Tag Archives: Stiffkey

18th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. It was a nice, bright start to the morning and, although it clouded over later, it stayed largely dry until dark.

As we made our way east along the coast road, we thought we might stop for a better look at the Cattle Egrets. We were looking into the sun and the cows were huddled in one corner of the field, but there appeared to be white shapes in with them as we drove past. We parked in the layby just beyond and crossed the road. A flock of Fieldfares flew across the field, landing in the hedge close to where we parked and started tucking in to the berries. As we walked down along the path, we flushed a couple of Blackbirds and a Song Thrush from the bushes there. A Stock Dove flew out of the game cover as we passed.

When we got down to the corner overlooking the wet grazing marsh where the cows were, we couldn’t see any sign of the Cattle Egrets. The cows were on the edge of a ditch, so we wondered whether the egrets might be hiding at first. While we waited to see if they might emerge, we scanned the pools in the grass. There was a nice selection of ducks – Shelduck, Wigeon, Teal and a single female Pintail with them too. A scattering of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding around the muddy edge.

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier – flew over our heads early this morning

A flock of Long-tailed Tits came along the hedge past us, calling noisily. A Marsh Harrier circled up over the trees behind us before flying over our heads. A Yellowhammer flew over the road calling. And it quickly became clear that the Cattle Egrets weren’t there. We would be coming back this way later, so we decided not to linger and headed back to the car.

As we made our way on east past Cley, we could see a small flock of Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh by the entrance to Babcock Hide. There was nothing behind us, so we pulled up and had a quick look at them from the car. One immediately stood out – more contrasting than the regular Dark-bellied Brents, blacker bodied with a brighter white flank patch. It was the Black Brant. We managed to get a quick look at it before something spooked the geese and they all took off. They circled round and dropped down onto Watling Water, out of view.

Our next stop was at Weybourne. We decided to have a quick look at the beach first. There were a couple of groups of gulls on the shingle but nothing particularly interesting with them today – a mixture of Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls flew past together with a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a great side-by-side comparison.

There were several Turnstones down on the beach too, although they should perhaps have been better named Turn-fish today. A large number of small flatfish were washed up after last weekend’s storms and have been providing sustenance for the gulls and the Turnstones.

TurnstoneTurnstone – turning over a flatfish instead!

One of the group spotted a Great Crested Grebe flying past just offshore. It is quite an incongruous sight, but they winter quite commonly on the sea here. A single Ringed Plover flew past some way out too, presumably a fresh arrival coming in for the winter. Two Gannets circled way out on the horizon, catching the sun. A Rock Pipit flew west over the beach along with a Meadow Pipit. Otherwise there was not much happening out at sea this morning, so we decided to explore the fields instead.

As we walked up the hill on the edge of the grass beside the stubble, we flushed several Skylarks which flew round and landed again out in the field. A little group of Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass calling. Then up towards the top of the field, a large flock of Linnets flew up from the stubble and wheeled round before landing again. We had really come to look for Lapland Buntings, a few of which have been in the stubble here in recent days, but at first we couldn’t find any.

As we got up towards the old Coastguard Cottages, we could see more activity out in the middle of the field so we thought we would try walking up along the track towards the mill. We would not be looking into the sun from there too, as we had been from the cliff side. When we got to the field gate half way up the track, we stopped to scan and were instantly rewarded with a Lapland Bunting. Even better, it was out in an open area of bare mud, where we could get it in the scope. Great views – we couldn’t believe our luck! They are more often just seen flying round or skulking in the stubble.

Lapland BuntingLapland Bunting – showed very well on an area of bare mud

We watched the Lapland Bunting for some time. It was strikingly pale, off-white below and around the face. It appeared to be a male, with a ghosting of a black bib. It was feeding with a couple of Skylarks and Linnets. It would disappear into the furrows from time to time and then reappear somewhere different. At one point it looked like it might be bathing in a furrow with a couple of Meadow Pipits. Then a Weasel appeared. It ran across the field to the open muddy area and all the birds started to chase after it, mobbing it.

After the Weasel had been seen off, all the birds flew round and the Lapland Bunting circled over the open area again before heading out across the field. A second Lapland Bunting appeared from somewhere and followed it, the two of them then dropping down into the stubble out of view.

Our next destination was Kelling Water Meadow. As we walked up the lane, there were a few Blackbirds still in the hedges, arrivals from the continent for the winter stopping off here to refuel on the berries. Otherwise, there were just a few Chaffinches on the walk out until we got to where the thick hedges run out. Then a female Stonechat flew up from the grassy verge and landed in a hawthorn beside us.

StonechatStonechat – this female flew up from the verge beside us

There did not appear to be many birds on the pool here today. Three Teal were feeding at the back. One of the things we had hoped to see was the Spotted Redshank which has been lingering here for some months now, but all we could find was a single Common Redshank. A Curlew flew in calling and landed along the muddy edge, followed shortly after by a single Black-tailed Godwit.

The other species we wanted to see here was Jack Snipe, so we made our way round to the area they have been favouring. They are hard to see at the best of times – they sleep most of the day, hiding deep in the grass, beautifully camouflaged. The water level has increased here in recent days too, which also doesn’t help – it seems to have driven them into the thickest vegetation. When one of the group called out almost immediately to say he had found a bird with a long bill walking in the grass on the edge of the water, it seemed too good to be true. It was – a Common Snipe was feeding along the edge of the water. Still, nice to see.

We stood and scanned the grass for a couple of minutes. Then something caught the eye – the vaguest darker shape deep in the grass, and a golden yellow stripe at a different angle to the vegetation. Through the scope we could see it was indeed a Jack Snipe. It was asleep, but we could see its eye staring at us. It half woke at one point, and started to bob up and down a little, the distinctive action of a Jack Snipe.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe – hiding deep in the grass

After enjoying the Jack Snipe for a while, we set off back up the lane. About half way back, we heard Bullfinches calling and a smart pink male flew out of the hedge andup the track ahead of us. It landed in a small tree with some Chaffinches, before flying back towards us and landing in the back of the hedge. We could hear it calling plaintively and a second Bullfinch answering nearby. Then it disappeared round behind the hedge.

We wanted to try to get better views of the Black Brant so we headed back to Cley next. There were only twenty or so Brent Geese off the East Bank, where it had been reported after we had seen it earlier, but it was not with them now. So we headed round to Beach Road instead. There was a much bigger flock of Brent Geese on one of the grazing meadows by the road here and a couple of cars had stopped to look at them. We joined them and after a couple of seconds the Black Brant appeared at the back of the flock.

Black BrantBlack Brant – feeding with the Brent Geese by Beach Road early afternoon

Through the scope, we got a really good look at the Black Brant. The white flank patch was really striking in the sunshine, very different to the more muted patches on the Dark-bellied Brents. When the Black Brant lifted its neck, we could also see its much bolder white collar, complete below the chin.

While we were watching the Black Brant, a small flock of Starlings flew over the reserve towards us, and across the road just beyond us. One of them was strikingly pale brown, but unfortunately it appeared to be just a leucistic Starling rather than anything rarer. Our timing was fortunate, because after a few minutes all the Brent Geese took off and disappeared much further out to the south side of Eye Field to join an even larger flock of Brents already there.

We continued on along Beach Road to the car park at the end and climbed up onto the shingle to have a quick look at the sea. A Grey Seal was swimming past just off the beach. A Red-throated Diver was on the sea rather distant and was diving constantly which made it harder to see. The wind had picked up a little and the sea was rather choppy too. Another Red-throated Diver flew past, along with a couple of distant Guillemots and a single adult Gannet. It was time for lunch, so we ate in the beach shelter out of the fresh breeze.

After lunch, we headed round to the East Bank. There were a few more Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh here now, along with several larger flocks of Wigeon. We could see more ducks out on the Serpentine, but as we walked up towards them to have a closer look we noticed a little group of waders feeding on the mud at the north end. One was noticeably smaller than the others, so we hurried straight up there and sure enough it was a Little Stint in with a group of Dunlin.

Little StintLittle Stint – with a larger Dunlin in front

It has been a good year for Little Stints here, with a maximum count of over 40 juveniles earlier in the autumn. However, Little Stint is predominantly a passage migrant here and numbers dwindled through October, as birds moved on towards their wintering grounds around the Mediterranean or to Africa. Winter Little Stints are not unprecedented in Norfolk but are unusual, so it will be interesting to see if this one stays here now. It was a juvenile moulting to 1st winter plumage, still with quite a few retained juvenile scapulars.

As well as the Dunlin and Little Stint, there were a few Black-tailed Godwits feeding down in the water here. There was a nice selection of ducks on the Serpentine too. As well as all the Wigeon and Teal, there were several Shoveler, a small party of Gadwall and a few Pintail, the drakes of which are now looking very smart. Further back, several Cormorants were drying their wings on one of the islands on Pope’s Pool.

A Curlew was feeding on the brackish pools behind the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh, but it was nice to get in the shelter out of the breeze. There didn’t seem to be much out here at first, apart from a number of Common Redshanks, but looking carefully around the edges we found several more Dunlin and three Grey Plover. A Little Egret was fishing on the pool just in front, shaking one foot at a time in the mud out in front of it, trying to flush out some food.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding on the pool on the front edge of Arnold’s Marsh

With the evenings drawing in early now and a couple more things we wanted to do yet, we headed back to the car. It turned out that the Cattle Egrets had moved and were in a different field today, which is why we hadn’t found them earlier. This was more than a little unusual – one of them has been coming to the same field just about daily since mid September!

However, we didn’t have any trouble finding the Cattle Egrets now we knew where they were hiding today. We parked outside the pub in Stiffkey and they were out in the field opposite, with the cows. We had a great view of them feeding around the cows hooves, picking at the grass.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – one of the two still at Stiffkey, but in a different field today!

Our final destination for the day was at Warham Greens. As we walked up the track, we flushed several Blackbirds from the hedge. Then a small group of six Redwings flew out ahead of us too and circled round calling, before landing in the top of the hedge along the edge of one of the fields. A Common Buzzard was surveying the scene from the top of the roof of the old barn and as we walked past several Stock Doves flew out too.

From the end of the track, we stopped and scanned out across the saltmarsh. There were plenty of Little Egrets and Redshanks out in the grass, plus a few Golden Plover and Brent Geese. A Barn Owl flew through the hedge beside us and disappeared away along the edge of the saltmarsh, before landing in the bushes in the Pit.

A large flock of Fieldfares appeared over the hedge, and flew down to the Pit, landing in the tops of all the bushes and it the hedges either side. A little later, more Fieldfares appeared from over the hedge the other side of us, accompanied by a small group of Redwings. It was hard to tell, but perhaps all these thrushes had only just arrived from Scandinavia for the winter and were stopping to feed up here.

It didn’t take long to spot our first Hen Harrier, a cracking grey male which flew across the saltmarsh in front of us. It dropped down into the bushes and almost immediately we picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier which flew up and started quartering the saltmarsh further back. We saw at least 4 possibly 5 Hen Harriers this evening. Another two ringtails appeared together away in front of East Hills. Then a grey male, possibly the same as earlier having sneaked out unseen or possibly a different bird, flew in from the left. It is a real treat to see so many of them.

The light started to go, as a band of dark cloud arrived from the west. We had enjoyed lovely weather all day, which was very welcome, and thankfully only now did it start to spit lightly with rain. We decided to call it a night.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – lines and lines of them flew out to roost at dusk

As we walked back up the track, there were several Grey Partridge calling from the fields. We could hear Pink-footed Geese too and looked up to see lines and lines of them in the sky, flying towards us. They were heading out to roost on the flats beyond the saltmarsh and it was really evocative as they flew over our heads. A great way to end the day.

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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 Oct 2017 – Migrants & Winter Visitors Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Autumn Migration Tours today. It was cloudy all day but not too windy and, thankfully, the only shower fell while we were having lunch – and it was mercifully brief!

With lots of thrushes and finches arriving in over the last few days, we decided to start with a visit to check out the hedges at Warham Greens. As soon as we parked, we could hear several Blackbirds alarm calling.

As we walked up along the track, lots of birds came out of the hedges and flew on ahead of us. As well as lots more Blackbirds, there were plenty of Song Thrushes and a few Redwings too. They had probably all just arrived in from the continent and were taking a break to refuel on all the berries. We saw several tiny Goldcrests along here too – amazing to think that a bird so small can make it all the way across the North Sea. A Blackcap was typically elusive, climbing through the hedge before zipping across the track in front of us.

We stopped by a gate and looked across the grassy field beyond to some old barns. There were several Stock Doves on the roof. Here we saw a couple of Yellowhammers perched in the top of the hedge, with a Reed Bunting for company. A Chiffchaff flew across the track and dropped into the bushes at the base of a large sycamore. A Redwing perched up nicely for us in the top of the hedge.

Continuing on up the track, a little flock of Golden Plover flew over, calling. We could hear some rather noisy Grey Partridge out in one of the fields, but couldn’t see where they were through a thick hedge. A Sparrowhawk flew off across a field, disappearing into a hedge before emerging the other side a minute or so later, presumably after a quick rest.

As we were walking past a large oak tree, a sharp call caught our attention and we looked up to see a small bird flitting around in the leaves. It was a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was hard to see at first, high in the tree, but eventually we all got a good look at it, particularly as it dropped out of the tree and into the hedge, before working its way back up the track.

Yellow-browed WarblerYellow-browed Warbler – flitting around high in an oak tree

Yellow-browed Warblers breed in Siberia and winter mainly in Asia. They have become increasingly common in autumn here over the last 30 years, as the species has extended its breeding range westwards. Still, it a great bird to see and amazing to think that this small bird probably started its journey over at the Urals.

At the top of the track, we emerged out onto the coastal path and stopped to scan the saltmarsh. There were lots of Little Egrets scattered around, so common now it is amazing to think how rare they were only 20 years ago. A flock of Golden Plover down in the vegetation was very well camouflaged and hard to see until you looked through the scope. We could hear several Curlew calling from time to time, and eventually one landed close enough so we could get it in the scope.

There are always lots of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh and today was no exception, with numbers having increased steadily even in the last few days, as more return for the winter. Most of the birds which come here at this time of year are Russian Dark-bellied Brents, but it is always worth checking through the groups carefully. Sure enough, as we looked through them, one bird instantly stood out. It was much darker, blackish, with a bright white flank patch and much more extensive white collar. It was a Black Brant.

Black BrantBlack Brant – probably a returning individual, with the Dark-bellied Brents

Black Brant is one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose. It breeds in NW North America and far eastern Siberia, wintering either side of the Pacific. It is a regular visitor here, with lost birds mixing with Dark-bellied Brent Geese in Russia and migrating to western Europe with them. Some of these birds then return winter after winter with the same group of Brents and there has been a Black Brant here in the winter for several years now. This is the first time we have seen it this winter, so it was a welcome surprise to find it here today.

Looking out beyond the saltmarsh, out towards the beach, we could see lots of waders on the sand flats in the distance. Through the scope, we could just make out a flock of Knot, accompanied by a few Grey Plover. In one of the tidal channels nearby, we picked out three ducks – Red-breasted Mergansers. But they were all very distant and hard to see much detail, even with a scope.

There were not so many flocks of thrushes coming in off the sea today, but there were still lots of birds moving. A steady stream of flocks of Starlings of various sizes flew west along the edge of the saltmarsh this morning. A flock of Lapwing flew over us. There were a few Chaffinches and Skylarks coasting too.

YellowhammerYellowhammer – we saw several this morning in the hedges and down by the Pit

We had a quick look in the Pit, but it was fairly quiet today, suggesting there was perhaps not so much fresh in overnight last night. We did flush a few more Redwings from the bushes, one perching nicely in the top for us briefly, plus several Chaffinches and a couple of Yellowhammers. A large flock of Goldfinches kept coming & going, between the bushes round the Pit and the weedy vegetation on the edge of the saltmarsh. A male Stonechat put in a brief appearance down in the Suaeda too.

There were a few raptors out over the saltmarsh today. Three Marsh Harriers were quartering out along the edge of the beach pretty much all the time we were there. As we were leaving, we spotted a Red Kite flying lazily over the back of the saltmarsh and when we turned to head back, we noticed a second Red Kite circling over the field just behind us.

Red KiteRed Kite – the second of two at Warham Greens today

The walk back up the track was fairly uneventful – with fewer birds flushed from the hedgerows now, but still lots of Blackbirds, thrushes and a few Goldcrests. We were almost back to the car when we found a mixed flock of finches – mostly Chaffinches and Greenfinches but with at least one Brambling too. We heard the Brambling call, but unfortunately couldn’t see it in the thick vegetation.

We had a bit of time still before lunch, so we decided to head further east and have a look for the Cattle Egret at Stiffkey. As we drove past, we had a quick scan of the field, but the cows were lying down and there appeared to be no sign of the Cattle Egret with them. Being white, it normally sticks out like a sore thumb! We decided to have a quick look out at Stiffkey Fen, and then go back to the cows again afterwards.

As we walked down along the path beside the river, we could hear a Yellow-browed Warbler calling in the trees. It sounded as if it was making its way towards the near edge, so we walked back and could just see it up in the trees. It was very vocal, calling continually for a couple of minutes before going quiet. Our second Yellow-browed Warbler of the morning!

There were more birds along the path too. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from deep in the brambles. A Yellowhammer called from the trees the other side of the river. We could hear Bullfinches calling plaintively and looked up to see a nice pink male fly past. We flushed more Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings from the brambles as we passed. Almost out to the seawall, a Chiffchaff called from the sallows.

Half way along, we stopped to look out at the Fen from the path. We could see lots of Ruff along the northern edge, below the reeds, and several smaller waders with them. Just as we got the scope onto them, they all took off. Several of the Ruff flew off inland, but two of the smaller waders landed on the mud in the middle of the Fen. One was a Dunlin but the other was a juvenile Little Stint, a nice surprise. We were just admiring the Little Stint through the scope when it took off and we didn’t see where it went.

Out on the seawall, we had another scan of the Fen, but we couldn’t see the Little Stint again, just a group of about ten Ruff where it had been. There was a nice selection of ducks on here, mostly Teal and Wigeon, but also quite a few Pintail, including some increasingly smart drakes as they emerge from eclipse plumage.

Looking out to Blakeney Harbour, the tide was out. A nice close Grey Plover was on the mud on the side of the channel, a juvenile, looking slightly golden-tinged on its upperparts. There were lots of Oystercatchers out on the sand in Blakeney Pit. As we scanned, we picked up a mixed flock of Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling which landed out on a sandbank with them. A big flock of Dunlin and Turnstone flew past.

There were also lots of Brent Geese and Wigeon out in the harbour. Several groups of gulls were loafing, Herring Gulls and big brutes of Great Black-backed Gulls. On the sand flats beyond the habour, we could see lots of seals hauled out, and through the scope we could see several Gannets diving into the sea beyond them.

As we turned to walk back, a Kingfisher was calling from down along the river channel, but we didn’t see it. The Yellow-browed Warbler showed itself again briefly on our way back past.

We continued on along the path and stopped down at the corner overlooking the grazing marshes. We were immediately informed that the Cattle Egret was back, but not in view. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait long before it walked out from behind the cows and we got a really good view of it through the scope. This Cattle Egret has been lingering here for some time now – perhaps it will stay until the cows are taken in for the winter? There were also two Grey Herons, lots of ducks, and several Ruff on the muddy flash here.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – still lingering with the cows at Stiffkey

After we had all had a good look at the Cattle Egret, we headed back to the car and drove back to Holkham for a late lunch. While we were eating, the cloud thickened again and it start to rain. Thankfully it was just a shower and it quickly passed over, although it remained rather cool and cloudy.

After lunch, we headed into Holkham Park. The walk in through the trees was fairly quiet, perhaps with the weather clouding over and the breeze picking up they had retreated now. There are always lots of Fallow Deer in here and we saw several groups of females and a few bucks barking to defend their territories.

Fallow DeerFallow Deer – we saw lots in the Park again today

We made our way straight down to the lake, but there was no sign of the Osprey in any of its favourite trees. We couldn’t find it fishing at the north end of the lake either. We did find a nice variety of ducks on the lake – including Gadwall, Pochard and Tufted Duck – plus several Great Crested Grebes and Little Grebes.

Turning round, we walked down to the south end of the lake to see what we could find there. A quick scan revealed a juvenile Scaup in with a raft of Tufted Duck. It swam off out into the middle of the lake as we approached, but we had a good look at it through the scope, noting its pale surround to the bill and cheek spot.

ScaupScaup – a juvenile, with the Tufted Duck on the lake

There were a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the lawn in front of the hall, but still no sign of the Osprey anywhere, so we set off back to the car. With everyone tired of walking, we decided to have a quick look out at the freshmarsh to finish the day. It turned out to be a good call. As soon as we pulled up, we could see a Great White Egret out on the edge of a ditch. By the time we had got out of the car, there were now two Great White Egrets. A second bird had appeared further back and was preening in the base of the sallows. Three species of egret in a day!

Great White EgretGreat White Egret – one of two out on the freshmarsh late this afternoon

Scanning around the various pools, we picked up three Avocets on the edge of one of the more distant ones. There are not many Avocets around now, with most having left for the winter, so we stopped to look at them through the scope. As we did so, we noticed another small pale bird nearby. It was small and swimming in circles, in and out of the ducks nearby, a Grey Phalarope. A real bonus!

We had a good look at the Grey Phalarope before something flushed all the ducks and waders and it settled again on the water even further back. The geese down on the grass below us were almost entirely Greylags. Still, we scanned through them carefully to see if we could find anything else. We had almost given up when a family of three Russian White-fronted Geese walked out from behind the bushes, two adults with black belly bars and white fronts and a plainer juvenile. This is a regular wintering site for Russian White-fronts but these are the first we have seen here this winter. Nice to see them returning now.

It had been a really productive stop here, with lots of birds coming and going, but it was now time to call it a day and head for home. Here’s hoping for more of the same tomorrow!

15th Oct 2017 – Autumn Extravaganza Day 4

Day 4 of a four day Autumn Tour today, our last day. After a light early mist burned off, it was a mostly bright and sunny day today, with just an hour or so of cloud around the middle of the day, and lighter winds too.

We started the day in Wells Woods. With lighter winds, we thought there was an outside chance of some birds having arrived in the mist last night. It also gave us another opportunity to catch up with some of our regular woodland species. As we got out of the car we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and looked up to see a skein flying over, presumably just coming in from their overnight roost out on the flats. They dropped down towards the grazing marshes beyond the trees.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – flying in from their overnight roost

The sound of Pink-footed Geese would accompany us all morning today, with regular skeins of birds flying over and landing out on the grazing marshes between Wells and Holkham.

There were several Little Grebes on the boating lake as we walked past and a tit flock came out of the bushes beyond and up into the pines, before moving quickly off in the direction of the car park. We couldn’t see anything with them other than Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Goldcrests though, as they passed us. Just beyond the lake, the sun was shining on the edge of the trees and a Chiffchaff was feeding among the leaves in the birches.

As we meandered our way through the trees, we could hear a few birds passing overhead – including Siskin, Redpoll and a Brambling. We came back out onto the sunny edge. In the fields beyond the caravan park a scattering of Pink-footed Geese had now settled in to feed. A Mistle Thrush flew off west calling from the edge of the caravan park, but the bushes here held nothing more than a handful of Blackbirds and Greenfinches this morning.

Continuing on west along the main path, we heard Long-tailed Tits calling in the pines so set off in after them. They were heading for the drinking pool, as we followed. There was a great mixed flock, and a good selection of birds dropped out of the pines and started to feed in the deciduous trees and bushes around the old pool.

GoldcrestGoldcrest – peeking out from between the leaves

The highlight was a Firecrest which appeared in the bushes just below us. We had a great view as it picked around in the foliage. There were a couple of Goldcrests with it and we could see the difference in the face pattern between the two species, the Firecrest more boldly marked black and white. One of the Goldcrests would occasionally chase the Firecrest, the two birds zooming around through the middle of the bush.

We also had a great look at a Treecreeper which appeared on a pine tree at the back of the pool, in the sunshine. We watched as it climbed up the trunk, before disappearing round the back of the tree.

TreecreeperTreecreeper – climbing up a pine tree

Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers came in too. At first, one flew in and landed on a dead birch stump. Then a second joined it, and the two of them chased round the tree after each other, before one flew off back into the pines.

Great Spotted WoodpeckerGreat Spotted Woodpecker – two were chasing each other around a birch stump

Eventually, the flock moved away into the pines and we decided to carry on west along the main path. Despite the sunshine and lighter winds, it was rather quiet here, in the oaks and birches along the path. We cut back inside, but even here we failed to locate many more birds – just the odd Goldcrest.

As we made our way back, we took a detour in around the Dell. This too was rather quiet today. We did flush a few Blackbirds and one or two Redwing from the brambles, and a skulking male Blackcap too. A couple of Red Kites circled lazily overhead. It was only back out on the main path, on our way back towards the boating lake, that we found a tit flock again, out in the sunshine. Unfortunately they were moving deeper into the trees and seemed to head off across to the caravan park. We decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere.

There had been a Greenland White-fronted Goose found with the same group of Pink-footed Geese where we had seen the Taiga Bean Goose a couple of days earlier, so we thought we would go round there next, to try to catch up with it. We could see a lot of Pink-footed Geese and Greylag Geese in one of the stubble fields by the main coast road as we drove past, but there is nowhere to stop along here. The geese had obviously moved, because there were now a lot fewer in the next field along, where there is a convenient layby to pull off the road. This is where all the geese had been earlier. We decided not to risk life and limb trying to see find a way to view where the geese were feeding now!

As we made our way back east along the coast road, we could immediately see a white shape in with the cows just beyond Stiffkey village. We found a convenient spot to park and made our way back to take a closer look. No great surprise, it was the Cattle Egret. It was on the near side of the cows initially, but quickly walked in amongst them. All the cows were lying down and it disappeared from view. Occasionally, we could see a white head and short yellowish bill pop up between them.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – hiding in between the cows

A Kestrel appeared and start hovering just above our heads. The breeze had picked up a little now, and it was hanging in the updraft as the wind hit the bank in the corner of the field, close to where we were standing.

KestrelKestrel – hovering just above our heads

We hoped the Cattle Egret might walk out again, and there was no suitable angle from which we could see it. With the cows lying down, it was not getting any food stirred up by their hooves and the next thing we knew it took off and flew away across the road, presumably to find something to eat elsewhere.

It was already getting on for lunchtime, so we headed back to the car and went off to find somewhere to sit and eat. There was an unbelievable amount of traffic on the coast road today, and it took us 10 minutes to get back through Stiffkey village, with all the congestion. When we got to the car park at the north end of Greenway, it was packed with cars and we were lucky to be able to find somewhere to park. Clearly, lots of people had some up to North Norfolk for the weekend, with the promise of warm, sunny weather!

It clouded over as we ate our lunch up in the shelter overlooking the saltmarsh. As it did so, suddenly flocks of birds started to appear, moving west along the coast just in front of us. They were mostly Starlings and Chaffinches, in flocks of 10-20 at a time. Looking carefully, in with the flocks of Chaffinches, we could see the odd Brambling too. A couple of little groups of Siskin flew over calling as well.

StarlingsStarlings – moving west along the coast after it clouded over

This was visible migration in action – always great to see. Some flocks of Starlings were flying in across the saltmarsh too, presumably fresh arrivals in from the continent for the winter. It is likely birds were arriving all morning, but in the clear weather they will often come in much higher. In the cloud, the flocks had dropped down and were more visible.

For the afternoon, we had planned on a change of scenery. We got in the car and headed inland, a short drive down to the north Brecks. Our destination was the pigfields here, which is a site for large gatherings of Stone Curlews in late summer and autumn. We are well past the peak in terms of numbers, but there are still a few Stone Curlews lingering here. We got out of the car and started to look at one of their favourite fields and it wasn’t long before we were looking at two Stone Curlews, quite close to where we were standing.

Stone Curlew 2Stone Curlews – a small number are still lingering in the pig fields

Scanning round carefully, we found a third Stone Curlew, just a little further back. There may well have been several more, as there is a big dip in the middle of the field which you cannot see into and a fourth Stone Curlew appeared briefly on the front edge of that.

We were looking into the light, so we tried to make our way back along the road to find a better angle. It was still not perfect, but through the scope, we had a great close-up look at the two Stone Curlews. We could see their staring yellow iris and black-tipped yellow bill. They are not related to regular Curlews – they are named because of their Curlew-like calls, and are actually a member of the Thick-knee family. Eurasian Thick-knee doesn’t have such a nice ring to it, although perhaps we should revert to using the more evocative old name for them – the Wailing Heath Chicken!

It is not far from here to Lynford Arboretum, so we decided to head round there next to try to add a few extra woodland birds to our trip list. As we walked down along the track, the trees seemed rather quiet at first, but we stopped at the gate to have a look under the beeches. The feeders were empty, but someone had strewn some seeds on the ground in the leaves. A steady stream of birds were dropping in – Chaffinches, Great Tits. Then a Marsh Tit appeared too. It kept coming back repeatedly, flying in, grabbing a few seeds, and shooting off back into the trees to deal with them.

A larger bird dropped down out of the trees and landed on the edge of the stone trough. A Hawfinch, a female. It had a quick drink from the trough, lingering just long enough for everyone to get a good look at it, before flying back up into the trees. A great result as they are not easy to see here at this time of year!

Continuing on down along the track, a Common Buzzard circled overhead. As we got down to the bottom of the hill, we could hear a Marsh Tit calling, so we took a little detour out through the trees towards the side of the lake. Some seed had been spread on a bench there, and the Marsh Tit was coming in repeatedly to grab some, much as we had seen the one earlier doing. We stood and watched it for a while. A Coal Tit was doing the same too.

Marsh TitMarsh Tit – coming to grab seed from a bench in the arboretum

While we were standing there, we heard a Kingfisher calling from the lake. We hurried round to the other side, but there were quite a few people out for a Sunday afternoon stroll along here today and it had obviously been disturbed before we could get there. Otherwise, there was not much to see on the lake – just a few Mallard, a Canada Goose and a Moorhen. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was calling from the alders on one of the islands and we heard a Grey Wagtail as we walked round the lake too.

It was a lovely late afternoon down in the Arboretum, and we could easily have stayed here longer, but we had a long drive back to North Norfolk ahead of us. With the sun now moving round and dropping, there was also a request to stop back at the Stone Curlews on our way past, to see if we could get some better photos.

The light had improved a little when we got back to the pig fields, but the closest Stone Curlew was also now just behind one of the electric fences, with a wire in the way. It didn’t stop us getting a great last look at it through the scope though – a cracking bird!

Stone Curlew 1Stone Curlew – back for another look on our way home

Then it was time to head back and wrap up our four days of Autumn Migration birdwatching. It had been a very enjoyable tour, with a great selection of birds and some memorable moments.

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.

 

 

3rd-5th November 2015 – Titchwell Manor Tour

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2610Little Grebe – at least 5 on Salts Hole today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P1120291Jay – picked up an acorn from the grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P1120306Redshank – note its rather dark grey colouration

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

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

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

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

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

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

P1120318Little Egret – fishing on the Volunteer Marsh

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

P1120405Common Snipe – feeding right in front of Parrinder Hide

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

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

16th October 2015 – More from the East

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today. Norfolk has been enjoying a real purple patch in the last week, with a succession of rare vagrants from the east turning up in the county, brought to us on an ongoing easterly airflow originating from far across onto the continent. We set out to try to catch up with a few of those today.

Our first stop saw us drive east along the coast to Beeston Common, just beyond Sheringham. It was overcast and blustery when we arrived, but that doesn’t seem to put off our first target. As soon as we got out onto the Common we could see the Isabelline Shrike perched atop a hawthorn bush, looking all around. We got it in the scope and watched it catch a wasp and eat it.

IMG_2003Isabelline Shrike – still present on Beeston Common today & showing well

Suddenly it flew towards us, and landed in another bush much closer by. It was obviously actively looking for food, as it flew again to another perch. It dropped sharply down to the ground, but disappeared deep into a holly when it flew back out so we couldn’t see what it had caught this time. We waited a few minutes and it reappeared on our side of the holly, before flying across back to the hawthorn it had just come from.

From there, it dropped down into the grass again and this time flew up with a small frog. It took it into the hawthorn and we could just see it through the scope, impaling the frog on a thorn. Shrikes are also traditionally known as ‘butcher birds’, as they will store excess food in a ‘larder’ by impaling them on a thorny bush or even barbed wire for later consumption. The Isabelline Shrike seemed unsure whether to eat its frog now or leave it for later. It appeared to eat a little, then moved back to the outside of the bush to resume hunting, before changing its mind and dropping back in to eat some more. Fascinating to watch.

There have been thrushes arriving in numbers for days now, and out on the common we saw a Blackbird or two drop into the bushes and a large flock of Redwing flew over our heads calling. A Sparrowhawk flew over as well – there is a real bounty for predators at the moment, with many small birds arriving here exhausted from the continent.

Having enjoyed such great views of the Isabelline Shrike, we decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere. Heading back west along the coast, we stopped at Muckleburgh Hill next. An Olive-backed Pipit had been found here yesterday, but it had been very elusive. They have a habit of creeping surreptitiously through the grass unseen, so it seemed like it might be difficult for us to see this one. A text message also confirmed that it had been elusive so far this morning. We thought we might as well have a go.

When we finally found the assembled crowd, the Olive-backed Pipit was on show, but getting everyone onto it was easier said than done at first. It was creeping around on an area of cut bracken, amongst the dead stalks and short regrowth, so had lots of places to hide. We kept getting glimpses of it. Frustrating. Finally it crept over to a more obvious place under a large rowan tree and proceeded to work its way round the edge of the taller bracken at its base. Now everyone got onto it, we managed to get it in the scopes and get some cracking views.

IMG_2040Olive-backed Pipit – eventually showed very well at Muckleburgh Hill

Olive-backed Pipits breed in Siberia and just into European Russia, migrating down to India and south Asia for the winter. They are a rare visitor to our shores, though they turn up more often these days than they used to. They are still a great bird to see and full of character, as they creep around pumping their tails slowly up and down.

We left the crowd to it, and continued our way back west, stopping off next at Stiffkey Greenway. A Great Grey Shrike had been seen earlier in the morning, but had disappeared off to the west along the coastal path. There were lots of people here, birdwatchers as well as dog walkers and joggers, so we didn’t fancy our chances of seeing it. This is a good site to look for other recent arrivals in the coastal bushes, so we decided to go for a walk anyway.

Scanning the saltmarsh, we could see lots of Brent Geese out amongst the vegetation. A Greenshank dropped in on the path out across the marshes and started to feed around the small pools. A Grey Plover was on the path further out and there were lots of Curlew and Redshank. Several of the scattered pools also held a Little Egret.

P1110756Brent Geese – feeding out on the saltmarsh

There were not so many birds in the hawthorns and brambles as there have been in the last couple of days. Perhaps fewer new birds had arrived overnight, or possibly they had already moved off inland, disturbed by all the activity up and down the path. We did see plenty of Goldcrests in the bushes, and flushed a steady stream of Redwings, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds. There were several finches – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, though they were keeping down in the bushes out of the wind. We caught up with a tit flock – Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits – working their way through the gorse around the whirligig. In amongst them we found a couple of Chiffchaff.

We only went as far as the eastern track at Warham Greens. As we walked out at the whirligig, a small falcon swept up along the edge of the saltmarsh and powered away behind us, a Merlin. We scanned the marshes out towards East Hills and initially picked up nothing more than a couple of distant Marsh Harriers. Then a smaller, sleeker, slimmer-winged harrier swept up above the horizon briefly before dropping back down and resuming quartering low over the vegetation. Through the scopes we could see the paler underparts and square white patch at the base of the tail – its was a young ringtail Hen Harrier.

With no sign of the shrike and time getting on towards lunch, we decided to walk back. On the way, we stopped briefly to admire a bush cricket which walked out onto the muddy path – a Short-winged Conehead.

P1110778Short-winged Conehead – a type of bush cricket, on the coastal path

We ate lunch at Lady Anne’s Drive and afterwards walked west along the path on the inner edge of the pines. It was fairly quiet at first, apart from the ubiquitous Goldcrests and the regular Little Grebes on the pool at Salts Hole. Just beyond there, we could see some other birders on the top of a low bank, scanning the bushes in the reeds by the path. There has been another Isabelline Shrike here at Holkham in the last few days (there have been an unprecedented three in Norfolk!), but apparently we had just missed it. It had dropped down from one of the bushes and disappeared. We decided to walk a little further along to the gate, from where we could scan the grazing marshes.

There was no sign of the shrike from further along either, but we did see a rather late Common Whitethroat in a low rose bush by the gate. There are lots here in the summer, but this one should probably be well on its way towards Africa by now. Out on the grazing marshes, we could see a few Pink-footed Geese together with the Greylags. It was while we were scanning the marshes, that someone coming along the path broke the news to us that the shrike had reappeared further back along the path.

We walked back quickly and there it was – perched up in a wild rose bush amongst the reeds, our second Isabelline Shrike of the day. How greedy! It was rather similar to the one that we had seen at Beeston Common in the morning, but noticeably more extensively marked with dark chevrons on its pale underparts. There is typically some variation between individuals.

IMG_2046Isabelline Shrike – our second of the day, at Holkham

When it flew down again, we continued on our way west along the path. We stopped periodically to scan through the Goldcrests, in case there might be something more interesting in amongst them. It has been amazing just how many there were here in recent days – it would be fascinating to know how many have come in from the continent and moved on inland this week.

Just past the crosstracks, we came to the clump of sallows which the Red-flanked Bluetail has been frequenting, since Monday at least. There is always something of a dilemma – whether to try to see it flicking around quietly in the sallows, or whether to wait our by the brambles where it likes to come to feed on blackberries occasionally. We decided on the latter.

We didn’t have to wait too long until the Red-flanked Bluetail put in a typically brief appearance on the brambles. It perched for a few seconds feeding on the blackberries, but it was mostly hidden within the foliage. Then it flew across the front. Most of the group got a glimpse – a flash of the blue tail as it went. We waited again and then got a repeat performance – the Bluetail fed on a blackberry from within the brambles and then flashed off. It was clearly nervous – the local Robins have been giving it a hard time, chasing it away.

IMG_2062Red-flanked Bluetail – showing off its orange flank patches

Finally, on its third visit of our vigil, the Red-flanked Bluetail came out onto the brambles in full view. We could see its rather Robin-like appearance front on, but lacking the red (orange!) breast and instead sporting two orange flank patches and a triangular white throat patch. We were missing its best feature from this angle, but it even did the decent thing and turned round, flashing its bright blue tail at us. What a cracker! Than it darted off back into the sallows.

IMG_2076Red-flanked Bluetail – helpfully turned around to show off its bright blue tail

Red-flanked Bluetails breed in the Siberian taiga and migrate down to spend the winter in SE Asia. They were almost a mythical rarity in the UK in years gone by but only in the last 10-15 years have they become annual visitors and are now almost an expected find after a period of east winds at this time of year. This is probably because they have been expanding their breeding range steadily westwards and now breed in eastern Finland. Still, that does not detract at all from the delight at seeing one – electric blue tail, and all.

After great views such as those, we set off back suitably elated. Once again, we paused regularly to check through the flocks of Goldcrests and tits on the way back. Two Swallows hawking for insects low over the pines around Washington Hide were another unseasonal surprise, with most of their brethren well on their way to Africa by now.

There had been a Pallas’s Warbler in the trees further along from Lady Anne’s Drive towards Wells during the day, so we thought we might walk that way and try to see it. Unfortunately, the weather started to close in a little on our way back and the light levels dropped early. The trees where the Pallas’s Warbler had been were quiet. It had been a tiring day in the field and energy levels were waning by this stage, so we decided to make our way slowly back. But what a day it had been – 2 Isabelline Shrikes, Olive-backed Pipit and Red-flanked Bluetail amongst others. We needed to leave something for tomorrow!