Tag Archives: Snow Bunting

16th Jan 2019 – A Big Day on the Coast

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

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

barn owl

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

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

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

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

snow buntings 1

Snow Buntings – very well camouflaged on the shingle

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

glaucous gull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

black brant hybrid

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

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

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

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

shorelark

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

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

snow buntings 2

Snow Buntings – another 20 were at Holkham today

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

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

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

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

white-fronted geese

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

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

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

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

water rail

Water Rail – lurking in the ditch by the main path

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

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

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

redshank

Common Redshank – on Volunteer Marsh as we passed

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

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

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

twite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

smew

Smew – still at Snettisham on one of the pits today

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

short-eared owl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Advertisements

12th Jan 2019 – Midwinter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Winter Tour today, and we spent the day in North Norfolk. It was a rather windy day today, mostly cloudy and grey, but dry and mild.

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive we could see some Pink-footed Geese in the field by the road, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see their pink legs, even if their feet were hidden in the grass, as well as the pink band around their bills, rather like the orange of the Tundra Bean Geese we had seen yesterday. Thousands more Pink-footed Geese came up off the marshes the other side of the Drive, in several waves with a cacophony of yelping calls, and headed off inland to feed.

pink-footed geese

Pink-footed Geese – we got a closer look at some at Holkham today

There were a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the grazing marshes too, and a large flock of Wigeon. We carried on to the north end where we parked and headed through the pines. A tit flock was working its way across the gap as we walked along the boardwalk and we stopped to watch. As well as the Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits, a pair of Coal Tits were chasing each other round and round the trees and a Treecreeper climbed up a pine trunk in front of us.

When we got out onto the saltmarsh, we walked east on the path. Three people ahead of us stopped, pointing, and put up their scopes. We had a good idea what they had seen and, sure enough, when we got over to them, they were watching the Shorelarks. They are feeding in the taller vegetation at the moment, not in the cordon, and can be very hard to see. Eventually we saw some movement and managed to get the scope on them.

Every now and then, one of the Shorelarks would stop and put its head up, at which point we could see its distinctive yellow face with black mask. Then it would put its head down again and resume feeding, at which point it would disappear. They were moving all the time. Eventually, one or two came out more into the open and everyone got a good view through the scope.

shorelark

Shorelark – harder to see out in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh today

Watching them creeping around in the vegetation, you could have been forgiven for thinking there were only around five or six Shorelarks there. But when something disturbed them and they all flew, we realised there were actually 26!

We could see another flock of small birds whirl round from time to time over at the far end of the cordon, so we carried on along to there. They were Snow Buntings, and when we arrived they were feeding on the sand along the edge of the water at the very back of the cordon. We had a look at them in the scope, after which they very helpfully flew round again and landed much closer to us, where we had much better views.

We counted twenty-two Snow Buntings today. Looking closely, we could see there was a variety of different coloured birds in the flock, some paler than others, with much more white in the wings as they flew up. Others were much darker, browner. The juveniles are darker and the adults paler, and the males are whiter than the females, but there are also two different races which mix here in the winter, with Snow Buntings from Scandinavia paler than those from Iceland. Lots of scope for variation!

snow buntings

Snow Buntings – feeding on the edge of the cordon on our way back

Continuing on out onto the beach, the tide was in and the sea was rather choppy. We couldn’t see a lot out on the water today. A single Common Scoter was rather distant, and a Red-breasted Merganser and a couple of Red-throated Divers flew past. We stopped for a bit and admired the beach, before making our way back. The Snow Buntings were feeding now on the near edge of the cordon and were unconcerned as we walked past a few feet away.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped at The Lookout café to use the facilities. Several flocks of Brent Geese flew in and landed out on the grazing marshes below, and we could see a group of Curlews in field behind. But the highlight was a little covey of Grey Partridges feeding down in the grass just below us. It was great to get such close views of this often rather elusive species.

grey partridge

Grey Partridges – very obliging, feeding on the edge of the grazing marsh

Looking out across the marshes on the other side of the Drive, we stopped to look at a very pale Common Buzzard perched up in the bushes (which is very often mistaken for a Rough-legged Buzzard!). A Great White Egret appeared on the edge of a reedy ditch – we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill – and a Grey Heron was sheltering from the wind behind some brambles.

We had a quick look at the old pitch-and-putt course along the Beach Road at Wells, but there had been a lot of disturbance earlier from a helicopter over the town and there were very few geese here today. We did find more of the flock of Brent Geese in a winter wheat field just east of Wells, but they had typically found the one spot in the field where we couldn’t see most of them hidden behind a ridge.

Cold and windy is not good weather for owls, but we diverted inland to see if we could find a Little Owl on our way east. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no sign of any today. We did find a nice field full of Lapwings, which also included several Golden Plover and four Brown Hares.

Back down on the coast at Cley, we had a drive up along Beach Road. There was another big flock of Brent Geese here, which were slightly more obliging out on the grass. There had been a Pale-bellied Brent reported in with the regular Dark-bellied Brents earlier but there was no sign of it now.

We continued on down to the beach car park, where a flock of Pintail and several groups of Wigeon flew over as we got out of the car. We could see a large flock of Common Scoter offshore, which were constantly flying up in small groups, leapfrogging to the front of the flock and landing again, before diving to feed. Every now and then, we got a flash of a white panel in the wing of some of the otherwise very dark, blackish ducks. These were Velvet Scoter and apparently there had been sixteen of them in total when the whole flock had taken off earlier, though we could only see five or six at a time.

Scanning the rest of the sea, we found several Red-throated Divers, a Great Crested Grebe and a Guillemot all out on the water. There were quite a few people looking at the sea from here, as there was a ‘Bird Race’ taking place at Cley today. Apparently there had been a Glaucous Gull on the sea earlier, which we had hoped to catch up with, but we were told it had flown off west some time before we arrived.

We stopped for lunch in the beach shelter, out of the wind, and afterwards we headed round to the Cley Visitor Centre. We didn’t want to go out onto the reserve today, but we had a quick look out at Pat’s Pool from the terrace. Most of the Avocets leave Norfolk for the winter, but seventeen are currently hanging on here and we could see them feeding out in the water. There were also several Black-tailed Godwits out here and the usual selection of ducks, including a pair of Gadwall, and lots of Black-headed and a few Great Black-backed Gulls.

avocets

Avocets – 17 are hanging on for the winter at Cley

On the board at the Visitor Centre, there had been a Glaucous Gull feeding on a dead seal pup at Salthouse earlier, as well as several sightings around Cley, although it was difficult to tell whether one or two birds were involved. We had a quick look at the beach at Salthouse just in case, but as we got to the top of the shingle we could see only a young Great Black-backed Gull feeding on the seal carcass and no sign of the Glaucous Gull. Perhaps it was the one we had missed past Cley earlier.

We continued east along the coast to Sheringham. Down on the prom, we quickly located one of the Purple Sandpipers, feeding on the rocky sea defences below. We had a great view of it as it fed on the algae growing on the rocks.

purple sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the sea defences at Sheringham

The Purple Sandpiper was on its own today, so we walked back to the ‘tank’, where several Turnstones were feeding on the rocks and more were bathing in a pool below the freshwater outflow on the beach. There were lots of gulls gathering offshore now, mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls. The tide hadn’t gone out far yet and there were just a couple of groups on the beach. There were a few more Herring Gulls here, but nothing different in with them.

The plan was to spend the last part of the day looking for owls, so we headed back to the car and made our way inland. When we arrived, there was no sign of the Barn Owl out hunting yet. We walked down along the footpath, but it was still all quiet around the owl box too. The Barn Owl was late tonight – possibly put off by the wind.

We walked on a little further and scanned the meadows in case one of the other owls was out here, but there was no sign of anything here either. Then when we turned round, the Barn Owl had appeared on the front of the box. It still looked very sleepy, and perched on the platform hunched up with its eyes closed. It was in no hurry to head out hunting tonight.

barn owl 1

Barn Owl – dozing on the platform on the front of the box

A Tawny Owl hooted from the wood at the top of the hill and we were just thinking we would have to leave and head off into the trees. Finally the Barn Owl took off, flying back to the sheltered corner of the meadow out of the wind, where it landed on a post. We walked back and watched it flying round hunting – great to watch. When it flew across the path and up the hill, it caught the wind, and we watched it getting buffeted as it turned and tried to come back down. It landed on a post again, then disappeared into the trees, presumably to try to find somewhere more sheltered.

barn owl 2

Barn Owl – finally started to hunt as the light faded

We walked into the trees. It was very windy here and the ivy-covered tree where the Tawny Owl likes to roost was swaying from side to side. As we stood and waited, waves of Pink-footed Geese flew over the trees calling, heading up to the coast to roost. We could see them silhouetted against the last of the light.

The Tawny Owl didn’t hoot before it emerged tonight, as it normally does. Instead, we heard a quiet bubbling call, then it dropped out of the thickest ivy, but landed out of view in the ivy again the same tree. We waited for a few minutes then silently it took off and flew away through the trees. We watched it as it headed off towards an area where it normally likes to perch and hoot for a while. We walked further, along the path, but there was no hooting at all from it this evening, and the trees were all quiet tonight. Perhaps it was just too windy now.

It was getting rather dark in the trees now so we decided to call it a night. As we walked along the path through the edge of the wood, the Barn Owl appeared ahead of us in the gloom, flying down the path. Presumably it was trying its luck in the shelter of the trees.

20th Dec 2018 – Two Winter Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour in North Norfolk today. We were lucky with the weather today – dry with some bright spells and even some blue sky at times, albeit with a rather fresh southerly wind and cloudier in the afternoon.

Our first destination for the day was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, a pair of Egyptian Geese were out on the grass in one of the fields and we could see several Teal and a larger group of Wigeon around the edges of the pools.

As we got out of the car, we could hear lots of Pink-footed Geese calling. As it is full moon in a couple of days time, they had possibly been feeding inland overnight rather than roosting here and were therefore in no hurry to head out to the fields again this morning.

The Pink-footed Geese were rather jumpy this morning. Something disturbed them, although we couldn’t see what it was, and about 10,000 birds took off and filled the skies. It was an impressive sight, and sound. A small number flew off over our heads, but most settled straight back down on the grass. A little group landed much closer and we got them in the scope. We could see their pink-legs and feet in the short grass, glowing in the morning sunlight, as well as their small, dark bills with a narrow band of pink.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – there were thousands in the fields still this morning

A large white bird came up out of the reeds in the distance, in front of Washington Hide. A Great White Egret, it circled round but quickly dropped back down again behind the line of sallows. A very pale buzzard flew over, flashing a white base to the tail as it disappeared off towards the Park, but it was just the regular pale Common Buzzard which can usually be found hanging around here, rather than something rarer.

As we made our way up to the pines, a big flock of Lapwings flew up from the grazing marshes over towards Wells. There were lots Curlews out here too, on the fields beyond The Lookout café, although it is rather hard to see past the new building! Walking along the boardwalk through the trees, we flushed several Jays from the ground which flew up into the pines.

Out on the saltmarsh the other side, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding in the short vegetation. We stopped to look at them, all the regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese, here for the winter from their breeding grounds in Siberia. We could see a good number of stripy-backed juveniles in with the adults, suggesting it was a better breeding season in 2018 than it had been last year.

We walked east on the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. As the new cordoned off area came into view, we spotted a large flock of small birds whirling around out in the middle. They were Snow Buntings, we could see the white flashing in their wings as they turned, at least 60 of them. They landed back down on the open sand at the far end of the cordon, so we made our way over for a closer look.

When we got to the fence, we noticed some other birds moving about on the edge of the vegetation out in the middle, the Shorelarks, just what we were hoping to see here today. They were very well camouflaged, and hard to see until they moved, but through the scope we could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks. Smart birds!

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – there were at least 7 already out on the saltmarsh when we arrived

There were at least seven Shorelarks already here, possibly more hiding in the vegetation beyond. Scarce winter visitors here from Scandinavia, this is one of the best places in the country to see them.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, as usual, and the next thing we knew they flew back over and landed on the sandy path ahead of us. They were feeding along the edge of the dunes, on the tideline, presumably looking for seedheads washed up from the saltmarsh. It looked like they might come straight past us, but then they were off again.

Once we had finished admiring the Shorelarks, we set off towards the beach. The Snow Buntings had landed again on the sand at the far end of the cordon and seemed completely unfazed by us walking past. We could see a variety of different shades, some much paler, whiter birds, some browner – a diverse mixture of ages and sexes, as well as birds from both the Scandinavian and Icelandic races.

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting – just part of the big flock at Holkham at the moment

The tide was out, which meant there was quite a bit of beach between us and the sea. There were lots of gulls and Oystercatchers down by the sea, and several Cormorants drying their wings on the sandbar beyond. A large flock of Sanderlings whirled round on the shoreline off to the east.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Guillemots on the water, their white faces catching the light. A much larger bird was swimming just offshore beyond the sandbar, a Great Northern Diver. Similarly black above and white below, we could see its large dagger of a bill and black half collar.

There were a few ducks on the sea too, but they were a long way offshore today. We got a distant flock of Common Scoter in the scope, and could see the pale cheeks and dark caps of the females and young birds. One of the scoter flapped its wings and flashed a white panel, a Velvet Scoter, but it was impossible to pick out of the flock on the sea at that distance and unfortunately it didn’t repeat the wing-flap which singled it out from the others. A female Red-breasted Merganser much closer in was much easier to see.

There were several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too, black and white too but much longer-necked than the diver. Then we picked up two much smaller Slavonian Grebes just off the beach a long way off to the west around the bay. We had a look at them through the scope and thought about walking over to get a bit closer but it would probably have meant getting wet feet so thought better of it!

It had been a very productive couple of hours at Holkham, and we still had an hour before we had to pick up someone else in Wells. We decided to pop into the woods there for a quick look to see if we could find any redpolls – they are very mobile and consequently very hit and miss, so they would either be there or not!

The Brent Geese were starting to gather on the old Pitch & Putt course along Beach Road as we drove past. As we walked into the woods, a couple of Little Grebes were on the edge of the reeds on the boating lake, with some Tufted Ducks over towards the back.

It was very quiet at first, as we made our way through the trees, just the odd Robin or Wren calling, and one or two Blackbirds. As we approached the Dell though, we could hear Redpolls calling quietly, and we looked up into the birches ahead of us to see several of them feeding on catkins in the tops. They were against the light here and hard to see clearly, but the more we looked the more we could see. There appeared to be at least fifty of them in total.

We walked quietly underneath them and up onto the dune the other side, where the light was better. From here, we could see they were mostly Mealy Redpolls (the Scandinavian race of Common Redpoll), and we had a good view of several through the scope, including one male with a lovely pinky-red wash on its breast. A smaller, browner one with them was a Lesser Redpoll.

The Redpolls were mobile, moving through the trees, and it was impossible to get a good look at all of them from any one point. They were busily feeding on the catkins and we could see showers of chaff falling like snow from the birches. We couldn’t see any sign of an Arctic Redpoll from here though, so we moved round again to get a different angle and try some other trees.

It took a bit of searching, but eventually we found a much paler Redpoll in with the others. Through the scope, as it moved, we could see it had a plain white rump and thick undertail coverts with a single narrow dark streak. It was the Arctic Redpoll we had been looking for. More specifically, it was a Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, the race we get most often here, also from Scandinavia but from further north than the Mealies. We all managed to get a good look at it before it moved back into the tops. Then suddenly the flock erupted from the trees and flew off.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – we eventually found one in with the Mealy Redpolls

We still had enough time to walk a quick loop around the far side of the Dell, but we couldn’t find any sign of a tit flock in here today. Then it was back up to Wells to pick up the other member of the group. After a quick break for lunch in the pub in Stiffkey, we carried on east along the coast road to Cley.

We didn’t have enough time to explore the reserve at Cley today, but we wanted to have a quick look at the sea. A Common Buzzard was perched on a post by the Beach Road, and another large flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the Eye Field. From up on the shingle, it didn’t take long to find our target here – a Red-throated Diver. There were actually quite a few here, mostly a long way offshore, but we eventually got a decent view of one through the scope. There were several Guillemots offshore too.

As we made our way back along Beach Road, we looked across to see all the ducks flush off the reserve. A Marsh Harrier was flying over and had spooked them, surprisingly the first we had seen today. We headed round to Blakeney, and as we pulled up we noticed a male Stonechat on the brambles on the edge of the grazing marshes, right next to where we had parked.

Stonechat

Stonechat – feeding on the edge of the grazing marshes

We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl out here this afternoon, and as we stopped to look at the Stonechat, one flew across the grazing marsh right in front of us. A very good start! It headed off towards the seawall, so we walked round that way to see if we could find it again.

Despite the fact they don’t count, it is impossible not to admire some of the captive ducks and geese in the rather random wildfowl collection by Blakeney Harbour. The large gull on the platform here was also an oddity – with a darker mantle than a Herring Gull, but lighter than a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and odd pinky-yellow legs, it is a Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid. It is a regular here, coming back each winter, to take advantage of the food put out for the ducks.

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid – the regular bird at the duck bird

Out on the seawall, there was no further sign of the Barn Owl. A Curlew was feeding on the sand on the far side of the channel. Several Marsh Harriers were circling out over the reeds in the middle of the Freshes, gathering to roost, and a couple more were having a last patrol out over the saltmarsh. One Marsh Harrier landed in a bush, where we could get it in the scope.

Their high-pitched yelping calls announced a group of Pink-footed Geese coming up off the grazing marshes. We looked across to see several hundred more hiding out in the grass. As we walked out along the seawall, more and more of them took off and headed off inland.

Out over the saltmarsh, a flock of about twenty small birds flew up and circled round, their distinctive bouncy flight helping to identify them as Linnets. From the corner of the bank, we stopped to scan the open mud. There were lots of waders out here, a mixture of small Dunlin running around, larger Grey Plover and Redshank, and larger still Black-tailed Godwits and Curlew, all with different shaped bills and different feeding actions. There were lots of Shelduck too.

It was a great view as the sun set behind the clouds away to the south-west as we walked out, but with the shortest day tomorrow, the light started to go quickly now. We started to make our way back. As we looked across to the far side of the Freshes, we could see another Barn Owl hunting as it came up from behind the reeds. It was a long way off though.

We thought the Barn Owl might come round to our side, but it turned and went back the other way. As we stopped and watched it, we could hear Bearded Tits from the reeds nearby, although they typically kept themselves tucked well down out of the wind. It was time to call it a day, so we made our way back to the car. We had enjoyed a good day out today – let’s see what else tomorrow brings.

21st Nov 2018 – Winter Day Reflated

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. After a very wet and windy day yesterday, we were very fortunate that it was another glorious bright and sunny morning with blue skies today, much better than had been forecast. It did cloud over a bit in the afternoon, but there were still some sunny intervals and with light winds, it was very mild, until the sun started to go down.

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. We could see a number of ducks on the pools by Lady Anne’s Drive as we drove up, so we walked back for a look after we parked. There were plenty of Wigeon feeding out on the grass, although there are hopefully still a lot more to come over the coming weeks, plus a few Teal and Mallard around the pools an ditches.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding in the fields by Lady Anne’s Drive

Two Common Buzzards were perched on the bushes in the distance out across the grazing marsh, one quite dark and the other strikingly pale. The latter really stood out, shining white below in the morning sunshine. A rather dark juvenile Marsh Harrier was quartering the marshes, flushing the ducks further back. A Grey Heron was lurking in front of the reeds on the edge of one of the ditches.

Several small skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew off from the field on the other side of the road, but we got the scope on the small group which remained down on the grass. We could see their dark heads and delicate dark bills with a pink band around. Across the drive, the bigger and paler Greylags were sporting large orange carrots for bills. A couple of Egyptian Geese were out on the grazing marshes too.

As we walked up towards the pines, we stopped to scan the bushes along the ditch to the west. There are still lots of berries here and we quickly spotted a couple of Blackbirds taking advantage of the food to refuel, and a Redwing which perched up nicely so we could get it in the scope. There are still thrushes arriving from the continent for the winter at the moment.

When we got out onto the open saltmarsh north of the trees, we looked across to see a flock of Brent Geese feeding, well hidden in the vegetation across the other side of the path out to the beach. One of them was darker than the others, with a slightly more obvious white flank patch and bolder white collar. This is a regular returning Black Brant hybrid which comes back here each year with the Brents.

The rest of the saltmarsh was rather quiet, as we walked east, but as we got to the new cordon we could see Shorelarks in the distance. They were feeding on the edge of the beach beyond the fence, so we had a quick look at them through the scope from here in case they were disturbed. There have been around 12 Shorelarks here for the past week or so, and we counted the same number this morning.

We walked up a little further, to the end of the cordon, where another birder was already standing watching them. As we got to him, another small group of 9 more Shorelarks flew in, and landed on the sand just in front of us. We could see 21 now, the highest count of winter here so far. Hopefully the number of birds here for the winter might continue to grow yet. We had a great look at them through scope, picking around the small seedheads on the beach. With the low winter sun behind us, it was lovely light and the Shorelarks’ yellow faces shone as they turned to face us.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – another flock of 9 flew in to join the 12 already there

For no apparent reason, the Shorelarks suddenly took off and flew out over the dunes towards the beach. We looked across through the low gap and noticed a flock of small birds fly up around the corner of dunes, but rather than being the Shorelarks it was a flock of Snow Buntings.

We walked up to the beach, hoping to get a better look at the Snow Buntings. We could see them feeding on the edge of the dunes, but we could see a walker approaching with a couple of loose dogs and needless to say the Snow Buntings flew before we could get into position and disappeared off round the dunes. The Shorelarks did reappear though, flying in again from the beach and landed back behind us.

The tide was out and as it was not so busy today there were lots of birds down at the bottom of the beach, by the sea. As well as all the gulls, a line of Cormorants were drying their wings out on the sandbar. There were lots of Oystercatchers too, and several Sanderlings running up and down the shoreline.

A smart drake Red-breasted Merganser in the channel in front of the sandbar was close enough to get a good look at it through the scope, but a small flock of Common Scoter was a bit further out and the line of Common Eider was very distant, the white drakes standing out as they caught the sunlight. A diver busy preening some way off to the west proved to be a Great Northern Diver when it stopped long enough for us to get a proper look at it. Otherwise, there were a few Great Crested Grebes offshore and one or two Gannets drifting back and forth.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – these fifteen were feeding along the beach towards Wells

They hadn’t reappeared where they had been feeding, so we set off along the beach towards Wells to see if we could find the Snow Buntings again. When we got round the corner and scanned the sand, we could see them out on the open beach in a small group, fifteen of them, busy preening in the sunshine. We had a nice look through the scope, before they were flushed by another dog walker, and flew to the edge of the dunes. The Snow Buntings seemed to be settled here, so we walked up slowly and had a closer look at them, running in and out of the tufts of marram grass, picking at the small seedheads growing out of the sand.

As we made our way back towards the car, the Shorelarks were still showing well on the edge of the cordon, so we stopped for another look. They seemed to have picked up a friend as they were flying round, and there were now 22 of them. Watching one of them close up through the scope we could even see the small ‘horns’ from which it gets its alternative name of Horned Lark.

When we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, disaster struck. As we drove back towards the main road, we realised we had a puncture. We couldn’t get the wheel off here, so over a coffee back in The Lookout, we tried to get someone to come out to help. No one locally could come out and fix it on site, so we were faced with a long wait for a tow, which would ruin the rest of the day. It was time for plan ‘B’!

While we waited for someone to pick us up, we went for a quick walk west along the track on the inland side of the pines. Several Jays flew in and out of the trees ahead of and a Common Buzzard dropped out of the pines and flew off across the track.

We hadn’t gone too far before we came across a tit flock. First the Long-tailed Tits came out of the trees, followed by several Blue Tits and Coal Tits. A Goldcrest showed well low in a pine tree by the path. Eventually a Treecreeper followed behind the flock, and stopped to feed along a horizontal branch sticking out high above us in the pines. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called from deep in the trees..

We got back to the abandoned car just in time to meet our lift to Wells, where we picked up alternative transport for the afternoon. We then drove down to Wells Woods, where we had a quick break for a bite to eat. A Chiffchaff was calling from the edge of caravan park, just beyond the car park. After lunch, we headed in for a quick look in the woods.

The boating lake provided a couple of additions to the day’s list. Several Little Grebes were diving out in the middle, and a couple of Gadwall were sleeping along the edge with the Mallards and Mute Swans.

Small numbers of migrant thrushes were in evidence here too, as they had been at Holkham earlier. Along the main track, one or two Blackbirds were coming to bathe in the puddles, and were joined by two Redwings. Just past there, we flushed more Blackbirds and Redwings from the hawthorn bushes where they had been feeding on the berries. A Fieldfare flew up too and landed in a birch tree where it tried to hide in amongst the leaves.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare – hiding in one of the birches

The birch trees around the Dell meadow were quiet. We had hoped to find the redpoll flock here today, but they have been very elusive and are clearly spending a lot of time elsewhere. There was no sign of them in the birches by the toilet block either, and we met another couple of birders who had walked back all the way from Lady Anne’s Drive without finding them.

We looped back round via the Dell and found a tit flock working its way through the trees. A Chiffchaff called and we found it flitting around in the birches with the other birds. We had great views of a Goldcrest too, fluttering around the branches just above our heads. A Mistle Thrush flew across the tops of the pines.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – fluttering around in the birches above our heads

We heard one or two lone redpolls flying overhead, but there was still no sign of the large flock. As we made our way back round on the main path, we stopped to look at a male Chaffinch feeding on apples in a tree. A Bullfinch called and flew up into the top of a hawthorn just behind, a smart male. It perched there for several minutes, mostly back on to us, showing off its white rump, flashing pink underneath as it turned, before it was flushed by a passing dogwalker.

Bullfinch

Bullfinch – showing off its white rump

As we passed the boating lake, we could see a flock of birds circling round over the trees way off in the distance beyond the end of the water. The redpolls.  We watched for a couple of minutes as they repeatedly flew round and then settled back down into the trees to feed. Unfortunately, they were in the private caravan site, and there is no access here. At least we know where they are now!

After Wells Woods, we headed along the coast to Blakeney. As we got out of the car in the car park by the harbour, we could see a strange looking gull on the sand just across the channel. It was too dark above for a Herring Gull, but not dark enough for a Lesser Black-backed Gull, with rather odd-coloured fleshy yellowish legs, neither pink nor properly yellow. It is a hybrid, probably Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull, and returns here each winter. A Common Gull in with the Black-headed Gulls bathing further along the channel was a lot less confusing!

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid

Hybrid gull – probably Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull

The ducks in the wildfowl collection don’t count, but we had a quick look at some of the exotics. A Stock Dove looking for some spare duck food on the bank with the Jackdaws was a nice bonus.

As we walked out along the seawall, a female Stonechat was feeding out in the middle of one of the recently cut meadows. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling distantly over the reedbed out in the middle. A Kestrel perched on a post out on the saltmarsh was doing its best impression of a Merlin.

Several lines of Pink-footed Geese came up from the grazing marshes and headed off inland, calling. A small group of chattering Brent Geese flew around at the same time, before heading out over the bank past us, towards the saltmarsh. The sun was already starting to go down and shining between the clouds, giving us some lovely late afternoon light to illuminate the geese.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flying off from the grazing marshes

Looking out across the Glaven Channel from the corner of the seawall, a Short-eared Owl appeared above the shingle ridge beyond. It had probably just been flushed by a Marsh Harrier, as the two of them circled together for a second. We got the Short-eared Owl in the scope and could see it flying with a distinctive stiff-winged rowing action, before it dropped back down to the bushes on the edge of the shingle.

We turned our attention to the waders out on the mud in the harbour. There were lots of Dunlin scurrying about in big groups. Scattered in with them were several Grey Plover, Redshank and Curlew. Further over, we could see lots of Oystercatchers too.

A Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, flying low over the saltmarsh just beyond the mud. We could see the white square at the base of its tail. It worked its way quickly west past us, then turned in across the harbour and came over to work the saltmarsh to the west of us, presumably having a last hunt before heading in to roost. Further out, across the saltmarsh, we picked up a Merlin very distantly chasing after two Carrion Crows and getting chased in return.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – hunting over the harbour before heading off to roost

There was no sign of the Twite which often come in to drink at the pools on the edge of the grazing marsh path, so we walked a little further along the seawall, scanning to see if the Short-eared Owl might reappear. It was that time of day though, and we turned round to see a Barn Owl approaching instead across the Freshes. We thought it might stop to work the long grass in front of us, but it was clearly on a mission. It flew straight past us and instead started hunting the recently mown banks of the seawall, heading back towards the village.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – flew straight past us, heading for the recently mown seawall

The afternoon was getting on now and the Marsh Harriers were starting to gather ahead of roosting. One harrier was already perched on a bush out in the reeds, a rather dark one with a pale head. A darkish male flew in over the Freshes from the harbour to join it, as another greyer male flew past behind us, still working the sides of the Glaven channel, before turning back and gliding in too.

We couldn’t find any Twite feeding anywhere along the seawall, so we decided we would head back. Just as we were walking past the corner where they often come down to drink, the Twite suddenly flew in. Perfect timing! We counted seventeen of them, as they dropped in around the edge of their favourite puddle. It was just a quick drink though. We barely had time to get them in the scope before they were off again, flying out across the harbour.

A small flock of Golden Plover whirled round over the harbour and dropped down onto the saltmarsh, where they instantly disappeared into the vegetation, beautifully camouflaged. The halfway back to the village, we spotted the Barn Owl again, on a post visible through a gap in the reeds. It had just caught a vole and spent a minute or two playing around with it before swallowing it whole. It perched for a while digesting, before it was flushed by a dogwalker and flew off back across the grazing marshes.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – digesting a vole it had just caught and eaten

It was a lovely late afternoon out at Blakeney, but as the sun slipped down in the sky behind the horizon, the temperature started to drop, so we decided to call it a day.

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.

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.