Tag Archives: Tawny Owl

26th Mar 2019 – Gentle Brecks

A Private Tour today down in the Brecks. It was a lovely bright, sunny start to the day, although it clouded over late morning, a few hours earlier than forecast. With some restrictions on our mobility we would have a slightly different itinerary today, but we would still be aiming to see as many of the key Brecks species as possible.

To start the day, we headed into the Forest and took a short walk along a ride to look for Woodlarks. As we made our way down the track and out into the clearing, there were lots of finches flying back and forth overhead, up to feed in the pines and down towards the river to drink, Bramblings, Chaffinches and Siskin. One or two of the Bramblings were singing – not much of a song, more of a wheeze! They weren’t sitting still, but we eventually got one of the males in the scope long enough to get a proper look at it.

While we were looking at the finches, two larger birds flew in past us, their distinctive broad wings and short tails identifying them as a pair of Woodlarks. They dropped down to the ground by the track back the way we had just come, and we walked back a short way to get a closer look at them. We could only see one now, presumably the male, perched on a clod of earth, preening. We could see its short crest, rusty cheeks and prominent supercilium, the two sides meeting in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – one of a pair which flew in and landed in the clearing

The Woodlark started to pick around in the bare earth and the walked further off into the grass beyond. Then it flew up into a small oak tree at the back of the clearing, where it perched silently and we got some more great views of it through the scope. There was no sign of the second bird now.

We heard a woodpecker drumming from somewhere beyond the clearing and listening carefully the sustained rapid bursts told us it was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We shifted our position to try to triangulate the sound and it seemed to be coming from somewhere over by the road. We couldn’t get easily round there on foot, so we decided to walk back to the van and drive down. Unfortunately, despite it having been drumming on and off for several minutes when we were in the clearing, it had gone quiet by the time we got to where we thought it might have been. Another Brambling was feeding on the buds of a willow by the road.

Brambling

Brambling – another male, feeding in a willow by the road

There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard at Weeting Heath for the last few weeks, so we headed over there next to see if we could catch up with it, and the Stone Curlews. We stopped first at the field entrance just before the reserve to look for the buzzard – it has been favouring the trees beyond here. There was already somebody here looking and we were told it had just flown round to the back of one of the trees, and landed out of view.

There was a nice male Wheatear out on the short grass in the field away to the left though – a bit distant, but a nice spring migrant to catch up with here. A Blackcap was singing in the trees behind us too, another returning migrant and always nice to hear. With Skylarks singing too, it almost felt like spring! Two (Eurasian) Curlews were feeding in the winter wheat field out in front of the gate.

It was starting to warm up a bit now and we could see several Common Buzzards circling up above the trees. While we scanned the sky for raptors, just in case the Rough-legged Buzzard might have taken off while no one was looking, we noticed a different bird of prey rising into the sky. It was a Goshawk, a juvenile, and it started to display, flapping with deep, exaggerated wingbeats.

Another Goshawk circled up just below it, this time an adult, silvery grey above and almost white below, and it gave a few deep, slow wing flaps too.  Presumably this was designed to see off the youngster, as the two birds then drifted off in different directions. Goshawk was one of our target birds for the day, but not one we had expected to get here, so this was another bonus! It didn’t look like the Rough-legged Buzzard was going to reappear in a hurry, so we decided to go and try our luck with Stone Curlews and have another look for it later.

When we got to the Visitor Centre, we were told that the Stone Curlews were not showing from the hide today, but there were two in the field across the road. Looking across from the path just beyond West Hide, we were quickly put on to one of them. It was sat down in the grass, which made it hard to see, not helped by the heat haze which was already starting to develop – a perennial problem here, despite it being early in the morning on a cool March day!

Scanning the grass, we eventually managed to find the second Stone Curlew. It was much easier to see as it was standing up and it ran over towards the first in a series of bursts. Its yellow legs really stood out in the spring sunshine! We then realised we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard from here too, perched on the back of the tree where it had disappeared to earlier. It was rather distant, but through the scope we could see its pale head and contrasting black belly patch.

We had a quick look from West Hide, just in case. There was a Lapwing and a single Curlew out in the long grass, but as we had been informed, no sign of any Stone Curlews from here today. So we headed back to the Visitor Centre for a coffee break.

While the group was having coffee, a quick look across the road revealed that the Rough-legged Buzzard had flown across and landed in the top of one of the pines opposite the reserve. Unfortunately, before we could all get back across to the gate it had flown again, back towards the trees where it had been earlier. We decided to drive down to the field entrance, as it was on our way, and see if it was on view and we hadn’t gone more than a few metres before we saw it perched on the corner of the pines.

From the gate, we had a great view of the Rough-legged Buzzard. It was perched back onto us at first, so we could see its white tail with a wide black bar towards the tip. Then it flapped and gave us a good flash of its wings and tail, before settling round the other way, face onto us. Well worth the extra stop for the much better views.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – showed very well as we were leaving

It clouded over now and the morning sunshine disappeared. We had planned to go looking for Goshawks next, thinking it would stay sunny until early afternoon at least, but it didn’t look so good for them now. At least we had already seen a couple of Goshawks this morning. Still, we drove over to a convenient spot overlooking the forest and stopped to scan over the trees.

There were a few Common Buzzards circling up and it didn’t take us long to find our first hawk. Unfortunately it was the wrong one – a Sparrowhawk. We could see it was small and rather dark, and when it started to flap it did so in rapid bursts. A short while later, another Sparrowhawk circled up the over on the other side.

It felt quite cool now, with a fresh NW wind, and we wondered whether we might have missed the main Goshawk activity in the sunshine earlier. Eventually a Goshawk appeared, circling away to our left. We got it in the scope and had a look at it before it drifted off over the trees and disappeared. We started to wonder whether that might be the lot.

There were other birds to see here though. A flock of Fieldfares flew in and landed in the trees behind us, tchacking. Then a pair of Mistle Thrushes flew out and across the field. There were Lapwings displaying and lots of Meadow Pipits down in the rough grass. We could hear one or two Skylarks singing and then a Woodlark started up away behind us too.

Finally another Goshawk came up over the trees in front of us. As it was turning in regular circles, we could get it in the scope and get a really good look at it – an adult, with pale grey upperparts and whitish below. We could see its broad, rounded tail. It gradually gained height, going higher and higher into the clouds. At one point, we had the Goshawk circling in the same view as a Red Kite, a couple of Buzzards and a Kestrel!

Goshawk

Goshawk – finally one circled up in front of us

It didn’t look like it was going to do anything, but then the Goshawk did a quick burst of slow-flapping display and then swooped sharply down, before turning back up almost vertically and stalling at the top. Even one rollercoaster display was welcome, but after circling again for a minute or so, the Goshawk suddenly launched into a series of swoops. On the last one, it folded its wings and plunged straight back down into the trees. Great to watch!

That seemed a good signal to move on. We drove round to a couple of clearings to see if we could find any more Woodlarks singing next. On our way, we saw several Brown Hares in the fields. At the first clearing, we just listened from the van and all was quiet. But at the second clearing, as we drove up we could hear a Woodlark calling. We parked and got out and could see one perched in the top of a small oak tree by the path through the middle. We decided to have a short walk down the path for a closer look.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – one of a pair in a small oak tree

A second Woodlark flew up into the tree too, then dropped down to the long grass in the clearing below. From down along the path, we had a great view of the first, perched on a branch preening. It looked like it might sing at one point, fluttering out from the tree and round in front of us, but decided to land again. A Yellowhammer flew up into the top of the tree above. When the second Woodlark came up out of the clearing again, the pair flew off out into the middle together. We could still see them walking about in the grass between the rows of young trees.

The day was getting on now. We decided to drive back to Lynford Arboretum and make use of the picnic tables for a late lunch. As we stopped in the car park and got out, we could hear a Firecrest singing. We walked over to the trees and could see it high in the bare branches of a beech, but unfortunately it dropped back into the firs behind before everyone could get over to see it.

We could still hear it singing and thankfully the Firecrest then decided to fly back out into the open again. It perched in some bare branches in front of us singing and we could see its body shaking with the effort. We had a great look at it, before it flew back into the firs again. This was one of the other main targets for the day, so another mission accomplished. Then it was definitely time for lunch!

Firecrest

Firecrest – came out to sing in the bare trees by the car park

There were a few other birds in the trees above the picnic tables while we ate – one or two Goldcrests, several Coal Tits and a Siskin feeding on the opening pine cones. After lunch, we set off to explore the Arboretum. We still wanted to try to see Hawfinch and Crossbill this afternoon.

Stopping first at the gate, there were still a few Bramblings feeding down on the ground in the leaves under the trees. One smart male was really starting to get a black head now. It won’t be long before they are on their way back to Scandinavia for the breeding season. A couple of Yellowhammers flew down to feed on the seed too.

Most of the feeders on the trees were empty, but one or two still had food in and a succession of tits came in to look for something to eat. Then somebody noticed a Treecreeper on one of the feeders and we watched as it picked away at the compacted food in the bottom behind the mesh. Not something you see very often!

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – came in to feed at one of the feeders

Continuing on, there were more Yellowhammers feeding at the hopper out in the orchard, which contains the food for the ducks and chickens. As we walked down past the meadow, we looked up at the pines at the back and noticed a bulky looking bird perched in the top of one. Through the scope, we could see it was a male Common Crossbill.

It took off and flew in towards us, ‘glipping’ loudly, and we could hear a second Crossbill answering from the trees on the edge of the Arboretum. When the first bird landed in the top of one of the trees, we could see there was a pair in the branches together. We were looking into the light from here, but we could see the distinctive crossed mandibles through the scope, before they flew off. Further back, on the edge of the Hall grounds, we could see lots of Fieldfares and Redwings in the tops of some more trees.

At the bottom of the hill, we stopped to look in the firs to see if the Tawny Owl was in its regular roosting spot. It was, but you had to be in just the right spot to see it, high up close to the trunk, half hidden in the branches.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual spot, high in a fir tree

As we walked up over the bridge, we could see more Redwings and Fieldfares flying up into the tops of the poplars just beyond. A quick glance up and we noticed a slightly smaller bird in with them – a Hawfinch! We got it in the scope, but unfortunately it flew before everyone had a chance to look at it. We watched it drop down with the Redwings and disappear into the leafiest of the hornbeams in the paddocks.

We hurried on to the gap in the hedge overlooking the trees. We couldn’t see it at first, although we could hear it calling. Then another Hawfinch appeared in one of the other bare trees, again in amongst all the thrushes. Again, it was very flighty and dropped down before we could get the scope on it. Finally then one of the Hawfinches appeared in the bare branches of the same tree and this time stayed still a bit longer. Now, we could all get a good look at it, its thick neck and huge, cherry stone-cracking bill. It was calling and we could see its bill moving.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – finally one stayed still long enough for us all to get a good look at it

That Hawfinch then flew over and disappeared into the leafier tree too. At which point, a couple of people who had started to walk back towards the bridge called to us to say there were some Crossbills in the top of the poplars there. We walked back so we could see the tops of the trees and got the Crossbills in the scope. There were at least six of them, and they appeared to be mostly females but at least one redder male was with them.

When they started to drop down through the branches, we figured the Crossbills would be coming down to drink so we walked back and took the path into the trees. We could hear several of the Crossbills flying off from the tops of the trees as we arrived, but then we spotted two fly up ahead of us. They had probably been down to drink already and we had missed it, but thankfully they landed not too high in the trees where we could get them in the scope.

Common Crossbill

Common Crossbill – we watched a pair preening in the trees

We stood and watched the Crossbills for a while. They flew over to a branch on the other side of the path, where they weren’t against the light and we could get a really good look at them. We watched them climbing about picking at the bark and then the two of them perched together preening for several minutes.

Eventually, the Crossbills disappeared into the branches and we walked back to the bridge. There was lots of activity here now, with a steady stream of birds coming down to the selection of food which had put out around the pillars and balustrades. A male Reed Bunting was feeding on the top of one of the pillars and the variety of tits included regular visits from at least one Marsh Tit. The Nuthatches were making the most of the peanuts put out today, coming in and out repeatedly, grabbing a nut each time and presumably stashing it somewhere in the trees to eat later.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – carrying off the peanuts to stash in the trees

As we stood on the bridge and looked down into the rushes below, we could just see a Water Rail moving around in the vegetation. It seemed to know we were watching and initially kept itself fairly well hidden. We knew where it was because we could see the rushes moving. Finally it got a bit bolder and showed itself a bit better, walking through some of the more open patches.

It was a nice way to end the day, watching the comings and goings at the bridge, but we were tired now after the exertions of the day and it was time to make our way slowly back up the hill. It had been a very successful day in the Brecks, with all our target species seen and seen well, and a lot more besides!

23rd Mar 2019 – Brecks & Coast, Day 1

Day 1 of a weekend of Brecks & Coast Tours. Today we would be heading down to the Brecks for the day. It had been forecast to be cloudy and grey, but it was actually bright with some sunny intervals and light winds. Great early spring weather to be out.

After an earlier than normal start, we made our way down to Thetford Forest. As we set off down a ride through the trees, we could see some people already ahead of us. We were hoping to find some Woodlarks here but the clearing either side of the track further on looked quite quiet at first. Perhaps there was too much disturbance here today?

There were lots of finches flying in and out of the pines though – mostly Chaffinches, Bramblings and Siskins. We got the scope on a Brambling perched in some birches on the edge of the clearing, but it flew off before everyone could get a look at it. A Lesser Redpoll then flew over and dropped in too, but it was similarly brief.

Two birds flew up from the long grass on one side of the track some way ahead of us – a pair of Woodlarks. They circled round and dropped down again, with one landing in a small bush by the path, where we could get it in the scope. We decided to walk a bit further down to get a closer view but we didn’t get far before we heard two cyclists approaching quickly along the track behind us. They seemed to get past the Woodlarks without flushing them and we thought we might be in luck, but then they flew. As they fluttered up we could see their short tails and broad rounded wings, before they disappeared off over the trees.

Cutting across to the riverbank, we walked down past the poplars. Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers chased each other through the tops and the male landed on the trunk of one of the trees. A good start, but not the woodpecker we were hoping to see here!

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker – a pair flew in through the trees as we walked up

As we got around the corner, we could see a small group of people standing on the path looking up into the trees. We hurried up to them and they confirmed that they were watching the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, three of them together! They were displaying and we watched them chasing each other through the branches. Each time they landed, we got them in the scope, but they weren’t staying still for long.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers disappeared back into the birches behind, then after a minute or so chased each other back out into the tops of the poplars. Two seemed to be in the lead, with the third woodpecker following behind. They gradually made their way further down through the trees and we managed to follow them for a while. Then they flew off further and we lost sight of them in some thicker trees further downstream.

We walked down to where we had seen the woodpeckers disappear, but there was no sign of them here. If they kept going as they had been they could be anywhere by now! There were a few more birds here. We found a Nuthatch excavating a hole in a tree and could see its head poke out from time to time to throw out the wood shavings. A Treecreeper made its way up the trunk of another tree. We noticed some movement on the vegetation trapped around a fallen tree across the river behind us and turned to see a Grey Wagtail feeding quietly.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – feeding by a fallen tree across the river

Someone coming back from further downstream told us the otters had been along the river much further down, so we thought we would go to try to see them. There were Chiffchaffs singing in the trees and we stopped to admire a Stock Dove whooping on top of a dead trunk. A Common Buzzard circled up over the trees beyond.

Another couple of photographers coming back along the path told us the otters were heading back our way so we stopped and waited but there was no sign of them. We had a quick look up and down the river, but presumably the otters had come out of the water and disappeared. We did find a Kingfisher which zipped off across the river as we approached.

As we made our way back, we looked and listened for the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers but there was no further sign of them now. A Water Rail squealed from the far bank of the river and then flew across to our side, disappearing behind some trees. As we walked on, we found it on the other side of the path but it flew off into the reeds.

As we made our way back round by the reedbed, we stopped to admire the finches in the trees where they were coming down to drink from the pines. Finally we had better views of a smart male Brambling which perched up more obligingly. There were Bramblings singing here too – more of a wheeze than a song, but always interesting to hear. It won’t be long now before they are back off to Scandinavia for the breeding season.

It was sunny and warming up nicely now, so we made our way over to a place overlooking the forest. We hadn’t been out of the van long before we picked up two Goshawks circling up away to the east. They were both adults and both males. They soared higher and higher into the sky and we lost sight on one as the other drifted towards us. We could see their very white underparts and broad-based tails.

Goshawk

Goshawk – circled up high above us

We had lost sight of them when a female Goshawk came up out of the trees close to where we had first seen the earlier ones. As it circled over the pines, we could see it was a big and powerful bird, with very pale grey upperparts. With the warm air, it gained height very quickly. Then we spotted a second Goshawk nearby, high in the blue sky. It was noticeably smaller, a male, possibly one of the two we had seen earlier. The female started to display, flying with deep, exaggerated wingbeats. Then presumably having warned off the male, she dropped back down towards the trees.

We were treated to great views of the Goshawks in the 45 minutes or so we spent here. There were lots of Common Buzzards up enjoying the thermals too, and a Kestrel. When a female Sparrowhawk came up out of the trees as well, we could see it looked smaller and darker grey. As it started flapping, we could see its very fast bursts of wingbeats.

There were a few Brown Hares in the fields here and one or two Lapwing and Red-legged Partridges. A Woodlark fluttered across at the back and disappeared over the trees beyond.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed over to Lynford Arboretum and made use of the picnic tables in the parking area. Afterwards, as we made our way over to the road, we heard a Firecrest singing from somewhere high in the fir trees. We stopped to listen for it, but unfortunately it had gone quiet.

Down at the gate, there was not much seed left on the ground and the feeders were looking rather empty too. There were still a few Bramblings and Chaffinches coming down to the leaves beyond the small pool and a Yellowhammer dropped down with them too.

Continuing on down towards the bridge, a large flock of Fieldfares flew over tchacking noisily. We looked up into the fir trees to see the Tawny Owl back hiding in its usual roost spot. It is very hard to see unless you are in just the right spot and the view is generally looking up from underneath it, so you often can’t see its head until it looks down.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in the top of one of the fir trees again

There were a few tits coming in to the seed put out on the pillars of the bridge, so we stopped to see what else we could see. A male Reed Bunting duly appeared. While we were scanning the trees, we noticed some movement deeper in and focusing on it with binoculars we could see a couple of Common Crossbills dropping down through the branches. We thought they might be about to come down to drink under the trees, so we hurried in along the path.

The Crossbills were still perched in the trees but seemed to be in no hurry to drink. At first they were just perched in different trees, but one by one they moved into an alder above the path where we watched them climbing about in the branches and picking at the flowers. By the end, they were right above our heads and we had a really good view of them through the scope. A Marsh Tit was flitting around in the bushes by the path too.

Common Crossbill 1

Crossbill – eventually came down to drink

Then suddenly two of the Crossbills flew over our heads and down into some small trees just above the stream channel by the path. We positioned ourselves and had a great view of them as they came down to drink on the far bank – first a green female and then a rather orangey male. With a diet primarily of resinous pine seeds they need to drink regularly.

The Crossbills all flew back up into the trees towards the bridge, so we made our way back out. It was the turn of the Siskins now. A pair dropped out of the alders above the bridge and down to the reeds in the corner of the lake to drink. We had a great view of the bright yellow-green male when it flew back up into the trees.

Siskin

Siskin – a pair came down to drink by the bridge

Having had great success at the bridge, we decided to walk up to the paddocks to see if we could find a Hawfinch. It was very quiet here in the trees though today – it seems likely that food is now getting in short supply here. It was still a bit too early for them to come in for a pre-roost gathering, so we decided to walk round via the lake.

A Little Grebe laughed at us maniacally from the reeds and another was diving under the overhanging trees on the edge of the island. We stopped to admire a pair of Gadwall on the lake, the drake looking particularly smart with its variety of different feather patterns. Not just a boring grey duck! There were a few Greylags and a pair of Canada Geese on the grass in front of the hall.

Gadwall

Gadwall – not just a boring grey duck!

We walked round the far side of the paddocks, scanning the ground under the trees in the middle to see if we could see anything down in the grass. We found a pair of Goldcrests in the firs on the far side and a Redwing perched high in the poplars in the distance. We figured we could make our way back to the bridge and continue to scan the paddocks in case a Hawfinch should appear.

Back at the bridge, the Water Rail had now appeared. It was hiding in the reeds at first, but eventually came out a bit more into the open where we could get a good look at it.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showing well when we got back to the bridge

When we heard the ‘glip, glip’ calls of Crossbills, we looked up to see three brighter red males land in the trees above the pool. They made their way gradually down through the branches, before dropping down to the edge of the water to drink. Once again, we were well-placed for a ringside seat!

When they flew back up into the trees, one of the male Crossbills then spent a couple of minutes picking at the bare wood where a large bough had recently broken off one of the alders. Then it perched up in the sunshine on a branch just above.

Common Crossbill 2

Common Crossbill – another three males came down to drink later

There was still no sign of the Hawfinches in the paddocks and we still had something else we hoped to do before the end of the day, so we decided to head off. A quick walk round back to the van and we drove over to Weeting Heath.

There had been no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard for over an hour when we arrived, so we went into the visitor centre. While most of the group were queuing for the facilities, two of us walked back out to the car park. Just in time to see the back end of the Rough-legged Buzzard disappearing into the trees on the edge of the field opposite. There was no further sign of it by the time everyone had come back out again. A (Eurasian) Curlew was feeding in the winter wheat field over to one side.

We decided to go down to West Hide to look for the Stone Curlews. There have been three back already in the last week, and two were helpfully standing in the cultivated area towards the front. They were settled down, back onto us at first, but after a few minutes one of the Stone Curlews woke and stood up, turning round so we could get a good look at its pale iris and black-tipped yellow bill.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – great views from the hide today

Being later in the afternoon now, and early in the year, there was next to no heat haze which can often be a problem at this site. So we could get a very good look at the Stone Curlews today. Having all had a really good look at them for a while, we decided to make our way back out.

There were a several people out on the verge now, but rather than looking out over the field opposite they were looking up the road. Apparently, the Rough-legged Buzzard had just been seen in a tree from the field entrance further along and someone had helpfully come over to tell everyone. We decided to walk up the road and sure enough, there was the Rough-legged Buzzard perched in a pine tree on the corner of the wood at the back of the field.

The Rough-legged Buzzard flew back round behind the trees, so we continued on to the field entrance, Shortly after we got there, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew out again and landed in another tree further beyond. We had a great view of its white tail with black terminal band as it flew back. Then it did another fly round and landed back in the pine tree closer to us, where we had seen it first. Now we could see its very pale head and contrasting blackish belly patch.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – showed well when we got back out to the road

A flock of Linnets was whirling round the edge of the field beyond the gate and two Curlews flew up calling. Eventually the Rough-legged Buzzard dropped out of the pine and disappeared back round behind the trees again. It had been a great way to end our first day out, down in the Brecks, and it was time to head for home now.

9th Mar 2019 – Even Breezier Brecks

A regular day tour to the Brecks today. It was very windy, gusting over 50mph at times, which didn’t help us, but at least it stayed dry all day and there were even some sunny intervals at times.

The forecast was for it to be brightest and least windy first thing, so we decided to try for Woodlark initially. As we walked in along a ride, we could hear one singing but it was already very breezy and we couldn’t see where it was. It seemed to be either in the trees of low over the tops out of view. We decided to try again on our way back.

A Stonechat was chatting over by the railway line and one or two Siskins flew back and forth overhead calling, but otherwise it was quiet as we made our way round via the reedbed and down to the river. It had been relatively sheltered in the lee of the pines but the poplars were exposed to the full force of the wind and were bending and creaking. The early sun disappeared behind some thick clouds too, which was not what we had been promised.

There was very little activity in the trees here today – just a few Stock Doves and a couple of Jackdaws – as we walked down the path. There was no sight or sound of any woodpeckers today. A Sparrowhawk appeared overhead, over the tops of the poplars. We could see it was noticeably patterned below and rather dark grey above as it banked, with a long narrow tail, square-ended and noticeably pinched-in at the base. A Crossbill flew over the river calling but disappeared behind the trees.

A Grey Wagtail called and we looked over to see it flitting around the tangle of branches where a tree had fallen into the river. It flew down onto the floating vegetation which had been trapped there and started to look for food.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – feeding on the floating vegetation in the river

We carried on down along the path and found a Chiffchaff singing in the willows by the reeds. It was flitting around in the branches which were now covered in catkins, so it was tricky to see at times. Beyond this point, the path started to get rather muddy, so we decided to turn round and head back.

When we got back half way we met a couple of people who told us they had earlier seen one of the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in the alders on the other side of the river. There was certainly a lot more activity here, where it was a little more sheltered. We stopped to look and could see lots of Siskins feeding in the trees. There was a mixed group of tits here too – Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and a Coal Tit. A Marsh Tit appeared with them. A Treecreeper worked its way up the trunks of a multi-stemmed tree and a pair of Nuthatches flew in to the tops. But there was no more sign of the woodpecker – it really wasn’t good weather for looking for them today.

As we made our way back to the van, a Woodlark flew up from the clearing. It didn’t really break into song, but gave us a brief few phrases before flying off over the trees. We hadn’t gone much further when it flew back in again and hovered overhead, singing rather half-heartedly again. We could see its distinctive short tail and broad, rounded wings, before it landed in the clearing back behind us.

Woodlark

Woodlark – flew back in and landed in the clearing behind us

We walked back and got the Woodlark in the scope. We had a really good look at it, as it walked around in the short grass and heather. It boldly marked supercilium stood out, the two sides meeting in a shallow ‘v’ at the back, noticeable as it worked its way away from us. It was the male and we could see its bright rusty ear coverts too.

The sky was clearing again from the west and we could see a large area of blue sky approaching, so we decided this would be a good opportunity to try our luck with Goshawks. We drove over to a high point overlooking the forest and got out to scan. It was very exposed here and the wind was really whistling through now. The scopes wouldn’t stand up, so we had to stand in the lee of the van! Our timing was spot on though, as we had not even had time to get set up properly when we spotted our first Goshawk up.

Over the next 40 minutes or so, the Goshawks were up fairly regularly, at least two (we saw two up together) and probably at least three different individuals. They were trying to display, although it looked to be difficult in the wind. The first Goshawk had its white undertail coverts fluffed out and wrapped round the sides of its tail, so it almost looked white rumped as it banked. It seemed to be doing a slow flapping display, but it was hard to tell as it was struggling to hold a level course.

Later a Goshawk came in high over the trees and we saw what was probably the same one we had seen earlier doing a quick burst of slow flapping display. It was flying with exaggerated, deep wingbeats, until it turned across the wind it was suddenly swept away. Still, we had good views of the Goshawks while they flew round. They were adults, noticeably pale silvery grey above and appeared almost pure white below, very different from the Sparrowhawk we had seen earlier.

There were several Common Buzzards up too. They seemed to be enjoying the wind, swooping at each other and hanging almost effortlessly in the air at times.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – there were several up enjoying the wind today

Having had good views of the Goshawks, we decided to move on somewhere more sheltered. It was time for lunch, so we headed down to Brandon where we could make use of the picnic tables and get a hot drink.

Being a Saturday, it was a bit busier here today, and there weren’t as many birds coming to the feeders. There was a steady succession of tits – Blue, Great, Long-tailed and Coal Tits – and regular visits from several Siskins, but no sign of any Bramblings coming in here today.

After lunch, we had a quick walk down to the lake. There was no sign of any Mandarin today, and we couldn’t even hear the Firecrest. It was possibly just too windy in the trees for it to be singing here today. We did find a Treecreeper in the edge of the trees – a bonus for those who had missed the one we had seen earlier. As we walked back to the van, we realised where the Bramblings were, as we flushed them from the leaves under the trees where they looked to be feeding on the beech mast.

Brambling

Brambling – feeding in the leaves under the trees today

The Great Grey Shrike had been reported again back in its favoured clearing yesterday and it was apparently still there this morning, so we made our way over there next to look for it. As we walked in along the ride, there was no sign of the large numbers of finches which have been feeding in the pines here in recent days. Whether they have moved on or were just feeding elsewhere out of the wind remains to be seen. So we made our way quickly down to the clearing at the far end.

There were a couple of people walking back who told us the Great Grey Shrike had been seen recently, after a three hour absence, but when we got to the clearing there was no sign of it at first. We were hoping we would not have to wait three hours for it to appear again!

A pair of Stonechats were perched on the fence and a couple of Linnets flew in and landed on the sandy track. As we walked down along the side of the clearing a pair of Woodlarks flew in calling. The female flew straight down into the long grass in the middle but the male landed on the fence for a few seconds before dropping down to join here. Two Crossbills flew over the clearing calling, but disappeared straight off over the pines.

Some more people who were walking back from the far side told us they had seen the Great Grey Shrike fly out into the middle of the clearing about ten minutes ago, but they had lost sight of it. While we stood talking to them, we looked over to the far side and realised we could just see the head of the shrike tucked down in the grass, as the wind blew the vegetation from side to side. Even through the scope, it was very difficult to see but then it helpfully flew up and landed in the top of a taller birch sapling where we could get a good look at it.

The Great Grey Shrike flew back down to where it had been – presumably it was sheltered from the wind down there. We walked a bit further up and found a spot where we could see it better, looking down between the rows of young pines. Now we could get a clear view of its black mask, very pale silvery grey upperparts and white underparts, and black wings and long black tail.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – we finally found an angle where we could get a clear look at it

By the time we had walked all the way back to the van, we were a little later getting away than we had hoped, which meant we were later than planned arriving at Lynford Arboretum, where we would finish the day. As we walked out of the car park, we could hear a Firecrest singing but by the time we got round onto the road where it had been it had gone quiet again.

We had a quick look in the larches but there was no sign of any Crossbills here now, so we carried on to the gate. It seemed a bit quiet here at first, but gradually more birds started to drop down out of the trees to feed on the ground amongst the leaves. The surprise was the number of Yellowhammers – we counted at least ten here together at one point. There were still a few Bramblings too, with several smart males sporting black heads to a greater or lesser degree, but not as many as there have been here recently.

Bramblings and Yellowhammers

Yellowhammers and Bramblings – coming down to feed under the trees

As time was likely to be of the essence on a cold, windy afternoon, we didn’t hang around too long and carried on down towards the bridge. We couldn’t resist a quick stop to look at the Tawny Owl, which was back roosting in its usual spot high in one of the fir trees. It was hard to see, even when it was practically filling the view in the scope, until you realised there was a large eye staring back down at you!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – staring back down at us from high in a fir tree

There were lots of photographers standing on the other side of the bridge, waiting for Crossbills to come down to drink. They had been in and out earlier, but there was no sign of any now, so we continued straight on to the paddocks. There had apparently been some Hawfinches here earlier, but they had flown off before we got there. There were a few Redwings flying around the trees in the middle, and a Marsh Tit singing in the hedge in front of us, but otherwise it all seemed fairly quiet now.

The Hawfinches can sometimes be found in the tops of the pines at the end of the day, but it didn’t sound like they had flown in that direction today. We looked across and the tops of the trees were swaying vigorously from side to side in the wind. It didn’t look like they would be perching up there this afternoon! The bottom of the trees that side would be sheltered from the wind, so we walked round there anyway to see if we could spot any in the lower branches. There was no sign of them there, but we did find a Firecrest singing. This one posed nicely, flitting around in the branches of a bare tree above our heads.

Firecrest

Firecrest – singing in the trees down by the paddocks

We made our way back round the other side and along by the lake. There were a few Gadwall and Mallard, plus a pair each of Canada and Greylag Goose. One or two Little Grebes were busy diving. One of the group spotted a pair of Common Crossbills perched in the top of one of the alders above the path. We got the scope on the red male and had a good look at it before they flew off. Nice to finally get to see one perched rather than just flying over.

Common Crossbill 1

Common Crossbill – the male perched in one of the alders over the path

Back at the bridge, we heard a couple more Common Crossbills calling in the trees but there was no sign of any coming down to drink now. There were lots of birds coming and going from the feeders and the seed put out on the pillars though. We stopped and watched for a bit, with a good variety of tits including some very close Long-tailed Tits and Marsh Tits. A couple of Reed Buntings here were a nice late addition to the day’s list.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming to the food put out at the bridge

We had another look over at the trees in the paddocks and noticed a large raptor over the pines beyond, a Goshawk. It circled for a minute and then folded its wings and plunged vertically down into the trees. A short while later it reappeared above the trees and we watched it flying off to the south.

It was getting late now, so we started to walk back to the car park. The ground beneath the feeders from the gate was quiet now but as we got back to the larches by the entrance, we noticed a bird high in the top of one of them. It was a Common Crossbill, another smart red male. We got it in the scope and watched it perched there preening for several minutes. Then it flew off into the Arboretum.

Common Crossbill 2

Common Crossbill – perched high in the larches as we were leaving

That was a nice way to finish the day. It had been challenging at times in the wind, but we had seen a remarkable amount today considering the conditions.

6th Mar 2019 – Back to the Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. It was raining first thing this morning and even though it had stopped by the time we arrived, it was still mostly cloudy, grey and rather cool, with a moderate wind which was rather gusty later in the afternoon.

Our first destination was Santon Downham. We parked at the Forestry Commission car park and, as we walked down towards the river, we stopped to look at the garden with the feeders. There were lots of Bramblings and Siskins in the trees, coming down to the ground and hanging on the feeders. There are several smart males now, with increasingly black heads as the pale fringes wear away.

Bramblings

Bramblings – coming down to the ground under the feeders

As we turned onto the path along the river bank, we heard a Grey Wagtail call and saw it fly off downstream from under the bridge. A short distance further on, we found it again together with a second Grey Wagtail, a pair, feeding on the vegetation around a large branch which had fallen into the river. We could see the blacker throat of the male.

Grey Wagtails

Grey Wagtail – a pair, feeding along the river

We heard a Treecreeper calling and found it feeding low down in the willows on the edge of the meadow. We watched it working its way up the short trunks before flying down and starting up the next one. A little further on, we came across another pair of Treecreepers on the larger alders along the river bank.

There were lots of Siskins along the river, calling as they flew overhead. We looked down at the path just ahead of us and a pair of Siskins were feeding on the edge where lots of alder catkins had fallen. They were very approachable – we might almost have trodden on them had we not seen them first! The male was particularly stunning – a mixture of yellow, green and black.

Siskin

Siskin – a pair were feeding on the path along the river

A Water Rail flew out from the edge of the water down below the bank and zipped across the river before running up the bank into the vegetation. We would see a couple along the river today – it was rather quiet here this morning with few people out possibly due to the early rain.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew across the river and landed in the alders the other side, and another flew along the line of trees to join it. They was no drumming this morning and they weren’t even calling, presumably due to the cooler weather. We had hoped to find the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers here, but they were keeping quiet too, despite a very brief window of about five minutes where the sun broke through the clouds. A Lesser Redpoll flew over calling and dropped into the birches behind the poplars.

We walked on and kept stopping and listening, but it was rather quiet in the poplars today. Another Great Spotted Woodpecker called and we found it on the side of a dead tree. We turned and walked slowly back. We heard the piping of a Nuthatch and looked up to see it fly across and land on the trunk of a poplar, next to a large hole. The Nuthatch had some mud in its bill and started to paste it round the entrance to the hole, trying to make it smaller.

We took a detour round via a clearing to see if we could find any Woodlarks, but there was no sign of them here today. They have been singing here in recent days, but presumably they had gone off somewhere else to feed. We made our way back to the van.

It was meant to brighten up through the morning, but it was still stubbornly cloudy and grey. We made our way over to an area of high ground to see if we could find any Goshawks. The Common Buzzards were up, which should have given us some encouragement. We counted at least six circling over the trees at the same time at one point. But there was no sign of any Goshawks.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – there were several up despite the cool and grey weather

A Woodlark was singing over the field behind  and a large flock of Fieldfares flew up into the trees. We could hear a Curlew calling too – there are still a dwindling number which breed in the Brecks, so it is always a privilege to hear them here. After eating an early lunch while we stood and scanned, we decided to give up and try our luck elsewhere. We were just packing up, getting back into the van, when a shout of ‘Goshawk’ came from someone standing nearby. We leapt out of the van, but it had gone straight down behind the trees by the time we got out again.

It didn’t feel like it was going to be our lucky day with Goshawks but as we drove up along the road, we looked over the trees to see all the Woodpigeons scattering from the tops. This is often a sign that a Goshawk is in the area so we stopped quickly and got out. A quick scan over the trees revealed one Goshawk up circling and then we noticed there was a pair. We got the scope on them was watched as they broke into a quick burst of display before dropping back into the trees.

Down at Brandon, we stopped for a very welcome cup of tea – a chance to warm up. Afterwards, we walked down to the lake. Surprisingly, there were no Mandarins here today but as we walked slowly round on the path we could hear a Firecrest singing. Looking into the trees we found it fairly low down in the edge of a fir and we had a great view of it as it flitted around in the branches of a neighbouring laurel bush. We could see its boldly marked face pattern, with bright white supercilium.

Firecrest

Firecrest – singing in the trees

One of the birds which was on the target list for today was Great Grey Shrike, but there had been no sign of it in its favoured clearing yesterday. As it has gone missing at times, we decided to try our luck anyway. Walking in along the ride, there was lots of activity around the first clearing we came too. A Yellowhammer was perched in the top of a tree in the middle and a few Linnets and a couple of Robins were feeding around the fence on the corner. Looking further down along the fenceline, we noticed a Stonechat perched on the top wire.

Further along the ride, we could hear lots of finches in the deciduous trees by the path and small groups of Chaffinches, Bramblings and Siskins were constantly flying in and out of the pines opposite. The cones had started to open in the warm weather last week, producing an abundance of freely available seed (no longer requiring the bill of a Crossbill to get it out!). We looked up into the trees to see several small groups of Bramblings, so we got one or two in the scope for a closer look.  Some of the Bramblings were even singing, if you can call it that – more a series of wheezes!

When we got to the clearing at the far end, there was a no sign of the Shrike but we could hear a Woodlark singing quietly. As we walked along the track, the male flew up from the long grass ahead of us and landed on the fence the other side. It perched there singing softly, and we could hear the female calling in response from the ground out in the long grass still. We had a great view of the male Woodlark through the scope. Perched on the wires we could see its very long hind claws.

Woodlark

Woodlark – singing quietly from the fence, showing off its hind claws

Standing on the track in the middle of the clearing we looked over to the pines to see hundreds of finches coming out of the tops. As they flew over, we could hear them calling – Chaffinches, Bramblings and Siskins again. As we looked round at the pines on the other sides of the clearing we could see more and more finches flying up. There must have been well over a thousand birds in the air at one point – amazing to watch! They were all taking advantage of the release of seeds in the pines.

Our final destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. By the time we got back round there, we were later than we would normally be. The light was starting to go and the wind was picking up. Common Crossbill was the main target here and as we walked into the Arboretum we looked up into the larches to see a red male Crossbill perched right in the top of one of them. We got the scope on it, before it dropped down into the tree below.

We walked over to where the Crossbill had dropped and from the other side of the tree we found a female feeding above our heads. Then we relocated the male too, and we watched through the scope as it clambered around poking its bill into the cones.

Crossbill 1

Common Crossbill – the male, feeding in the larches

Having enjoyed great views of the Crossbills, we continued on to the gate overlooking the feeders. There was nothing here at first, but after a minute or so the Yellowhammers and Bramblings started to drop down out of the trees. By the end, we counted at least five Yellowhammers and 20+ Bramblings feeding down in the leaves.

Continuing on down to the bridge, we looked up in the firs to see the Tawny Owl perched high in the top of one of the trees again, roosting. We got the scope on it and could see most of it, although it seemed to be looking the other way today.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in the fir trees again

As we crossed the bridge, we could see a Crossbill perched in the trees above the pool just beyond, a female, grey and greenish. We got the scope on it, before it dropped down to the edge of the water below to drink. A second Crossbill dropped down too. We watched as they drank then they were off back up into the trees.

Crossbill 2

Common Crossbill – coming down to drink

While we were watching the Crossbills we noticed a Common Frog on a half-submerged branch in the pool, staring at us. There were lots of tits coming down to the seed put out on the bridge pillars and a Marsh Tit landed just a few feet from us, grabbed a couple of seeds and shot off back into the bushes.

We had left it a bit late by the time we got to the paddocks, particularly given the weather. It was very windy now, blowing round the tops of the pines beyond. We had a quick look to see if there were still any Hawfinches around, but they had seemingly gone in to roost already. Thankfully, they were not a priority today! We did see lots of Redwings perched in the tops of the trees in the paddocks. It was damp and spitting with rain now, so we decided to call it a day.

2nd Mar 2019 – Brecks & Winter Birds, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day tour today, focusing on the Brecks and some of our lingering winter visitors on the coast. It was meant to be the best weather of the weekend this morning, but once again the forecast had changed at the last minute and rather than sunshine we were now faced with grey skies and cool temperatures. Thankfully the light drizzle first thing had dried up by the time we got down to the Brecks and it was still hoped to brighten up later in the day.

The main target for the morning was to be Goshawks, but while we waited for an improvement in the weather, we decided to explore some of the forest clearings. We parked by a ride and as we got out of the van we could hear a Woodlark calling. We looked round and saw it land in one of the bare deciduous trees between where we had parked and the neighbouring clearing.

A second Woodlark then fluttered up from the edge of the clearing, and gave us a quick burst of its rather mournful song. It too landed, in the top of a tree closer to us, and we had a good look at it through binoculars. Unfortunately, by the time we had got all the scopes out of the van, the two Woodlarks had dropped down into the clearing again and disappeared.

Woodlark

Woodlark – landed in one of the trees next to where we parked

Walking down along the path, a Great Tit was singing in the trees and a couple of Siskins flew over calling. We could hear a Redpoll calling some way off, but we couldn’t see where it was. We flushed a couple of Yellowhammers from the edge of the clearing, which flew out and landed in the middle. A Song Thrush was singing in the distance, and a little further along we heard a Mistle Thrush singing too.

We made our way round to a another fenced-off clearing, where we managed to get the scope on a Mistle Thrush perched in the top of an isolated bare tree. A Woodlark flew round over the middle, its fluttering, bounding flight suggesting it might be singing but we didn’t hear it and the song normally carries a long way. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was perched high in some tall poplars on the far side of the clearing. A smart male Yellowhammer perched up more obligingly in the top of a bare tree.

There were a few tits in the trees, but nothing was singing today in the cool, grey weather. On the walk back, we stopped to watch a small flock of Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits and Blue Tits feeding in the tops of some oak trees.

The sky seemed to be brightening a little away to the west, so more in hope than expectation we made our way round to a high point overlooking the forest. It was a good job we did, perfect timing, as we were not even out of the van before we spotted a Goshawk circling up above the trees.

Goshawks

Goshawks – we watched a pair displaying just as we arrived

A second Goshawk appeared with it, and we watched them displaying. The big female below performed a slow flapping display, flying across with exaggerated wingbeats, while the second bird followed behind and above. They flew round for a minute or so, just long enough for everyone to get a good look at them, before they disappeared down over the trees beyond.

There were a few Common Buzzards circling up too now. Three came up together away to our right, another pair was chasing each other further off to the north, and then we looked round to see one circle up from the trees behind us and promptly get mobbed by by six Jackdaws and a Crow!

A pair of Woodlarks flew in over the field behind us, the male singing its mournful song. A flock of about twenty Fieldfares perched up in the trees and from time to time a large mixed flock of Goldfinches and Linnets came up from the field below or a big group of Meadow Pipits came up from the grass. A flock of Lapwings flew over too.

It wasn’t long before another Goshawk came up, flying low across over the trees in front, before dropping down into the wood in the corner, sending crowds of Woodpigeons bursting into the air in panic. Then a juvenile Goshawk started displaying, which promptly brought the big resident female up to display in response.

They disappeared back over the trees, but shortly after we spotted three Goshawks circling together, presumably the juvenile we had just seen, now attracting the attention of the male as well as the female. They spent some time up in the air, at one point with the pair displaying together, the male even giving a quick burst of rollercoaster display.

Given the rather cool and cloudy weather, there was a surprising amount of Goshawk activity over the hour or so we spent watching them today, but we are probably about the peak of the display now. Finally it seemed to go a bit quieter, so we decided to go for a walk in the forest to warm up a bit.

As we walked up another ride, we could hear a Yellowhammer singing and a pair of Mistle Thrushes flew off into the trees. As we passed through a clearing, we saw several groups of finches fly up out of the tops of the pines ahead of us – we could hear Chaffinches, Siskins, Redpolls, and even some Linnets over the tops too. As we had seen yesterday, a lot of the finches are feeding in the pines, taking advantage of the cones which are opening and starting to shed their seeds.

There is a feeding table in the trees here, but there was not as much activity around it as normal this morning. A few Blue Tits and Great Tits flew in and out, stopping just long enough to grab a sunflower seed, but there was a distinct lack of other tits while we stood and watched for a minute or so.

We had hoped to find a Willow Tit here, but there was very little singing in the trees in the cool weather today – just one or two Coal Tits, much fewer than normal. The Willow Tits don’t often visit the feeding tables, but they can sometimes be heard in the trees nearby. As we walked on down the ride, we could hear another Woodlark singing in the distance, but not much else.

It was time for lunch now, so we drove down to Santon Downham to use the facilities at the Forestry Commission car park and then continued round to St Helens for lunch. On our way over, we could see some blue sky approaching from the west and finally the sun came out as we stopped to eat. A couple of Buzzards circled high overhead. A Pied Wagtail was flycatching from the roof of the toilet block. A handful of Chaffinches were feeding under the beeches at the back and a few Siskins and Goldfinches flew in and out of the pines.

After lunch, we walked down to the river. A Grey Wagtail flew off down streak as we got to the bridge, so we walked along a short way to see if we could find it. A Little Grebe was hiding down in the vegetation by the far bank, but there was no sign of the Grey Wagtail, which then flew in behind us and disappeared into the trees on the far side of the river. A Crossbill flew over calling but didn’t stop either.

Our destination for the remainder of the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. As we approached the gate overlooking the feeders, lots of birds flew up from the ground into the trees. The first to return was a Nuthatch, which kept darting in to grab a seed from the piles spread out in the leaves. There were a few tits coming in and out too.

Next came several Yellowhammers and then the Bramblings started to appear. More and more dropped down into the leaves until we counted at least twenty all on the ground together. There were some smart males, with bright oranges breasts and shoulders, some starting now to get their summer black heads already.

Brambling

Brambling – at least 20 were coming to feed under the trees

Continuing on down towards the bridge, a small crowd had gathered looking up into the trees just before we got to it. They were looking at a Tawny Owl which was roosting high in a fir tree. You had to be in just the right spot to see it, so we had to take it in turns to look through the scope which had been set up there. As the branches swayed in the breeze, you could occasionally see it looking down at us.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in the trees by the bridge

The afternoon was already getting on, so we continued on straight to the paddocks next. There had been some Hawfinches in the trees out in the middle earlier but they had apparently been mobile and rather elusive. They had gone rather quiet by the time we arrived. We stood and scanned the trees for a while, also checking the tops of the pines beyond.

The first Hawfinch we spotted was high in a fir tree at the back of the paddocks. Not a particularly good view at this distance, but we all had a look at it through the scope before it dropped down and disappeared. At least it was a start. Then twelve more Hawfinches flew up out of the paddocks. We didn’t see where they came from, possibly from down below the trees somewhere, and they too flew straight back up into the fir trees. We could see four or five of them clambering round among the cones in the top of one of the trees, so we decided to walk quickly round to try to get a closer look.

On our way, we stopped for a better view. There was still one Hawfinch perched high in the tops, but then it too dropped down. However, when we got closer we realised we could still see several of them lower down in the trees. They were very mobile at first, either in the firs of climbing around in an ivy covered deciduous tree, and hard to get onto. Then finally one of the Hawfinches stopped still in the open where we could get a great view of it through the scope. We could see its huge bill and big head, powerful enough to crack open cherry stones!

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – we finally got good views of them in the trees at the back

Having had to chase around after the Hawfinches for a while, we thought we might be a bit late in the day to catch the Common Crossbills back at the bridge. But as we walked back round the paddocks, we heard a Crossbill flying in and it helpfully landed in a bare tree by the path ahead of us. We all managed to get a quick look at it in the scope, a smart red male, before it flew off over the paddocks.

We needn’t have worried, because back at the bridge, another male Common Crossbill was perched in the trees just above the pool. It was probably waiting to pluck up the courage to fly down to drink, and while it perched there we had fantastic scope filling views.

Crossbill 1

Common Crossbill – scope filling views back at the bridge

That Crossbill dropped down, then flew up and across and landed in the trees right above our heads. We got a great view of its distinctive bill, with crossed mandibles designed for prising open fir cones.

Crossbill 2

Common Crossbill – landed in the trees right above our head

A female Crossbill flew in and landed in the trees next. When she dropped down to the pool to drink, another male dropped down too. We watched them scooping up water before they flew back up into the trees.

Crossbill 3

Common Crossbill – coming down to drink at the small pool

That was a great way to end our second day down in the Brecks, with fantastic views of one of the other local specialities at close quarters. We made our way back to the van and headed for home again.

16th Feb 2019 – Last Orders for Owls

An Owl Tour today, the last one we have planned for this owling season. It was cloudy and cool first thing, but while it remained stubbornly grey for most of the day it was mild and dry with light winds. A very pleasant day to be out again.

After several dry nights with no frost – good hunting weather for owls – we worried that the Barn Owls might not be as hungry now and might have reverted to going to roost really early in the morning. When we arrived down at the marshes, we couldn’t see any Barn Owls out at first.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming in the wood behind us and one or two Skylarks started singing, making it feel almost like spring again. The first Marsh Harriers circled up over the reeds and a large flock of Curlew came up off the nearest meadow calling.

We walked out along the path, to check if anything might still be on the front of the owl box, but it was all quiet there. Then we spotted a Barn Owl flying across, out in the middle of the marshes behind the reeds. It seemed to be making a beeline for the meadow in the top corner, so we hurried up to intercept it.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – still out hunting over the grazing marshes

The Barn Owl was rather distant at first, hunting over the back of the grass, but we watched it patrolling with slow wingbeats, looking down for any potential prey, occasionally stopping to hover and dropping down once or twice, seemingly without success. It was doing circuits around the field and a couple of times it did a flypast round the front where we could get a good look at it.

Then we noticed a second Barn Owl had appeared a little further back, a paler bird. We watched the two of them hunting over the same field for a while. Then the second Barn Owl flew round to the front of the field, straight past us, and away along the line of reeds below the bank. We had a great view of it as it passed by. It was flying very purposefully, heading back towards the road, possibly on its way to roost.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – flew right past us as it headed in to roost

We turned our attention back to the first Barn Owl, which was still flying round over the same field. It eventually worked its way back and disappeared behind some reeds. Two Barn Owls out hunting – a great start!

There were a few Canada Geese feeding down in the grass. As we turned to go, a couple of Greylag Geese flew over, honking noisily. Just behind them, we noticed a little group of smaller geese following behind. Head on, we could see a distinctive band of white around the base of their bills and, as they turned to head past us, black barring on their bellies. They were Russian White-fronted Geese, ten of them. We watched them fly off west.

White-fronted Goose

Russian White-fronted Geese – four of the ten which flew over us this morning

We decided to head inland to try our luck with Little Owls next. At our first stop, overlooking some farm buildings, we couldn’t see any owls but we did flush a Green Sandpiper from a muddy puddle by the road as we pulled up. As it flew up, we could see its white tail contrasting with dark slate coloured wings and back. The second place we checked didn’t produce any Little Owls either. There was no sunshine this morning for them to sit out in and there was a slight freshness to the light breeze still, before the day had had a chance to warm up.

Our third stop was a little more successful. As we pulled up we could see a distant Little Owl perched on the edge of a barn roof, but by the time we had all got out of the van it had flown off and looked to have disappeared in. We got the scope on the barn and realised we could still just see it, half hidden under the cowl on the top of the roof, just visible as a silhouetted dome of a head. It was a long way off, so we walked up the track towards the end of the farm buildings for a closer look.

From half way up the track, we got a much better look at the Little Owl. It was looking straight at us, and we could see its eyes, then it turned back to face the other way and we could see the false eye pattern on the back of its head. We walked up to the end of the track and realised we couldn’t see it from this angle, and when we walked back again it had gone in.

Little Owl

Little Owl – hiding under the roof

As we made our way back to the van, we stopped to look at a rough grass meadow which was full of Starlings and Fieldfares feeding amongst the molehills. Then we noticed a pale shape on one of the fence posts at the back of the field – another Barn Owl. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, as it looked round and scanned the ground below the post. Then it took off and flew away over the farm buildings beyond.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – perched on a fence post on our way back to the van

From here, we made our way further inland to see if the Tawny Owl was showing on the front of its tree hole again this morning. As we walked in through the gates, there were more birds singing here. Song Thrush, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Robin and Dunnock could all be heard in the trees around us.

Looking up into the top of a large ash tree, there was the Tawny Owl in its usual spot. We had a quick look from where we were and then made our way over a bit closer and found an angle where we could minimise the branches across in front of it. The Tawny Owl is very high in the tree and obviously used to people moving around below. It was a bit more awake than usual today, perched more on the edge of the hole and with its eyes half open. We had a fantastic view of it through the scope.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – in its usual hole high in the tree

Everyone agreed it was well worth the diversion to come here to see the Tawny Owl. It has been one of the highlights of our searches for owls in recent weeks and due thanks must go to the finder, who was kind enough to let us know about it and thus allow people to come and see it.

Moving on, we made our way across to the Wash. There were not many ducks again on the pits at Snettisham as we made our way in, but we did see a redhead Goosander which flew off over the pools as we arrived. The tide was just on its way in when we got to the seawall, and it was not due to be a big high tide today anyway, so there was a vast expanse of exposed mud still. The waders were all very distant and there was quite a bit of misty haze out over the Wash, which meant even the Lincolnshire coast was well hidden.

There were a few waders on the mud in front of Rotary Hide. A couple of close Grey Plover and a few Redshanks in the small pools. Just across the channel, we could see a scattering of Dunlin.

Our main target here was Short-eared Owl. Someone else had just seen one, in a slightly different place to where we normally find them, so we stopped to look at that one first. It was roosting in a fairly open patch of grass, with just a few strands of bramble in front. When we first got the scope on it, it was more awake and we could see its bright yellow eyes. Then it went back to sleep.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – the first of two here today

We continued on a little further, to where we normally find one or two Short-eared Owls. There was no sign of the most regular one in its favoured spot – it has been increasingly erratic here in recent weeks. We did find a second Short-eared Owl though, in another regular spot, very well hidden in some deep brambles. It was hard to see even through the scope until you got your eye in, or until it moved, a much more sensible roosting spot!

It was a bit later than we are here normally now, but rather than stop to eat at Snettisham, the draw of the facilities at Titchwell was too great and the prospect of a hot drink. As we made our way out, a Ringed Plover was displaying over the beach, flying round and round with stiff bat-like wing beats.

We were even further delayed on the way. As we drove through Old Hunstanton, we noticed a shape perched on a road sign right next to the busy A149 coast road. It was a Barn Owl! It was perched on the top, seemingly completely unfazed by the traffic thundering past within a couple of metres.

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – perched on a road sign right by the busy A149

We pulled up opposite the Barn Owl, both to have a look ourselves and to try to alert the cars to its presence. If it took off, it could quite easily fly straight into a passing vehicle. It still stayed there, looking round, for a minute or two. Eventually, it flew off over the hedge and then as we pulled away it came back round across the road again.

So it was a late lunch by the time we finally got to Titchwell. There were a few birds coming and going from the feeders as usual – a selection of finches and tits. After a quick bite to eat, we set out to see if the Barn Owls were out here again. Earlier in the week they were out every afternoon, at just this time, but we couldn’t find any sign of them today. Perhaps they were less hungry now and there was not such a pressing need to hunt through the day. A Water Rail was in the ditch next to the main path, so we stopped for a good look at that instead.

Water Rail

Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path again

There was not much activity around the reedbed today – a couple of distant Marsh Harriers out over Brancaster marsh beyond and no ducks at all today on the reedbed pool.

The Freshmarsh is full of water at the moment, so there are not many places for waders to roost or feed. The Avocets are starting to return already and there were at least 40 there today. They looked slightly out of place, with many of them bobbing up and down as they swam in the deep water – not exactly a typical resting place for a wader! A few lucky ones had found the top of one of the sunken islands which they could reach to stand on.

Avocet

Avocets – some of the 40+ on the Freshmarsh

Otherwise, there were just a few ducks and geese on the Freshmarsh today. A flock of Brent Geese had dropped in to bathe and preen, and flew off past us, heading back to the winter wheat field back by the entrance road. There wasn’t enough time to explore the whole reserve today, but we thought we could swing round via Patsy’s Reedbed on our way back to see if there was any sign of a Barn Owl round that side.

On the way along Meadow Trail, we stopped to look at the Woodcock which was still in exactly the same place it has been for the last few days. It was very hard to see if you didn’t know exactly where it was, down under a tangle of branches and trunks deep in the sallows, but it was slightly easier to get the scope on it today. It was head on and you could see its long bill, large eyes and the black bars on the top of its head.

Woodcock

Woodcock – roosting in its usual place again today

There was no sign of any Barn Owls out at Patsy’s Reedbed either, but there was a bit more Marsh Harrier activity now, with three chasing each other low over the reeds. Several Common Snipe were asleep in the cut reeds at the front, in with the Teal and Mallard.

As we drove back east along the coast road, we were alerted to the presence of another Barn Owl in one of the usual spots by a photographer with a large lens resting it on a gate. The owl was perched on a post over towards the back of the meadow. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to stop here so we decided to continue on.

We thought we would try our luck with the Little Owls again, despite the fact that it was still rather grey this afternoon and the afternoon light was already starting to fade. It was unseasonably mild though – reaching over 12C this afternoon, not a typical February temperature! We diverted inland and round by several of the same spots we had tried this morning. The warm temperature was not enough to tempt the owls though and there was no sign of any.

By the time we got to our last stop of the day, it was already dusk. There was no sign of the Barn Owl here again, which we had seen so many times this year. It was impossible to tell this evening whether it has started to venture further afield to hunt now, whether it has already been out and had gone back into the box, or whether it is no longer roosting here. Not to worry today, as we had enjoyed great views of several Barn Owls already today, but one for further investigation when we have a bit more time. We walked down through the trees to the lake, but there was no sign of it over the meadows the other side either.

We had really come here to end the day listening to the Tawny Owls and as we walked back into the trees one started hooting. As we made our way over to where it was calling, we could hear it hooting repeatedly. It was further back in the trees and we couldn’t see it in the tangle of branches in the gloom, although we had one brief glimpse as it flew further back.

We stood and listened to the Tawny Owl for a while. It switched from the full three-part hoot to a single hoot and the female responded. Then we could just hear the male giving a low bubbling call, a courtship call when the female is close by and just audible to us on the edge of the wood. It is that time of the year and the pair will hopefully be getting ready for the breeding season now.

Another male Tawny Owl then started hooting back behind us. It was late getting going again tonight, and it was already getting dark. We heard it hooting several times as we made our way back to the van to head for home, a good way to end the day.

 

14th Feb 2019 – Owls for Two

A Private Owl Tour today. After a chilly start with a light frost, it was a glorious bright sunny day with blue skies and light winds. Great weather to be out looking for owls.

It was a slightly late start by the time we got away, so we headed straight down to the marshes. There were birds singing in the trees at the back as we got out of the van, particularly a Song Thrush one side and a Mistle Thrush the other. It almost felt like spring!

Thankfully the Barn Owls were still out hunting this morning. The first one we spotted was a long way off across the marshes. When we first saw it, it looked to be heading in to roost, flying direct and determinedly over the reeds. But it dropped down and landed on a post, where we could just see it in the scope through the reeds. It stayed there for ages – it didn’t seem to be hunting particularly, so perhaps it was just enjoying the morning sunshine.

A huge flock of Pink-footed Geese flew in calling behind us, numbering several thousand, in long lines. It was quite a sight. As they approached, they split into two. The largest group circled round over the marshes and landed out in middle. The rest peeled off and headed over in the direction of the marshes at Cley, where they too dropped down. Perhaps they had been disturbed from the field inland where they had gone to feed.

The Marsh Harriers started to appear as it began to warm up a bit. At first we could see one or two patrolling over the reeds. Then several started to circle up higher together out over the middle of the marshes. A buzzard appeared with them, and as it turned we caught a flash of a white tail. But when we tried to get the scope on it, it disappeared, presumably down behind the reeds.

When it circled up again and our suspicions were confirmed – it was a Rough-legged Buzzard. As well as the white tail with a clear black band at the end, we could see its pale head and dark belly. It circled with the March Harriers, at least five of them together now, and one or two of the harriers started to swoop at the Rough-legged Buzzard, presumably trying to drive it away. Eventually, it had enough and drifted off west and out of view. An unexpected bonus to see one here!

The Barn Owl took off and started hunting again, though still distant. It landed on another post and a second Barn Owl appeared hunting just behind it. We watched them for a while but there was no sign of them coming in to roost, which might have brought them closer. Presumably they are hungry now and were trying to take advantage of the weather to stay out hunting as long as possible.

With the air starting to warm up now, we decided to head inland to look for Little Owls. It seemed like it might be a good morning for them and at the first set of farm buildings we checked, we found two perched on the roof in the sunshine. They were rather distant, but through the scope we could see they were puffed up like balls of fluff.

Little Owl 1

Little Owl – one of the pair perched up at our first stop

At the second barns we checked, we couldn’t see one out today, but a little further on we did find another Little Owl. This one was a bit closer, but we were looking into the sun – the disadvantage of the better weather! We checked out another site with no reward, so we headed back round to see if we could get a slightly better angle of one of the ones we had seen out. Eventually we found a spot from where we could see one of the first Little Owls slightly closer, but the sun was still proving to be a bit of a problem.

Moving on, we drove further inland to look for the Tawny Owl which likes to perch at the entrance to its tree hole in the daytime. As we got out of the van and walked in, more birds were singing in the trees – a couple of Chaffinches, a Great Tit, a Treecreeper. A Nuthatch was piping and we found it high in the branches of a bare tree.

The Tawny Owl was in its usual spot, high in the tree at the entrance it its hole, dozing. Through the scope we had fill-the-frame views of it – well worth the drive round this way to see it.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual tree again today

Moving on again, we drove west towards the Wash. The main road was closed due to an accident, which required a bit of a diversion across country, but we eventually arrived at Snettisham.

There were not so many ducks today on the pits as we made our way in. When we got up onto the seawall, it was almost high tide but it was not a big tide today so there was still a big area of open mud uncovered. A large flock of Golden Plover was roosting out on the Wash, and as we watched something spooked them. They whirled round, flashing dark and white in the sun, taking lots of Lapwing up with them.

Waders

Waders – whirling round in the sunshine out on the Wash

Lots of Oystercatchers were roosting along the water’s edge. Looking at one group of them through the scope, we could see a line of smaller dumpy grey Knot busy feeding just in front of them. There were several groups of Bar-tailed Godwits too, and one individual stood out, already moulting into summer plumage, bright rusty orange below.

Further back, out in the shallow water, a large group of white birds turned out to be Avocets, at least 80 of them, the most we have seen here for some time. With more at Titchwell as well in the last few days, it seems they are starting to return already, ahead of the breeding season.

Continuing on down to Rotary Hide, there were a few more waders on the nearer mud just in front. We had a look at a little group of small Dunlin, busy feeding on the mud. A close Grey Plover was standing motionless in one of the small pools and a Redshank was more actively feeding in the water next to it.

Our main target here today was Short-eared Owl, so we made our way round to look for them. The usual one was not in its regular roosting spot under the brambles, but with a careful scan, we quickly found a different one, half hidden in the top of the brambles. We had a quick look at that one, and then noticed a second Short-eared Owl, much easier to see a bit further along. We could see its yellow eyes. It was unusually active, stretching, preening and looking round.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of three roosting here today

As if that wasn’t enough, we then found a third Short-eared Owl roosting even further along, in a regular spot. It was very well hidden today, deep in the brambles, and if we didn’t know to look there we might well not have seen it at all.

It was time for lunch now, but rather than eat here we decided to head round to Titchwell to use the facilities there and get a hot drink. As we made our way back out of Snettisham, we finally spotted a pair of Goldeneye on the pits, the male showing off its glossy green head and white cheek patch.

While we ate at the picnic tables by the visitor centre at Titchwell, we kept an eye on the feeders. There were several Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits coming and going. After a while a smart male Brambling dropped out of the bushes onto the ground in front. Fortunately we had all had a good look at it before a gas gun bird scarer in the field next door then went off, and flushed everything. Perhaps the local farmer had put it there deliberately to disturb the birds!

Brambling

Brambling – dropped down to feed on the ground in front of the feeders

As we were just finishing lunch, we popped into the visitor centre to check the sightings board. We were just asking what the Barn Owls were up to when one of the volunteers looked out of the door the other side and announced one was over the grazing meadow. Now! We raced straight round and there it was, hunting out over the long grass and sedges.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – the first of the afternoon at Titchwell

The Barn Owl landed on a post, but by the time we had raced back to the van and got the scope it was off again. Thankfully it seemed to be in a bit of a routine and after a few minutes it flew back to the fence. This time it landed on a post very close to us and through the scope we had fill the frame views. We could see all the little eye spots over its head and back. A much better view than the two we had seen early this morning!

The first Barn Owl took off and started hunting again. While we were watching that one, a second Barn Owl appeared right in front of us. The two of them worked backwards and forwards over the grass for a bit and then both of them landed on two fence posts. They seemed to be largely ignoring each other, but when the second owl took off again, it did fly over and hover low over the first for a couple of seconds.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owls – a second one appeared and the two of them landed on the fenceposts

We watched the two Barn Owls hunting for over half an hour, transfixed. We had some very close views as they worked their way round the field, on occasion coming across close in front of us, hovering. We saw them drop down into the grass on several occasions, but we didn’t see either of them actually catch anything.

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – hovered in front of us

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – dropped down into the grass several times

Eventually one of the two Barn Owls disappeared, and we watched the other one working its way further back along the edge of the field. It was still a good view through the scope, even there, but we had been spoiled with the earlier performance. We decided to have a walk out onto the reserve.

A quick look in the ditches beside the path produced a Water Rail picking through the rotting leaves in the bottom under the overhanging branches.

There were several Marsh Harriers up over the back of the reedbed. We could see lots of ducks and geese on the reedbed pool so we stopped for a look. Five Red-crested Pochard were swimming around in the middle, diving, including four drakes with bright red bills and orange punk haircuts. They had just returned to the reserve this morning.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – four drakes and a female, back on the reserve today

The water level is very high on the Freshmarsh over the winter, so there as not so much to see on here today. There were a few more ducks, and a large flock of Brent Geese. Two Egyptian Geese were on the small island towards the back.

We could see a Barn Owl hunting the bank beyond Parrinder Hide in the distance and then we turned to see another one out over the saltmarsh behind us. Looking back, a third was still on one of the posts by the grazing meadow, where we had watched the two earlier. One extra one had appeared from somewhere, although it wasn’t clear which one was the new one.

The Barn Owl over the saltmarsh had flown further up away from us, but then it turned and started to fly back just over the other side of bank. It came straight towards us and then right past just a few metres away, another great view. An amazing performance from the Barn Owls here today!

Barn Owl 5

Barn Owl – one then did a close flypast over the edge of the saltmarsh

There wasn’t enough time to explore the whole reserve today, but we swung round via Meadow Trail on the way back. We found the Woodcock again exactly where it had been yesterday, but it was very well hidden today, down in the leaves among lots of branches and trunks. At first all we could see was a patch of rusty feathers, but we eventually found a better angle through the scope. It was preening and we could see its long bill, and its eye staring back at us.

As we set off to drive back east, we spotted another Barn Owl over the meadow by road. Rather surprisingly, given how the owls had been performing at Titchwell this afternoon, we didn’t see any others by the coast road in any of the other regular spots on our way back.

Having had such good views of Barn Owls now, we fancied a go at getting a better look at a Little Owl, so we diverted inland and headed back to where we had seen one this morning. The first thing we found was another Barn Owl out hunting here, our seventh today. It landed on a post, but then took off again before we could get the scope on it. It landed again in the top of a small tree, swaying in the thin branches, and this time we could get it in the scope.

Barn Owl 6

Barn Owl – our seventh of the day!

It was better light now, with the low afternoon sun. We found one of the Little Owls, and even though it was half hidden under the cowl on the roof, it was a much better view than this morning. We could see the false eye pattern on the back of its head and, when it turned, its real eyes.

Little Owl 2

Little Owl – in better light this afternoon

With the diversion for the Little Owl, we were later than normal getting down to the meadows where we normally finish the day. There was no sign of the regular Barn Owl here this evening, but it was impossible to tell if it had gone off to hunt further afield, or if it had been out during the day and had decided to go back into the box.

It was already getting to the time for the Tawny Owls to start hooting, but the trees were rather quiet still. It was a very bright, clear evening, with a big moon, so they might be later than normal today. We decided to walk down through the trees to the lake to see if there was any activity over the meadows the other side. A Kingfisher called, but we didn’t see it in the gathering gloom. A Little Grebe laughed maniacally.

As we walked back through the trees, finally the Tawny Owl started hooting. We made our way back round and stood on the edge of the wood. We could hear the single hoots of a male and female together now, and the male gave its very quiet bubbling call, normally associated with courtship. For a second it seemed like the male might be coming closer to us when it next hooted, but then we heard it move much deeper in the wood. A second male Tawny Owl started up, hooting further off in the distance behind us.

It was a nice way to end the day, standing in the wood listening to the Tawny Owls, but it was getting late now, and it was still not properly dark. The nights are pulling out fast now. It was time to call it a day – what a day!