Tag Archives: Taiga Bean Goose

11th Jan 2019 – Midwinter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter Tour today, and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was a rather grey start and end to the day, with a little bit of brightness in between, but dry and mild with light winds. A nice day to be out.

As we drove along the top road out of Ludham, we could already see lots of swans out on the fields on the old airfield below. We drove round on the maze of minor roads to a convenient spot overlooking where they were feeding. They were split at first into two  groups, one feeding in the remains of a harvested sugar beet field and the other group loafing in a neighbouring field of winter wheat. Through the scope, we could see there was a mixture of smaller Bewick’s Swans and larger Whooper Swans.

bewick's and whooper swans

Bewick’s and Whooper Swans – good to see the two species side by side

The feeding swans started to fly across in small groups to join the bigger herd in the winter wheat, where many were asleep in a slight dip in the ground. We could count around 100 swans in total, but it was hard to work out how many of each species there were today.

It was good to see the two species side by side, to be able to compare them. As well as being larger, the Whooper Swans have a distinctive wedge of yellow on their bills extending further towards the tip, whereas the yellow on the Bewick’s Swans is blunt, squared off, and not as extensive.

A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in the ploughed field in front of us and one of them did a nice fly round, showing off the black trailing edge to the wing, lacking the white band of a Woodpigeon. A couple of Common Buzzards were flying round, and we watched one fly off with a Brown Rat, the latters tail trailing from its talons. We would be looking for geese today too, and several groups of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling while we were watching the swans, to start things off.

Gradually, the swans started to walk back into the sugar beet field to feed, and we decided to move on. As we drove further into the Broads, we noticed three tall grey shapes in a field so we stopped for a look, flushing several Fieldfares from the hedge as we pulled up. As we suspected, the tall birds in the field were Common Cranes, a family party, two adults with their fully grown juvenile from last year, the young one browner and lacking the contrasting black-and-white head pattern of the adults.

common cranes 1

Common Crane – a family party, the first of 17 today

As we watched the family of Cranes feeding, like the swans we had seen earlier in a recently harvested sugar beet field, another pair of Cranes flew over. They disappeared down behind some trees further back and we thought they had most likely landed out of view, but when we looked further round we noticed two Cranes in another field, on the edge of a maize strip. Were they the same ones we had just seen flying over? But every time we looked back over, more Cranes appeared from out of the maize until there were seven together on that side, making ten visible in total including the first family of three. There could easily have still been more in the maize!

We had turned our attention back to the original family when we heard Cranes ‘bugling’. We looked across to see one of the pairs on the edge of the maize strip displaying. They were walking together, side by side, with the heads up and their bustles raised as they called. It was clearly a bit of a dispute, as they took off and flew towards one of the other Cranes standing in the field. The larger of the pair, the male, swooped down at the standing bird and chased it a short distance across the field. The pair then strutted together for a minute or so before flying off.

There was a cover strip, planted with a wild bird seed mix, along the edge of the road where we had pulled over. Birds were constantly flying back and forth across the road between the strip and the hedge of a garden the other side. They were mostly Greenfinches, always good to see in numbers given how the species had declined in recent years, along with quite a few House Sparrows, a smaller number of Chaffinches and Goldfinches, and one or two Reed Buntings.

Further over, a tight flock of Linnets kept flying up out of the cover strip, flying round and dropping back in again, rather than flying over to the garden. We watched their distinctive bouncing flight, looking almost like they were held up with elastic!

Taiga Bean Goose is one of the key target birds to see down in the Broads at this time of year. Since the start of 2018, it has been treated as a separate species from Tundra Bean Goose in the UK (the two were previously lumped together as ‘Bean Goose’). The Yare Valley is one of only two traditional wintering sites in the UK for this now species. The wintering population here is declining and a maximum of just over 20 have been seen in the last few years, so they can be tricky to find.

The Taiga Bean Geese had been reported from Cantley Marshes this morning, so we made our way over there nest. As we pulled up next to yet another recently harvested sugar beet field (we are in the shadow of the Cantley sugar beet processing factory here, after all!), a large flock of Rooks were looking for invertebrates among the chopped up leaves and debris.

rook

Rook – a large flock were feeding in the recently harvested sugar beet field

We made our way down over the railway crossing and stopped to scan the grazing marshes. At first sight, it looked quite devoid of life. A Peregrine was perched on a distant gatepost out in the middle and a Marsh Harrier was visible in the reeds beyond. A couple of Chinese Water Deer were hiding in the grass. The marshes here are often full of geese of various species, but we couldn’t see any at first today. We eventually found just one, lone Pink-footed Goose.

If the Taiga Bean Geese are not here, they can often be on the neighbouring marshes at Buckenham. We could see some geese flying up periodically over in that direction, so we decided to head over there next. As we walked back up the hill, a small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew in over the village and disappeared over that way.

The marshes at Cantley have lots of long grass and wet ditches where it easy to hide a small group of geese, so we walked out along the footpath across the field at the top of the hill to have one more scan from higher ground. There were the Taiga Bean Geese! They were tucked down behind a couple of gates, which explained why we couldn’t see them from lower down.

Slowly, some of the Taiga Bean Geese came out from behind the gate. We could see their long bills, though variable in pattern, mostly had quite an extensive amount of orange showing.

taiga bean goose

Taiga Bean Geese – hard to find at first, in the long grass hiding behind the gates

The Rooks had moved on, but there were now at least twenty Pied Wagtails feeding in the beet field, and a single Meadow Pipit was with them. Looking down at the near edge of the marshes, we could see two Marsh Harrier, a female chasing a darker juvenile. There was still an hour or so before lunch so, despite the fact we had seen the Taiga Bean Geese already, we decided to call in at Buckenham to see what else we could see on the marshes there.

A large flock of Wigeon were feeding out on the marshes as we walked down the track towards the river. We could hear their distinctive whistles. Some of them were very close to the track, so we could get a great look at them, the drakes with their distinctive rusty heads and creamy yellow paint stripe up their foreheads. When something spooked them, they all flew up and dropped into the nearby ditch, where a pair of Teal and several Shoveler were already feeding.

wigeon 1

Wigeon – there were lots feeding on the grazing marshes by the track

There were a few more geese on the marshes at Buckenham today, mostly Canada Geese and Greylags, but with a small number of feral Barnacle Geese in with them. Another group of about thirty geese flew up from the back of marshes, and dropped straight back down into the grass. Through the grass we could see they were Russian White-fronted Geese, with a narrow white surround to the base of the bill from which they get their name, as well as distinctive black belly barring.

A liberal scattering of Lapwings was spread out across the shorter grass. In with them, we found eight Ruff, including one with a white head (white-headed males make up a small percentage of the population), though they were walking round quickly and hard to keep up with. We heard a Water Pipit call once briefly, but we couldn’t see where the sound came from and there was no sound of it around the pools in the grass. We did find a Little Egret and a Grey Heron out there though.

Continuing on along the track, we stopped to scan the larger pools at the far end. There were lots more Teal asleep on the edges, and more Shoveler along with two Shelduck. A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was standing in the far corner and when we got the scope on it we could see a couple of Common Snipe lurking on the muddy bank next to it.

It was lunchtime now, so we walked back to the car, stopping briefly to watch a Red Kite circling over the trees beyond. We drove round to Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. The Reception Hide pool held lots of ducks as usual, with Gadwall an addition to the day’s list, as well as more Shoveler and Mallard. The resident Black Swan was standing on the edge of the water with one of the Mute Swans.

shoveler

Shoveler – loafing with the ducks and swans at Reception Hide

While we ate, we kept an eye on the feeders nearby. A steady succession of Blue Tits and Great Tits kept darting in to grab sunflower seeds. We could hear a Marsh Tit calling in the trees, but it was some time before it eventually came in to the feeders. Then we got good views of it, as rather than just darting in and out as it sometimes does, it perched on a dead tree stump next to the feeders several times and waited its turn.

There were a few other birds in the trees around Reception Hide. A Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops with a Goldfinch before flying off back towards the wood. A Bullfinch came out of the trees calling and disappeared off towards the car park. A Siskin flew over the pool calling.

As we were packing up, we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming. With a few birds singing too today, it almost felt like spring was on its way already! As we walked back to the car across the railway, another Great Spotted Woodpecker responded, drumming from across the road.

A small group of Tundra Bean Geese had been reported for the last few days feeding in fields near Thrigby. So, as we made our way back north, we diverted round to look for them. We found them easily enough, in exactly the field they were in yesterday. They were on their own in some winter wheat, and mostly sat down, loafing. From the layby where we could pull over, they had typically chosen a spot just over the top of the ridge where they were mostly out of view.

At first, we could just see one of the Tundra Bean Geese which had stood up, but as the others began to move we could see more of them. Through the scope, we could see their bills, which were very different from the Taiga Bean Geese we had seen earlier – shorter and deeper-based, with a more restricted band of orange just behind the dark tip.

tundra bean goose

Tundra Bean Goose – with more restricted orange on the bill

There were no other geese with them, though there was a small herd of Mute Swans feeding in a field of oil seed rape on the other side of road and four Egyptian Geese away in the distance. Several Common Snipe flew up from time to time out of the oil seed rape too, but instantly disappeared again as soon as they landed. A Chinese Water Deer was lying down out there too and a Common Buzzard perched up in a tree at the back.

We made our way over to Stubb Mill to end the day. The cloud had thickened again and the light was already starting to go when we arrived. We were helpfully directed straight away to a Merlin perched on a post at the back of the fields. It was remarkably hard to see, being very similar in colour to the top of the post. A Green Woodpecker flew across over the grass and a Stonechat flicked up briefly.

There is a flight pond out in the fields beyond the mill. As we arrived, the landowner was just going out on his quadbike to put feed out for the ducks. It wasn’t long after he left again, that a pair of Cranes flew up from where they had been lurking behind the reeds and landed over by the pond, presumably to help themselves to some of the food. We could just see them walking about through the scope. A flock of Shelduck flew in too.

The Marsh Harriers were already gathering in the reeds further over. As we scanned across, we could see several perched in the scattered bushes. From time to time, more would fly up and we counted at least twenty at in the air together at one point. There was a slow trickle of Marsh Harriers still arriving, flying in from various directions, but it felt like a lot were probably already down in the roost this evening.

It was time for the Cranes to head into roost now. First one flew across, over the trees at the back, followed by another which came through much lower over the reeds. Then another three Cranes flew in, much closer this time, silhouetted against the last of the light.

common cranes 2

Common Crane – three more, flying in to roost at dusk

As it started to get dark, a herd of Red Deer emerged from the reeds and walked out across the marshes. A Woodcock shot past just a few feet from us, right in front of the viewpoint, but was gone as quickly as it appeared. It was time to head home, and as we got back to the car we could hear the Pink-footed Geese calling, going in to roost.

5th-6th Dec 2017 – Two Winter Days

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

Tuesday 5th December

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

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

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

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

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

6O0A3546

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6O0A3567Stonechat – perched in some dead willowherb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 6th December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13th Oct 2017 – Autumn Extravaganza Day 2

Day 2 of a four day Autumn Tour today. It was a more mixed day weather-wise, mostly dry apart from a brief squally shower this morning, but with a rather blustery SW wind all day, gusting up to 40mph at times. Still, it didn’t hold us back and we had another great day out.

After meeting in Wells, we headed west along the coast to Titchwell for the day. There were lots of geese in the stubble fields by the road – lots of Greylags with a good number of Pink-footed Geese and a few Egyptian Geese too.

At Titchwell, the main car park was slowly starting to fill up, so we went for a quick look round the overflow car park before it got too busy. There were several Blackbirds in the apple trees – possibly some of them were freshly arrived from the continent overnight – and a couple of Redwings were calling from the hedge as we walked past. We flushed several finches from the brambles, a few Chaffinches and a noisy flock of Greenfinches. A Brambling flew over calling, as did a single Grey Wagtail. Otherwise, there were not that many birds in here this morning, so we decided to head out onto the reserve. A Redwing flew across in front of us and perched briefly in the top of the trees, before diving into cover.

A Grey Phalarope (also confusingly called a Red Phalarope, for our North American tour participants!) had appeared at Titchwell yesterday, so after enjoying great views of the Red-necked Phalarope yesterday, we thought we would go to look for the Grey today. Before we got out of the car park, we received a message to say that it had just flown in closer and was now showing very well in front of Parrinder Hide, so we headed straight round there.

When we got out onto the main path, we could see some dark clouds heading our way, so we didn’t linger to scan for birds on the way out. A Bearded Tit was pinging from the reeds by the Thornham grazing marsh dry pool and zipped across the tops before diving back into cover. A single Eurasian Curlew was very well camouflaged standing in the vegetation out on the saltmarsh, whereas the Little Egret stood out like a sore thumb!

There were quite a few people in Parrinder Hide already, but we managed to find space for all of us. Just in time, as a squally shower passed over. Within a minute or so of us arriving, the Grey Phalarope appeared from behind the reeds. Unusually for a phalarope, it seemed to have realised it was a wader and was feeding along the edge of the water, walking around on the mud. Normally they prefer to swim! It picked its way steadily towards the hide and was soon only a few metres away from us – great views.

Grey Phalarope 1Grey Phalarope – mostly feeding like a wader rather than swimming today

Up close like this, we could see the Grey Phalarope was a young bird, moulting into 1st winter plumage. It had already moulted its mantle and scapulars extensively, with new pale grey feathers, but still retained several white-fringed black juvenile feathers, particularly on its wings. It was also a little bit chunkier, with a slightly thicker, heavier bill than yesterday’s Red-necked Phalarope, which was still mostly in juvenile plumage.

The Grey Phalarope worked its way up and down on the mud, doing a little circuit, occasionally flying back out of sight behind the reeds, before making its way back out again along the muddy water’s edge. At one point it, when it got to the nearest point of the mud, it flew across and landed down right in front of the hide windows. From time to time, it would swim across the water, but it seemed to prefer to head back each time to the mud.

Grey Phalarope 2Grey Phalarope – flew right in front of Parrinder Hide

Whenever the Grey Phalarope disappeared from view behind the reeds, we turned our attention to the other birds out on the scrape. There was a nice selection of waders. A large flock of Bar-tailed Godwits were roosting out in the shallow water. Through the scope, we could see there was a mixture of paler adults and more richly coloured juveniles. As one preened, we could see its barred tail. Nearby, a big group of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding. We could see their much plainer, darker grey-brown upperparts.

There were several Ruff out on the freshmarsh too, a mixture of paler adults and browner juveniles. A small flock of Eurasian Golden Plover flew in and landed on one of the islands out in the middle, where they proceeded to bathe and preen before going to sleep.

There were several little groups of Dunlin around the scrape too. They were rather jumpy in the wind and mobile, flying around and feeding in different places, before getting spooked again. At first the two Little Stints were hard to find. They were not feeding with the Dunlin, but at first we located them on their own along the mud the other side, in front of the reeds. The Little Stints were skittish too, and flew round and across in front of us, before dropping down between the islands.

DunlinDunlin – this small flock flew round and landed in front of Parrinder Hide briefly

There are plenty of ducks here now, with large numbers of Eurasian Teal and Eurasian Wigeon in particular having returned for the winter already. Most of the drakes are still in rather drab eclipse plumage, but some are starting to moult out already. A small group of Wigeon walked across to graze on the island opposite the hide, with a smart drake in amongst them. There were lots of Teal right in front of the windows, which gave us a great opportunity to look at the differences in moult progress between them. The drake Gadwall are mostly already back in breeding plumage.

TealEurasian Teal – this drake is just starting to moult out of eclipse plumage

There were a few passerines on the freshmarsh too. Little flocks of Linnets kept fluttering about on the edge of the water. A couple of Pied Wagtails were feeding on the short grass on the islands and a Meadow Pipit or two appeared with them. A Skylark flew in and dropped down on the grass.

Eventually, with the weather improving, we decided to head out towards the beach. We popped into the other side of the Parrinder Hide, but the Volunteer Marsh from this side looked largely deserted, apart from several Redshanks. A female Eurasian Kestrel was perched on one of the fence posts along the edge of the bank. As we left the hide, the Kestrel flew off across the mud, flushing the Redshanks which called noisily and several Linnets which had been hiding in the vegetation.

KestrelEurasian Kestrel – perched on the fence posts on the edge of Volunteer Marsh

There were more waders on the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, in the tidal channel viewable from the main path. They were mostly Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks, plus a couple of Curlew. But towards the back, occasionally hiding down in the muddy creeks, we found our first Grey (aka Black-bellied) Plover of the day.

There is still quite a lot of water on the Tidal Pools, but as soon as we got over the bank, we could see several Black-tailed Godwits, and a couple were very close to the path. We got a great look them as they fed in the deep water. A Little Grebe was diving nearby, but quickly swam over and hid beneath the vegetation overhanging the bank as we walked up.

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Tidal Pools

Further over, we could see a couple of small flocks of Eurasian Oystercatchers out on the saltmarsh and one of the spits which juts out into the water. A closer look through the scope revealed several Grey Plover roosting on the spit too, but most of the birds were hiding on the other side of the spit, in the lee of the wind. A flock of Ruddy Turnstone flew in and landed down in the saltmarsh with the Oystercatchers.

We continued on to the beach and stopped to scan the sea from the other side of the dunes, out of the wind. Our attention was drawn to a Great Crested Grebe hauled out on the sand on the edge of the water. It didn’t look particularly well. There were several more Great Crested Grebes out on the sea and a careful scan revealed a single Red-throated Diver though it was a little too far out to see easily in the swell and we lost it when it dived. Two Common Scoter close inshore were much easier to see.

Common ScoterCommon Scoter – these two were swimming just offshore

There were not many birds moving offshore today, though we did manage to pick up a handful of Brent Goose flying in for the winter and a little party of three Shelducks, probably returning after going over to the continent to moult out at the Waddensee.

The tide was already coming in fast and the mussel beds were covered. A large flock of Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits were roosting on the sand towards Brancaster, but as the tide continued to rise they took off and flew in over the beach and off towards the reserve. There were also several silvery grey and white Sanderling running around on the beach like clockwork toys.

It was already midday now, so we decided to start walking back slowly for lunch. We stopped again at the Tidal Pools where more waders had gathered to roost. Through the scope, we had a good look at a mixed group of Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers. A single (not so Red) Knot appeared from behind them and started to bathe in the shallow water. A smart Redshank close to the path looked particularly striking with the sun highlighting its red legs and red-based bill.

RedshankRedshank – its red legs and bill base catching the sun

We stopped briefly at the Freshmarsh to see if anything new had arrived in our absence. A few more Golden Plover had flown in and gone to sleep on the islands. There had been a Dotterel here with them briefly yesterday, though there were also a lot more Golden Plover then, and there was no sign of it at all today.

When we got back to the trees, we took a diversion around Meadow Trail. There had been a Yellow-browed Warbler here earlier, but it was always going to be difficult to see today given the wind. At first, all we could find were a few tits and a single Chiffchaff. There were several Common Darter dragonflies basking in the sunshine out of the wind on the boardwalk which we flushed as we walked along.

Common DarterCommon Darter – basking in the sunshine on the boardwalk

Then as we got round to the dragonfly pool, we heard the Yellow-browed Warbler calling from the sallows. Unfortunately, it had chosen the windy side of the boardwalk, and it was deep in the bushes – there seemed little chance it would come out this side. We had a quick look along Fen Trail, in case it worked its way through that way, but there was no sign. A flock of Long-tailed Tits had just gone across the path and possibly it was following behind them.

As we were eating lunch in the picnic area, we heard the Yellow-browed Warbler calling again, from deep in the sallows between where we were sitting and Fen Trail. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling too, and we were hopeful initially they might be working their way through the trees towards us, but instead they disappeared off in the other direction. A Sparrowhawk flew over and several large skeins of Pink-footed Geese headed off east.

While we were getting ready to move on again, we were informed that several Bramblings had been showing around the feeders at the Visitor Centre. We stopped by the first set of feeders, where they had been on the ground, and waited a while. All we could see were Chaffinches feeding here. It was only when we went round to the feeders the other side that we discovered they had moved round there. We were treated to great views of at least two female Bramblings and two very smart males. There were also a few Siskins in the tops of the alders.

BramblingBrambling – a smart male around the feeders behind the Visitor Centre

After enjoying the Bramblings, we set off out along Fen Trail again. There was no sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler this time. A Kingfisher called from the dragonfly pool, but we didn’t see it. We carried on round to Patsy’s Reedbed, where there were fewer birds today. A smattering of ducks included just one Tufted Duck. A couple of Common Snipe were feeding along the bank at the front. As we continued out along East Trail, we flushed a couple of Song Thrushes from the hedge ahead of us. A tight flock of about thirty Siskin flew past us and headed off west.

We stopped at the end of Autumn Trail to scan the back of the freshmarsh. It didn’t take long to find three Spotted Redshanks, asleep by the fence at the back of the Avocet Island. We thought the corner of the scrape round the back here might have been more sheltered from the wind, but it was whistling through here too. It seemed an unlikely day for good views Bearded Tits, given the wind, but one male did fly in and land very close to us. Unfortunately it was too quick for everyone to get onto, shuffling up into the top of the reeds, which were swaying around in the breeze, before flying off over the bank.

Bearded TitBearded Tit – this male appeared only briefly in the tops of the reeds

The afternoon was getting on now, so we made our way slowly back to the Visitor Centre. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew out of Willow Wood and landed in one of the dead trees on the edge of the reedbed as we passed. We had obviously tired everyone out, because they immediately sank down onto the benches and picnic tables when we got back. We stopped just long enough to see a couple of Bramblings, back the other side of the centre now, then managed to get everyone moving again towards the car before they got too settled.

Rather than another walk, we decided to have a quick drive round via Choseley to see what we could see next. It was rather windy up on the ridge and nothing was very settled. There was a big flock of Goldfinch in the hedge and several coveys of Red-legged Partridges in the fields. We flushed a few Brown Hares as we drove past, which sprinted off across the fields – or across the road in front of us in one case.

At this point, we received a message to say there was a Bean Goose back along the coast, so as this was on our way back, we decided to head straight over there. We found somewhere to park and were directed to the bird, which was with a flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field by the road. We could immediately see its day-glo orange legs and patterning on the bill, very different from the more muted pink on the Pink-footed Geese, so everybody had a quick first look at it through the scope.

There are two subspecies of Bean Goose we get here, treated by some now as separate species in their own right. Tundra Bean Goose occurs quite frequently in with the flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the winter. Taiga Bean Goose is considerably rarer here. There are two regular wintering sites for Taiga Bean Goose in the UK – on the Slamannan Plateau in Scotland and down at Cantley & Buckenham Marshes in the Norfolk Broads – and they are very unusual away from these sites. We were immediately struck by the large amount of orange on this birds bill. Then it stood up amongst the Pinkfeet and lifted its head – it was head and shoulders above the other geese – it had to be a Taiga Bean Goose!

Taiga Bean Goose 1Taiga Bean Goose – a rare visitor here, away from a regular wintering site in the Broads

There was also a single Barnacle Goose down with the Pinkfeet, but it didn’t get as much attention as its more exotic – distant – relative. We do get wild Barnacle Geese here from time to time but there is also a feral population a short distance away at Holkham, and this bird had most likely just come from there.

The Taiga Bean Goose was getting a bit of hassle from the Pink-footed Geese, which would occasionally chase or peck out at it. It came out into the stubble in front of the other geese, stopped to preen, then took off on its own and flew up towards the road. It landed out of view in a dip in the ground, but by working our way along behind the hedge on the other side of the road, we managed to find a place from which we could see it.

Taiga Bean Goose 2Taiga Bean Goose – not much smaller than the Greylags

The Taiga Bean Goose was very close now, feeding this time with a small group of Greylag Geese. We could see it was a big goose, not much smaller than the Greylags, and with a long, thin, almost swan-like head and neck. The bill was long and thin and extensively marked with orange, very different from the stubbier bill of a Tundra Bean Goose. We had a great view and watched it for several minutes at close quarters. Eventually, the geese started to work their way back down the field, so we decided to leave them to it.

It was a very nice surprise to catch up with not only a Bean Goose, but a Taiga Bean Goose at that, on our way home. A great way to end another exciting day out.

 

21st Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, and we headed down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was frosty overnight and cloudy today, although it did brighten up a bit later on and there was no sign of any of the forecast patchy fog.

Our first stop was at Ludham. The field which had held all the swans last time we were down was looking comparatively empty today. There were six Bewick’s Swans here – we got them in the scope and could see the squared off yellow on the adults’ bills – but no sign of the rest of the big herd. The large flock of Egyptian Geese were still here though – about 30 today.

6o0a4076Egyptian Goose – part of the large flock still at Ludham

This is a good vantage point from which to scan the rest of the old airfield and we could see some more white shapes distantly away to the north. So we set off round to the other side for a closer look. Sure enough, we found the rest of the swans, though they were separated into two groups. We stopped by the first group which were feeding in a winter wheat field. There were 73 swans in total in this field – 13 Whooper Swans and 60 Bewick’s Swans. Another two pairs of Bewick’s Swans flew in calling and dropped down to join them.

6o0a4089Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – part of the herd between Ludham & Catfield

It is always nice to see the two species side by side. Next to the Bewick’s Swans, the Whooper Swans are much larger and longer necked. Their bills are also proportionately longer, and the yellow on the bill extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge. In contrast, the Bewick’s Swans’ yellow is more restricted and squared off. There was also a lone Pink-footed Goose in the field with them.

6o0a4086Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – nicely showing the size & bill differences

Having had a good look at this group of swans, we drove a little further up the road and found a much larger herd. There was no easy place to stop here, but we managed a quick count – there were at least 108 birds in total, again a mixture of Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans, and predominantly the latter.

Our next target was to find some Cranes. We drove further into the Broads and stopped at a convenient vantage point from where we can see across an area where we know they like to feed. A quick scan of the marshes and we could see a single Crane some distance away, so we got out of the car and set up the scopes. Now there was no sign of it! For a bird which stands over a metre tall, they can be very hard to see and it had walked some distance along behind some reeds. As it walked back out, we could see there were two Cranes and then they took to the air and we could see there were actually four of them.

6o0a4099Cranes – a family party, two adults and two juveniles

The Cranes flew off behind some trees but a minute or so later they reappeared again. At the same time, another pair of Cranes appeared and flew over past them and disappeared from view. When the part of four landed back down on the marshes, we looked across to see yet another pair still down in the field beyond, making eight birds in total. Not a bad start to our Crane viewing!

We got the scopes on the party of four Cranes and could see there were two brighter adults and two duller grey juveniles, with less well-marked head patterns. We watched them walking around on the grass feeding.

img_0001Cranes – the family of four were feeding out on the marshes

After a helpful tip off from some locals that the Taiga Bean Geese were showing at Buckenham, we made our way straight over there next. After walking over the railway line, we stopped on the track and scanned the grazing marshes. Sure enough, we could see the six Taiga Bean Geese out in the grass towards their favoured corner. We had a look at them from here, through the scope, then quickly scanned the rest of the marshes.

There were a couple of Chinese Water Deer feeding out on the grass in front, so we stopped to have a good look at those. While we did so, we heard a Redpoll calling and watched it drop into a large bush overhanging one of the ditches. It had presumably come in to bathe or drink, because it quickly dropped down out of view. We walked round to the other side of the bush but couldn’t see it, then as we made our way back, three Redpolls flew off calling. Next, a single Siskin dropped in to the same bush but, more helpfully, it perched in the top for a few seconds so we could get a look at it. There were also two Redwings which flew in and landed in the tops of the trees the other side of the railway line.

We decided to walk down along the platform to try to get a closer look at the Taiga Bean Geese. Unfortunately, by this stage they had walked back further across the marshes, so were still not especially close. Still, when they put their heads up we could see the more extensive orange on their bills, compared to the Tundra Beans we had seen yesterday.

img_0009Taiga Bean Goose – 1 of the 6 still at Buckenham, helpfully with its head up

Back to the track, and we walked on down towards the river. There were not many Wigeon beside the track today – they were all much further out, across the back of the marshes. A smart adult Peregrine was perched out on a tussock, so had possibly flushed all the wildfowl from this side. The Common Snipe were also very nervous – at least thirty of them flew up from the marshes and circled round before dropping back down onto the edge of one of the channels in a tight flock.

There were lots more geese further over, towards the river, the majority being Pink-footed Geese. As we walked along, we periodically stopped to scan through them. In the first group nearest to us we found two White-fronted Geese. When they put their heads up we could see the white surround to their bills and their black belly bars. There were lots more White-fronted Geese scattered through the flocks of Pinkfeet further back too.

img_0046White-fronted Geese – two were with the nearest group of Pinkfeet

Out by the river, the pools were partly frozen and devoid of ducks. We had a quick look at the river itself from up on the bank, but all we could see were a few ducks, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon. In the field by the hide, a pair of Stonechats were feeding, perching on the taller dead seedheads. It was cold out on the marshes, exposed to the chill of the light wind, so we decided to head back. The Stonechats lead the way, and we met them again half way back.

6o0a4115Stonechat – a pair were feeding on the marshes at Buckenham

Strumpshaw Fen provided a sheltered picnic table for lunch, and the option of a hot drink from the visitor centre. The pool by Reception Hide was still largely frozen and most of the ducks were feeding in the small patch of open water by the reeds, or standing around on the ice. There were quite a few Gadwall, plus a handful of Teal and Shoveler, and the ubiquitous Mallards. The Black Swan had found somewhere quieter, a little further back.

6o0a4140Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler & Mallard – around the small area of open water

While we were eating lunch, we kept one eye on the feeders nearby. There was a steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming and going. Periodically a Marsh Tit would dart in, grab a sunflower heart, and dart back out to the bushes behind. A single Coal Tit popped in briefly too. Nearby, in the trees, a Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops briefly. Some mournful piping calls alerted us to a smart male Bullfinch, which flew in and landed in a tree briefly, before flying off over towards the railway.

After lunch, we drove round via Halvergate. The four Cattle Egrets which were here at the start of January have now been reduced to one and even that only seems to visit here very occasionally. We had a quick look but couldn’t see it. Just a single Little Egret flew up from the grass and dropped down behind some reeds further over.

Haddiscoe Island is a great place for raptors and owls, so we wanted to have a look there next. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard here this winter, but at first all we could find were a few Common Buzzards, including a stunningly pale one with very white underparts.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling so we stopped by the reeds and managed to find four feeding in the tops. Two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and two browner females, we had a great view of them.

img_0054Bearded Tit – one of the males feeding in the reeds

There were lots of other raptors too. A Merlin had a dogfight with a pipit, climbing high into the air, the two birds jinking and swooping in unison, before the Merlin eventually lost interest. A little later, we found another, a smart male Merlin perched on a gatepost, with a Sparrowhawk on another gate nearby. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier worked its way backwards and forwards over the grass. A Barn Owl flew up and down along the river banks.Time was running out, and we were about to leave when we finally found the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on a post out on Haddiscoe Island.

Our final destination for the day was Stubb Mill. Given the time we spent at Haddiscoe, we were later than we had hoped for getting back round there. On the way, we passed the area where we had seen the Cranes earlier just as the family of four took off to fly to roost. We could see them from the car as they flew over the trees parallel with us. We left them behind, but were stopped by some roadworks further along. Once we eventually got through the lights, we found the four Cranes had overtaken us and nearly flew over the car. On the walk out to the watchpoint, we were treated to the evocative sound of Cranes bugling beyond the trees. We were a bit late this evening, but thankfully, when we got there, it didn’t sound like we had missed anything yet.

There were already a few Marsh Harriers in to roost, perched out in the bushes in the reeds. A steady stream of more Marsh Harriers flew in to join them, coming in from all different directions. It didn’t take long for the first Hen Harrier to appear, another grey male, flying in through the bushes at the back, over the reeds. A short while later, a ringtail Hen Harrier flew in too, a little closer, along the front edge of the reeds. It was hotting up!

There were other birds here too. A flock of Fieldfares were hiding down in the grass behind the reeds until they flew up and all landed in a low hawthorn bush, where we could get them in the scope. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. A Barn Owl flew in across the marshes and round behind the mill.

The two resident Cranes were hiding behind the reeds – we could just see the occasional head pop up for a second. Then we spotted another pair coming in to roost, flying in distantly to the east, over beyond Horsey Mill, before dropping down behind the bushes. It seemed like that might be it, until just when most people had started to leave, we heard Cranes calling away to the north. We scanned over in that direction and picked up a large flock flying in, twenty Cranes, all in the air together. It was quite a spectacle!

The Cranes were in two groups. Eleven of them appeared to drop down into the reeds, and three more peeled off from the other nine, which had been slightly ahead of them. These three turned back and seemed to go down towards where the eleven had gone. The final six Cranes carried on, flying steadily south and right past in front of the watchpoint. A great sight! As they flew over calling, the resident pair bugled back to them and finally emerged from where they had been hiding. That was a perfect way to end the day – 24 Cranes in total this evening, taking our total for the day to a whopping 32.

We walked back with flocks of White-fronted Geese and Pink-footed Geese heading off to roost and with the sound of more Cranes bugling still across the marshes.

7th Jan 2017 – Broads in the Mist

The first tour of 2017, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a misty start and, contrary to the forecast, the mist never really lifted completely all day. But it was clear enough, pretty much dry throughout, not too cold – not a bad day to be out and about.

Our first stop was at Ludham. As we pulled up alongside the field which the swans have been favouring, the first thing we saw was a load of Egyptian Geese right beside the road, about 60 of them. Quite a sight!

6o0a3302Egyptian Geese – a few of the 60 that were in the fields at Ludham today

Through the mist, we could make out lots and lots of white shapes and through binoculars we could see they were the swans. Out of the car, we got them in the scope, fortuitously straight onto a view with a Bewick’s Swan and a Whooper Swan side by side in the foreground! One of the nice things about this herd of swans is that it is generally mixed, giving a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. We could see the Whooper was noticeably larger and longer necked that the Bewick’s Swan and yellow on the bill of the Whooper Swan extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge.

6o0a3299Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – in the mist this morning

A quick count revealed there were 123 swans of which 23 were Whooper Swans and 100 Bewick’s Swans. Numbers of Whoopers have been pretty static since the turn of the year, but the number of Bewick’s here has increased, perhaps with birds moving in from the continent in response to colder weather over there.

Across the other side of the road, a field of sugar beet had recently been harvested and loaded onto lorries to be taken away – although several large beet and a significant quantity of accompanying mud had been deposited into the road! A single Egyptian Goose was feeding on the beet tops which had been left behind out in the field and, after a quick scan, we found two more geese in the field over at the back. Through the scope, we could just make out their orange legs and orange-banded dark bill – they were Tundra Bean Geese. There are two subspecies of Bean Goose which regularly winter in the UK – Tundra and Taiga Bean Goose. A variable number of Tundra Bean Geese come over each winter and are more often found in with the large flocks of Pink-footed Geese.

Having taken our fill of the swans, we set off again and made our way south. On the way, we came across a huge flock of geese in another large recently cut sugar beet field by the side of the road. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to stop and lots of traffic but we marveled at them as we drove past. Most of the flock was comprised of thousands of Pink-footed Geese. We could also make out three swans with them, more Whooper Swans. Quite a sight!

We had hoped to pick up a few Cranes in the fields on our travels, but it was still too misty to see far from the roads. We decided to head for Halvergate. There have been four Cattle Egrets here since before Christmas, which we hoped to catch up with. There was no sign of them at first. We could see several cows out on the grazing marshes, so we walked along the road to where we could get a better view to see if anything was with them.

One of the group noticed something swimming in the ditch next to the road, but it disappeared into the near bank. Then something else appeared on the far bank, a Weasel. We walked up to where it had been and there was no sign of it at first. But then suddenly it appeared again out of the grass and ran out across a wooden cattle bridge. We had great views of it as it ran in and out of the wooden sleepers on the bridge, then ran back along the far bank of the ditch, looking for something to eat.

6o0a3306Weasel – ran up and down the river bank in front of us

A white shape appeared out of the rushes on the bank of one of the ditches further back and flew out to join the cows, landing in among their feet. It was one of the Cattle Egret. It was darting in and out of the cows’ legs, and the cattle helpfully then walked out of the rushes and onto the shorter grass, bringing the Cattle Egret with them. We got a great look at it through the scope.

img_9704Cattle Egret – 1 of the 4 birds at Halvergate showed very well

Cattle Egret is a species which has been spreading north out of its historic core range in Spain and Portugal. It has yet to properly colonise the UK, like the Little Egret has done, although it did breed in Somerset in 2008. It is prone to irruptions and this winter a large number have arrived into the UK again. Hopefully, some might stay to breed again in this country again in 2017!

While we were watching the Cattle Egret, there were a few other birds around the marshes here. A Grey Heron was showing well in the same field as the cows, and a pair of Stonechats was feeding in among the cattle too, perching up on the taller dead thistles between dropping down to the ground after insects churned up in the mud.

Visibility improved while we were at Halvergate and, driving round to Cantley next, the sun appeared finally to be breaking through. Could it burn off the mist? Unfortunately it was short-lived, and by the time we got to Cantley Marshes the mist had descended again. There were no geese immediately visible directly in front of the gate, where they have been feeding recently. However, we could see quite a number of Marsh Harriers all standing out in the grass. There were at least five of them and they kept flying round from time to time before landing again. When one of them landed closer, we could see it was carrying green wing tags and through the scope we could see it had the code ‘VC’. Checking later, we found that it had been tagged as a nestling at Hardley in the Norfolk Broads in July 2016, so she hadn’t ventured too far afield.

Scanning further round, we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese out to the left of us. We could see their dark heads and necks and small, dark bills with a variable pink band. One of them was carrying a grey neck collar with the code ‘N29’. Checking online later, we could see that this goose was ringed in Denmark in March 2009. It was seen in Denmark again in September-December 2009, before moving over to Buckenham Marshes in Norfolk in January 2010.In subsequent winters, it has been seen in Lancashire, Scotland and even the Netherlands, but has also regularly been seen in Norfolk and particularly at Buckenham and Cantley. Interesting stuff, showing the benefit of colour marking birds in tracking their subsequent movements.

Eventually we found the White-fronted Geese too, out to the right, along the railway line. There was still quite a bit of mist and they were rather distant, which made them harder to see. We could just see their white fronts when they lifted their heads – the white surround to the base of the adults’ bills. There were also two Ruff out in the grass, one of which was sporting a rather striking pure white head which made it easier to see (the males are rather variable in winter, much as they are in breeding plumage). However, we couldn’t see any sign of any Taiga Bean Geese here today.

When several birds started alarm calling behind us, we turned to see a young Peregrine disappearing off over the houses. A couple of seconds later, it flew back towards us and off along the railway towards Buckenham. The next time we herd the birds getting upset, we turned to see an adult Peregrine flying low across the grazing marshes. It flushed a Common Snipe and chased it half-heartedly. Then a second adult Peregrine flew in behind it, and had a quick go at a passing Lapwing. Both adult Peregrines then flew across the grass and landed on a gate, where we could see them perched distantly, clearly the resident local pair.

We made our way round to Buckenham Marshes next, just a short distance as the Peregrine or Pink-footed Goose flies, but a rather more circuitous drive. We walked out over the railway again and down the rough track across the marshes. There is a particular area of the marshes which is favoured by the Taiga Bean Geese when they are here, and a quick glance across revealed a small party of geese in the distance. Through the scope and through the mist we could just make out that they were indeed the Taiga Bean Geese, but they didn’t help matters by disappearing into some taller vegetation.

Thinking we would have another look for them on the way back, we carried on down the track. There were some nice groups of Wigeon feeding on the grass close to the path, giving us a great opportunity to get a close look at them. The drakes are looking especially smart now, with their rusty brown heads and creamy yellow foreheads, looking like someone has attacked them with a paintbrush.

6o0a3326Wigeon – a drake showing the creamy yellow stripe up its forehead

A smart Common Snipe posed nicely for us next to one of the small wet pools out in the grass. Several Meadow Pipits flew back and forth across the track and one settled briefly on the mud for us to look at it. A couple of Little Egrets chased each other up and down one of the ditches. A single adult Peregrine was preening on one of the many wooden gates out on the marshes, and this one was much closer than the pair we had seen earlier at Cantley, giving us a great view of it through the scope.

img_9710Peregrine – this adult posed nicely for us at Buckenham

Up towards the river bank, the pools held a few more ducks. Among the many Teal, we managed to find a few Shoveler. On one of the small islands, two small waders were running around in among the Teal, a couple of Dunlin. There were lots of Lapwing around the marshes too.

Walking back towards the railway crossing, we could not see any sign of the Taiga Bean Geese. However, we could get rather closer to where we had earlier seen them by walking down the railway platform. When we got to the end, there they were out on the grazing marsh, around 20 Taiga Bean Geese. We had a much better view of them from here, despite the lingering mist. We could see the more extensive orange on their bills compared to the Tundra Bean Geese we had seen earlier this morning. A very small number of Taiga Bean Geese winter regularly in the UK, from the declining breeding population in Sweden, but they are very faithful to only two sites, one group here in Norfolk and one at Slamannan in Scotland.

img_9721Taiga Bean Geese – about 20 were at Buckenham today

It was getting on for lunchtime, so we headed round to Strumpshaw Fen. We ate our lunch overlooking the pool in front of reception hide. There was a good number of Gadwall and Coot out on the water, plus a few Shoveler and a single Cormorant drying its wings on a post. More Cormorants were standing in the dead trees in the distance, over towards the river, and four or five Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds.

The resident escaped Black Swan was also standing on the edge of the pool, a reminder of home for the Australian contingent in the group today! A Cetti’s Warbler sang briefly and was then to be heard calling in the reeds. More obliging was the very smart Kingfisher which perched on a curved reed stem out in full view in front of us.

img_9728Kingfisher – posed very nicely for us at Strumpshaw Fen over lunch

Once we had finished eating, we turned our attention to the feeders behind us. There were  lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming in and out all the time. It didn’t take long before our attention was rewarded with a single Marsh Tit. Several times it darted in, grabbed a seed and disappeared back into the trees behind to eat it, before flying across to the woods beyond.

We drove round via Ranworth next, and had a quick look at Malthouse Broad. On a tour to the Broads, it is always nice to see a proper broad! On the lawn on the edge of the moorings, a tame Pink-footed Goose was feeding with three Greylag Geese. It was an odd place to see one, but great to see it up front and in close comparison with the Greylags. The Pink-footed Goose appeared to have an injured wing, which would probably explain why it was here.

6o0a3352Pink-footed Goose – this apparently injured bird was feeding with the local Greylags

There were lots of Tufted Ducks and Coot out on the water. A single Little Grebe was hiding at the back of the broad, under the overhanging trees. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck which had been here for a couple of days, though by all accounts it was very tame so was best described as of ‘uncertain origin’!!

At this point the mist appeared to start rolling in again, so we decided to head back to look for Cranes in case visibility deteriorated much further again. At our first stop, we could only see a lone Grey Heron initially. Then we noticed two large, pale grey shapes in the distance. Through scope, we could just see they were two Cranes, walking about half obscured behind the reeds. It was hard for everyone to get onto them, given the combination of vegetation and mist. We figured we might be able to see them better from further along road.

img_9742Crane – one of a pair we found in the fields today

After a short drive, we managed to pull off the road and got out. The Cranes were much easier to see from here and the whole group got good views of them through the scope. Such huge and majestic birds, it is great to see them wild in the Norfolk countryside. After watching them feeding happily for some time, they suddenly took off and circled round, their long necks held out in front and long trailing legs behind, before dropping back down behind some trees out of view. Great stuff!

It was then time to head back to Hickling for the last of the afternoon’s activities. As we walked out past Stubb Mill, a single Goldcrest was flicking around in the bushes.

From the watchpoint, one of the resident pair of Cranes was visible on arrival, standing behind the reeds. We watched it walking up and down, before it disappeared from view behind the vegetation. Sometime later, it appeared again with its partner in tow.

There were lots of finches around the mill bushes – Chaffinches, Linnets, a Greenfinch. While we were standing watching the comings and goings over the marshes a small flock of Bramblings flew in. Most of them dropped down to the path below, presumably to drink, but one perched up nicely for us in the top of one of the bushes. Through the scope, we could see its bright orange shoulders. A flock of Fieldfares also perched up in the trees just behind. An extended family of Long-tailed Tits appeared in the trees from our left and made their way back and forth through the bushes right in front of the watchpoint.

A steady trickle of harriers flew in to roost. Most of them were Marsh Harriers, at least 30 today. They flew in from all directions, and several of them perched up in the bushes in the reeds. We also saw two male Hen Harriers, both smart grey males, though they were a little distant this evening. They both came in from the south and flew steadily in over the reeds towards the gathering of Marsh Harriers. A Merlin was more obliging, and perched up in the bushes on the near edge of the reeds so we could get it in the scope. We had hoped for more Cranes to fly in at dusk, but the mist descended and visibility deteriorated again.

We had seen all we wanted to see, so we decided to call it a night. A Tawny Owl hooted briefly from the bushes by the mill and, on the walk back, we could hear a second Tawny Owl calling and a third hooting back in the car park. A nice way to end a very enjoyable – and successful – winter’s day in the Broads.

14th December 2015 – Winter in the Broads

Winter is a very good time of year to visit the Norfolk Broads. In preparation for the regular Winter Tours planned to explore the area in early 2016, we have made several visits in recent weeks. We had a very good day in the Broads last Monday.

We started with a stop near Sea Palling to catch up with a Cattle Egret which had been hanging around appropriately with the local cattle. It looked slightly incongruous here on a damp, misty December morning. More at home in southern Europe, Cattle Egret has been rather slower to expand its range northwards than its cousin, the Little Egret. There is a shortage of cattle outside at this time of year, which presumably does not help encourage them to hang around.

IMG_4172Cattle Egret – feeding in the mud amongst the cattle

IMG_4199Cattle Egret – muddy yellow bill and just a smudge of an orange crown

Some video of the Cattle Egret feeding in with the cattle can be seen below.

One of the highlights of a visit to the Broads at this time of the year is a chance to catch up with the regular wintering herd of wild swans. Numbers always tend to increase through the winter, but the mild weather has perhaps meant this has been a little slow this year as birds have probably remained on the continent longer than normal. They do seem to be on the increase now, with at least 45 on Monday, a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans.

It is always good to be able to see the two species side by side. Bewick’s Swans are noticeably smaller with less extensive yellow on the bill; the yellow on the bill of Whooper Swan also extends further down the bill forming a sharper point, compared to the blunter, more squared off yellow on Bewick’s Swans.

IMG_4208Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – part of the regular mixed herd in the Broads

IMG_4214Bewick’s Swan – flanked by two Whooper Swans

The Broads are also a great place to catch up with a variety of different species of geese. There are lots of Pink-footed Geese here for the winter, perhaps not surprisingly given the variety of food available – extensive grazing marshes and also lots of sugar beet tops after the harvest. There is still a lot of sugar beet grown here, with Cantley Beet Factory being one of the main sites for processing it once it has been harvested. Cantley and Buckenham Marshes are also good sites for White-fronted Geese, with peak counts of over 120 already in recent weeks.

However, the real speciality here are the Taiga Bean Geese. There are only two regular wintering sites for this (sub)species in the UK, the Yare Valley in Norfolk and the Slamannan plateau in southern Scotland, and they are remarkably site faithful returning to the same area year after year from their breeding grounds in Sweden. It didn’t take us long to find them today – just as we arrived at Cantley a flock of around 20 Taiga Bean Geese flew in to feed on the grazing marshes. Very helpful timing!

A couple of weeks ago, a more thorough exploration of the area was required to find them and had located two Taiga Bean Geese on their own at Buckenham and a flock of 20+ at neighbouring Cantley, which was when the following photos were taken. Tundra Bean Geese, the other form of Bean Goose we get here, winter mainly on the continent and are occasional visitors, often among the vast flocks of Pink-footed Geese. The Taiga Bean Geese are slightly larger, longer-necked and have on average more extensive orange colouration on their longer bills. It is interesting to look at the variation in bill pattern between individuals.

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IMG_3380Taiga Bean Geese – part of the regular wintering flock

Cranes are also one of the iconic species we look for in the Broads, also known as Common or Eurasian Cranes. Our birds are not to be confused with those being reintroduced into Somerset. While Cranes were wiped out as a breeding species in the UK in the 17th Century, a pair first returned to the Norfolk Broads of their own accord in 1979 and breeding was first recorded in 1982. The population of Cranes here has grown steadily from there.

We had no problem finding Cranes today – we came across at least 14 on our travels. First we found two family parties feeding distantly out on the fields – one pair of adults were accompanied by two juveniles and the other pair were with a single youngster. Next, we stopped at a favourite feeding area and as we pulled off the road we realised that a pair of Cranes were right next to the car. They immediately started to walk away,  and as they did so we realised that a third Crane was nearby. We stayed in the car and once they got out into the middle of the field they seemed to relax and resume feeding.

The larger of the pair was carrying an old corn cob, possibly a male and following what appeared to be a smaller female. At one point, he raised his wings and leapt into the air in what was presumably a little piece of dance display. Great to watch.

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P1130576Cranes – this pair were in a field right next to the road

We also had time today to explore some different parts of the Broads, which we don’t visit so often. As well as more Cranes, there were several Marsh Harriers enjoying the afternoon sunshine. We came across several little groups of winter thrushes feeding on berries, Fieldfares and Redwings. A Water Pipit flew up from the edge of a flooded field.

A visit to Stubb Mill is a great way to end the day in the Broads. There is a very large harrier roost here and it is always an impressive sight to see so many Marsh Harriers. There were already quite a few out in the bushes in the reeds when we arrived, so it was hard to say how many were in the roost today. We counted at least 30 at one point, with more still arriving. A ringtail Hen Harrier was using the last of the afternoon to hunt and came in low across the grazing marsh in front of us.

An early Barn Owl was out hunting as well and lots of Fieldfares and Redwings were in the hedgerows. This is also a good place to find Cranes and there is generally a pair hanging around the fields here. Unfortunately, we had to leave slightly early this afternoon but it was still suitably evocative to walk back listening to the bugling of the pair of Cranes, and a lovely way to finish the day.

Stubb Mill 2015-02-07Stubb Mill viewpoint – the view across the marshes earlier in the year

Tours to the Broads will run regularly through January and February 2016. If you would like to join us to look for the Cranes, geese, swans and raptors and enjoy the unique scenery, please get in touch.