look at it. We could see it was a rather uniform dark biscuit colour with paler wing tips. Even at that distance, we could see the distinctive black-tipped pink-based bill as it caught the morning sun.

TurnstoneTurnstone – several were around the picnic tables on the pier

We were right by the pier so we figured we would get a slightly closer view of the gulls from out on the end. Unfortunately, by the time we got out there the gulls had mostly dispersed and there was no further sign of the Glaucous Gull. However, we did get a good look at several Turnstones which were looking for scraps around the picnic tables outside the cafe on the pier.

It was then a rather slow drive along the winding coast road to Happisburgh. We parked in the car park by the lighthouse and set off down the coast path along the top of the cliffs. The winter wheat field here has been home to a group of Shorelarks in recent weeks and we were hoping to see them. But as we walked beside it, there were few birds present beyond a scattering of Black-headed Gulls. A couple of Gannets flew past offshore.

As we got towards the south end of the field, we met a couple of birders coming back the other way who told us that four Shorelarks had earlier been down on the beach but had flown up and out across the field. We stopped and had a good scan, but there was still no sign of them, so we continued on to the end. We could see a muck spreader haring up and down the next field inland and it put up a large group of Skylarks ahead of it. While we were scanning over in that direction, we heard Shorelarks calling and someone shouted to say they had dropped back down on the beach.

From the top of the cliffs, we could see two Shorelarks now picking their way along the high tide line. We got them in the scope and had a good look at them, their bright yellow faces glowing in the morning sunshine. They worked their way along, picking at the dead vegetation left behind by the sea, before turning round and coming back towards us. Even better, they then decided to run across the sand towards us, looking for food at the base of the cliffs, right below us. Great views!

ShorelarkShorelark – one of two feeding on the beach below us

A Meadow Pipit flew in to join the two Shorelarks but it was quickly spooked by a dogwalker out on the beach and flew off, taking the Shorelarks with it. They were quickly replaced with a small flock of eleven Snow Buntings which flew in and landed on the tide line, where the Shorelarks had earlier been feeding. We got the Snow Buntings in the scope and watched them as they picked their way along the vegetation, before flying off back up the beach.

The Snow Buntings have been feeding on some seedy weeds at the base of the cliffs, so on our way back we had a look for them – carefully, not getting too close to the edge as the cliffs here are rather unstable! The Snow Buntings we had just seen had joined up with another group and we found them just where we had expected. There were at least 25 now, and we had a great look at them feeding just below us. There was a noticeable mix of paler and darker birds, a mixture of two races from Scandinavia and Iceland respectively.

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting – one of about twenty five on the beach today

Having successfully caught up with the two species we had hoped to see here, we made our way back across country to Felbrigg Hall. We had lunch at one of the rather rustic picnic tables in the car park. The trees here can hold a nice variety of woodland birds at times but it was rather quiet here today.

After lunch, we set off to walk up to the Hall. A couple of Goldcrests flew across the road in front of us and disappeared into a holly tree. As we passed by a small pond we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and looked across to see them feeding in the brambles by the water. There were Great Tits, Coal Tit and another Goldcrest in the trees too.

This autumn saw a massive arrival of Hawfinches, coming to the UK from the continent. Where exactly they have come from and why is still not entirely clear, but some of them have taken up temporary residence in suitable areas across the country, including a small number in Felbrigg Park. They have been rather mobile, but have been seen most often in the trees by the Orangery, which is where we found a small expectant crowd waiting for them.

Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long before a Hawfinch flew in. It went back and forth a couple of times over the wood, flashing its bold white wing flashes, before landing in the top of one of the trees. We got it in the scope and could see its huge nutcracker of a bill. A second Hawfinch flew in and joined it, before the two of them dropped down out of view, possibly to feed on the berries in a yew tree.

HawfinchHawfinch – two flew in and landed in the trees by the Orangery

There were a few other birds around the house too. A Mistle Thrush flew out of one of the yews and away across the grass. A couple of Siskins flew over our heads calling, as did two Chaffinches. A Pied Wagtail was catching insects around the chimneys on the roof of the house.

We had been lucky that we did not have to wait too long to see the Hawfinches, so we decided to make the most of our time and move on to have a look down at the lake. We hadn’t gone more than about fifty metres when another Hawfinch flew in and landed in the trees in front of us. We just had time to get it in the scope before it flew off again. A Jay was hiding in the trees by the gate but flew off as we approached.

As we walked down past the wet meadows above the lake, a tight group of Teal wheeled round several times before eventually landing down on the water. There was a family of Mute Swans and a few Greylag Geese down on here too. We had a careful look to see if we could find a Common Snipe in the grass by the water but we couldn’t see one at first. Only when we had carried on down towards the lake did one of the group look back and spot a Common Snipe feeding surreptitiously in the grass.

There were more ducks out on the lake – lots of Mallard and Gadwall, a few Wigeon and three Tufted Ducks. We could hear Siskin calling and looked across to see a group fly up out of the alders on the other side of the reeds and disappear back over the trees. It is a nice walk around the lake here, but with the evenings drawing in quickly these days we decided to move on and make the most of the afternoon.

On our way back west, we stopped in Sheringham and walked down to the Prom. Our main target was Purple Sandpiper – there are usually a few which spend the winter on the sea defences here. However, as we got down to the edge of the beach and scanned the sea, we spotted a pale gull flying around the sea defences a short distance to the west. It was an Iceland Gull, a juvenile. It disappeared behind one of the shelters on the Prom, so we set off in pursuit.

When we got round to the other side of the shelter we could see the Iceland Gull now having landed on the rocks a bit further along with a few Herring Gulls. We stopped and had a quick look at it through binoculars. It was noticeably paler than the Herring Gulls, a pale biscuit colour with paler wingtips, like the Glaucous Gull we had seen earlier. However, it was a much daintier bird, not bigger than the Herring Gulls, quite long-winged in appearance and with a mostly dark bill. We had been very lucky to see both Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull today!

Iceland GullIceland Gull – flushed by people on the sea defences as we approached

We hurried on round the prom to where the Iceland Gull was on the rocks below, but as we came round the corner we saw a couple carrying their toddler down the steps right by the rocks. As they proceeded to jump up and down in front of the sea, standing on the steps, the Iceland Gull decided it had seen enough and took off. The Herring Gulls simply flew along a little further and landed on the beach, but the Iceland Gull continued on west until we lost it from view.

Our journey along the Prom to here wasn’t entirely in vain though. As we looked down onto the rocks right below where we were standing, a Purple Sandpiper climbed out! It proceeded to walk around on the faces of the large boulders, picking at the seaweed occasionally, giving us a great up close look at it. Then with the couple with the toddler having moved on, the Purple Sandpiper flew out onto the rocks with the Turnstones, where the Iceland Gull had just been.

Purple SandpiperPurple Sandpiper – feeding on the sea defences at Sheringham

Having found our main target species here, we returned to the car and continued on our way west. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese were loafing in a winter wheat field by the coast road. We managed to pull up and have a look at them from the car, but there was nowhere convenient to stop. A few miles on, we saw more skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in and we watched from a layby as they dropped down into a recently harvested sugar beet field to feed.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – dropping into a recently harvested sugar beet field

The light was starting to go now, but we thought we would try our luck with a quick diversion down the Beach Road at Cley, to see if we could find the Black Brant which has been feeding here. There was no sign of any Brent Geese in the fields at first, but then we spotted a group flying over the Eye Field and they landed down in the grass. They were quickly joined by another couple of small groups and it felt like we might be in luck, with the geese perhaps having a last feed before heading off to roost.

We climbed up onto the West Bank for a better look. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Black Brant with them. There were several hundred geese now but this was only part of the flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese which has been feeding here. No more geese flew in to join them – presumably the rest had already gone off to roost.

Brent GeeseDark-bellied Brent Geese – part of the flock, feeding along Beach Road

Still, we spent an enjoyable 20 minutes or so here, enjoying the comings and goings at the end of the day. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grass. Further back, we spotted a pair of Pintail on one of the pools and a single drake Shoveler with some Teal on another. A small group of Golden Plover flew up and whirled around repeatedly over the Eye Field calling plaintively. Several Redshanks called noisily from the saltmarsh the other side of the bank. A couple of Water Rails squealed from the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost now. We could already see at least five out over the main reedbed, flying round or perched in the bushes in the reeds. While we stood on the West Bank, another two Marsh Harriers flew in from Blakeney Freshes, past us and out towards the reserve. Then a Barn Owl appeared, over the bank the other side of the Glaven channel. It flew up and down a couple of times before dropping down into the grass out of view.

When the Brent Geese decided it was finally time to stop feeding and head off to roost, taking off and flying right over our heads with a whoosh of wingbeats, we decided it was time to call it a day too.

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2nd Nov 2017 – Autumn meets Winter

A Late Autumn day tour today, in North Norfolk. It was a nice day, with high cloud but dry and mild and with light winds. A good day to be out birding. We met in Wells and headed east along the coast road.

On our way, as we passed Stiffkey, we had a quick look in the wet field beside the road just beyond the village. The cows were very close to the verge and there, with them, were not one but now two Cattle Egrets. There is nowhere to stop here but we managed to pull over where other cars could pass and wound down the windows for a closer look.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – one of two at Stiffkey now

One of the two Cattle Egrets was standing right out in the open, and we got a good look at it through our binoculars – we could see its short yellowish bill. But it was spooked by another car passing us and flew further back. The second Cattle Egret managed to hide itself very successfully behind a cow at first, but eventually the cow moved out of the way and we could see that one well too, before it then flew further back into the field to join the first.

While we were watching the Cattle Egrets, a pipit flew up from the edge of the pool behind and circled over calling. We could hear a shrill, sharp call, though not as piercing as a Rock Pipit. It sounded like a Water Pipit – and helpfully was seen there again later by someone else at the site.

Our first destination proper for the day was Kelling. We parked in the village and walked up along the lane towards the beach. There were lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches in the hedges, which flew off ahead of us as we made our way along. These were presumably mostly migrants, just arriving here for the winter.

A male Bullfinch flew out calling and landed briefly in the top of the next hedge over across the field. A Reed Bunting and a couple of Yellowhammers perched up in the top of a hawthorn with some of the Chaffinches, just long enough for us to get a good look at them. A Blackcap was not so obliging, flitting across the track and disappearing into the densest blackthorn.

When we got to a gap in the hedge, we stopped to scan the fields. A flock of about 30 Fieldfares was perched in the top of the bushes just across the field and we were able to get them in the scope, before they flew off west over the track ahead of us, chacking. They were followed by a group of Starlings. This was to be a theme of the day, with flocks of Starlings passing overhead west continually all day, birds arriving in from the continent for the winter.

There were other birds moving today too. Several Skylarks passed high overhead calling as we walked along the lane, seemingly on their way west. We heard Redpolls calling overhead too. In the hedge north of the copse, a Goldcrest was probably also a migrant arrived for the winter. When we got to the edge of the Quags, a female Stonechat was flycatching from the brambles and was joined by a couple of Meadow Pipits which flew up from the grass and stopped there to preen.

Looking across at the pool on the Water Meadow, a flock of about twenty Dunlin were busy feeding feverishly on the exposed mud along the near edge. A Common Redshank was with them. Further back, we found the Spotted Redshank weaving in and out of the rushes on the edge of the island. We got it in the scope and could immediately see how much paler it was than its commoner cousin, with a more strongly marked white supercilium and a longer, much finer bill.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshank – lingering for several weeks here now

The Spotted Redshank, a 1st winter bird with darker grey retained juvenile wing coverts and tertials, has been lingering here for several weeks now – it will be interesting to see how much longer it stays here. The Spotted Redshank walked past a Common Snipe which was also feeding on the edge of the island.

There were a couple of other Common Snipe round the muddy edges of the pool too, helpfully feeding out in the open. The Jack Snipe are considerably more skulking – that one would take a bit more effort! Two Black-tailed Godwits flew in and circled over the pool nervously. They eventually dropped down into the water briefly, but changed their minds and took off again, flying off west.

At that point we noticed a report of a Sabine’s Gull which had apparently flown west past Cromer about 20 minutes earlier. It was headed our way, so we made our way straight to the beach to see if we could catch up with it. It later transpired the Sabine’s Gull had turned back and then appeared off Cromer again, so we didn’t manage to see it. But we did pick up a handful of Little Gulls moving west offshore – including a couple of slightly closer adults flashing alternately pale grey above and black underwings as they flapped.

Red-throated DiverRed-throated Diver – there were several on the sea off Kelling today

There were a few Gannets offshore too, mostly distant today though in the rather calm conditions. Several Red-throated Divers were closer in, including one diving just off the beach, in winter plumage now, dusky grey and white, with a rather pale face. A small group of female or juvenile Eider flew west, big chunky ducks with heavy wedge-shaped bills. While we were scanning the sea, a party of eleven Snow Buntings flew east along the shore line past us, calling. We could see as they dropped down onto the beach halfway towards Weybourne, so we set off to see if we could get a closer look.

We found the Snow Buntings again as they flew round and landed on the shingle some way ahead of us still. We got them in the scope and marvelled at how well camouflaged they are against the stones. A couple of them were running around on a patch of sand and were much easier to see. They all started to run up the beach towards a small patch of low sand cliff, and appeared to be feeding there, which gave us an opportunity to get much closer.

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting – great views feeding along the edge of the beach

In the end, we had great close views of the Snow Buntings. There were some annual weeds growing at the top of the sand and the Snow Buntings were feeding on the plentiful seed, up on the top of the cliffs or looking for seed which had fallen off and landed down below. We could see the flock consisted of a mixture of paler Scandinavian birds (of the subspecies nivalis) and darker Icelandic Snow Buntings (insulae). After watching them for a while at close quarters, we left them busy feeding.

On our walk back to the Water Meadow, a female Stonechat was feeding on the brambles on the edge of the Quags, along with a Reed Bunting. We stopped by the pool to have a look for Jack Snipe. As we stood there, we could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker call and we looked up to see it flying over our heads. There are no trees out here, so it landed on fence post instead, before continuing on its way west.

Jack Snipe are nowhere near as obliging as the Common Snipe, and spend a lot of their time skulking in the vegetation around the pool. They tend to be most active at dawn and dusk too and sleep for much of the day. After some very careful scanning, we just managed to spot a hint of a shape hidden deep in the grass. Getting the scope on it, we could see it was a Jack Snipe.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe – skulking in the grass by the Water Meadow

The Jack Snipe was asleep at first, brilliantly camouflaged in the tussocks of brown grass and rushes, and all but impossible to see unless you knew where it was. By changing our angle of view, we managed to build up a composite view of bits of it. Just occasionally it would wake for a couple of seconds and then sometimes it would start its characteristic bobbing motion, at which point it was marginally easier to find! It edged round a little and we found a spot from where we could see its face and bill through the vegetation.

While we were watching the Jack Snipe, the Spotted Redshank also put on a great performance for us, feeding up and down along the front edge of the pool, only a few metres away from us at times.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and head back up the lane towards the car. We were halfway back when three small birds flew up from the weedy vegetation in the beck by the path. They were three Lesser Redpoll and they helpfully landed in the top of one of the low trees just behind us, waiting for us to move on so they could move back to where they were feeding. We could see they were small and quite dark brown-coloured.

Lesser RedpollLesser Redpoll – three were feeding in the lane on our walk back

There has been a Black Brant with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese at Cley for a couple of weeks now, so we decided to go on a wild goose chase before lunch! The geese had been reported on the grazing marshes off the East Bank this morning, but there was no sign of any here when we got round there. The flock also likes to feed in the Eye Field, so we decided to have a quick look there next and sure enough there were the Brent Geese.

Some of the Brent Geese were feeding on the grass right by the road, so we pulled up carefully in the car and opened the windows. One of the closest birds to us was the Black Brant! It’s brighter white flank patch, contrasting more with its darker blackish body plumage, meant it immediately stood out from the duller Dark-bellied Brent Geese. We had a really good look at it from the car.

Black BrantBlack Brant – feeding right next to the Beach Road at Cley

We then parked at the end of the road and had a look at the geese through the scope from the West Bank. We could see the Black Brant’s much better marked white collar, connecting under the chin and wrapping round a long way at the back too. Our regular wintering Dark-bellied Brents breed in northern Russia, with the Black Brant coming from for north-east Siberia or across the Pacific in NW North America. Occasionally Black Brants get lost and get in with the Dark-bellied Brents, at which point they may remain with them – this bird is probably a regular returnee, having been seen here for several winters now.

As we walked back to the car, a couple of Rock Pipits were chasing each other round the fishing boats and tractors on the edge of the beach. We headed back towards the visitor centre for lunch, but on the way back along the Beach Road one of the group spotted a wader flying over from the direction of the reserve. A Greenshank – it disappeared over the West Bank in the direction of Blakeney Harbour.

It was mild today, so we were able still to sit outside and eat our lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve at Cley. As we ate, a large skein of Pink-footed Geese about a thousand strong came up from the fields in the distance beyond North Foreland wood. They came along the edge of the ridge and as they got closer we could hear their distinctive high-pitched yelping calls. Almost at the car park, they turned towards the reserve and started to whiffle down, losing height rapidly, before landing on the scrapes. Quite a spectacle!

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – quite a sight, hundreds whiffling down towards the reserve

After lunch, we made our way round to Walsey Hills. A Yellow-browed Warbler had been reported here earlier and we thought we would like to try to get a look at it. A pair of Little Grebes were diving on the pool and we could hear a couple of Water Rails squealing from the reeds.

The Yellow-browed Warbler was frequenting the sallows at the back of Walsey Hills, a very dense area of cover. We headed out into the field at the back, where we could get a good look at the far edge of the trees. At first, all we could see were several tiny Goldcrests flitting around in the sallows. A flock of tits flew in from the wood and made their way through the trees. Then we heard the Yellow-browed Warbler call. We could just see it in the trees, but it disappeared behind a trunk and didn’t come out the other side. It was a good start, but we would like a better view.

After a few minutes, someone shouted to say the Yellow-browed Warbler was visible from the path through the trees, but by the time we got round there it had disappeared again. There was a better view of the trees from back out in the field and thankfully the Yellow-browed Warbler reappeared there after a couple of minutes. It never came out onto the edge, but we could see it flicking around in the leaves, noting its bright pale supercilium and wing bars. Amazing to think this tiny warbler had come all the way from the Urals, or even beyond!

We headed back across the road to the East Bank next. A Stock Dove flew up from the grazing marsh and disappeared off inland over the trees. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds behind Don’s Pool, but the most we could see of them was the occasional long-tailed shape darting across before diving back into cover.

WigeonWigeon – feeding out on the grazing marshes in good numbers now

There were good numbers of ducks out on the grazing marshes. More Wigeon have returned now and there were several good sized groups feeding down in the grass below the bank. There were plenty of Teal too, particularly around the Serpentine, where a more careful scan also revealed a few Pintail and Gadwall. There were a few waders here too, several Black-tailed Godwits feeding on the Serpentine and further back, on Pope’s Pool, we could see a little group of Dunlin and a few Redshank.

There were more waders on Arnold’s Marsh. Looking carefully through all the Dunlin on here we found a single diminutive Little Stint with them, running round on the edge of one of the shingle spits. There were also several Grey Plover, Curlew and a single Turnstone on here, plus more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank. A big flock of Linnets whirled round repeatedly, before dropping back down onto the saltmarsh to feed.

CurlewCurlew – there were several on Arnold’s and around the brackish pools

We continued on to the beach to have another quick look out to sea. Although the wind had finally swung round to the north-west, it was still rather too light to blow anything inshore. A small flock of Ringed Plover flew past along the beach. Further out, a lone Common Scoter flew west, as did a single Brent Goose. We picked up a small group of six Shelduck flying in over the sea, presumably returning from the continent where they had gone to moult. Several Kittiwakes were circling distantly, feeding offshore.

As we made our way back along the East Bank, the sun was already going down. We stopped to watch a Little Egret feeding on the brackish pools in the evening light – shaking its feet ahead of it in the mud, trying to stir up fish or other invertebrates from the shallows. When it lifted its feet out of the water, we could see they were bright yellow, contrasting with its black legs.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding in the brackish pools

The light was already starting to fade but we still had time for one more quick stop on our way back west, at Stiffkey Greenway. The evenings draw in much earlier now, after the clocks have changed. As we pulled up into the car park, several small groups of Little Egrets were making their way west to roost.

We were hoping to catch up with some raptors to end the day. A distant Merlin appeared briefly against the sky, but we lost it as it dropped down against the saltmarsh again. A Peregrine was easier to see, standing out on the sand in the distance and a Common Buzzard perched in the top of the bushes at the back edge of the saltmarsh. We did manage to find a couple of Hen Harriers, but they were distant today. First a grey male appeared, way out in front of East Hills, but it almost immediately dropped down onto the saltmarsh out of view. Then a little later a ringtail appeared in the same area. It at least flew around for a while, but the light was really going now and it was very hard to get everyone onto against the dark of the trees.

With the evening drawing in, it was time to call it a day and head back to Wells. It had been a great day out, with some good birds, a nice mixture of late autumn migrants and winter visitors.

20th Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours today. It was a very frosty start but it turned into a beautiful winter’s day, with clear skies and sunshine. A great day for winter birding.

Leaving Wells, we headed inland. We were looking for owls first thing this morning, but with the combination of a frost on the ground and some warming early sunshine, we thought it might be worth a quick look around New Holkham. There has been a Great Grey Shrike here for the last couple of weeks, but it is obviously wandering over a huge area as it has only been seen on two days in all that time! As we drove along, the first birds we saw were two Red Kites perched in a tree in the sunshine. A little further along, we found a Common Buzzard standing on the top of a hedge. The raptors were out warming themselves in the sun, at least. But the shrike had not read the script and there was no sign of it in a very quick look round.

Continuing on, we came across a nice selection of farmland wildlife. There were several Brown Hares in the fields and two chasing after each other suggested that a mad March may not be far off. A couple of round lumps in a winter wheat field turned out to be a pair of Grey Partridge fluffed up against the cold – we could see the male’s black belly patch and orange face, as he watched the female feeding. A Pheasant‘s bright plumage glowed in the sunshine.

We checked out a couple of owl sites on the way, but there was no sign of any Barn Owls or Little Owls at first. However, at the third place we stopped  we immediately found ourselves watching a rather distant Little Owl. Scanning the other farm buildings periodically, a second appeared and eventually a third Little Owl, the latter much closer. It was also more active, presumably having just come out of its roost to enjoy the warming rays. It stood preening for a while, before flying up and down the roof.

img_9937Little Owl – we eventually found three enjoying the morning sun

There were lots of other birds to see here too. A smart male Yellowhammer flew up and landed on a tree in front of us. A large flock of Lapwing flew up from a stubble field, along with several Curlews. A small flock of Golden Plover flew overhead calling plaintively. Three Stock Doves took off from one of the barns and circled round. A small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew past and several flocks of Brent Geese came up from the direction of the coast and disappeared off inland, looking for a field of winter wheat to feed on. Another Red Kite flapped lazily across in front of the trees in the distance. It was a typical Norfolk winter farm scene, even including the banging gunfire in the distance from the local Pheasant shoot!

6o0a3933Brent Geese – heading inland from the coast to feed on the fields

Our next stop of the day was Sheringham. Even as we made our way down to the prom, we could see a large pale gull on the sea in front of us. A quick look through binoculars confirmed it was a cracking adult Glaucous Gull. There has been a small invasion of these arctic ‘white-winged’ gulls in the last few weeks, and several of them have been feeding along the beach here. We watched it swim across and climb out onto one of the wooden groynes, where we had a great view of it through the scope.

6o0a3958Glaucous Gull – a very smart adult with white wing tips

Looking across to the next groyne along, we could see another large and rather pallid gull, but this one was a juvenile Glaucous Gull. The adult dropped down to the sea and swam across, before chasing the juvenile off its perch. As the juvenile flew past us, we could see its pale wingtips, not white like the adult’s but still about the palest part of it’s plumage. The Glaucous Gulls have been feeding on the remains of a dead seal, washed up onto the beach after last week’s storms, but there was no sign of it today. Either the sea washed it away overnight or it has been ‘tidied’ up.

The juvenile Glaucous Gull landed again on another groyne, a short way back along the prom. We walked back for a closer look. Through the scope we could see its distinctive bill – large, with a bright pink base and squared off black tip looking like it had been dipped in ink. Helpfully, there was a nice selection of gulls on the posts here. The Glaucous Gull was about as big as the Great Black-backed Gull next door, and they both dwarfed a Herring Gull on the next post.

6o0a3972Glaucous Gull – a juvenile with a ‘dipped in ink’ bill tip

Having enjoyed fantastic views of the two Glaucous Gulls, we set off along the prom towards the east end. There were lots of Turnstones, and a little group were feeding on the grassy bank right beside the path as we passed. Scanning the rocky sea defenses further along, we found the Purple Sandpiper which is spending the winter here. Its upperparts looked sort of purple-toned through the scope, and we could see its orange bill base and legs. It was picking around on the seaweed and algae covered rocks on the edge of the sea.

6o0a3980Purple Sandpiper – on the rocky sea defenses at Sheringham

Looking out to sea, we could see a steady passage of Red-throated Divers, all heading east in little groups of two or three. A few Guillemots flew past too, and we also managed to find a couple on the sea. One was a regular pale-faced winter plumage individual but one of the Guillemots was already in summer plumage, with a blackish-brown head.

Making our way back west along the coast road, we could see a huge throng of geese in a recently harvested sugar beet field, so we stopped for a closer look. They were mostly Pink-footed Geese, which have been coming in here over the last few days to feed on the beet tops left behind after the beet itself has been harvested. Thankfully, another local birder was there and quickly got us on to two of the Tundra Bean Geese which have been with them. Through the scope, they were easiest to pick out from the Pink-footed Geese by their bright orange legs but we could also see the heavier bill with orange band on the Tundra Bean Geese.

At that point, the geese in one corner of the field started to fly up. Most of them landed again further over, and we were just getting everyone on to a couple of White-fronted Geese when the whole field erupted. There were thousands of geese circling nervously overhead calling. It was quite a sight to watch and listen to all the geese flying round. We looked across to see a farm worker in a tractor driving round the edge of the field. After he had driven round two sides and back again, and then round in front of us and down the fourth side for good measure, we started to think he had probably just flushed the geese for the sake of it!

6o0a3990Pink-footed Geese – around 5,000 were in fields at Weybourne today

Eventually all the geese started to fly off west and we decided to join them. It was fortunate there was someone to show us where the Tundra Bean Geese were, as there were apparently only 8-9 in with 5,000 Pinkfeet and we would not have had time to search through the flock on our own before they were flushed.

Our next stop was at Kelling. The floods along the coast after last weekend’s storm surge have largely receded now, but they have left behind large amounts of debris, particularly reed litter washed out from the bottom of the reedbeds at Cley and Salthouse. With large quantities of seed mixed in with it, this debris has been a bonus for seed eating birds. The flock of Snow Buntings which had been feeding on the shingle ridge before the storm surge have now taken to feeding on the tide line where all this debris has been deposited.

We were warned as we walked down along the track past the Water Meadow that the Snow Buntings had earlier been pushed further and further along the lane by people watching them, and it was perhaps no surprise that we couldn’t find them at first. We did find a pair of Stonechats feeding along the tideline, accompanied by a Chiffchaff which had probably been forced out of the reedbed by the floods. There were also a couple of Reed Buntings and a few Meadow Pipits.

6o0a3999Reed Bunting – a couple were feeding on the reed debris left behind by the flood

Looking over towards the shingle ridge, we could see a small group of birders gathered and then a small group of Snow Buntings flew up from the ground near to them. The birds had obviously gone over to that side when they had been flushed. There was no sign of them coming back, so we set off to walk round there. Needless to say, we got half way round to be told that they had just flown back again! Thankfully, when we returned there the Snow Buntings were now feeding happily on the debris again and we had a great look at them. They may have given us the runaround, but we got there in the end!

6o0a4020Snow Buntings – feeding on the reed debris left behind by the floods

There were at least 40 Snow Buntings here, though they were hard to count as they rooted in and out of the piles of dead reeds. Periodically, they would fly round in a little whirl, white wings flashing, before landing back down to feed.

With our mission finally accomplished, we set off back to the car and made our way along the coast towards Cley for a later than planned lunch. We had to make one more unscheduled stop on the way though, as a Barn Owl appeared over the field behind Walsey Hills. It flew towards us and then crossed the road, going right past us over the verge the other side. A stunning view!

6o0a4029Barn Owl – flew past us along the coast road at Cley

The reserve at Cley is closed after the floods, but after lunch we had a quick scan of the scrapes from the Visitor Centre. There was no sign of the Smew which had been seen here this morning but we did see a couple of pairs of Pintail, the drakes looking very smart now with their long pin-shaped tails. A couple of Marsh Harriers quartered over the reedbed.

We headed out along the East Bank next. There were lots of Golden Plover out on the grass, now the flood waters have receded. In amongst them, were good numbers of diminutive grey and white Dunlin. A couple of Common Snipe flew down along the grassy edge just beyond the channel and landed next to a Lapwing right in front of us, giving us great views of them through the scope. Further over, we found a couple of Black-tailed Godwit and a lone Ruff. A Grey Plover feeding on the grass had possibly been forced over from Arnolds Marsh, which is still flooded.

6o0a4035Lapwing – on the grazing marsh below the East Bank at Cley

There was a nice selection of ducks out here too. There were several more Pintail and again we stopped to admire a couple of very smart drakes. We also found a couple of Gadwall and a few Shoveler which were new for the day. Some Brent Geese were feeding nervously out on the grass but got spooked by something and flew off calling. A lone Little Grebe was diving out on the water at the back. A Little Egret looked stunning in the late afternoon sun down in front of us, trying to stir up the mud below the water with its feet, hoping to disturb something tasty to eat.

6o0a4045Little Egret – feeding on the pools off the East Bank

Scanning the edges of the marshes carefully, we came across a large pale gull sitting down on a muddy bank. On closer inspection, it was another juvenile Glaucous Gull, our third Glaucous Gull of the day. As we walked further along the bank, it finally woke up and had a fly round over the water.

We had a quick look out to sea from the end of the East Bank. As at Sheringham earlier, there were several Red-throated Divers still moving past, but this time we also managed to find a couple of them on the sea. There were also a few more Guillemots. A distant Gannet flew past offshore. Then it was time to head back.

Turning off the coast road and heading inland, we hadn’t gone very far when we found another Barn Owl. It was hunting out over a grassy field, flying round and round. It dropped down into the grass and when it came up again it flew over onto a fence post nearby. It appeared to have caught something but by the time we got the scope onto the Barn Owl, whatever had been caught had already been eaten.

6o0a4071Barn Owl – our second of the day, taking a break from hunting

Then the Barn Owl was off again, doing a quick circuit of the back of the field, before flying over the hedge at the back. We caught up with it briefly as it flew across the field next door and then it was off again back and out of view. As we turned to walk back to the car, a small flock of about 40 geese flew overhead. We could just see the distinctive black belly bars of White-fronted Geese before the flew off away from us.

It was almost time to look for Tawny Owls, so we made our way over to where we hoped to see them. It was such a bright evening that we had enough time for a quick look at some wet meadows nearby and were rewarded with another two Barn Owls out hunting. We could hear a Song Thrush singing in the trees behind us, the first we have heard this year. Perhaps it knows something we don’t, that spring is not far away? Then it was time to get into position.

It was a slow start this evening. The Tawny Owls were not hooting much again and were rather late to emerge from the roost tonight. A muffled hoot did alert us to the fact that the nearest male had moved roost tree tonight, but then he went silent. It looked like we might be out of luck, but then a large dark shape flew towards us through the trees on big, rounded wings. Even better, it perched up in a tree in front of us. We all had a great view of it through binoculars as it perched looking at us for a few seconds. Then it was off again through the trees.

We followed after the Tawny Owl, but without him hooting he would be hard to locate. A quick whistle from us and we were rewarded with a hoot in reply. Another whistle, and we thought we might be able to work out where he was perched, but instead a dark shape whistled past us only a few metres away and low over the ground – he had flown past to check us out! Unfortunately, it was getting dark now and with him so low through the trees he was all but impossible to see, but then he started hooting again behind us. It was time to leave him in peace, but what a great way to end a day of winter birds and owls!

 

Jan 2017 – Happy New Year, 2017

There is a tradition in certain birding circles for New Year’s Day, which sees birders heading out to make a start on their ‘Year List’. On the 1st January, all species become ‘year ticks’ again, so there is an incentive to see commoner birds as well as rarer ones once more. Even though we are not obsessive year listers, we decided to head out on New Year’s Day this year to see how many species we could see.

The weather forecast was dreadful, rain all day and increasingly blustery, cold north winds. Unfortunately, for once, the Met Office turned out to be right. Not ideal birding conditions. Undaunted, and armed with waterproofs, we set out to see what we could see.

A Little Owl sheltering under the roof of a barn was a good start, given the conditions. A stop at Holkham produced 22-23 Shorelarks out on the saltmarsh and the regular Black Brant hybrid with a small group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese there too. There were a couple of small groups of Pink-footed Geese by Lady Anne’s Drive and a party of 36 White-fronted Geese on one of the grazing meadows by the main road. A Great White Egret out on the freshmarsh was a nice bonus.

6o0a2978Great White Egret – out on Holkham Freshmarsh in the rain

Titchwell was our next port of call. A Chiffchaff was flitting around beside the path from the car park but there were no Bramblings around the visitor centre as we walked out, so we decided to have a look on the way back. A Water Rail was feeding in the ditch by the main path and, following a tip off, we found a Jack Snipe on the Thornham grazing marsh pool. While we were watching it, it was promptly joined by a second Jack Snipe! The Water Pipit was slightly less accommodating, lurking in the vegetation at the back, but at least we managed to find it.

We hurried out to the sea to try to collect some seaduck. There have been large numbers of Long-tailed Ducks and Velvet Scoter off the coast this winter, but they were hard to find today in the swell and with rain and spray driven in on the wind. A couple of Velvet Scoter helpfully flew past, flashing their white wing patches, and an Eider flew in and landed close inshore. It took some time, but eventually we managed to find some Long-tailed Ducks and then beat a hasty restreat.

The pools at Titchwell gave us a really nice selection of waders, as hoped. A Greenshank helpfully flew up from the back of the tidal pools, and the unseasonal Little Stint on the freshmarsh was distinctly unexpected at this time of year. We got the set of dabbling ducks, including several smart Pintail, and a detour round via Patsy’s Reedbed added Coot and Tufted Duck.

Stopping to eat a nice hot pasty back at the visitor centre, a Brambling appeared at the feeders and a Mealy Redpoll was perched low down on one the alders where it was easy to see. Even better, a pair of Bullfinches flew over calling and landed in the top of a tree briefly. This can be a tricky species to find on a day like today.

Thornham Harbour was our next destination. As we got out of the car, the flock of wintering Twite helpfully flew up from the saltmarsh by the car park. We walked round to get a better look at them and could hear Spotted Redshank calling. It was hard to work out where it was coming from at first, in the wind, but a look from the old sluice revealed two Spotted Redshanks calling quietly to each other on the mud just below. It was not a day for photography today, but we couldn’t resist getting the cameras out, as they were posing so well!

6o0a2995Spotted Redshank – 1 of 2 at Thornham Harbour

A drive round through the farmland inland and we managed to find various flocks of finches and buntings, including a few Corn Buntings. Even better, while searching through one of the flocks, we found several Tree Sparrows perched up in a hedge – a hard bird to see in Norfolk these days! We were told about some geese feeding in a cut beet field nearby and drove round to find a large flock of Pink-footed Geese. A quick scan through them produced the hoped for Tundra Bean Geese – two of them, their bright orange legs showing up well despite the dim light.

There was olnly an hour or two of light left, so we had to decide where to finish the day. Holkham Park seemed like a good option, out of the wind and with the possibility of a few woodland birds. The trees produced Treecreeper and Goldcrest. The lake added Common Pochard to the day’s list, although a Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid was not eligible for inclusion. Walking back to the car, a Grey Wagtail flew away over the trees calling, another bonus. Then, with the light fading, we headed for home. A drive round some suitable farmland on the way produced a Barn Owl out hunting – a great way to end the day.

Back at home, with a nice hot mug of tea to warm us up, we went through the list and added up the day’s total – 110 species. This was a great number, particularly given the weather conditions. It just goes to show, you really can see birds in any weather if you put your mind to it!

The following day, we went out again (albeit a late start today!), to try to catch up with a few of the species we didn’t have time to get to on the 1st. The weather was much better, still cold and windy, but with sunny spells and only the odd shower. Unfortunately, we missed the Waxwings at Cromer – they had flown off by the time we arrived. A Purple Sandpiper at Sheringham was some compensation on the way back, and a male Stonechat feeding out on the rocky sea defences among the waves was a bit of a surprise.

The blustery north winds had blown in several Glaucous Gulls and one was roving up and down between Blakeney and Salthouse. We eventually managed to catch up with it on Simmond’s Scrape at Cley, a biscuit-coloured juvenile, with pale wingtips. We were lucky, as it didn’t stay here long. A Water Pipit was feeding nearby, on the mud on the edge of the scrape.

img_9684Glaucous Gull – a juvenile at Cley

Round at Salthouse, we walked out to see the flock of Snow Buntings which have been frequenting the beach here this winter. There were about 40 of them there today, a mixture of Scandinavian and Icelandic birds.

6o0a3141Snow Bunting – a 1st winter Scandinavian male

On our walk back to the car, the Glaucous Gull had reappeared on the pool at the end of Beach Road. We had a quick look at it before all the gulls flushed and it disappeared out onto the sea. As we drove back to the main road, we spotted another juvenile Glaucous Gull flying in from the east over the fields, our second of the day!

On the drive back home today, with the light fading, we spotted several Woodcock flying out of the trees from the car.

It just goes to show, winter birding can be exciting in Norfolk, whatever the weather!

17th Dec 2016 – Birding through the Mist

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

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

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

img_9434Sunrise – over Island Hide and the reedbed

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

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

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

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

6o0a2115Common Redshank – its legs shining in the morning sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a2228Common Snipe – feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

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

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

6o0a2241Greenshank – feeding in the channel at Thornham Harbour

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

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

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

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

6o0a2254Snow Buntings – coming to seed on the shingle ridge

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a2276Stonechat – led us back along the seawall

3rd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice dry and mild winter’s day, brighter in the morning though clouding over a little later on.

While we were loading up the car in Wells first thing this morning, we happened to scan the trees in a garden next to the road. A Coal Tit appeared in the top of an apple tree and, while we  were watching it, a Waxwing popped up next to it. There have been lots of Waxwings about so far this winter, but most of those which arrived on the coast here have moved on inland. So this was most a welcome surprise.

6o0a1185Waxwing – just one, in the centre of Wells briefly first thing

The tree was full of Blackbirds feeding on the apples still on the tree, and the Waxwing dropped down and joined in. It fed for a few seconds, then climbed up into the back of the tree. It was on its own and probably looking for other Waxwings – it called a couple of times. At that point, something spooked the Blackbirds and everything scattered. We waited a while for the Waxwing to come back down to the apples but we hadn’t seen where it had gone and there was no further sign of it. It had probably just dropped in to feed briefly, before carrying on its way.

While we were waiting, we did see a Brambling which flew down to the feeders in another tree in the same garden. Another nice surprise to start the day.

6o0a1199Brambling – coming down to the feeders in the same garden

Our first destination proper was Holkham. As we drove down Lady Anne’s Drive, there were a few flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields either side, so we pulled up for a closer look, admiring their pink legs and bill bands.

6o0a1203Pink-footed Geese – in the fields along Lady Anne’s Drive

At the north end, a little group of Redshank were feeding on the pools in the grazing marsh on one side of the road and a large flock of Wigeon was out on the grass on the other side. Nearby, we found a single Curlew and a lone Common Snipe in the grass too. There was a bit of a commotion further over and we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier chasing a Carrion Crow. The Crow had something in its bill and obviously didn’t want to give it up. The two birds went round and round in tight circles for a minute or so, until the Marsh Harrier eventually gave up.

Walking out towards the beach, we could see a small group of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh as we made our way down the boardwalk. One of the geese was subtly different from the others – darker bodied and with a more contrasting flank patch and a larger white collar. It was not dark enough for a pure Black Brant though. It was a Black Brant hybrid (the offspring of a Black Brant and a Dark-bellied Brent mixed pair), and it has been returning here for several years, presumably with the same group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese.

img_9082Black Brant hybrid – a returning bird with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

Right in the far corner of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks. We could see them from some distance away, flying round, flashing white underneath as they turned. They landed again and we were able to approach carefully, stopping ahead of them and waiting as they worked their way towards us.

6o0a1225Shore Larks – some of the 28 at Holkham first thing this morning

There were 28 Shore Larks in the flock today, while we were there at least. As they came closer, we had a great view of them in the scope. Their bright yellow faces shone in the morning sunshine, contrasting with the black masks. Very smart little birds!

6o0a1266Shore Larks – the flock gradually came closer to us

In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the Shore Larks and walked out towards the dunes to look at the sea. Just about the first bird we found out on the water was a Red-necked Grebe. It was a little distant at first – thankfully it would come much closer inshore later. While we were trying to get everyone in the group onto it through the scope, a different bird surfaced in front. It was a Great Northern Diver. We all had a quick look at it before it dived.

The more we scanned the sea, the more we found. Not everyone had seen the Red-necked Grebe yet, and while scanning to find it one of the group found two grebes together. They didn’t sound like the Red-necked and taking a look through the scope they turned out to be two Slavonian Grebes. Then we found another Slavonian Grebe and another two, further out. Then a careful scan revealed at least 6 Slavonian Grebes scattered across the sea in ones and twos. A great number to find together in one place here at this time of year! There were lots of Great Crested Grebes out on the sea too.

The sea duck were further out today, and it took us a while to find a raft of Common Scoter. Looking carefully through the flock, we started to find a few Velvet Scoters in with them. The Common Scoter were almost all females, with large pale cheeks. Next to them, the Velvet Scoters looked much darker headed, with two smaller pale spots visible on a good view. It was not easy to pick them out at first, given the distance and the swell, but they drifted a bit closer inshore and the sea flattened off to make it a bit easier. In the end, we could see there were at least 10 Velvet Scoters out there today. A single Eider was similarly distant.

While we were watching the sea, we heard Shore Larks calling and a small group of nine flew along the beach and landed down on the sand in front of us. We presumed they were part of the group we had seen earlier, back on the saltmarsh, which had probably been disturbed by the increasing number of dogs out for a Saturday morning walk.

Four Snow Buntings had earlier flown east along the edge of the dunes. After the Shore Larks had moved on, another group of five Snow Buntings dropped down onto the tide line, where we could get a great look at them. One of them appeared to be an adult male Scandinavian bird, with lots of white in the wing.

6o0a1309Snow Buntings – 3 of the 5 which landed on the tide line

By this stage, the Red-necked Grebe had come closer inshore, giving us much better views. We could even see the yellow base to its bill, glinting in the sunshine! It gave us a better chance to compare it to the Slavonian Grebes, and the Great Crested Grebes as well. The Great Northern Diver had reappeared, at least we assumed it was the same one we had seen earlier, and for a few minutes it stopped diving and allowed us to get a great look at it too.

On our way back over the saltmarsh, we had a quick scan and there was no sign of any Shore Larks where they had been first thing this morning. We eventually stumbled across a small group, closer to the dunes, as we walked back. There were nine of them, so they were possibly the same birds we had seen out on the beach earlier. It seemed likely that the large flock had been disturbed and had disbursed. There were a lot of people out today, walkers and dog-walkers.

When we got back through the pines, we turned and walked west along the track on the south side of the trees. There were lots of Jays calling and flying back and forth across the path. At Salts Hole, we found a couple of Little Grebes on the water among the ducks. A Mistle Thrush flew out of the trees and dropped down onto the grass beyond. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and a tit flock duly appeared on the edge of trees. As well as a variety of tits, we could see lots of tiny Goldcrests flitting around. We heard a Treecreeper calling, and shortly after it appeared, working its way up the trunk of a pine tree. A Green Woodpecker flew off through the tree tops.

6o0a1339Long-tailed Tit – we found a mixed tit flock on the edge of the pines

We stopped briefly on the boardwalk by Washington Hide to scan the grazing marshes. A rather dark Common Buzzard was perched in a bush behind the reeds. A distant Red Kite circled over the trees in Holkham Park beyond. Four Gadwall were upending on the pool in front of the hide.

Making our way quickly further west, we climbed up to Joe Jordan Hide. Our first target was achieved as soon as we looked out of the flaps. A large flock of White-fronted Geese were out on the grass just to the left of the hide. We could see the white band around the base of the pink bill and the black belly bars of the adults. There were quite a few duller juveniles  too. In all, we counted at least 96 White-fronted Geese here today.

6o0a1343White-fronted Geese – there were at least 96 at Holkham today

Before we had even had a chance to sit down, someone else in the hide pointed out a Great White Egret which had appeared on the edge of a reedy ditch. We got that in the scope next and had a great view of it, an enormous white bird, the size of a Grey Heron, with a long, pointed, yellow bill and black feet, distinguishing it from a Little Egret. The Great White Egret flew across and landed on an old bridge, where it stood preening for a while. Eventually it flew again and disappeared back behind the reeds.

img_9110Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes from Joe Jordan Hide

There were lots of Marsh Harriers out here too. At first, we could see a couple perched in the bushes, but then more appeared and the next thing we knew there were six Marsh Harriers circling together. One of them was carrying bright green coloured wing tags and when it landed we were able to read the code on them. It turned out the bird had been ringed several miles inland from here in the summer of 2015 and this was the first time it had been seen again!

It was time for lunch, so we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive and made good use of the picnic tables outside. After lunch, we drove west to Burnham Overy Staithe and made our way out along the seawall towards the dunes.

There were lots of Wigeon and Curlew out on the grazing marshes by the start of the seawall. Several Redshank and Grey Plover were feeding on the mud along the edges of the harbour channel and we counted at least 10 Little Grebes in the channel itself. As we turned the corner on the seawall, the larger area of open mud was covered in waders, predominantly Dunlin. On the grass the other side, lots of Brent Geese were busy feeding. A little further along, we stopped to look at a striking pale Common Buzzard perched on a post.

6o0a1362Brent Geese – lots were feeding on the grazing marshes by the seawall

Once we reached the dunes, we made our way straight over to the beach. It had clouded over more now and, with the shortness of the days at this time of year, we were already starting to lose the light. There was no sign of the Isabelline Wheatear in the dunes around the end of the boardwalk as we walked past. It has seemingly been hiding out on the beach for the last couple of weeks, so we thought we would look for it out there, although we knew we were probably a little late in the day.

We walked quickly west along the tideline. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, a huge number of Common Gulls in particular, with more large groups constantly flying in to join them. There were a few waders too – a Bar-tailed Godwit, a handful of Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers and a couple of Turnstones. What looked at first like a raft of scoter in the distance out on the sea turned out to be a large flock of Wigeon when we got them in the scope. Presumably they had been frightened off the saltmarsh, perhaps by a raptor, and had sought safety out here.

When we saw movement ahead of us on the beach, we looked to see six Shore Larks picking along the high tide line. We lost sight of them behind a ridge and walking on the next thing we knew they appeared right in front of us. They scurried ahead of us for a while, before flying up and doubling back, landing behind us back down on the tide line again.

6o0a1381Shore Lark – six more were feeding along the tide line out at Gun Hill

The bushes round Gun Hill were very quiet now and there was no sign of the wheatear in the dunes on the walk back to the boardwalk. From the seawall, we scanned either side on the way back to Burnham Overy Staithe. We picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier over the saltmarsh, quartering low over the bushes. It seemed to drop down into the bushes, but the next thing we knew we picked up a grey male even further back, towards Scolt Head. Perhaps it was a different bird? The next thing we knew, a ringtail Hen Harrier was flying round with it.

With lots of yelping, we watched as a large flock of Pink-footed Geese dropped down off the fields and onto the grazing marshes. Even in the growing gloom, we could see there were several Barnacle Geese with them, although as usual there is no way of telling whether they might be wild birds or just part of the feral flock from Holkham.

It was the time when the Pink-footed Geese come in to roost at Holkham, and we looked up into the sky in the distance beyond and saw thousands and thousands of geese in a vast skein smearing the horizon. They were flying across from us, heading towards the back of Holkham Park. When we got back to the car park, we heard more geese yelping and looked up to see several more skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in from the west. We loaded up the car as several more skeins passed overhead and then it was time to head for home ourselves.

2nd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice morning, cloudy with some brighter intervals, but the cloud thickened in the afternoon and brought some misty drizzle with it at times.

Our first stop was at Blakeney. As we set out towards the seawall, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour channel. The first half dozen were our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese but a pair a few metres further on were more interesting. One of the pair was much paler on the flanks and belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and it appeared to be paired with a male Dark-bellied Brent. It really stood out next to the Dark-bellieds.

6o0a0923Pale-bellied Brent Goose – this one is paired with a Dark-bellied Brent

Dark-bellied Brent Geese breed in arctic Russia and come here for the winter in large numbers. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard across Greenland into the Canadian High Arctic. We regularly get a small number of Pale-bellied Brents in with our regular wintering flocks of Dark-bellied Brents.

While we were looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, suddenly lots of birds took to the air. A flock of Golden Plover whirled overhead. Low over the vegetation we picked up a Hen Harrier further back, quartering the marshes. A ringtail, it flashed its white rump patch as it flew away from us.

As we walked out past the harbour, a Rock Pipit flew across and landed on one of the small boats tied up on the water, where we could get it in the scope. We flushed several Meadow Pipits from the grassy banks of the seawall and a few Reed Buntings too. We heard the distinctive calls of a Lapland Bunting flying over, a dry rattle ‘t-t-t-t’ and a ringing ‘teu’, but it was long way out over the grazing marshes and we didn’t manage to find it.

There were various waders which flushed from the saltmarsh as we walked past, Curlews and Redshanks. A Little Egret was busy feeding in one of the channels. A group of Turnstone ran along a path ahead of a couple of dogs until they got too close and the Turnstone flew off towards the channel.

At the corner of the seawall, we stopped to look at a small flock of Dunlin on the edge of the harbour. A smart drake Goldeneye surfaced on the water just behind and then a raft of duck appeared in the channel. As well as a few more Goldeneye, there were several Red-breasted Mergansers with their spiky haircuts. While we were admiring them a rather nondescript brown duck bobbed up in their midst. It was a 1st winter female Scaup, normally difficult to find here in the winter but this appears to be a good year for them.

There were a few more waders here now too. A Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, both picking at the surface with their short bills. An Oystercatcher too. The tide was starting to go out and more mud was beginning to appear. A little further along the seawall, where the harbour starts to open out, there were some bigger numbers of waders and sifting through them we found a small group of dumpy Knot and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits closer to us. The Bar-tailed Godwits were much further over.

We had seen a female Marsh Harrier earlier, on our walk out, flying over the reeds out in the middle of the Freshes. When all the Wigeon erupted from the grazing marshes, we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier flying towards us. It turned slightly and cut out across the saltmarsh, flying past us and flushing all the Brent Geese as it went.

6o0a0942Marsh Harrier – a smart, grey-winged male

There were a few Skylarks feeding on the short vegetation on the inland side of the seawall, which flushed as we approached. They circled round and landed again on the edge of an open area. A slightly smaller bird was with them now and through the scope we could confirm it was a Lapland Bunting. It was creeping around in the short grass at first and hard to see, but then it flew a short distance towards us and landed out in the open where we could get a great view of it through the scope.

img_9054Lapland Bunting – feeding with Skylarks below the seawall

The Skylarks were nervous and kept flying round. The Lapland Bunting also flew around a couple of times and landed back on the short grass. Then suddenly it was off, calling as it went.

Lapland Buntings can be very hard to find out in the open, so this was a great way to cap off our walk here. As we started to walk back, we could see five or six small birds perched on the fence and a closer look confirmed there were five Twite.They had obviously been bathing in the puddles by the path and were now busy preening. We got them in the scope and could see their yellow bills and burnt orange faces.

img_9074Twite – five were preening on the fence after having a bathe

The sixth bird was a single Linnet which perched on the fence near the Twite for comparison for a few seconds. We could see it had a grey bill and was not as brightly coloured on the face as the Twite.

Back to the car, and we made our way further east to Salthouse. We parked at the end of Beach Road and walked east along the edge of the shingle towards Gramborough Hill. Local photographers have been putting seed out for the Snow Buntings here, so when a small group of buntings appeared from around the back of the Hill, we initially thought they would be the Snow Buntings. They headed south, inland across the grazing marshes, which would be an odd direction for Snow Buntings to go and when they turned and dropped down, with the fields behind them, we could see they were actually more Lapland Buntings.

There were at least 15 Lapland Buntings in the flock, a very good number, but they kept on going and we lost sight of them as they flew off west. We weren’t finished though, and yet another lone Lapland Bunting circled over the grazing marshes calling a few minutes later before dropping down into the grass out in the middle.

The day’s delivery of seed had just been put out for the Snow Buntings and we didn’t have to wait long before they flew back in to enjoy it. They landed on the top of the shingle ridge first, where they had a good vantage point to check for any danger, before running down the slope to where the food was waiting for them. There were at least forty of them here today, although not all of them came down to feed.

6o0a1033Snow Buntings – coming down to feed on feed put out on the shingle ridge

The Snow Buntings can be quite tame and we had great close views of them when they came down to the food. Looking at the flock, we could see a variety of different looking birds, some much paler ones amongst a mass of darker, browner ones. We get two different races here in the winter from different breeding areas. The duller ones are predominantly female Snow Buntings of the Icelandic race, insulae, whereas the paler ones are from Scandinavia, of the race nivalis.

6o0a1017Snow Bunting – of the Scandinavian race, nivalis

Regardless of where they come from, the Snow Buntings are always great to watch. Along with Lapland Buntings, they are our two sought after winter buntings, so we had enjoyed a very successful morning getting such great views of both species.

We walked back over Gramborough and along the remains of the now flattened shingle ridge. The sea looked fairly quiet but we did see a loose groups of six Red-throated Divers flying past distantly. Another Red-throated Diver was on the sea, along with a single Guillemot, but both were hard to see out in the swell and diving constantly. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore and were much more obliging – they seemed to come in to investigate a couple of fishermen down on the beach. Back to the car and a very obliging group of Turnstones had flown in to feed on some food put out for them. We watched them feverishly turning the stones over – they had a lot to choose from here!

6o0a1092Turnstone – very tame, feeding by the Beach Road at Salthouse

It was already time for lunch, but we still wanted to make one last stop at the Iron Road before heading back to the visitor centre at Cley. Rather than have lunch here, the group decided on a late lunch back at the visitor centre, so we set off straight away to see what we could find. The water level on the pool by Iron Road has gone down nicely and there was a good flock of Dunlin on here today. However, apart from a Redshank, we couldn’t immediately see anything else. With time pressing, we headed out along Attenborough’s Walk.

There were four Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes close to the path, which flew off as we passed. A little further along, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese. The vast majority were Dark-bellied Brents, as we would expect here, but a quick look at them and we found our second Pale-bellied Brent Goose of the day, right at the front of the flock.

6o0a1163Pale-bellied Brent Goose – with Dark-bellied Brent behind for comparison

There were lots of Dunlin right in front of Babcock Hide but they were very nervous and kept flying round. A single Common Snipe, feeding on one of the islands nearby, took fright when they did so and landed much further back, out of sight in some taller vegetation. A single Ruff (or, more accurately, a female Reeve) was picking around on one of the islands further back, in amongst a large flock of sleeping Teal. Two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding up to their bellies in the deeper water.

6o0a1145Dunlin – one of several feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

At first all we could see were dabbling ducks out on the water, but then one of group picked up a Long-tailed Duck which emerged from behind one of the reed islands in the deep water right at the back. It was diving constantly, but when it surfaced we could get a good look at it through the scope. We could see its white face with large dark brown cheek patch. Long-tailed Ducks are mostly found out on the sea in winter, where they dive for shellfish. Occasionally one may wander to an inland water for a short time, especially after gales. This one is unusual in that it has been on this small pool for over a month now. It must be finding something good to eat here!

We didn’t linger too long in Babcock Hide, and stopped only briefly on the walk back to the car to admire a pair of Stonechats on the fence. We made our way quickly back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. As it was so mild, we decided we would eat outside on the picnic tables, but we were only half way through when the weather turned. Some low cloud blew in and brought with it some misty drizzle, so we retreated to the car.

After lunch, we drove back west along the coast road to Stiffkey. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost, but with the weather having deteriorated we thought it best to watch from here today. When we arrived, we were told we had already missed a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Merlin – it seemed bird may have come in early tonight given the conditions.

As we stood and scanned the saltmarsh, a Brambling flew over calling and headed inland over the campsite. Looking away to the west, we picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier flying low over the vegetation. Unfortunately, it dropped quickly down out of view, before everyone could get onto it. Then a second grey male appeared over in the same area, but it was even less obliging. The Hen Harriers were flying straight into the roost this evening, without flying round, probably due to the mist. Even when it temporarily brightened up a little, there was no sign of a pick-up in Hen Harrier activity.

The light was starting to go and we were just thinking our luck had run out when a large bird flew in from the fields behind us, just a short distance to our left. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and we could see its white rump patch as it flew out across the saltmarsh, before disappearing out into the mist. That was a great way to end, so we called it a day and headed for home.