Tag Archives: Tawny Owl

16th Mar 2020 – Last of the Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. With Government advice to limit travel and social interactions in the light of the worsening Covid-19 epidemic coming after we finished today, this will be the last of any Bird Tours for the next few weeks, though we didn’t know it at the time. Blissfully unaware, we had a great day out – it was mostly cloudy but dry, with some brighter intervals around the middle of the day, and light winds.

Having met in the car park at Lynford, where a Chiffchaff was singing in the trees, we drove off into the Forest to look for Woodlarks. As we pulled up by a clearing and got out, we could hear one singing straight away and picked it up perched high in a deciduous tree on the far side. There were a lot of dog walkers out this morning though, enjoying the better weather today, and someone walked along the path under the trees where the Woodlark was singing and it dropped down into the middle of the clearing.

Another Woodlark dropped into the trees right behind us now, calling. We got the scopes on it quickly, but it was off again before everyone could get a look at it. It flew over and landed in another tree a short distance down the ride, so we walked down for a closer look. Again, we had a good look at it through the scopes but it was quickly on the move again, flying over us and away over the trees.

The first Woodlark was back in the trees on the far side again, so we decided to set off round in that direction. A Mistle Thrush was singing away in a wood over the field and we could hear a Green Woodpecker yaffling. Before we could get to it, the Woodlark dropped down to the ground. When we got round to where it had landed, we stopped and started to scan. We couldn’t find any sign of it at first, but we did notice a flock of Redwings had flown up into the top of a large tree over by the car park now, so we got the scopes on them.

While we were watching the Redwings, the Woodlark flushed from further along the path and flew off over the clearing. This time it fluttered up into the sky and we could hear it singing high over our heads. We watched it flying round over the clearing, singing, noting its distinctive short-tailed, round-winged silhouette. When it dropped sharply back down to the ground, it landed on the top of one of the young pine trees where this time it lingered long enough to get a better look at it.

Woodlark

Woodlark – landed in the top of a young pine tree

There were lots of Yellowhammers around the clearing too today. On the way back round, a nice bright male was perched in the top of an oak tree by the path. Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, we decided to move on.

As it was not too far from here, we decided to head over to Fincham next. As we drove up along Black Drove, we couldn’t see anything on the wires. A car was parked further up and someone was standing next to it with a scope set up. As we pulled up alongside, he told us the Great Grey Shrike had been around earlier but had just disappeared. We drove further up and scanned the bushes and hedges and by the time we had turned around and come back the shrike had reappeared.

We parked on the verge and got out, setting up our scopes on the Great Grey Shrike which was now perched obligingly on a bare branch on a tree the far side of the field. We watched it for a while, periodically dropping down to the ground to look for food before flying up into the top of another small tree further along the edge of the field.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – hunting from the tops of the young trees across the field

There was lots of other activity here too. Several Skylarks were singing and a pair of Lapwings were displaying out in the fields. Further back, we could see several Roe Deer lying down in front of a distant hedge. A pair of Brown Hares were over to one side of the field in front of us and, when a third Hare came running over the three of them stood looking at each other for a minute for setting off on a chase.

The Hares kept stopping and looking at each other. One did a bit of shadow boxing then there were some full on fisticuffs between a couple of them, all interspersed with chasing round. When the third Hare was finally seen off, the remaining pair chased each other, the male running after the female, but she was not interested in his advances and kept kicking out at him whenever he got close.

Brown Hares

Brown Hares – of the ‘Mad March’ variety

It was brightening up now and we knew this would be our best chance of seeing a Goshawk today, so we drove back into the Forest. It was not ideal conditions, with very little wind, but at least it was warming up nicely as parked overlooking the trees. Good numbers of Common Buzzards were already circling up – we had nine together above our heads at one point, even engaging in a bit of swooping display.

The first Goshawk we picked up was quite distant, circling above the trees away to our left, but it was good to get one in the bag early on. It was clearly a different shape to the Common Buzzards, paler below and greyer above. Then another one appeared off to our right. It was thermalling up with a small group of Common Buzzards and quickly gained height until it was way up in the sky.

The third Goshawk was a little closer, but circled up rapidly too before turning and flying in across the road away to our right. They were not displaying much today, probably, due to the lack of wind, but this latest one did break into a short burst of slow flapping display as it flew across. A very distant Sparrowhawk did put on a bit of rollercoaster display, while a second one a bit closer was just circling up like the Goshawks, but clearly smaller and slighter and with a more pinched in tail.

The surprise of the morning was a Merlin which shot across in front of the trees at the back of the field, disappearing from view before reappearing as it flew over the road and out across the fields behind us. They are scarce in winter this far inland, so this was a real bonus to see one here.

Otherwise, there were lots of Skylarks singing here and Yellowhammers, Linnets and Meadow Pipits flying in and out of the fields. A mixed flock of Fieldfares and Starlings kept dropping out of the pines and into the back of the field behind us.

The Stone Curlews have just started to return to the Brecks and we planned to have a quick drive round before lunch to see if we could find one. Someone else we knew had gone on ahead to do the same, so it was very helpful when we received a message to say that he had found one. We drove straight over and were soon watching it out in a stony field.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – a recent arrival back in the Brecks

By the time we got there, we were told there were actually three Stone Curlews, but the other two were down in the furrows and not visible from where we were standing. Still, we figured one was enough for us and eventually one of the others did stand up so we could see two of them together.

We went round to Brandon for lunch. It was brighter now and it felt rather spring-like eating outside on the picnic tables. A Nuthatch was piping up in the trees and one or two tits were coming and going from the feeders. After lunch, we walked down to the lake. There were five Mandarin here today, a pair on the platform on the outside of the duck house and another three, two males and a female, on the water over the far side, which swam over to join the others as we walked up.

Mandarin

Mandarin – one of five on the lake today

Our final destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. As we walked in, a Nuthatch flew up from the ground by the entrance where some food had been put out and up into a nearby pine tree. In contrast, there was no food left on the ground further along, looking down under the trees from the gate, and there were very few birds here today. We continued on down to the paddocks.

A male Hawfinch was down on the ground under the first hornbeam when we arrived, but it was just over a small ridge and in the long grass we could only see its head up occasionally. A greyer female then appeared under the tree too, a little easier to see than the male.

We could hear the quiet ticking calls of a Hawfinch in the trees and looked across to see two males now in the middle hornbeam. Through the scope, we had a much better view of these before they dropped down through the branches and we lost sight of them.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – there were at least four in the paddocks this afternoon

We picked up a Hawfinch in the ash trees next, but it quickly dropped down and we realised there were at least three now feeding on the ground below. Again, they seemed to know how to hide and were mostly just over a low ridge in the grass. When they flew up into the trees we couldn’t see them from where we were, so we walked up to the far end of the paddocks and found them again in the third hornbeam. They were a bit more distant from here, but they were now not moving so quickly, perched in the branches preening.

There were a couple of Mistle Thrushes in the paddocks too, and we could see them out on the grass from here. A few Redwings flew in and landed high in the trees. Two Grey Herons came up from the direction of the lake.

Back at the bridge, there were lots of birds coming and going from the food on the bridge. We stood for a while and watched and had great views of Siskins here today, with several birds on the feeders, and a selection of tits including Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits feeding on the fat in the coconut shells. A Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Treecreeper didn’t linger long enough for everyone to see them.

Siskin

Siskin – we had great views of them today, coming down to the feeders

The Little Grebe was laughing madly again from the reeds behind us, so we took a quick walk along the path which runs down beside the lake. It was out on the front edge of the reeds at first, but dived as soon as it saw us and then tried to hide in the vegetation. We could just see it in the reeds as it resurfaced. There were a couple of Gadwall in with the Mallards on the water and Canada Geese and Greylags on the lawn in front of the hotel.

As we made our way back up through the Arboretum, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl perched high in its usual tree. There was only one there again today, and it had managed to tuck itself even further in amongst the branches, but with a bit of trial and error we found an angle where we could get a scope on it. A Goldcrest was flitting around high in the trees nearby.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – well hidden in its usual tree today

Back up at the gate, there was still very little activity down on the ground under the trees. Looking in the blackthorn on the other side, on the edge of the orchard, we could see at least seven Yellowhammers in the white blossom. There were several Chaffinches too, but we couldn’t find any Bramblings here today – presumably they were feeding elsewhere, given the lack of food on the ground.

Unfortunately, it was time to call it a day now. It was just a short walk back to the car park, where we had started the day and where we now bade our farewells.

14th Mar 2020 – Back to Breckland

A scheduled group Brecks Tour today. The overnight rain took slightly longer to clear through this morning than forecast, but once it did the rest of the day was mostly dry and even brightened up nicely around the middle of the day.

It was still drizzling lightly when we met down in the Brecks and as we drove round and pulled up by a clearing in the forest. There were no Woodlarks singing when we arrived, so we stopped to scan the paddocks opposite. A small group of Redwings was feeding down on the grass and a single bright male Brambling was in with some Chaffinches.

A Green Woodpecker was yaffling from somewhere in the trees – it was unusually vocal this morning and its calls followed us round continually all the time we were here. A pair of Marsh Tits called to each other but moved through the trees in the back of the parking area very quickly. A Treecreeper paused slightly longer, working its way up the trunks of a couple of the trees before flying off.

Once the drizzle had stopped, we set off to walk round the clearing. There was no shortage of Yellowhammers here this morning – singing, calling, perching very obligingly in the tops of the trees. But we couldn’t find any sign of the Woodlarks, either round the clearing or feeding in the field next door where they can usually be found. Given the weather, they had probably gone off to find somewhere sheltered. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the trees across the field.

We decided to try our luck in the next clearing a little further down the ride into the forest. At first, here too all we could find were more Yellowhammers but as we walked along the back of the clearing a pair of Woodlarks came in over the trees behind us. We watched as they fluttered across, short-tailed, and appeared to drop down on the edge of the ride.

When we got back round to the ride, we could see the male Woodlark perched on a tussock on the verge. We got it in the scopes and had a good look at it, before it walked quietly into the long grass. We then walked slowly down the ride to where it had disappeared and could now see the pair feeding quietly between the rows of young trees. It was a great opportunity to compare the two – the male with a brighter pale supercilium and rustier ear coverts. We could also see the distinctive way their supercilia met in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – we watched the pair feeding quietly in the grass

While we were watching the Woodlarks, a large flock of Redwings came low over the tops of the pines nearby. They have been on the move recently, coming back across the country ahead of making the journey back to Scandinavia for the breeding season, and these were probably migrants which were stopping off here. A Sparrowhawk shot fast and low out of the trees and across the track.

Rather like buses, there were now Woodlarks everywhere! As we walked back along the ride to the first clearing, we could now hear one singing here too. We found it perched in the top of a tree right at the back, but still through the scope we could see its bill opening and closing as it sang. Then another pair of Woodlarks flew up from the clearing and landed in a tree close to us, where we could see the female was carrying nesting material.

When the female Woodlark dropped down to the ground, the male flew to another tree right by the path, where it perched preening and singing quietly. We had fill the frame views through the scope now, with a good look at its extraordinary long hind claws.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – singing quietly in a tree while the female fed on the ground below

Having finally enjoyed such great views of the Woodlarks, we decided to head straight round to try our luck with Goshawks next. It was still very grey and cloudy, with a fresh wind blowing, but at least there was a vague hint of some paler cloud to the west.

As we parked at a spot overlooking the forest, our prospects didn’t immediately look promising. There were not even any Common Buzzards up now. There were several Skylarks singing, a pair of Lapwings displaying behind us, a Curlew feeding in a recently ploughed strip and two Brown Hares in a field. A large flock of Fieldfares flew in over our heads tchacking loudly and landed in the tops of the trees behind us, where we could get the scopes on them. There were a few more Redwings in with them too – we could hear their teeezing calls as the flew over. More winter thrushes on the move.

Gradually, one or two Common Buzzards came up although they were not gaining any great height this morning. A few crumbs of encouragement perhaps. Then the clouds changed from dark grey to light grey and that was all that was needed. A male Goshawk circled up out of the trees. Its white undertail coverts were fluffed out and it started to fly with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, displaying.

That would have been good enough on its own today, but then another Goshawk appeared over the trees closer to us. Through the scopes we could see this one was browner above and more buffy-coloured below, a young bird from last year, now in its second calendar year, and it was big too, a female. It started to display as well, presumably the reason why the male had come up to remind the youngster that this was its territory. We could get both birds in the scopes displaying at one point, and then the male turned and chased after the young female, and we lost sight of both of them behind the trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – this 2cy female was one of 4 up this morning

Scanning over the trees again now, we realised there was another pair of Goshawks up displaying much further over. We had gone from none to four up displaying in a matter of minutes. A distant Marsh Harrier circling up was more of a surprise to see here. Then the young female Goshawk appeared above the tops of the trees in front of us again and we turned our attention back to that. It had clearly not learnt its lesson!

Eventually, when the last Goshawk disappeared from view, we decided to move on. Someone told us there had been a couple of Stone Curlews around earlier, so we decided to go looking to see if we could find them. They are only just returning now. As we drove up the road, several Roe Deer were flushed out of the trees by a truck driving through them and scattered out across the fields beside the road. A couple of Shelduck were on the edge of a flooded dip in a field beside the road.

Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Stone Curlews now (we were warned there had been a Land Rover driving across the field earlier) and all we could find were a couple of Oystercatchers. We tried another nearby field they often favour, but there was no sign of any there either, although we did find a pair of Grey Partridge in the gateway to the field opposite. Back round the other side of the first field, another quick scan failed too. One or two Tree Sparrows were calling in the hedge here.

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way over to Brandon. With the sun now just about shining, it was nice eating out on the picnic tables, where a Nuthatch was piping in the trees. Afterwards, a quick walk down to the lake produced a couple of pairs of Mandarin Ducks, with one of them feeding out on the grass and the other on the water in the reeds. A Goldcrest was singing in the fir trees above us.

Mandarin

Mandarin Duck – a smart drake, one of four birds still today

We didn’t want to run the risk of missing the Hawfinches, so we made our way straight round to Lynford Arboretum after lunch. As we walked in along the track, two people waved at us from the gate to say a Hawfinch was showing from there. When we got over, there was indeed a female Hawfinch down on the ground not very far from us. A great view!

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – this female was on the ground in front of the gate when we arrived

All the birds spooked and flew up into the trees, but after a minute or so the Hawfinch dropped down again, just a little further back. We watched it hopping around, picking at the seed put down in the leaves for a couple of minutes before everything spooked again. We waited for a while, watching all the other birds coming and going, but the Hawfinch did not come back a third time.

There were plenty of other birds here though – with several Bramblings feeding down with the Chaffinches. They have been in short supply this winter, so it is always great to see some and one or two were very close again today. There were several Yellowhammers too, a Nuthatch, and a selection of tits, all coming down to feed.

Brambling

Brambling – good views of several of these too, from the gate

Despite having enjoyed good views of the female Hawfinch from the gate, we still headed down to the paddocks to see if we could see some more. There were at least six more here, including at least four smart males, more richly chestnut coloured than the greyer-brown females. They were all up in the hornbeams when we arrived, so we got the scopes on them and admired their huge, cherry stone-cracking bills.

It was hard to tell exactly how many there were, with some hidden in amongst the tangles of branches and with other birds flying back and forth between the trees. Some of the Hawfinches then flew over to the first hornbeam and dropped down to feed on the ground. We had good views of a male and female feeding together here.

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – we watched some feeding under the trees in the paddocks

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the Hawfinches and we walked back to the bridge. There had been no food put out when we walked down, but we had sprinkled a couple of generous handfuls of sunflower seeds out earlier and there was now a steady procession of birds coming and going.

As well as the ever present Blue Tits and Great Tits, a couple of Long-tailed Tits popped in briefly and a Marsh Tit kept darting in and out. A Nuthatch would have come in too, but some people were standing too close to the pillar and it kept shooting past and not stopping, landing instead in the trees either side. There were several Siskins in the alders here too.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – reluctant to come in to the seed, with people standing too close

A Little Grebe was laughing madly from the reeds in the lake behind us, so we had a quick walk down beside the water. We couldn’t find the Little Grebe in the reeds but we did find another one diving under the overhanging branches in the middle of the lake. We got the scope on a drake Gadwall to admire the intricacy of the patterns of its feathers.

As we made our way back through the Arboretum, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl in its usual tree. There was only one here today, and it was well hidden in the branches high in the tree, but after some trial and error we found a good angle where we could get a half decent view of it through the scopes. A Goldcrest was flitting around high in the fir trees above us while we were watching it.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – just one today, well hidden in its usual tree

We still had enough time to fit in a quick trip up to Fincham to see if we could see the Great Grey Shrike. There was no one else there when we arrived and no sign of the shrike on the wires, but as we pulled up by a gap in the hedge we scanned across the field beside us and could see it perched in the top of a young oak tree over the far side. We all piled out and had good views of it through the scopes. A scarce winter visitor here from Scandinavia, it may not be too long now before it heads off on its journey back north.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – perched in the top of a young oak tree when we arrived

After a while, the Great Grey Shrike flew across to another tree, where we could still just see it through the lower branches of a big oak closer to us. After some last admiring glances, it was time to head back. It was a suitably good bird to wrap up another good day’s birding in the Brecks.

12th Mar 2020 – More Brecks Birding

Another Private Tour in the Brecks today, with a different group. It was a very windy day again, with gusts over 40mph for much of the day. At least it was mostly bright, and the only blustery shower we came across was while we were driving. We had a good day out regardless, as we usually do, and saw a nice selection of Breckland birds.

It was rather quiet this morning, as we pulled up by a large clearing on the edge of the forest, with no birds singing. Scanning the paddocks opposite produced a small flock of Meadow Pipits still. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were out on the short grass further over, by the edge of the trees, and a lone Redwing was nearby.

We heard Woodlarks calling and turned round to see three flying up from the middle of the clearing. They appeared to land over the far side, where it was a bit more sheltered, so we walked round to see if we could find them. Several Yellowhammers flew up from the edge of the clearing and up into the pines. We could hear Woodlark singing quietly and it didn’t take long to find them feeding down in the vegetation.

Woodlark

Woodlark – one of a pair feeding quietly in the clearing

There was a pair of Woodlarks walking around together, the female feeding constantly while the male kept stopping to look around from a low perch, a small tussock or clod of earth, singing quietly. They gradually worked their way closer to the path, and we had a great look at them through the scope – we could see the way their white supercilia met in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck and the black and white feather pattern on the bend of the wing.

Eventually, the Woodlarks flew up and dropped back down further back out of view. We walked back to where we had parked, stopping to look at a pair of Yellowhammers in the trees on our way.

There had been some brighter intervals early on, but it clouded over as we drove round to our next stop, where we had hoped to look for Goshawks. It was exposed here and we could feel the full force of the wind. There were just one or two Common Buzzards up this morning, much fewer than usual, and it looked like we might be out of luck. Still, we found some shelter in the lee of the bus and decided to give it a few minutes. Three Skylarks came up from the field in front and hovered low over the crop and we could see several more over the grass behind us. A single Shelduck flew past high over the trees.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long before a Goshawk appeared over the trees. It came over towards us, a young bird, one of last year’s broods, hanging in the wind. It was up for a couple of minutes, flying back and forth giving us a chance to get a good look at it, before it turned and dropped back behind the trees out of view.

Goshawk

Goshawk – this young bird came up for a couple of minutes

In other circumstances, we would normally stay here for a while watching the Goshawks but given the conditions today we decided to bank that one and head on to try something else. We drove round to Fincham to look for the Great Grey Shrike. On our way, we stopped to look at a large flock of gulls loafing in a field which had recently been cultivated – mostly Black-headed Gulls, but in with them were quite a few Common Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull.

When we got there, we found another couple of people already looking from their cars and we spoke to one of them who had been there for an hour and a half without success. We drove slowly up the road, scanning the wires and the hedges, and we did find a large group of Roe Deer out in one of the fields, several Brown Hares, a pair of Egyptian Geese and some Lapwings.

The shrike had undoubtedly found somewhere sheltered, out of the wind and out of sight of the road. We didn’t fancy sitting in the bus scanning, with no idea if or when it might reappear, so we decided to move on. As we drove slowly back down the road, a Red Kite was hanging over the trees in the distance.

We did find a pair of Grey Partridges in the edge of the field. The male ducked down as we pulled up and tried to hide behind a large pile of mud and stones, but we could still see its orange face looking out. Then both of them ran and flew out into the middle of the field where they ducked down again and were instantly camouflaged against the earth.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – the male ducked down but we could see it looking out at us

We drove through a sharp shower now, but it had passed over and brightened up by the time we arrived at Santon Downham. We walked up to the churchyard, but the tall firs and bushes around the edge were getting caught by the wind.

We thought we might have more luck walking down through the trees, but it was quiet here too. We did have a pair of Marsh Tits feeding low down in the bushes as we got back towards the road. There was nothing on the river from the bridge, but a Nuthatch was calling up in the poplars and a Goldcrest was singing in the firs and showed very well feeding on one of the outer branches.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – showed very well in the fir trees by the bridge

We went round to Brandon for lunch. It was sunny now and sheltered in the trees, so we sat out on the picnic tables and watched the comings and goings at the feeders. We had a nice comparison of Coal Tit and Marsh Tit side by side, on several occasions on the same feeder together. A pair of Nuthatches dropped in, the more richly coloured male co-ordinated against the orange trunk of a Scots Pine. The female took a peanut from one of the feeders, forced into into the bark of the tree and proceeded to hammer at it in situ to break bits off.

After lunch, we walked down to the lake. As well as all the Mallards, there were two pairs of Mandarin Ducks in residence. One pair were hiding in the shade on the platform of the duck house, but the other pair were over under the bank on the far side when we arrived and then swam over towards us, allowing us to admire them in the sunshine out in the middle of the water. Smart birds!

Mandarins

Mandarin Ducks – this pair swam out into the sunshine

While we were admiring the Mandarins, we turned round and noticed a Treecreeper feeding very low down on the trunk of an old silver birch in the lawn behind us. We watched as it picked its way around probing in the crevices and at one point it obviously found something as it stopped to have a really good root around. More typically, it then disappeared round the back of the tree, though thankfully not before we had enjoyed a really good look at it.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – probing in the bark of an old silver birch down by the lake

Our destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. Once again, we made our way straight down to the paddocks to look for the Hawfinches. We had been told on the way down that they were feeding under the first hornbeam, but when we arrived there were no birds at all on the ground there and it looked rather quiet.

We continued on to the next gap in the hedge and looked across to the second hornbeam. Scanning the branches carefully, we found first one and then a second Hawfinch in amongst them, both females. We got the scope on them and watched them for a few minutes, admiring their huge cherry stone-cracking bills, and then a male appeared in between them, more richly chestnut coloured.

Looking across to the first Hornbeam, we spotted two more Hawfinches fly down to feed on the ground below. Two more females, the light was much better looking in this direction although they could be hard to see at times – remarkable how such a large finch could disappear into the short vegetation! One of the birds then flew over from the second hornbeam and perched half way up in the bushes above them.

The others came up too, and we could now see three Hawfinches together, two females and a male. They were perched in the sunshine and it was a really good view of them here now. The male had been feeding on the buds and hopped over to feed one of the females at one point.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – the brighter male perched in the afternoon sunshine

Having enjoyed great views of the Hawfinches, we walked back to the bridge. There were several Siskins flitting around in the trees above and lots of birds coming and going from the seed put out on the various piers and posts. We had good views of a selection of tits, Nuthatch, Chaffinches and a pair of Reed Buntings here.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming down to the food put out at the bridge

We could hear a Little Grebe laughing madly from the lake behind us, so we had a short walk down the path beside it. We could only just see the head of the Little Grebe deep in the reeds, but we did see a smart pair of Gadwall. Continuing on to the back of the hall, there were several Greylags and Canada Geese on the lawn. A Moorhen walking along the far edge of the water looked very smart, its yellowish legs shining in the afternoon sun.

Walking back up through the Arboretum, we stopped to admire the two Tawny Owls which were roosting high in their usual tree. We had a good view through the scope – fill the frame views!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – one of the two roosting in their usual tree again

There hadn’t been very many birds feeding from the gate on our way down, there didn’t look to be much food left on the ground today, but there were more birds in the trees around the orchard. We stopped to admire all the Yellowhammers perched in amongst the white blackthorn blossom and noticed a couple of Bramblings feeding on the buds there. A brighter male kept dropping down out of view, but a female appeared right on the outside of one of the bushes and showed well for everyone.

While we were watching the birds by the orchard, someone now sprinkled a couple of handfuls of fresh seed down just beyond the gate. It didn’t take long for the birds to find it, and we stopped here to admire several smart Yellowhammers which dropped down to feed.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – coming down to food in front of the gate

We still had a short time before we were due to finish, so we drove a short distance to a nearby location to try for Firecrest. We thought it might be sheltered here in the trees, but the firs on the edge were getting caught by the wind and the box bushes underneath were in the shade. It was quiet in the trees, but there were more birds on the edge. We stopped to look at a flock of tits – Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits – but couldn’t find anything else feeding with them, apart from one or two Chaffinches.

It was time to call it a day now. Despite the wind, we had seen a great variety of birds and enjoyed an interesting day out exploring the Brecks.

11th Mar 2020 – Breckland Birding

A Private Tour today, down in The Brecks. It was a bright morning, clouding over a bit in the afternoon but staying dry, with the wind becoming more blustery in the afternoon.

As we pulled up alongside a large forest clearing, we looked over the other side to see a Woodlark in the paddocks. As we got out, another flew over calling, circled round over the edge of the clearing and landed in a tree behind us. We got the scope on the paddocks and could now see there was a pair feeding there in the short grass. While we were watching them, another Woodlark started singing a little further over and we watched it in song-flight, fluttering into the breeze up against the patchy blue sky.

There were some other birds around the paddocks too. A flock of Meadow Pipits was feeding in the grass beyond the Woodlarks and a Mistle Thrush appeared on the track at the front. Two smart male Bramblings dropped down to feed nearby. They have been in short supply this winter, with few comparatively coming over from Scandinavia this year, and the few we have had hear will soon be heading back north.

As we walked along the path on the edge of the clearing, we heard a Woodlark singing above us and watched as it dropped down into the field the other side. It joined a female which was already on the ground and we got the scope on the pair of them as they fed in the short spring crop. They gradually worked their way towards us and we had a good view now of the distinctive head pattern and the black and white patch on the edge of the wing.

Woodlark

Woodlark – we had great views of a pair feeding in the field by the clearing

There were several Yellowhammers around the clearing too, and we could hear them calling and singing and saw one or two perched up in the trees. As we made our way back to the minibus, a Green Woodpecker was yaffling somewhere in the trees.

We had done so well for Woodlarks, and seen them so quickly this morning, that we now had a little extra time to call in at another ride briefly. We could hear lots of Redwings singing in the trees by the parking area as we set off. There were lots of Blackbirds in there too and we could see some of the Redwings flying in and out of a thick tangle of bushes. Presumably they had roosted here overnight.

As we walked in along the ride, a kronking call alerted us to two Ravens flying in, which appeared briefly low over the trees beside us before they turned and banked away out of view. Raven is still a rare bird in this part of the country, so this was a nice bonus this morning. A Chiffchaff was singing in a scrubby overgrown young plantation the other side of the track, the first we have heard this year and possibly a returning spring migrant. A flock of Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests was flitting around in the small trees too.

We walked on into the edge of the pines and stopped by the feeding table. There were lots of tits coming and going, including lots of Coal Tits and several Marsh Tits too. We could only spend a short time here this morning, as our main priorities lay elsewhere, but there was no sight nor sound of any Willow Tits while we were there today.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were lots coming and going from the feeding table

Our next target for the day was Goshawk, so we drove round and parked at a high point overlooking the forest. It was bright, but a bit more exposed and breezier here, chilly in the wind. Still, several Common Buzzards were already up and we didn’t have to wait too long before two distant Goshawks circled up above the trees. One drifted off left away from us, but the other came right, over the back of the trees in front of us, before eventually dropping down out of view behind the tops.

It was a good start, but with the bright conditions we still hoped we might get one closer or in display flight, so we continued scanning. A distant Sparrowhawk came up, much smaller than the Goshawks, and gave us a quick burst of rollercoaster display, giving us more hope, and a Kestrel was hovering out over the field behind. There were several Skylarks in the sky singing too and Yellowhammers in and out of the cover strip in the field in front.

Then another Goshawk circled up out of the trees in front of us, closer this time. It had its fluffy white undertail coverts ‘flagged’, puffed out and wrapped round its tail, which instantly stood out. It started displaying, slow flapping, with deep, powerful, exaggerated wingbeats.

Goshawk

Goshawk – came up displaying over the trees

We watched the Goshawk displaying over the tops of the trees for a couple of minutes, before it lost height and disappeared down over the trees to our left. Great stuff and we hadn’t even had to wait too long today. We decided to move on.

We drove down to Santon Downham and parked in the Forestry Commission car park. We had received a message to say that the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had been very elusive this morning, just heard calling very occasionally over the last couple of hours and not seen since very early first thing. Still we decided to have quick look along the river anyway, as it can be nice along there at this time of year and we thought we might see some different things.

Siskin

Siskin – singing in the gardens by the bridge

A Siskin was singing in a pine tree in one of the gardens, as we walked down to the bridge, and a couple more were on the feeders which have now been restocked. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming from deep in the poplars by the road. As we set off along the river bank, a Kingfisher flew out from the bank as we passed calling, and zipped off downstream.

It was the middle of the day, but it was still rather quiet along here now. We heard a Marsh Tit singing and a Nuthatch calling in the trees. We had a quick listen where the woodpeckers have been seen at times in the last few weeks, but there was nothing happening here. Given others’ experiences this morning, we didn’t linger and walked back for lunch.

We stopped for lunch by the church. The wind had picked up a bit now and was catching the trees in the back of the churchyard, so perhaps not surprisingly there was no sign of the Firecrest. Still, it was a nice place to sit on the bench in the sunshine and eat. A Sparrowhawk zipped through the tops of the firs.

After lunch, we made our way round to Lynford. As we crossed the road, someone had put some food down under a bush by the entrance, and a Nuthatch was trying to come in but reluctant to do so with people passing close by. It perched calling in a nearby tree. We had a quick look from the gate under the trees. There was some more seed out today and more birds coming down to feed, with at least six Bramblings including a couple of bright orange-breasted males.

Brambling

Brambling – at least six were feeding from the gate as we walked down

We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the Hawfinches, so we continued on down to the paddocks. There were a few Chaffinches under the first of the trees in the middle and after scanning for a few minutes one female Hawfinch appeared with them, quickly joined by a second. We watched them for a bit, feeding down in the grass, then everything flushed.

The Hawfinches flew into the next hornbeam over so we walked on to the next gap in the hedge. We could see at least five Hawfinches now and we got the scope on two of them in the tops, before they gradually moved across into the thicker ash trees and got harder to see. There were other birds in the trees here too, a Mistle Thrush and lots of Redwings, to have a look at. Then when we heard a Hawfinch calling back in the first tree, we turned to see a smart male perched right in the top.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – a smart male perched in the top of one of the hornbeams, calling

The male perched calling for a minute or two, then flew across into the ash trees to join the others. Most of the Hawfinches disappeared into the tangle of branches and all seemed to have gone quiet before we picked up two flying out of the back of the trees, heading off to roost. Good timing!

We made our way back to the bridge now, where there were lots of tits coming in to the food on the pillars. We had very good views of Marsh Tits here and a Nuthatch which shot in from time to time to grab a bill full of seeds, mostly when we were looking the other way!

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – eyeing up the sunflower seeds put out at the bridge

There were Siskins in the trees above and a Reed Bunting on the ground by the lake. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling and a Treecreeper put in a very brief appearance. A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers chased each other through the tops of the poplars high above us.

As we walked back, we stopped to look at the two Tawny Owls which were roosting in their usual tree.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – one of the two roosting together in their usual tree

Back up at the gate, there was still lots of activity, with birds coming and going from the seed on the ground among the leaves. We stopped again and watched the Bramblings and Yellowhammers, among all the tits and Chaffinches.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – coming down to the seed in the leaves in front of the gate

There was one last treat in store to finish the day, the grand finale at Fincham. As we pulled into the drove, we scanned the wires ahead of us and there was the Great Grey Shrike, perched a little further up beside the road. We pulled up and got the scopes on it. It dropped down several times and back up again, hunting. Then it flew out to a couple of isolated bushes on the far edge of the field.

We walked a little further up too, and got it in the scopes again. It was still hunting very actively, dropping down to the ground repeatedly. Then on one of its sorties, it suddenly set off low over the ground and we watched as it chased after and caught a bumble bee. It took it back to its favourite bush and after subduing it, dropped down through the branches and impaled it to eat later. Great Grey Shrikes are not known as ‘butcher birds’ for nothing!

Great Grey Shrike 1

Great Grey Shrike – switched to hovering out over the field, hunting

The Great Grey Shrike seemed to shift hunting tactics now, and kept flying out from the bushes and hovering out over the field, a couple of metres up from the ground, scanning for prey. Very interesting to watch. Eventually it flew back onto the wires, just a short distance up the road from where we were standing and we had even closer views of it through the scope.

Great Grey Shrike 2

Great Grey Shrike – flew back to the wires, much closer to where we were standing

It was a great way to finish the day, watching the Great Grey Shrike here. But it was time to wrap things up now and head back, so we left the shrike to its hunting and headed for home.

6th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 1

Day 1 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour today. We were lucky with the weather, mostly bright with sunny intervals and a light N wind, although there was a chill in the air. We spent the day down in The Brecks.

It was a slow journey down this morning, stuck first behind a tractor and then behind a very slow-moving lorry and with a road closure to contend with first thing too. So we were a little later than planned when we arrived at the car park in Santon Downham. A Greenfinch was wheezing in the trees as we got out of the minibus. A Coal Tit was singing down by the road as we walked towards the bridge, but there was no food in the feeders by the road so few birds in the gardens.

As we set off along the path by the river, a Grey Wagtail flew over calling. We could hear a Woodlark singing further back too, and several Siskins overhead. A Reed Bunting flew up and landed in the sallows by the path. We were hoping to find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker this morning, but the small crowd gathered on the bank told us that there had been no sign for at least the last 1 1/2 hours. We stood with them for a while, but with nothing doing here, we decided to walk on a little further.

Our efforts were instantly rewarded with the distinctive ‘kee,kee,kee’ call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker from deeper in the trees. We stopped and scanned but couldn’t see anything and while we were listening to try to hear it again we received a message to say what was presumably the same bird had flown in back where we had been standing earlier. We hurried back, but the first people we got to had lost sight of it, and then next thing we knew it flew out of the tree tops and over our heads, disappearing into the sun across the river.

There was lots of action in the alders across the river, loads of Siskins and Redwings singing. We could see quite a few Redwings flying around lower down in the trees and got one in the scope. A female Mandarin was hiding in amongst the bottom of the trees, where the river had flooded over. But we couldn’t see any sign of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker now.

We waited a while to see if it might come back. We could hear a Marsh Tit singing and the piping calls of several Nuthatches which we saw flying in and out of the trees, above our heads. A Kingfisher shot past upstream. We were just about to leave when we heard the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker again, drumming from deeper in the trees further along and back on our side of the river. But it went quiet again and despite waiting another 15 minutes, it didn’t show itself again.

As we walked back, a Muntjac was grazing on the bank beyond the bridge. We took the path up through the trees towards the churchyard, where a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees and we could see it against the sky.

There had been a Firecrest in the churchyard earlier, but we met some other locals there who hadn’t seen it. We had just stopped to talk to them when we saw a small bird fly in to the sunny edge of trees. The Firecrest! It was low down in a box bush, at about eye level, and gave some great views as it flitted in and out of the branches. The light was perfect too and its bright golden yellow crown stripe was shining in the sun.

Firecrest

Firecrest – showed very well in the churchyard

The Firecrest flew across and landed in a conifer in the corner of the churchyard closest to us. We could see the striking black and white striped face pattern which distinguishes Firecrest from its close cousin, the Goldcrest.

With that target secured so easily, we decided to make our way back to the car park and head off for lunch. When we got out to the road, we noticed a bat flying round, in and out of the trees on the green opposite. Not what we expect to see in the middle of the day in early March! It appeared as if it might have prominent ‘ears’ as it zipped around overhead, but looking at the blurry photos afterwards they were not as obvious, and it was most like a Pipistrelle sp.

We made our way round to Brandon for lunch. There were lots of tits coming and going from the feeders as we ate out in the picnic tables in the sunshine, and a Nuthatch calling in the trees. Afterwards, we made our way down to the lake. A pair of Mandarin Ducks were loafing on the ledge of the duck house but it was hard to get a clear angle on them through the reeds. Thankfully, there was another pair over the far side, out of the reeds along the edge. We walked round and, predictably, they swam straight over to where we had just been, but then more helpfully came out into the open for us as we got back round.

Mandarin

Mandarin – a very smart drake on the lake

Our destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. We met someone in the car park who told us the Hawfinches were showing very well in the paddocks, so we headed straight down there to make sure we caught up with them, in case they flew off. Thankfully, several of the Hawfinches were still feeding in the grass below one of the hornbeams out in the middle and we quickly got the scopes on them and admired their enormous, cherry-stone-cracking bills.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – feeding in the grass below the trees in the paddocks

It was hard to tell how many Hawfinches there were down on the ground here, but we counted at least four, including a couple of very smart, bright, richly coloured males. We could see several Chaffinches feeding with them. There were also a couple of Mistle Thrushes and several Redwings feeding out on the grass beyond, so we got the scopes on those too.

When something spooked all the birds from under the trees, they flew up and across to the next tree over. We walked up to the next gap in the hedge and got the scope on a couple of Hawfinches perched up in the branches in the sunshine. We could see at least three there when another five flew into the back of the same tree, making at least eight Hawfinches in total.

Having enjoyed some great views of the Hawfinches, we made our way back to the bridge. There was some seed spread out on the tops of the pillars, which we had topped up on our way past earlier. There was a steady stream of tits coming and going, and we had some great views of Marsh Tits here, as usual.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming in to the seed put out on the bridge

There were lots of Siskins flying in and out of the trees above the bridge here too. We watched a Treecreeper climbing up the trunks of the alders opposite, before flying down to the base of the next one and starting again. A Nuthatch in the trees wouldn’t come in to the food today – probably put off by a combination of all of us standing on the bridge and a couple of photographers stood very close to the pillars.

We could hear Little Grebes cackling at us from the lake behind us, so after watching the comings and goings at the bridge for a bit, we had a short walk round on the path. We found one of the Little Grebes, hiding in the edge of the reeds. There were several pairs of Gadwall out on the water too, and a mixture of Canada Geese and Greylags squabbling with each other on the lawns behind the Hall. A Great Spotted Woodpecker posed nicely in the top of a tree on the far side of the lake and we had some much better views of several Siskins in the alders along the path.

Siskin

Siskin – showing well in the alders by the lake

Back over the bridge to the Arboretum, the Tawny Owls were in their usual tree, the two of them roosting side by side high in the spruce tree today. We had a look at them from the path, where they were very difficult to see until you knew where you were looking, and then got some better views from the other side.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – the two were roosting side by side in the usual tree today

Walking back up along the path through the arboretum, we stopped again at the gate. The feeders are still empty but there was not much seed on the ground either today. Consequently, there were fewer birds than normal coming and going. One or two Yellowhammers dropped down briefly, but we found more of them in the bushes on the edge of the orchard the other side, perched in the white blossom and dropping down into the long grass between the fruit trees.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – mostly in the trees on the edge of the orchard today

A Brambling dropped down to the pool in front of the gate for a drink and then perched briefly on a branch above. But it flew off before everyone could get onto it. We thought that was it before more appeared higher up in the beech trees and we all got a good look at one or two. There have been very few here this winter – probably they have stayed on the continent this year.

We still had just enough time for a quick look at the gravel pits.  There were several Tufted Ducks, a pair of Great Crested Grebes, and more geese on the first one we checked. A drake Wigeon asleep in the grass at the back was more of a surprise here and a welcome bonus on today’s list. On the pit the other side, a Coot was in with the Tufted Ducks, another Great Crested Grebe was closer in on the edge of the reeds, and a distant Cormorant was busy diving over at the back.

It had been a good start to the tour today, but it was now time to head for home, with a bonus couple of Barn Owls out hunting on the way. We would be back down for more in the Brecks tomorrow!

22nd Feb 2020 – Rescheduled Owls

An Owl Tour today, the last one of winter 2020. After having to cancel last weekend’s Owl Tour, as Storm Dennis lashed the UK with high winds, the day was rescheduled to today. Unfortunately, the forecast deteriorated in the day or two beforehand and now winds were forecast to be very gusty again today. And, as it turned out, they were actually much stronger than expected (the forecast is never to be relied upon!), with gusts up to 56mph in the morning. But having agreed to meet up, we decided to carry on regardless and have a go. By the end, we were all very glad we did, as we had a very good day and managed to see a great selection of owls, despite the wind.

After a very windy night, it was perhaps not surprising that there were no Barn Owls out hunting on our drive down to the meeting point this morning. Undaunted, we drove down to the marshes to see if we could find one hiding in a sheltered spot. But it was still very blustery here and there was no sign of any owls.

One of the first birds we did see was a Spoonbill, flying west out across the marshes. They have already been returning ahead of the breeding season in the last couple of weeks and number are slowly starting to build along the coast here. This one was probably just on its way back.

There were a few raptors up now. A Red Kite appeared briefly above the trees, and two Marsh Harriers circled up over the reeds. A Sparrowhawk zipped fast and low over the grass, too quick for most of the group to get onto it. The mob of immature Mute Swans was out in the wet grass again, along with a pair of Egyptian Geese. A flock of Meadow Pipits flew over, and a Reed Bunting came up from the reeds on the edge of the ditch.

We drove inland to check out some more sheltered meadows, but there were no Barn Owls here either. We would have another chance later in the afternoon, so hoping the wind would drop, we decided to turn our attention to Tawny Owls instead. As we parked by a field, three Oystercatchers were feeding in the winter wheat next door. We walked down the footpath to the edge of the wood. It was sheltered from the wind on this side, and there were a few rays of early brightness hitting the trees. Several Goldfinches and Chaffinches flew out of the branches above our heads.

We stopped to check out some tits in the trees and a Nuthatch flew across between the branches. When it landed on a bough, a second Nuthatch flew in to join it. A larger bird which flew out briefly to a lower bough was a Great Spotted Woodpecker and then a Treecreeper appeared too, working its way along the underside of one of the larger limbs of the tree. To round it off, a Goldcrest appeared with the tits in the bottom of a pine tree, right in front of us.

When the birds gradually disappeared back into the trees, we continued on down the footpath. As we rounded the corner, we walked out into the full face of the wind again. We wondered whether the Tawny Owl would be in its usual tree hole today, given the wind, but thankfully it was a little more sheltered on the far side. And there was the Tawny Owl, dozing in its hole. We got the scope on it and had a good look.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – in its usual tree hole again today, despite the wind

It was nice to see our first owl of the day, and as one of the most nocturnal of our regular owls, it is always a real treat to see a Tawny Owl during the daylight hours. Having admired it for a while, we set off back along the path. Two Mistle Thrushes had flown over the trees earlier, and as we walked back, they came up from the field the other side. A Song Thrush was singing in the trees, despite the wind.

We headed further inland to look for Little Owls next. It was always going to be an outside chance we could find one today, given the weather, and there was no sign of any at the first three sites we checked. Then it started to rain, which was the final nail in the coffin. We drove on west, out of the worst of the squally shower, but it was still spitting as we checked out a couple more sets of barns, to no avail. Another Sparrowhawk took off from the hedge ahead of us, skimming low over the road before flicking up over the hedge the other side. There were lots of Brown Hares in the fields, mostly hunkered down today, rather than boxing.

As we drove down towards the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at a sugar beet field which had been harvested earlier in the winter. A couple of Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a patch of beet which had been left in a damp corner and another one was in the long grass on the edge of the field. There were a couple of pairs of Egyptian Geese here too.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – one of three in the old beet field on our way to the Wash

Making our way out to the edge of the Wash at Snettisham, a female Goldeneye was busy diving on the sailing club pit. When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was out, and we were presented with a vast expanse of mud. There were a few waders still closer in – Curlew, Redshank, Grey Plover and Knot, but most of the Dunlin were further out. We stopped to admire some of the closer birds in the scope, although it was not a place to linger today, given the wind. There was a liberal scattering of Shelduck over the mud too.

Our main target here was the owls, so we continued on round to see if we could find any. It didn’t take long to find one of the Short-eared Owls, tucked well in to a bramble bush, looking out. It was mostly dozing, its eyes closed. We got it in the scope, but it was very windy and hard to keep the scope steady. It was a little more sheltered a bit further down the path, so we stopped for a second look.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the brambles again

Continuing on round, we found a second Short-eared Owl roosting in the sparser brambles, back in its usual spot. A slightly paler individual, it stood out more against the vegetation. Again, it was mostly dozing but did wake up briefly at one point, flashing its yellow eyes.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – the second one of the morning, roosting in the brambles

It was good to be back on track with some owls now. After admiring the Short-eared Owls for a while, we decided to head back. A Cetti’s Warbler was singing half-heartedly in the dense brambles on the seawall, sensibly keeping tucked well in.

Making our way back along the seawall, we found a lot of the Dunlin were closer in now, a bit further north towards the start of the chalets. There has been a single Little Stint wintering here, one of probably only a handful wintering in the country, although with all the thousands of waders looking for it can be a bit reminiscent of needles in haystacks. We have mostly seen the Little Stint off Rotary Hide, but surprisingly we found it again, further up here today. It seemed to be mostly keeping to itself, running around on the mud, although it was getting blown around quite a bit in the wind.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud again, but a bit further up today

As we passed the sailing club pits, there were several Goldeneye now including a nice close male. We stopped to admire its glossy green head, bold white cheek patch, and bright golden yellow eye – whenever it resurfaced from its regular dives. More of a surprise, a darker duck on the pit further up was an immature drake Common Scoter. They are mostly sea ducks and not often seen on the pools here, and had presumably been blown in on the wind.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – a smart drake, diving on the pits

We made our way over to Titchwell next, for a break for lunch and a welcome hot drink. The ever helpful staff in the Visitor Centre told us that the Woodcock had been showing again this morning, so after lunch we made our way round to Meadow Trail. There were a few people already there who pointed out where it was. The Woodcock was very well hidden today, roosting down among the moss-covered branches, but from the right angle it was possible to get it in the scope for some frame-filling views.

Woodcock

Woodcock – roosting down among the moss-covered branches

Continuing on round to Patsys Reedbed, there were a few ducks out on the water here, mainly a small group of Gadwall and several Common Pochard, but we couldn’t see the drake Red-crested Pochard which was seen here earlier. We got the scope on a drake Gadwall so we could admire the intricacy of its feather patterning. Not just a dull grey bird – the connoisseur’s duck!

There were several Marsh Harriers up over the reedbed, with at least four together at one point, hanging in the wind. One landed on a small bush, where we could get a good look at it in the scope. More Marsh Harriers were further back, over Brancaster Marsh. A Kestrel landed on a tree just in front of the viewpoint too. A Common Buzzard was up along the ridge inland, where four Roe Deer were lying down in one of the fields.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – one of four up together over the reedbed

One of the volunteers told us that the Red-crested Pochard was tucked into the reeds, only visible from the far end of the pool. So we walked down and looked back to see it sleeping with some more Common Pochard. We could see its brighter orange head.

It was quite sheltered round at Patsy’s Reedbed and it seemed like the wind might have dropped. We cut back round onto the main path and when we got out of the shelter of the trees we found it was still very windy, though perhaps not quite as strong as this morning.

We made our way straight up to Island Hide, where we could get out of the wind. There were lots of Teal feeding right in front of the hide, the drakes looking very smart now in their breeding plumage. The numbers of Avocets have been steadily growing, as birds are already returning ahead of the breeding season. Two Black-tailed Godwits were asleep in with the feeding Avocets.

Avocet

Avocet – numbers have been increasing steadily in the last few weeks

There were lots of gulls out on the Freshmarsh, and looking carefully through all the Black-headed Gulls, we found several Mediterranean Gulls in with them. Through the scope, we could see most were starting to get their dark, black hoods, contrasting with their white eyelids, and their bright red bills stood out too. There were several Common Gulls and Herring Gulls with them, and a single yellow-legged Lesser Black-backed Gull too. A Muntjac was working its way along the edge of the reeds.

We didn’t have time to explore the rest of the reserve today. As we walked back past the grazing meadow, there was no sign of the Barn Owl this afternoon, despite it being prime time now for it to be out. Perhaps it was just going to be too windy for them today.

Heading slowly back west, we kept scanning the likely fields, where we know Barn Owls like to hunt. Our luck was in, and as we passed a more sheltered meadow, we spotted a Barn Owl on a post at the back. It took off and flew towards us, but typically a car appeared behind us now and we were pulled up in the middle of the road on a corner.

There was somewhere to pull in further up and we walked back. The Barn Owl was on a post, under the trees, right by the gate now, so we edged our way down, trying not to disturb it. We needn’t have worried too much, as it eventually stayed where it was and didn’t mind us even when we got much closer, to find an angle from where we could get a clear look at it.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our first of the day, dozing on a post

The Barn Owl was dozing. It looked round at us a couple of times, only half opening its eyes, but then tucked its head back in. It looked like it might be unwell, and it would be no surprise if it was struggling to find food at the moment, given the ongoing windy weather. Eventually it did take off again and flew further back to another post, looking round a little more actively. In windy weather, Barn Owls will often hunt from posts, scanning the ground below.

It was great to get our first Barn Owl of the day, and see it so close. Our luck was really in now, as we turned to see another owl hunting over the grass in the middle of the field. It was much browner than a Barn Owl, longer winged, and flying with stiff wing beats and a rowing-like action. It was a Short-eared Owl!

Short-eared Owl 3

Short-eared Owl – a surprise find, out hunting this afternoon

We watched as the Short-eared Owl worked its way round the far end of the meadow, before disappearing back through the trees. This is not a place we normally see them, so we wondered whether it might have come in from the grazing marshes to try to find somewhere more sheltered to hunt. A very nice bonus! While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, we noticed a second Barn Owl perched low down in the trees at the back of the meadow.

Continuing on to Holkham, we stopped again overlooking the grazing marshes. Five Spoonbills flew up as we arrived and disappeared round behind the trees, but as we stood and scanned, more Spoonbills flew in and out in ones and twos. This is another sheltered spot and we found our third Barn Owl of the afternoon, perched on a post on the edge of the marshes. Again it was not flying round hunting, but made its way between a couple of different perches, scanning the ground below.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – perched on a gate on the edge of the grazing marsh

Scanning the ditches and pools, we found a very distant Great White Egret out on the marshes. Then a second appeared from where it was hiding in a rush-lined ditch much closer and we had a good look at its long, snake-like neck and long, dagger-shaped yellow bill.

We could see a very distant group of White-fronted Geese and another small flock flew round calling, mixed in with some Greylags. Then we found some a little closer, out on the grazing marsh, so we could see their black belly bars and white surround to their bills. A flock of tits flew along the hedge behind us, and we picked out a single Goldcrest in with the Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits as they worked their way past.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – out on the grazing marsh

Time was getting on now and the light was starting to go. We hadn’t managed to see a Little Owl this morning, so we decided to have another throw of the dice and have a quick look at one site on our way back, in case one might be out hunting. It was still very windy though, and there was no sign. One to come back for another day! A Chinese Water Deer ran across the field as we drove round, adding to the day’s deer list.

We had done remarkably well for owls today, considering the weather, and everyone agreed we had enjoyed a great day out, with lots of other birds and wildlife too. We were so pleased we hadn’t had to cancel again. The moral of the story – it is always worth going out regardless!

18th Feb 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today. After yet more windy weather over the weekend, as Storm Dennis swept across the country, it was nice that conditions had improved today and we could get out looking for owls. The wind had dropped, although it got more blustery again through the day. It was dry and we even had some bright sunny periods through the morning.

After a prompt get away, we headed straight down to the marshes and before we even got out of the minibus we could see a Barn Owl out hunting over the grass by the road. It did a circuit of the field, round over the edge of the reeds and then disappeared round behind a hedge.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our second of the morning, perched on a post

Walking up onto the bank, we could see another Barn Owl on a fence post down on the marshes the other side. We got the scope on it, and could see it was scanning the long grass below intently. Then it took off, hovered, and dropped sharply down into the vegetation. When it came up again, we could see it had a vole in its bill, which it quickly transferred to its talons. It made a beeline back over the grass towards the trees beyond. At this time of day, Barn Owls are often robbed of their catch and it took evasive action as a Rook flew towards it, before disappearing with its prey back into the wood.

Looking back the other side, there were now two different Barn Owls hunting the fields there. We watched them for a few minutes, until they both disappeared, presumably heading in to roost. A Kestrel flew across and landed in the top of the hedge briefly, the main prey-stealing culprit here!

The other raptors were coming out too now. Two Red Kites drifted out of the trees and across the marshes. A Common Buzzard circled up inland and flew in towards us, mobbed by two Jackdaws. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes in the distance. There were other things to see here as well. A small flock of Curlews were feeding in the grass around a small flood which had appeared after all the recent rains. The local mob of teenage Mute Swans had gathered round it too. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A Song Thrush was in full song back in the trees.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – hunting in the morning sun

The Barn Owl we had seen catch a vole earlier now appeared out of the trees again, presumably having digested its earlier prey. With the low morning sunshine behind us, it was beautiful light as we watched it working its way methodically around the grazing marsh. It dropped down into the grass a couple of times, but didn’t catch anything more. Then it flew back and landed in the trees on the edge of the wood. It perched there for a while, sunning itself, and we watched it in the scope before it dropped down onto a fence post just below. Then it set off again, purposefully, along the edge of the grass, across the road, and then turned sharply and disappeared into the trees.

Presumably, the Barn Owl was heading into roost. It was good that we had managed an early start to catch them out hunting, as there was no sign of any of the three Barn Owls we had seen this morning. We decided to move on. We headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits and Chaffinches in the trees, and one or two Robins in the hedges this morning. As we rounded the corner, two Mistle Thrushes flew out and off across the neighbouring field. A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the breeze in the sunshine.

As we got to the far side of the wood, we turned to look back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there as usual, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got the scope on it and watched as it seemed to stare back out at us. After a while, it closed its eyes and went back to dozing. Tawny Owl may be the commonest of our regular owls but is also the most nocturnal, so it is always a privilege to see one like this in the daytime.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its regular hole again

After enjoying watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to move on. We headed inland to look for Little Owls next. Although the wind had dropped from recent days, there was still a rather brisk and fresh breeze, so we weren’t sure how many would be out enjoying the morning brightness today. At the first site we checked, there was no sign of any owls, but when we pulled up in a gateway overlooking the sheltered side of some barns, we could see a small round shape on the roof.

Once we got out of the minibus and set up the scope, we could see it was indeed a Little Owl, perched in a spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun. A second Little Owl was just a few metres further down the roof, tucked in on the frame of one of the ventilation windows.

Little Owl

Little Owl – one of two, sunning itself on the roof of one of the barns

We had a look at some more barns, a little further up the road, but there were no more Little Owls out today. We were probably lucky to find the two we had seen, given the cool breeze. So we decided to switch our attention to the next owl on our target list – Short-eared Owl.

After the long drive over to the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at some Pink-footed Geese feeding in a strip of unharvested sugar beet in a field by the road down towards the beach at Snettisham. When we got out and up onto the seawall, the tide was out and a vast expanse of grey mud stretched all the way between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, visible in the distance.

When we got down towards Rotary Hide, we set up the scopes. With the tide out, most of the waders were very distant, but there was still a good scattering of Dunlin out on the mud closer to us and several Ringed Plover too. We could see a few Grey Plover and Knot plus one or two Turnstones with them, but despite having a good scan through the birds which were nearer to the shore there was no sign of the Little Stint which we have seen here on previous days. A couple of small groups of Golden Plover flew in and out. There were lots of Shelduck spread out over the mud too.

Our main target here was Short-eared Owl, so we made our way round to check-out the area where they normally like to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler was shouting periodically from the brambles as we passed. At the first set of bushes we scanned, we found one tucked in the brambles. It was dozing, and we couldn’t see its staring yellow eyes from here, but we all had a good look through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – tucked into the brambles today

A bit further on, we stopped to scan again. We couldn’t find any other Short-eared Owls today, but we did have a different view of the first one again. Now it woke up and started preening, and we finally got a chance to see its distinctive yellow eyes, and even its short ‘ear’ tufts at one point.

There were not so many ducks on the pits at first today, but something seemed to spook lots of wildfowl from somewhere and lots flew in and landed on the water. As well as a good number of Wigeon, there were several Shoveler, one or two Gadwall and a few Tufted Ducks. We got the scope on a smart drake Goldeneye, admiring its green head, bold white cheek patch and eponymous bright golden-yellow eye. A Little Grebe was busy diving in the lee of one of the small rocky islets. When something spooked them, a large flock of noisy Greylag Geese flew in off the fields just inland.

On our way back, we stopped again to scan the mud out on the Wash. A Bar-tailed Godwit had now appeared, just beyond the channel, and there were a couple of Grey Plover and a Knot even closer, on the small pools just below us. A careful scan with the scope of the Dunlin failed to produce any sign of the Little Stint, and we were packing up when we looked away to the north and caught sight of a very small, paler wader out on the mud.

Putting the scope up again, we confirmed it was the elusive Little Stint. It was very mobile today though, in the freshening wind, and we had to keep relocating it as it got swept away several times when it took off. It was often in the company of one or two Dunlin or a Turnstone, when it certainly looked small, but it was when it ran past a Curlew that you could really appreciate just how tiny it was! One of probably just a handful of Little Stints wintering in the UK, it seems to like it here – what is probably the same bird has returned to the same area of mud for the last two winters at least. Come the spring, it will be heading off to the arctic to breed.

Grey Plover and Knot

Grey Plover & Knot – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

We were heading to Titchwell to have lunch, but we took a small detour inland to Sedgeford. We were hoping to catch the Eastern Yellow Wagtail here, but there was no sign of it on its currently most favoured muck heap by the road. Another birder driving back from the other muck heap down the lane opposite told us it had not been seen down there either, for several hours at least. We stopped for a minute to watch several Brown Hares chasing round in the stubble field and then continued on our way. We had lots to pack in this afternoon and unfortunately had no time to wait to see if the wagtail might reappear later.

Titchwell was surprisingly busy for midweek and mid-winter, but the picnic tables were free when we arrived so we made good use of one for lunch and a welcome hot drink. We wouldn’t have time to explore the reserve whole today, but we had planned to have a quick look to see if we could see the Woodcock. One of the volunteers coming back to the Visitor Centre told us there was no sign of it now, so we diverted instead out onto the main path, where a Barn Owl had just been seen over the grazing meadow.

The Barn Owl was down in the long grass and rushes when we arrived but after a short wait it came up again. It seemed to be struggling in the freshening wind, and again dropped down into the vegetation for a while. When it came up again, it put on a much better show for us, eventually working its way down over the grass just beyond the fence. It landed briefly on one of the fence posts but was off again almost immediately and disappeared round towards the road.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – hunting over the Thornham grazing meadow

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – put on a good show for us early this afternoon

A Common Buzzard was feeding on something further back in the field while we were watching the Barn Owl, so we got that in the scope too. A second Buzzard was on a fence post just behind and several Red-legged Partridges were in the grass closer to us. When the Barn Owl disappeared, we walked on round via Meadow Trail. A small group of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the cut branches placed on the ground in the trees. We couldn’t find any sign of the Woodcock either now, so we decided to head back to the minibus and move on. The very tame Reeve’s Muntjac was chomping on the grass where the feeders used to be, behind the Visitor Centre.

Back at Holkham, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was whirling round out in the middle as we got out of the minibus. There were several Spoonbills on the pools today. First we found two together, busily feeding with their heads down in the water, sweeping their bills from side to side as they walked round. Three more were much further back, way off towards the pines, but flew in to join them, and a sixth Spoonbill flew out of the trees and disappeared off east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbills – two of six we saw today, feeding busily

For a very large and bright white bird, the Great White Egrets made themselves surprisingly harder to find today. We eventually found one, right back in front of the pines, down in a rushy ditch where it was hard to see until it put its head up. Then if flew up, with slow and heavy wingbeats and landed again behind a sparse line of reeds. All the while, there was a second Great White Egret much closer to us, but it had managed to hide itself completely in the rushes until it eventually walked into view.

There are still quite a few lingering (Russian) White-fronted Geese at Holkham, but there were none down on the grazing marshes today. They were feeding further back, on the grass in the middle of the old Iron Age fort, and we could just see a few of them over the rim of the grassy bank. We thought we might find another Barn Owl or two out hunting here, but there were none out this afternoon.

Our next stop was at Wells. There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard on its usual bushes when we arrived. We got out of the minibus and set off down the track towards the bank and we hadn’t gone too far before the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in. It looked like it would land straight away, but instead flew on, up over the fields towards the Freeman Street car park, flushing all the Brent Geese. It was strikingly pale and, as it turned, we could see its bright white tail with broad black terminal band. It even stopped to hover at one point, rather like an over-sized, slow-motion Kestrel!

Rough-legged Buzzard 1

Rough-legged Buzzard – flew in over the fields

After flying round for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard returned to its normal bushes and landed on the top of one of them. Now, we could get a better look at it through the scope – its very pale white head and neck contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch. It was hard to see its feathered legs though, through the leaves and branches.

Rough-legged Buzzard 2

Rough-legged Buzzard – eventually landed on one of its favourite bushes

We continued on to the bank and stopped to scan the marshes beyond. There were a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and we got them in the scope, noting their dark heads and delicate, mostly dark bills. A passing farmer in a truck seemed like he would have preferred to run us over, although unfortunately we had all stepped to the side to let him pass, and when he drove out across the fields in the distance, he flushed a lot more Pink-footed Geese from over towards the pines. This can be a good place for owls in the late afternoon, but we couldn’t see any here today. It had clouded over progressively though and was no rather grey and cool in the strengthening breeze.

We cut back inland for one last stop on our way back. As we walked down the footpath across the meadow, two more Red Kites and a Common Buzzard hung in the air above the hillside behind us. There was no sign of the regular Barn Owl here this evening – it wasn’t out hunting and we couldn’t see it around the box where it likes to roost either. We were rather later than normal though, so it was hard to tell whether it had already gone off further afield, or was in no hurry to come out tonight given the weather.

We had a quick listen in the trees, but there were no Tawny Owls hooting yet. It is increasingly late before it gets properly dark now, and with the wind and threat of rain approaching, we decided to call it a night and not hang on any longer. Having enjoyed such great views of the Tawny Owl earlier this morning, and four different Barn Owls out hunting,  not to mention the Little Owls and Short-eared Owl, we did not feel like we were short of owls today

7th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 1

Day 1 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. After a frosty start, it was a lovely bright and sunny winter’s day, with a fresh SE wind. With the best weather forecast of the long weekend, we decided to head down to the Brecks today.

After the drive down to the Brecks, we parked by the entrance to a ride which heads off into the forest. As we got out of the minibus, two Woodlarks flew over calling and we watched them drop down into the clearing opposite. Two Yellowhammers flew over too and landed in a nearby tree. A Green Woodpecker flew away across the clearing and landed on the side of a pine tree on the near edge of the block over the far side. All before we had walked a step!

As we set off to walk round the edge of the clearing, two Mistle Thrushes were down on the ground in the entrance to  the paddocks opposite, and flew up as we walked past. We took a path along the edge of the clearing, where it skirted the margin of a neighbouring field. There were lots of finches and more Yellowhammers in the trees on the edge of the field and we got the scope on a smart yellow-headed male Yellowhammer.

Several Goldfinches dropped down to feed on the seed heads of some fat hen on the edge of the field. A male Lesser Redpoll dropped down with them. They flew up and landed in the trees, then dropped down again and we watched the Lesser Redpoll feeding with the Goldfinches.

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll – this male was feeding with Goldfinches

As we walked round the far side, we could hear a couple of Coal Tits singing in the pines. A male Woodlark started singing quietly out in the clearing, presumably one of the birds we had seen drop down earlier. They were somewhere on the ground, but the vegetation was too thick to see them. Continuing out into the sunshine, out beyond the pines, we tried scanning up between the rows of newly-planted trees. We couldn’t see the Woodlarks from here either, but then the pair flew up from the back of the clearing calling and we watched them fly off over where we had parked.

We heard the deep ‘kronk’ call of a Raven, which disappeared over pines, but only one or two of the group got onto it. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over, landing in a tree at the back briefly. Then one Woodlark flew back in, circling high out over the clearing on the other side of the track. A second Woodlark came up from the ground to join it, and the two of them flew over our heads together and dropped back down in the clearing where the pair had been earlier. Again, we couldn’t see them in long grass.

Back to where we had parked, there were lots of birds in the ground in the paddocks now. Several Redwings, a couple of Mistle Thrushes, and small groups of Chaffinches and Goldfinches. There were more finches up in a couple of large beech trees on the edge of the paddocks, several Greenfinches and we picked out a couple of Bramblings in with them. They have been scarce this winter, with fewer than normal coming here from Scandinavia. A Nuthatch was feeding in the top of one of the beech trees too.

We were just getting back into the minibus when one of the Woodlarks flew over our heads calling, out over the paddocks. It started to sing, it’s rather mournful song. They had been so to get going this morning, possibly due to the cold and frosty start to the day, so it was good to hear one singing properly.

We moved on, and parked again by another ride. It was quiet walking in through the dense pines, until we came out towards the sunny edge on the far side. There were several Coal Tits singing and lots of birds coming and going from the feeding table set up in the trees. We added some more seed and stood back to watch. Lots of tits came in, including a steady succession of Marsh Tits. We heard a Treecreeper singing and then it appeared on a pine trunk by the feeder. A Goshawk called from somewhere deep in the forest.

Then we heard the distinctive nasal calls of a Willow Tit. It called three times, then went quiet. We hoped it might pay a visit to the feeding table, but despite checking all the birds more carefully, there was no sign of it coming in for food. Then it called again – it seemed to be coming from the sunny outer edge of the trees, so we walked round to look there. We did see a Goldcrest, low in a holly bush in the edge of the pines. But the Willow Tit had now gone quiet again.

It was warming up a little now, and after a rather still start, the wind had picked up a touch too. It felt like good conditions for Goshawks. We drove round to a lay-by overlooking the forest, where quite a few people had already gathered. A Goshawk had just flown across before we arrived apparently, but was not yet displaying. A few Common Buzzards were circling up above the trees, normally a good sign. But the Goshawks were rather slow to get going.

There were other raptors to see while we waited. A Red Kite away to right, was chasing after a young Lesser Black-backed Gull for some reason. Then two Red Kites circled up together and drifted west past us. A Kestrel had been hovering over the cover strip in the middle of the field in front, on and off while we were there. So when a small falcon flew in high from the left, we assumed it would be the Kestrel until we looked more closely. It was a Merlin. It dropped down and flushed a Meadow Pipit from the low oil seed rape crop, chasing it up and into the trees. The Merlin quickly lost interest though and we watched it disappear off east. Merlin is a rare bird here in the Brecks, much rarer than Goshawk!

There was other wildlife too. A pair of Roe Deer ran across the field and disappeared into the trees at the back. There were several Skylarks singing.

Finally a Goshawk circled up out of the trees, a big female. It looked very different from the Common Buzzards, pale silvery grey above, and almost white below, and a very different shape. It had puffed out its white undertail coverts, and they were wrapped round the base of its tail, so it almost looked like it had a white rump. It started to display, flying across with deep, exaggerated wing beats.

Goshawk 1

Goshawk – came up and started displaying, with its white undertail coverts puffed out

The Goshawk was up for some time, displaying across to the left of us, then stopping to circle for a bit. Then it flew back right displaying again, circling again a couple of times in front of us, before it continued off behind the trees. It was a great show, well worth the wait!

It was time for lunch now, so we drove down to Brandon Country Park to use the facilities. We enjoyed lunch outside on the picnic tables, in the sunshine. A Nuthatch was calling in the trees and we could hear both Coal Tits and Great Tits singing, two different variations on the squeaky bicycle pump theme.

After lunch, we had a quick walk down to the lake. There were lots of Mallard out on the grass, and as we got got closer we could see some Mandarin Ducks in with them, including several smart drakes. They looked rather out of place, here on the lawns. There were a few more Mandarins on the water – we counted fourteen in total.

Mandarin

Mandarin Ducks – we counted fourteen on the lake and lawn

The trees down by the lake were rather quiet today, and we knew we needed to get back to Lynford promptly – the Hawfinches have been disappearing early recently. The car park at Lynford was almost full. We met some people we knew, who said most of the Hawfinches had flown off, and the remaining birds had been very flighty, so we walked quickly down to the paddocks to look for them. We tried not to get distracted on the way, but we did take a quick look at a Brambling under the trees from the gate.

As we got to the paddocks, we could see several people looking intently through their scopes. The Hawfinches were back, feeding in the grass under one of the trees in the middle. We got them in our scopes, and could see several there, but they were hard to count in the long vegetation. There were some in the hornbeam above too. Then something spooked them and they flew, we counted at least 25 in total, as they came up from ground and lots flew out of the middle of the tree.

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – there were several feeding under one of the trees

Some of the Hawfinches appeared to land in the top of the next hornbeam over, so we walked down to where we could see it through a gap in the hedge. We got a nice male in the scope now, perched in the top, and counted at least four together there. One by one they flew, landing in the ash trees next, where they were much harder to see in the tangle of branches. Then they all disappeared too.

One female Hawfinch flew back in, and landed back in the very top of the first hornbeam. We had a great view of it now, in the low afternoon light. We admired its enormous cherry stone cracker of a bill!

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – this female flew back in and posed in the top of one of the hornbeams

We were glad we had hurried straight down to the paddocks, and now we had seen the Hawfinches we walked back to the bridge. There were several Siskins feeding up in the alders above – having heard several flying over earlier, it was nice now to get a proper look at some. There were lots of tits coming to the food put out on the bridge, including several Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits. One or two Nuthatches darted in and out. A male Reed Bunting flew in and landed in a tree by the lake.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming down to food put out on the bridge

Along the path on the way back, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl which was roosting in its usual tree. It was hard to see unless you got in just the right place. We managed to find a spot to get the scopes on it, perched up high, tucked in right next to the trunk.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual tree

We stopped again back at the gate. There were loads of birds coming down to feed in the leaves. We could see several Bramblings now, including a couple of smart looking males with bright orange shoulders. We counted at least sixteen Yellowhammers too, in amongst the throng of tits and Chaffinches.

Brambling

Brambling – coming to feed on the food put down in front of the gate

Continuing on past the car park, we walked out to the gravel pits the other side. There were lots of Tufted Ducks on the back of the first pit, along with several Coots, a pair of Great Crested Grebes and a Cormorant. A Little Egret was in the reeds on the back edge.

Making our way round the second pit, three Goosanders appeared under the trees on the far side, two males and a redhead female. There were more Tufted Ducks here, a small flock of Teal flew up, two Canada Geese were honking noisily on the platform, and a couple of Grey Herons flew over.

Goosander

Goosander – one of three on the pits this afternoon

It was time to head back now, after a very successful visit to the Brecks. But we were all looking forward to another day out tomorrow.

18th Jan 2020 – 4-3-2-1 Owls!

An Owl Tour today. It was a beautiful, bright, sunny winter’s day, although there was a chill in the air and a rather fresh breeze blowing in the middle of the day.

We made our way down to the marshes first thing, to see if we could find a Barn Owl still out hunting. There was a lot of water on the fields after the recent rains, so much that the Environment Agency were pumping out one of the ditches to stop it from overflowing. Lots of birds were enjoying the water – a noisy mob of Black-headed Gulls were feeding round the edge of the pools and several Little Egrets were feeding on the wet edge of the field, along with a Grey Heron. The other side, the wet grass was full of Curlew, Lapwing and Starlings, busy feeding. A pair of Mute Swans flew in and landed on one of the pools.

The raptors were already circling up. A Kestrel flew across (maybe wondering where the Barn Owl was, so it could steal its catch!) and a couple of Marsh Harriers came up out of the reeds. One landed on a bare tree where we could get it in the scope. A Buzzard was on a bush behind us, before flying off to the wood beyond, and presumably the same one later circled above the trees. A Red Kite flew across in front of the wood, its red tail catching the morning light as it turned.

There was no sign of any Barn Owls – perhaps they had already gone in to roost, as the latter part of the night had probably been good for hunting, or perhaps they were avoiding the grazing marshes given all the water. We decided to move on and headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits in the hedges as we walked down towards the wood, and a Jay flew across the track in front of us. A Pied Wagtail flew across and landed in the beet field next to us – just the one today. A little group of Chaffinches dropped down to feed on the weedy margin. Two Mistle Thrushes flew through the trees as we walked round the edge of the wood, before flying out again and dropping down in the middle of the field. There were a few Red-legged Partridges out in the field too and a Red Kite hung in the air over the hedge on the far side.

There were more tits in the trees above the path, including several Long-tailed Tits. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Nuthatch piping loudly. When we got to the far side of the wood, we looked back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there, in its usual spot, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got it in the scope and had a great view. It was a little bit more active today (just to scotch any rumours it might be stuffed!), looking round and even picking at its feet with its bill at one point.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual hole

After watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to head back. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding in the sunshine above the track now. Looking up, we could see they were feeding on buds on the branches.

We made our way further inland to look for Little Owls next. There was no sign of any at the first couple of places we looked, but at the next stop we spotted one hiding under the lip of the barn roof. We pulled up out of sight and walked back to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it. It had chosen a sheltered spot, facing into the morning sun but out of the wind.

Little Owl

Little Owl – looking out from under the lip of the barn roof

Eventually the Little Owl was spooked by a passing farmworker and disappeared in under the roof. We walked back to the minibus. There were some more farm buildings across the field from here and we could see a small blob out on the roof in the sunshine. Through the scope, we could see that it was indeed a second Little Owl. There is a footpath which runs up the far end of the field, so we drove the short distance over there and started off up it.

There were several birds coming and going from the trees by the paddocks at the start of the footpath. As well as Starlings, we could see several Fieldfares so we got them in the scope when they landed in the top of one tree. A Redwing appeared in the top of another tree, before flying over to join the Fieldfares.

We had a quick walk up the footpath and stopped where we could see across to where the second Little Owl was perched on the roof. It was still there, out in full view, and through the scope we could see it was fluffed up, with its eyes closed, looking towards the morning sun, presumably enjoying the warmth of the rays.

Dropping back down to the coast, we made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grazing marshes and lots of Pink-footed Geese loafing on the second field back, just beyond the line of reeds and brambles. As we walked up towards the trees, a family party of Brent Geese flew in and landed just beyond the fence.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – a family party landed right by Lady Anne’s Drive

We headed over to The Lookout Cafe to use the facilities quickly and some of the group, who had hurried on ahead, called back to say there was a Barn Owl. When we got there, it was perched on a post by the bank, but before we could get the scope on it, it was off again. We watched it hunting backwards and forwards over the reeds beyond the pool in front of The Lookout – although the building was in the way, so we had to dart round to the other side of it at one point! Then it stopped to hover and dropped down into the grass.

Some of the group, who had hurried inside, had not seen the Barn Owl, so when they came out we waited for it to reappear. A Stonechat kept flicking up and down from the brambles and posts on the bank. Presumably the Barn Owl had caught something, because it stayed down in the grass for some time, but finally it reappeared. Again, we had some stunning views of it flying round hunting, stopped to hover a couple of times.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – out hunting behind The Lookout

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – stunning views in the late morning sun

Barn Owls will hunt during the day, but only tend to do so if they are hungry. Perhaps the wet and windy weather yesterday evening meant that this one needed to hunt. It was already late morning now, and it seemed to be showing no signs of wanting to head in to roost. We watched the Barn Owl for a while, until it stopped to hover and then dropped down into the grass again.

We wanted to see if we could find a Short-eared Owl here today, so we walked out through the dunes. It had been very calm all morning, but when we got out past the lee of the pines there was a very brisk west wind now. We scanned all the places we had seen the Short-eared Owl hunting in recent days, but couldn’t see it. We had gone as far as we wanted and decided to have one last scan from the top of the dunes. As we looked round, it came up from the grass just behind us.

The Short-eared Owl flew off downwind, with its distinctive stiff-winged rowing action and notably long, slim wings. It went some way, before turning and coming back towards us over the dunes, into the wind. We were hoping it would come back past us, but it got caught by the wind and gained height, before turning and disappearing over the pines. We hoped it might reappear, but it had either gone into the trees to roost or perhaps might have gone over the other side to try to find some shelter.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – flushed from the dunes

We made our way back, cutting through the pines and walking down the track the other side out of the wind. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, along with a few carrot-billed Greylags and a pair of Egyptian Geese. At Salts Hole, there were several Little Grebes out on the water and a Weasel darted along the far bank.

We stopped for lunch back at The Lookout. There was no sign of the Barn Owl now, but the Stonechat was still just outside the window. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a pair of Grey Partridges were busy preening in the grass just beyond the fence.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – a pair were right next to Lady Anne’s Drive

Having only had a short time with the Short-eared Owl in the dunes before it disappeared, we decided to make a quick dash over to Snettisham to see if we could see the ones there. We didn’t have much time once we got over there, so we headed straight round to where they roost. Scanning the brambles, we quickly found one Short-eared Owl perched in a little nook among the branches. We had a good look at it in the scope.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting in the brambles again

A little further on, we found the second Short-eared Owl under its usual sparse bramble bush. It stood out more, with its sandy colouration, but was not moving and we were looking at it from the side so we couldn’t see its eyes today. On our way back round, there were a few ducks on the pits, including a smart drake Goldeneye which was diving constantly.

Back at the Wash, the tide was out now and most of the large flocks of waders were way out in the distance, on the water’s edge. There were a few birds closer to us on the mud – a Grey Plover and a couple of Redshank. A scattering of diminutive Dunlin were feeding on the mud just beyond the channel and a quick scan across with binoculars revealed an even smaller wader in with them. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Little Stint which is wintering here.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud with the Dunlin again

Little Stints are very scarce winter visitors in the UK, being more common on passage, particularly in autumn on their way from their Arctic breeding grounds with most heading down to Africa for the winter. As we saw a Little Stint in almost exactly the same patch of mud regularly through last winter, we wonder whether this bird has come back for the second year in a row.

Back in the minibus, we made our way back across country, passing a couple of large flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields on our way. We stopped again at Wells and, as we disembarked, we didn’t know which way to look. A Barn Owl was hunting up and down the banks of the ditch in front of the layby, while the long-staying Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on its usual favoured bush beyond.

We watched the Barn Owl hunting, while we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. Eventually the Barn Owl flew off back across the field, and we turned our full attention to the Rough-legged Buzzard. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its very dark, chocolate brown belly.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual favoured bush

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. The Rough-legged Buzzard had flown back and landed down in a ploughed field beyond, by the time we got out there, but shortly afterwards flew back in again. We had an even better view of it from here.

The first Barn Owl was now working its way up the edge of the paddocks across the road, but a second Barn Owl now appeared at the back of the field close to the buzzard and flew round the edge to hunt around the entrance to the car park. It was a paler bird, with whiter, unmarked flight feathers, presumably a male.

The Rough-legged Buzzard had another fly round, flashing its white tail with black terminal band, chasing a Common Buzzard off from the top of a bush by the old pitch & putt, taking over its perch. We had taken our eyes off them, but what was possibly the first Barn Owl again then started flying down along the bank towards us. It was getting closer when it stopped, turned, hovered, and dropped into the grass. It took some time to come up again, and when it did unfortunately flew back away from us – we were hoping it might come right past us.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – one of at least two at Wells this afternoon

The sun was going down now and we had one last port of call. As we walked back to the minibus, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in to its favoured bush again. We drove inland and parked in some trees at the top of a footpath.

The Barn Owl which we often come to see emerging from its box in the evening had not been around the last few times we had looked for it. The good news today was that it was back. We had missed it coming out, but it was busy hunting the grassy bank beyond the gate. We had got out into the open along the footpath just in time to see it disappearing into the trees, but after a while it came out again. It weaved in and out of the edge of the trees several times, before disappearing deeper in through the wood.

It was time for the Tawny Owls to start hooting now, and as we walked back into the trees we could hear one hooting distantly. We heard it a couple more times, before it went quiet. It was a clear, bright evening and the light took some time to fade. The other Tawny Owls were slow to get going tonight and time was getting on, but after a smorgasbord of owls today, we didn’t worry too much about calling time. 4 Barn Owls, 3 Short-eared Owls, 2 Little Owls & 1 Tawny Owl (plus another hooting!).

12th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk today. The heavy rain cleared through overnight and it was dry again all day. After a cloudy start, the sun started to break through the clouds before we enjoyed a lovely bright afternoon, even if it was rather breezy again.

Part of the plan for this weekend was to look for some owls. Having seen Short-eared Owls and Barn Owls on Friday, we headed out to add to our owl list this morning. We drove inland and set off down a footpath. Two Mistle Thrushes flew up out of the neighbouring field and into wood.

When we got to the edge of the wood, we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees. A Goldcrest appeared above us, feeding in the outer branches of a pine tree, hovering to pick food from the needles. A Coal Tit flew out into the bare tree next to it. A little flock of finches was feeding in the edge of a harvested beet field alongside and flew up into the trees as we came out from behind the hedge. There were several Chaffinches and Goldfinches and at least one Greenfinch in with them too.

We walked on, round to the far side of the wood and looked back at the edge of the trees. The Tawny Owl was asleep in its hole. We got it in the scope and from time to time it moved its head or opened its eyes, enough to prove it wasn’t a cardboard cutout we had put there earlier!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual tree hole

We stood and watched the Tawny Owl for a while. A Stock Dove flew out from over the wood and across the field next to us. Then we had to tear ourselves away and walk back. There were lots of Pied Wagtails in the beet field now – we counted at least 40 together at one point, an impressive flock.

Moving on, we made our way further inland, looking for Little Owls. There were none on the first barns we checked, but at the second we could see a shape tucked under the lip of the roof, a Little Owl. We parked out of sight and walked back to where we could view it from a distance. It was in a spot sheltered from the wind, and it was looking out towards the morning sun, which just poked out from behind the clouds at times.

Little Owl

Little Owl – out of the wind, looking out towards the morning sun

Having all had a good look at the Little Owl, we moved on again and dropped back down to the coast. We made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding on the grazing marshes, some very close to the road, and looked stunning as the sun came out again. A few Teal were in amongst them, as well as a scattering of Lapwing, Curlew and Redshank. A single Fieldfare was out on the grass too.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

We heard Pink-footed Geese calling and looked over to see a large flock come up from Quarles Marsh, over towards Wells. They flew towards us in several skeins, and we noticed there were some smaller geese in with them, Barnacle Geese. They came right overhead, at least a dozen.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – flew over Lady Anne’s Drive with the Pinkfeet

The geese all whiffled down and landed on the grazing marshes the other side of the Drive. Most landed behind the first ditch, out of view behind the reeds and brambles, but a few of the Pink-footed Geese landed closer, on our side of all the vegetation. We had a good look at some of them in the scope, we could see their delicate dark bills with a narrow band of pink and their pink legs.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – good views on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked up towards the pines, we could see a covey of Grey Partridges on the bank before the ditch on the far edge of the grass. We counted twelve together, looking rather like clods of earth.

After a quick stop in the Lookout Cafe, we made our way out to the beach. As we got to the bottom of the boardwalk, we could see some larks very distantly feeding on the edge of the dunes out to the west, but through the scope we could see they were Skylarks. A big flock of Linnets flew up from the saltmarsh over in that direction too, swirling round before dropping down again.

There was a lot of water on the saltmarsh, after a big tide overnight and lots of rain. We decided to walk east first. A flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the middle and a quick scan through them revealed a slightly darker bird with a more noticeable white flank patch and collar than the others. It was the regular Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which returns here with the Brent flock each winter.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the Brent Goose flock on the saltmarsh again

Two Rock Pipits flew in and landed on the edge of the saltmarsh in front of us, feeding for a minute or so before flying off again calling. There were a few people walking back from the cordon and they all said there was no sign of any Shorelarks there. We couldn’t see the Snow Buntings either when we got there. We walked all the way down to the far end and out onto the beach.

It was very windy out here. We tried to find some shelter in the edge of the dunes, although it was hard to find anywhere out of the wind, and stopped to scan the sea. A lone Sanderling flew down along the shoreline. When we turned round, the Snow Buntings flew in and landed in the cordon just behind us. They were very flighty today, and when they flew up again they landed next on the edge of the sand just behind us, a great view.

Snow Buntings 1

Snow Buntings – landed on the edge of the sand just behind us

Thousands of Common Scoter were out on the sea again, but they were a bit further out today and the sea was quite choppy, which with the wind made it impossible to pick out anything else in with them. We managed to find three Long-tailed Ducks, but they were thankfully much closer in. Even so, they were diving constantly and hard to see in swell, but eventually everyone got a look at them. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers too, plus a single Red-throated Diver on the sea and another flying past.

We were hoping the Common Scoter would fly, to give us a chance to find a Velvet Scoter in with them, but they were just riding out the waves, and not taking off today. We decided to start walking back, and have another look for the Shorelarks. The Snow Buntings were in the cordon still, probably about 90 of them, catching the low winter sun which had come out now. There was still no sign of the Shorelarks there though.

Snow Buntings 2

Snow Buntings – feeding in the cordon as we walked back

We thought we would check out the saltmarsh west of the Gap, to see if the Shorelarks were there. On our way back, we bumped into one of the wardens who told us they had also been seen just east of the Gap this week. We out round to the dunes for a quick look there first, but there was no sign. We could see lots of water still in the Gap channel, and there was no way across without wellies. So while the group walked back round via the cordon again, the intrepid guide set off for a quick check of the saltmarsh the other side to save time. We arranged to meet back by the boardwalk.

When the group got back to the cordon, they found a couple of people watching the Shorelarks, which had flown back in. They had a good look at them through the scopes, but by the time their guide got over, the Shorelarks had flown off again. At least the most important people had seen them!

We walked back to the Lookout Cafe for lunch. Afterwards, we drove across to Holkham Park and walked in through the trees. There were lots of tits coming to the feeders by the houses, and we found a Marsh Tit and a Coal Tit in with them. We made our way down to the lake, starting at the northern end. There were lots of ducks on the water – Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler, plus Tufted Duck and Pochard.

As we walked slowly down along the bank, we scanned the water, looking for the Black-necked Grebe. We could see a Great Crested Grebe and a Little Grebe, busy diving. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the trees by the path. A Great White Egret flew across the lake further down.

We found the Black-necked Grebe in the middle of the lake. At first, we were looking into the sun, but we managed to get round to the other side of it, where the light was much better. It was diving constantly too, and we had to be quick to get it in the scopes. Eventually everyone got a good view of it, a small grebe with the dark on the head curling down onto the sides of the face behind the red eye. A Great Crested Grebe appeared in the same view at one point, much larger, with a much longer dagger-shaped bill.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – photo taken a few days ago, when it was very close!

After watching the Black-necked Grebe for a while, we walked back through the middle of the Park. There were lots of Fallow Deer by the path which looked stunning in the afternoon sunshine. A Red Kite drifted over the edge of the trees. A Green Woodpecker was feeding out on the open grass with four Mistle Thrushes. When we got back to the gates, we found a Great Spotted Woodpecker now on the peanuts by the houses.

As we were getting everything back in the minibus, a Barn Owl flew across the road just beyond the car park and in through the trees behind. Out hunting already. As we drove east, another Barn Owl was hunting over the verge by the side of the road.

We parked at the top of Stiffkey Greenway and set up the scopes on the edge of the saltmarsh to scan. It was a lovely bright evening and the wind had even dropped now. There were several groups of Brent Geese, lots of Little Egrets, and a scattering of Curlews and Redshanks out there. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the air away to the east. A Merlin appeared away to the west, perched on a low bush, preening out on the saltmarsh.

A distant ringtail Hen Harrier came up in front of East Hills. We watched it hunting, making the use of the last of the light, disappearing off towards Wells. A little later what was presumably the same bird came back the other way, a little bit closer to us this time. We had a couple more Merlin sightings, perched on different bushes – but it was hard to tell how many different birds were involved. A very distant Barn Owl was hunting out at East Hills and another flew across the road behind us.

Finally a grey male Hen Harrier appeared, also way out at East Hills. It flew up and down in front of the trees a few times before dropping into the vegetation. The light was starting to go now so we decided to call it a night. It had been another great day, to wrap up three very successful days out, great Norfolk winter birding.