Tag Archives: Surf Scoter

21st November 2014 – Raptors, Geese & Ducks

Day 1 of a 3 day tour today. With the number of birds at Holkham recently, this seemed like a great place to start – to try to get some of the local specialities and lingering rarities in the bag.

No sooner had we arrived at Lady Anne’s Drive than a large flock of ducks and geese erupted from the grazing marsh. It might have been expected to have been due to one of the local Marsh Harriers which are ever-present here, but a quick look revealed it actually to be a ringtail Hen Harrier, a real treat. We watched it as it flew towards us, across Lady Anne’s Drive and away to the east. A Marsh Harrier duly followed behind shortly afterwards.

P1090882Hen Harrier – over the grazing marsh this morning

With the weather this morning proving to be surprisingly bright, we decided to head out to the beach first thing to scan the bay. On our way out, there were lots of Skylarks and we stopped to watch a small group feeding on the edge of the dunes. A small flock of Brent Geese flew in and landed on the saltmarsh. Once again it was pleasing to see a nice proportion of stripy-backed juveniles amongst them, and to watch the various family squabbles as they fed.

P1090886Brent Geese – lots of stripy juveniles were in the flock on the saltmarsh

Scanning through this group, one bird stood out. It was subtly darker, slightly more blackish on the back and belly than the other Brents – our regular wintering birds are from Russia, of the ‘Dark-bellied’ bernicla race. Its white flank patch was more obvious and contrasting and the white collar more striking. We get occasional birds, so-called Black Brants from North America and East Siberia (of the race nigricans), amongst the wintering Brents here, but these are even blacker with more solid and brighter flanks and collars. Our bird was actually a hybrid Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent, a returning bird and the product of a lost Black Brant from some years before which had paired and subsequently bred with one of our Brents. It was great to see it again and a very interesting and instructive bird for the group.

P1090897Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid – lurking amongst the Brents

Out on the beach, we scanned the bay for ducks, grebes and divers. There are lots of Common Scoters now gathered offshore and it didn’t take us long to pick up several Velvet Scoters in amongst them, including several very smart drakes. There is also a good number of Great Crested Grebes in the bay and several were diving just off the beach. Suddenly a much smaller grebe appeared amongst them – a winter-plumaged Slavonian Grebe. Being so close inshore, we got a great view of it and it was particularly good to be able to compare it to the much larger Great Cresteds. The Red-throated Divers were not quite so accommodating, and kept diving!

Looking out to sea, we could see a steady trickle of Blackbirds and thrushes flying in from Scandinavia, in ones and twos. Suddenly a Peregrine appeared, flying fast low over the waves. Following it, we could see that it was after a Blackbird which was struggling in low over the water. Then a second Peregrine appeared and the two of them took turns to swoop down at the poor bird. Somehow it made it to the beach, but there the falcons would surely be able to catch it as it would have to cross the vast open expanse of sand? At one point, they forced it down into a pool but miraculously it took off again and, jinking out of the way of the harrying Peregrines it dived into the dunes. Quite an amazing thing to watch!

At first we couldn’t locate the North American Surf Scoter which has been hanging out with the local Velvet Scoters for some weeks now. However, a timely phone call alerted us to its presence further up the beach. A quick walk along and we could see the bird slightly distantly offshore. Thankfully the group it was with took off and flew towards us – we got a great view of the Surf Scoter as it came past. It was also good to see the Velvet Scoters in flight, showing the diagnostic white trailing edge to their inner wings. A Scaup was also hiding in with them, but we couldn’t find it as the flock landed again on the sea. Having enjoyed the ducks, we had a quick walk along the beach to see if we could locate any Snow Buntings, but by now it was rather too disturbed with dog walkers, so we headed back to the car for lunch.

P1090899Pink-footed Geese – a small group were close to Lady Anne’s Drive

In the afternoon, we headed west on the inland side of the pines. There were a few Pink-footed Geese in the fields by Lady Anne’s Drive as we set off which we got a closer look at. At Salts Hole, we stopped to look at the Little Grebes and a pair of Wigeon out on the water. There were large flocks of Wigeon out on the grazing marsh and the walk was accompanied by their incessant whistling, as well as the high-pitched honking of more Pink-footed Geese which were starting to gather on the marshes. On the edge of the pines, we paused to watch several Goldcrests and a Treecreeper. We encountered several mixed tit flocks and heard a couple of lingering Chiffchaffs.

At the western end of the pines, we stood for a while and scanned over the grazing marshes. There was a good selection of raptors on view – several Marsh Harriers, a couple of Common Buzzards, Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk. We walked a bit further and climbed up into the dunes to get a better view and finally the Rough-legged Buzzard appeared, initially flying off and disappearing into the dunes before returning a short while later. We watched it for some time, hunting out over the grazing marsh and hovering repeatedly, occasionally landing on the ground.

From our position in the dunes, we also got a great view of the bushes on the inland side, which were now alive with recently arrived thrushes, those that had escaped the trials of marauding Peregrines and gulls offshore. There were lots of Blackbirds, together with a few Redwings, plus a couple of Fieldfare and Song Thrush. A scan through the groups of Pink-footed and Brent Geese on the marshes revealed a couple of Barnacle Geese amongst them.

With the light starting to go, we headed back. Many more Blackbirds and thrushes were looking to go to roost in the bushes by the track. Large flocks of Pink-footed Geese were continuing to arrive in the gloom and the cacophony of noise suggested a significant gathering out on the marshes. Finally a Barn Owl flashed out in front of us. Fortunately, we got back to the car just before the rain started.

P1090902Jay – there are lots in the pines at the moment

15th November 2014 – Holkham Highlights

A private tour today, and with all the good birds around the area recently we decided to explore Holkham. Meeting at Lady Anne’s Drive, we were greeted by the high-pitched honking of Pink-footed Geese all around, with several flocks flying up and heading off inland to feed. A pair of Egyptian Geese were feeding in the fields and a we stopped to admire a Curlew. Walking west on the southern edge of the pines, a passing Marsh Harrier flushed several large clouds of Wigeon, which whirled round before landing back on the grazing marshes.

Misty Morning HolkhamHolkham – a misty autumnal morning at the grazing marshes

At Salt’s Hole, we paused to admire the local Little Grebes – so full of character – and to listen to them calling like mad laughter. A pair of Wigeon on the water gave us the opportunity to get a good look at them through the scope. A flock of Golden Plover flew past and a couple of Bramblings, Blackbirds and Redwings passed overhead calling, probably fresh in from Scandinavia.

Little GrebesLittle Grebes – up to 6 are still on Salt’s Hole

Along the path, we encountered several mixed tit flocks – Long-tailed Tits, Great Tits, Blue Tits and Coal Tits, together with lots of Goldcrests, several Treecreepers, a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a single Chiffchaff. A pair of Bullfinch called from the bushes – the female flew up briefly, before disappearing back into cover.

We made our way to the west end of the pines and stopped by the gate which overlooks the grazing marshes. It didn’t take long to locate the main target here – the now resident Rough-legged Buzzard. Looking slightly damp and bedraggled in the misty conditions, it sat on a fence post not far from us. The very pale head and dark blackish belly patch stood out. It dropped down into the field a couple of times, before returning to its perch. From behind, it was possible to see the distinctive white tail with a thick black terminal tail band. As well as the Rough-legged Buzzard, we also saw Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk scanning across the marshes.

Rough-legged Buzzard HolkhamRough-legged Buzzard – this bird has taken up residence for the winter

We climbed up into the edge of the dunes, from where there is a great panoramic view across the grazing marshes. From here we could get an even better view of the Rough-legged Buzzard. However, a large white bird was out on one of the pools – a quick look revealed a very big white heron with a strikingly long white neck and dagger-like bright orange-yellow bill, a Great White Egret. It fed for some time on this pool, wading with neck outstretched and occasionally plunging it into the water, allowing us all to get a really good look at it through the scope before it was flushed into cover by a dog-walker out on the marshes.

Great White Egret HolkhamGreat White Egret – feeding on one of the grazing marsh pools

We headed back to Lady Anne’s Drive for lunch, stopping to have a quick look out over the marshes from the raised vantage point of the Joe Jordan hide. We could see the heronry, with several Cormorants loafing around in the trees. There were more Greylag than Pinkfeet at this end of the marshes, with several noisy flocks flying around. A small group of Teal and Shoveler were out on the pools. However, most interest was drawn by the rather smart herd of Belted Galloway cattle out on the marsh!

In the afternoon, we walked out onto the beach. Despite it being a misty November day, there were lots of dogwalkers, horseriders and general sightseers. One of the Holkham Estate vehicles drove past us out on to the sand and we followed it out to the edge of the sea. The reason for the concern was immediately apparent – a Great Northern Diver had become entangled in a fishing net set just offshore. Despite the best efforts of the estate staff, they had not been able to persuade anyone to come and rescue the bird, a very sad situation. There was nothing we could do to help, so we wished them well with their efforts and moved on.

GN Diver HolkhamGreat Northern Diver – this bird was sadly entangled in a fishing net just off the beach

While we were out on the beach, news had come through that the Surf Scoter had been relocated offshore at the western end of the beach. This bird has been present for several weeks now and has attracted quite a deal of interest. We walked along the shoreline until we found a small group of people watching it. Despite what appeared to be a mostly calm sea, there was enough of a swell to mean the Scoters were constantly disappearing from view – combined with the misty conditions, it meant that some of the group did struggle a little to get onto the right bird. However, it was along with at least 9 Velvet Scoters and there were a large number of Common Scoters in the bay, meaning that we could compare three different species of Scoter together.

Red KitesRed Kites – at least 20 came in to roost this evening

Returning to the car, we set off for the drive inland to an otherwise rather unprepossessing area of farmland. A scan of the treetops quickly revealed first one, then two, then more Red Kites perched in the trees, along with a number of Common Buzzards. As the sun started to go down, more birds appeared, flying in from all different directions. Several of them flew out and landed in the trees in the field in front of us, preening and loafing before going in to roost. At one point many of the birds took off and circled round – we counted at least 20 Red Kites either in flight or perched in the trees.

With a beautiful sunset in the west, we headed back to Holkham to finish the day, with the mist gathering again over the marshes.


1st November 2014 – Holkham Fantastic

Another day out on tour, and we spent the whole day exploring the Holkham area. The weather forecast was decidedly mixed and we arrived to cloud and showers but it cleared quickly from the west and the rest of the day was sunny and unseasonably warm – was this really the 1st of November? Thankfully the birds were just as good as the weather!

P1090512Little Grebe – at least 6 were on Salts Hole

We started off walking west on the inland side of the pines. We stopped to watch a small group of Redwing feeding in the leaf litter and a pair of Goldcrest on the edge of the pines. Several Little Grebes were on Salts Hole and one in particular spent some time wrestling with a particularly large fish. As we approached Washington Hide, we could hear a mixed flock of tits, Goldcrests and Treecreepers in the trees behind, and this was suddenly joined by the distinctive call of a Yellow-browed Warbler. Climbing up the boardwalk to the hide, the bird gave tantalisingly brief views before disappearing deeper into cover.

P1090513Holkham Beach – the view was glorious out on the sand

With the sun now out we decided to continue along the boardwalk to the beach. A small crowd had gathered to admire the drake Surf Scoter which has been present offshore here for several days now, and we were quickly onto the bird ourselves. The white nape patch shone in the sunshine and, when it wasn’t asleep, so did the swollen yellow-orange of the bill. Quite a stunner. Better still, it was together with 4 Velvet Scoters and a small group of Common Scoters were only a short distance away – 3 species of Scoter all together.

IMG_1726Surf Scoter – the photo doesn’t do it justice

As the other people drifted away, we stayed on the beach and continued to scan the sea. The variety of birds offshore was quite amazing. The undoubted highlight was a single Great Northern Diver which we picked up initially some way offshore to our west and which then swam/dived all the way past us. There were also several Red-throated Divers and a lot of Great Crested Grebes out in the bay; we saw both Razorbill and Guillemot, a single Long-tailed Duck, Gannets diving offshore and a late juvenile Common Tern flew past.

P1090517Great Northern Diver – a surprise addition to the day’s list

At the same time, we could see large skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in over the sea, as well as several small flocks of Starlings. However, the most charismatic birds were the Sanderlings which ran back and forth along the shoreline in front of us.

P1090514Sanderling – several of these ‘clockwork toys’ were on the beach

We headed back to the car for a lunch break, stopping to admire the Pink-footed Geese loafing around in the fields on the way back. Even as we ate, we managed to accumulate a healthy list of raptors – several Marsh Harriers quartered over the grazing meadows, a single Red Kite circled overhead, a couple of Common Buzzards appeared distantly over the pines swiftly followed by a Rough-legged Buzzard.

P1090524Pink-footed Geese – a Holkham speciality

Fancying a better look, we decided to walk back along the edge of the pines in the afternoon and continue on to the far west end. We were swiftly rewarded with a Firecrest just a short way along the path and we encountered several more mixed tit flocks as we walked. Almost as soon as we got to the far end of the pines, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew over the grazing marshes and directly overhead giving us all amazing views before drifting off over the dunes. We climbed up into the edge of dunes and watched it hovering out over the grazing marshes.

P1090525Rough-legged Buzzard – circled right over our heads

Scanning further round the marshes, we then managed to pick up the Great White Egret as well, at one point together with a Grey Heron highlighting its ‘great’ size. Altogether, adding up to quite an amazing list of good birds from a day at just this one site. With the sun setting, it was then time to head back to the car again, serenaded by the gathering flocks of Pink-footed Geese as we walked.