Tag Archives: Thornham

14th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours today, our last day, and we were back exploring North Norfolk. It was another dull and cloudy day, but rather mild with very light winds and dry once again.

After meeting up this morning, we headed west before turning inland off the coast road. We hadn’t gone far when a ghostly shape flew across the road in front of us – a Barn Owl. It landed on a post by a gate, but flew off behind the hedge as we pulled up. We didn’t see it disappear across the field so we had a hunch it might have landed on another post further along, and as we looked round the hedge there was the Barn Owl. It flew again, across the grassy paddock, but landed on the fence the other side in full view.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – finally, we had really good views of one this morning

The Barn Owl stayed standing on the post for some time – now we could get a really good look at it. Eventually it dropped down into the grass and appeared to catch something. It flew back up to the post briefly, and then disappeared off silently through the trees behind. There seem to be rather few Barn Owls out hunting in daylight hours at the moment, presumably because they are not struggling to hunt at night, so it was great to get one out during the morning.

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was at Thornham. There had been a couple of Waxwings here for the last few days, feeding on windfall apples in the orchards, and we were hoping to see them. Reports had suggested that they had flown off yesterday afternoon, but thankfully we received a message to say they were back this morning.

When we arrived, we found a couple of cars and several people with binoculars standing around in the car park not really looking anywhere. We decided to check the orchard the Waxwings had been favouring yesterday and were on our way over when we looked up into the tall tree by the entrance and there was a Waxwing! We got it in the scope and had a nice look at it.

Waxwings are very smart birds – from the punk crest to the delicate wing markings with red waxy tips to the wing coverts and yellow tip to the tail. It dropped down into the orchard and disappeared, presumably to feed, but a few minutes later it was back up again in another tree. This time it flew across and landed on top of a telegraph post on the other side of the car park.

Waxwing

Waxwing – perched for ages on a telegraph post in the car park

The Waxwing stayed on the top of the post for some time. There was no sign of the second bird which has been with it in recent days, so perhaps it was looking for it, or any other Waxwings which might be around. It meant we had a great opportunity to admire it. Eventually, the lone Waxwing flew over us calling and dropped back down into the orchard.

There were a few other birds here. A couple of Fieldfares were in the tall tree when we first located the Waxwing, and more appeared up from the orchard at one point, along with a few Redwings and a Song Thrush.

However, the other stars of the show were across the road, a huge flock of hundreds of Linnets on the wires across a weedy field. They kept flying down to feed, in flocks of several hundred at a time, before flying back up to the wires. Linnets used to be common farmland birds here but have declined substantially in recent years, so it is great to see such a large number and goes to show what can happen when food is left for them.

Linnets

Linnets – in their hundreds, lining up on the wires

It was just a short drive from here round to the harbour. As we drove down the road by the saltmarsh, we could see several people with telescopes pointing down into the vegetation. When we got out, we could see they were watching a flock of Twite. We got out of the car and had a look at them – we could see their orange breasts and yellow bills, which in winter set Twite apart from Linnets. We could also hear the nasal, twangy ‘tveet’ calls from which they get their name.

This is another species which used to be much more common here, but it is not the loss of habitat in Norfolk which is the problem, as they feed mostly out on saltmarsh. Twite are just winter visitors here, and these birds come from the Pennines where the breeding population of Twite has declined markedly in recent years. Thornham is one of the last regular wintering sites, and there are just 20-30 here these days.

Twite

Twite – we had great views of the flock right by the road today

It was proving to be a successful morning, so after admiring the Twite we made our way round to Titchwell next. As we made our way out onto the reserve, we had a quick look at the feeders by the visitor centre, but there were just a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and the commoner tits here today.

Walking up the main path, we scanned the ditches either side carefully, looking for any movement. One of the group spotted something lurking down in the vegetation and sure enough it turned out to be the Water Rail. It scuttled away deeper in, but then worked its way back towards us and we had a nice view of it feeding in the rotting leaves down in the water.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the main path again

Next stop was by the Thornham grazing meadow pool. At first it looked rather quiet here, but scanning carefully around the edges we found a Water Pipit creeping around on the mud on the edge of the reeds. We got it in the scope and everyone had a look at it – noting particularly its pale, off-white underparts neatly streaked with black – before it disappeared back into the reeds.

Out on the freshmarsh, the water level is still very high but there were fewer ducks than of late. There were still plenty of Shelduck and Teal, plus a few Gadwall. Several Common Pochard were lurking around the small island towards the back and a small group of Tufted Ducks were diving out in the middle of the water.

Teal

Teal – looking very smart now in breeding plumage

With the water level high, there are few waders on here at the moment, apart from a few Lapwings and Golden Plover. A little more of the top of the island by the junction with the path to Parrinder Hide was visible today. As well as the Lapwing on here, and a single Golden Plover, a small group of Knot had flown in to bathe, along with a few Dunlin.

The tide was out and the Volunteer Marsh was rather dry now.  We managed to get a Grey Plover in the scope, and could see a scattering of Curlew, Redshank, Knot and Dunlin out on the mud. We also had good views of a Black-tailed Godwit in the channel at the front by the main path.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, we found where all the ducks were hiding. There were lots of Shoveler out here today, all asleep with their bills tucked in, as well as more Teal. Several Wigeon were feeding on the islands of saltmarsh. There were about half a dozen Pintail here too, including some smart drakes, though they were busy feeding with their heads under water for much of the time. A few Little Grebes were diving out on the pools.

Eight Avocets were sleeping out on the end of one of the muddy spits, a slight increase on the five that we have seen here recently. Otherwise, there were not many other waders on the Tidal Pools today, just a few more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks.

Avocets

Avocets – eight were here today, sleeping on the Tidal Pools

Most of the interest at Titchwell today was out on the sea, so we hurried out to the beach. The tide was out, so everything was distant from the top of the beach, but we scanned from the dunes to see what we could see. There has been a little group of Long-tailed Ducks here for a while now, and we could see them diving close to the shore away to the west of us.

Scanning through the Goldeneye, we could see two much larger ducks, with a prominent wedge shaped head and bill – Common Eider. There are always several Common Scoter offshore here but it took us a bit of time to find the single Velvet Scoter. It was rather distant, but everyone had a look at it through the scope and managed to see the white in the wings which is one of the easiest ways to distinguish Velvet Scoter from Common Scoter. A small grebe offshore with clean black cap and white cheeks was a winter-plumaged Slavonian Grebe.

With the Long-tailed Ducks close inshore today, we decided to walk out across the sand towards Thornham Point to get a better views. With only very light winds today, it was pleasant out in the open on the sand. We stood on the shore opposite where the Long-tailed Ducks were feeding and had cracking views of them, swimming on the sea, diving for shellfish or preening. There were at least nine of them, including several stunning males. Close up, we could see the striking elongated central tail feathers on the drakes, from which they get their name.

Long-tailed Ducks

Long-tailed Ducks – great views just offshore today from down on the beach

After we had enjoyed a great look at the Long-tailed Ducks, they had a brief fly round for us, before landing back down on the water a little further out. There were several Common Scoter here too, close inshore, and from this range we could even see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill of the otherwise black drake.

Some of the other divers and grebes had apparently drifted off further west, so we walked down along the shore to Thornham Point. There were lots of waders out on the beach here, mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, walking round probing in the sand with their long, slightly upturned bills. There were a couple of Dunlin and Oystercatchers with the godwits and a few Sanderling and Turnstones flew past along the edge of the sea.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwits – feeding out on the beach towards Thornham Point

As we arrived at Thornham Point, several people were just leaving. They had not seen the Black-necked Grebe which was supposedly down this end. We stopped to scan the sea, but it was hard to see the birds being so low down on beach, they were disappearing in the light swell despite the sea being fairly flat calm. They were also diving all the time. We did manage to find the Black-necked Grebe, briefly but we lost track of it again before everyone could get to see it.

It was getting late now, and we still hadn’t eaten. After a brisk walk back along the beach we headed straight back to the visitor centre for a rather late lunch.

After lunch, we made our way over to Snettisham. The light was already going by the time we arrived. Looking out across the Wash, there was a vast expanse of mud – it was not a big tide today, and the tide was just starting to come in. The waders were scattered widely across the mud, apart from a couple of big groups of Oystercatchers which were huddled up together. There were lots of ducks here too, especially Shelduck out on the water’s edge and Mallard gathered around the channels in the mud. We had a quick walk up along the tide line but there was no sign of the Shorelark here now today.

We had come here mainly looking for owls. There was no sign of any out hunting yet, but scanning the bushes carefully we found a Short-eared Owl roosting under bramble. A second Short-eared Owl was roosting in the brambles nearby. They were both still asleep, with their heads tucked down, but they did look round a couple of times so we could see them properly through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

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

Short-eared Owls can often be found out hunting in the late afternoon, so we stood here for a few minutes to see if they might wake up and start flying round, but they were obviously not hungry enough at moment. They are probably finding enough food at night.

We saw a few other birds here. There were several Goldeneye on the pits, as well as a couple of Little Egrets. Some Greylag were on the pits, but more were gathering noisily in the fields just inland, before going to roost. There is a large roost of Pink-footed Geese on the Wash off Snettisham, but there was no sign of any here yet.

It was starting to get dark so it was time to make our way back. As we did, we could see long lines of dots approaching in the sky. We watched and listened as thousands and thousands of Pink-footed Geese flew in from the fields and headed out towards the Wash, coming in to roost. We stayed for several minutes as more and more birds came over. It was stunning sight and a great way to end the three days.

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19th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a long weekend of Early Winter Tours today, our last day. It was another frosty start and another glorious, clear, sunny day. There was a light but fresh westerly breeze in the morning but that dropped by the afternoon. Another great day to be out birding!

Today we headed out in the other direction, west along the coast road. As we passed Holkham we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese in the grazing meadows beyond Lady Anne’s Drive. A small group was close to the road, so we pulled up by a convenient gap in the hedge for a closer look. We could see their small bills, mostly dark but for a narrow pink band, and their dark heads.

Pink-footed GoosePink-footed Goose – a group was right by the coast road as we passed by

A little further on, we stopped to have a look out across the freshmarsh. A large white shape flew across the front edge of one of the pool and landed in the rushes. Even at that distance, it was clearly a big heron and could only be a Great White Egret. Through the scope we could see its long, yellow dagger of a bill. A Grey Heron appeared next to it and was not much smaller – a nice size comparison. Then a second Great White Egret appeared on the front edge of the trees out in the middle.

There were a few geese out on this end of the freshmarsh today, mostly Greylags but with a few small groups of pairs of Egyptian Geese scattered among them too. Looking through them carefully, we managed to find a group of three White-fronted Geese in with the Greylags down at the front of the grass. Through the scope, we could see the white-surround to the base of their pink bills. When something flushed the geese and they resettled, more White-fronted Geese had appeared – there was now a tight group of at least thirteen together a little further out.

White-fronted GeeseWhite-fronted Geese – at least 13 were at Holkham today

A handful of Pink-footed Geese out on the freshmarsh here too included a single bird bearing a silvery grey neck collar. We could just read the lettering ‘VLS’ through the scope. It will be interesting to hear back where it has been seen before. There still don’t seem to be so many Wigeon here, but we could still see several flocks over in the distance around the pools to the east. It seems like it has still been rather mild on the continent and numbers of some wildfowl are still rather low. More should arrive in the coming weeks.

A nice selection of raptors put on a show for us this morning. A Red Kite drifted in from over the Park behind us and dropped down towards the grazing marshes. It appeared to land on the grass behind the trees and a Marsh Harrier flew straight in after it. The Red Kite promptly reappeared the other side of the trees, presumably seen off from whatever it had found. Its rusty red tail and underparts positively shone in the morning sun as it banked and turned.

A couple of Common Buzzards were perched out in various trees and bushes. One was a fairly conventional brown bird, but the other was strikingly pale, white below and around the head. As the air started to warm a little, more Marsh Harriers and Buzzards appeared in the air. A Sparrowhawk flew in along the line of the hedge below us amd chased out a second one. The two Sparrowhawks then landed in a tree where we could get them in the scope. A Kestrel was perched on the scaffold tower in the distance.

Continuing on our way west, we stopped again at Brancaster Staithe. A Long-tailed Duck had been reported for the last couple of days in the harbour channel here and it didn’t take us long to find it. It was diving further out in the channel, among the boats at first, but then swam up the channel past us and disappeared into the mouth of one of the muddy creeks.

There were lots of waders around the muddy edges of the creek. Several Bar-tailed Godwits gave us a great opportunity for closer inspection and a discussion of some of the differences between the two godwit species in non-breeding plumage. We could hear a Greenshank calling and quickly located it on the far bank in the sunshine, before a second Greenshank flew in and joined it.

Bar-tailed GodwitBar-tailed Godwit – close views at Brancaster Staithe this morning

There were also a few Dunlin down with the Bar-tailed Godwits and a Ringed Plover on the near edge. Further over, we could see a couple of Grey Plover and Curlew too. Several Turnstone were practically running around our feet until they spotted a Common Gull dropping a mussel, shattering it and then starting to pick it apart. They gathered round, waiting to pick off the scraps.

There were a few Brent Geese feeding round the harbour too, plus a scattering of Wigeon. A little group of Teal gathered down along the near edge of the harbour ramp looked stunning in the morning sunshine.

When the Long-tailed Duck reappeared, it was initially hard to follow. It was diving constantly and made its way even further up the channel away from us. But the tide was going out and it quickly turned back, swimming back down channel and straight past us, giving us a great close view as it went past. It was a first winter drake, rather pale around the head and with some pale feathering in the upperparts.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed Duck – in the harbour channel at Brancaster Staithe

As the Long-tailed Duck swam back out into the open water downstream, we decided to move on. We made our way west to Thornham Harbour next. As we got out of the car, we saw a flock of small finches drop down towards the saltmarsh beyond the car park. We would come to those in a minute, but first we had a quick look in the harbour channel. There were a few waders down on the mud – Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit and Common Redshank – but no sign of any Spotted Redshank here.

From up on the seawall, we quickly located the flock of small finches down on the saltmarsh and sure enough they were the Twite which we were looking for. They were feeding on the dry seedheads but were rather nervous as usual and kept flying up and circling round over the harbour before landing back down on the edge of the saltmarsh right in front of us again, back where they had started. We had a great look at them through the scope – their rich orangey-brown-toned breasts and bright yellow bills catching the sun when they perched up on the taller seedheads.

TwiteTwite – around twenty were feeding on the saltmarsh vegetation

There are around twenty Twite here at the moment. This is a traditional wintering spot for the species, although numbers have declined markedly in recent years as the breeding population in the Pennines has declined, which is where most of our wintering Twite come from. There are always a few colour-ringed birds in with them, which help to confirm their origins.

Looking out across the harbour, we could see large flocks of Wigeon and Brent Geese in the distance. A single Red-breasted Merganser was just visible way out in a chink of open water where the harbour channel curved towards the sea, before it swam behind one of the sandbanks out of view. A Curlew was catching the sun down in the muddy channel just below the bank.

CurlewCurlew – warming itself in the morning sun

Continuing on out along the seawall, there were lots of Skylarks on either side, over the grazing meadows and the saltmarsh. A couple of Reed Buntings flew in and landed down amongst the Suaeda bushes just below the bank. A single Common Snipe flew in and landed out in the grass briefly, before heading back out across the saltmarsh. The Twite flew over our heads calling and landed down by a pool out on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back towards the harbour again.

We stopped for a quick look out across Broadwater. A Little Grebe and a few Coot were both new birds for the day, but otherwise there were just a few dabbling ducks around the reedy margins – mainly Mallard, Teal and Shoveler. In the grazing meadow beyond, a party of Brent Geese had flown in to join the local Greylags feeding on the grass.

Climbing up into the dunes, we had a look out to sea. The Common Scoter were very distant today and very spread out – we could just make out hundreds of tiny dark specks riding the waves out towards the horizon. A pair of Red-breasted Merganser flew in and landed behind the breakers. Otherwise, there was not much visible out on the sea today – just a couple of Great Crested Grebes.

When we got back to the harbour, we had another quick look in the harbour channel. A couple of Rock Pipits were chasing each other around on the mud and up onto the boats moored along the wooden jetties. There was still no sign of any Spotted Redshanks though, until we had started to leave and we spotted one further up the channel from the car. We got out and got the scope on it – we could see its long, needle-fine bill. It was also noticeably paler than the Common Redshank on the mud behind it. The Spotted Redshank was feeding in the water at first, sweeping its bill quickly from side to side, before it climbed out onto a line of rocks and stood where we could see its red legs.

With a bit of time still before lunch, we headed inland for a drive round to see if we could find any flocks of finches and buntings in the fields. We did find a lot of Blackbirds and thrushes feeding on the berries in the more overgrown hedges – including several Redwings and a couple of Fieldfares too.

A little further on, we came across a large flock of finches, coming down to drink in the puddles around a farm gateway. They were mostly Chaffinches, plus a few Goldfinches and one or two Greenfinches, but a smart male Brambling flew up too and landed in the hedge just in front of us. We could see its orange breast and shoulders, and its white rump as it eventually flew away ahead of us down the line of the hedge.

Dropping back down via Choseley, we passed a large mixed flock of Linnets and Goldfinches feeding in a strip of wild bird seed mix sown along the margin of a field. There was very little around the drying barns though – just a handful of House Sparrows feeding on some seed scattered in the layby. A group of Golden Plover was feeding in a winter wheat field along with some Lapwings further down.

As we got out of the car in the car park at Titchwell, a single Chiffchaff was feeding in the sunshine in the yellow autumn leaves of a sycamore. We stopped for lunch in the picnic area, and quickly picked out one of the Mealy Redpolls here, feeding up in the alders with the Goldfinches. We had a chat about the changing taxonomy of the Redpoll complex over lunch – the treatment of these birds is currently in a state of flux, to say the least! A flock of Long-tailed Tits passing through, along with a Goldcrest provided a welcome distraction.

Mealy RedpollMealy Redpoll – feeding up in the alders above the picnic area

After lunch, we headed out to explore the reserve. The feeders around the visitor centre were looking rather empty this afternoon. A Coal Tit was a welcome addition to the day’s list, but otherwise there were just a few Chaffinches and Blue and Great Tits. We could hear a couple of Siskin calling from somewhere high in the willows.

A careful scan of the ditches along the path provided a Water Rail feeding quietly down in the wet leaves in the bottom. Unfortunately, as more people gathered around us and started chatting noisily, it scuttled back into cover, although we could still see it feeding under the branches of an overhanging tree.

Water RailWater Rail – feeding down in the ditch below the path

There were just a few Mallard and a single Little Grebe out on the reedbed pool and we couldn’t see any activity on the dried up grazing meadow ‘pool’, so we headed straight out to the freshmarsh. A couple of Cetti’s Warblers sang from the bushes out in the reeds as we passed. A Kestrel was perched on the concrete bunker out on the saltmarsh and as we looked at it through the scope a Kingfisher appeared briefly, hovering behind.

There were lots of birds out on the freshmarsh, particularly ducks here for the winter. There are plenty of Wigeon here now and lots of Teal. We got a smart drake Gadwall in the scope and admired the subtle patterning of its plumage. There were a few Shoveler and Shelduck out there too.

TealTeal – good numbers on the freshmarsh for the winter now

A small gathering of gulls around one of the small islands were mostly Black-headed and Herring Gulls, but we did find an adult Yellow-legged Gull in with them. Unfortunately it was swimming on the water and it was impossible to see its custard yellow legs!

There was not a great variety of waders on view, but we could see a good number of Ruff here. One of the Ruff was still in full juvenile plumage, much darker than the others. It was also a female and noticeably smaller than the paler winter adult male it was next to. There were also a few Dunlin out on the mud amongst all the ducks.

There was a better selection of waders out on the Volunteer Marsh today. From the corner by the path to Parrinder Hide we stopped to scan. We could see Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Redshank. A Ringed Plover was feeding on the mud just the other side of the channel, with three more further back. A single Knot was picking around the islands of vegetation out in the middle.

Ringed PloverRinged Plover – there were several on Volunteer Marsh today

There were a few Black-tailed Godwits along the tidal channel at the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, including one on the mud just below the path which gave us a good opportunity to have a closer look at it, reminding ourselves of the differences from the Bar-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier. Most of the Avocets have departed for the winter, but we did find one lonely individual roosting on the spit out on the tidal pools. Otherwise, a single drake Pintail and a Little Grebe were the only other birds of note on here today.

The tide was already on its way in when we got out to the beach. We could see lots of Oystercatchers still down on the bits of the mussel beds which had not yet been covered by the water. We got a Sanderling in the scope, running around on the edge of the sea, dwarfed by an Oystercatcher next to it. The waders were starting to gather ahead of the rising tide and a large flock of forty or so Sanderling then flew in from the west, along with a big party of Bar-tailed Godwits.

Out on the sea, we found a Common Scoter close in, riding the waves just behind the breakers – a better view than the distant dots we had seen earlier! But other than a few more Common Scoter, we couldn’t see anything else on the sea today. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, feeding on razor shells washed up along the tide line, but a quick scan through them failed to locate anything other than the regular species.

We stopped in at Parrinder Hide on our way back. There were more gulls arriving all the time, coming in before roost – Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. We found the Yellow-legged Gull again, asleep now, but at least we could see half its custard yellow legs above the water now.

There were a few more waders gathering too. There was already a little party of Golden Plover on the edge of one of the islands in front of the hide. As we sat and watched, every few minutes another small group would drop in and join them, calling plaintively as they flew in from the fields inland where they had been feeding. A single Knot had appeared on the edge of the gathered Black-headed Gulls and a flock of Turnstone flew in from the beach. There were a few more Black-tailed Godwits on here too now and the Ruff had gathered together into a tighter flock ready to roost.

Golden PloverGolden Plovers – gathering on the freshmarsh at dusk

The light was starting to go fast now – the evenings draw in quickly at this time of year. As we made our way back towards the visitor centre, we stopped on the path opposite the reedbed. The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost over the reeds, and we counted at least 11 before we left, flying round and perched in the bushes. A twelfth then flew in overhead from the direction of Thornham as we walked on.

It was getting dark as we drove back towards Holkham. As we drove along the north side of the park, we could see lines and lines of geese flying overhead in the gathering gloom, thousands of Pink-footed Geese dropping down to the freshmarsh to roost. A typical Norfolk sight at this time of year and a nice way to end the day – and an action-packed three days of early winter birding.

15th Sept 2017 – Three Autumn Days #1

Day 1 of a three day Autumn Tour today. It was forecast to be cool and rather windy, though not as bad as the last few days, and with a risk of showers. It was sunny when we set off inland, but we drove into the cloud on the coast. We headed up to north-west Norfolk for the day.

Our first destination was Thornham Harbour. A Curlew was feeding in the edge of the saltmarsh right next to where we parked. Several Meadow Pipits and a Reed Bunting flew up into the bushes as we got out of the car, and a Skylark flew over and dropped down beyond the car park.

A quick look in the harbour channel opposite produced a Greenshank feeding down on the mud, which flew off calling as we approached. A couple of Redshanks and a single Bar-tailed Godwit were a little further along and stayed to let us get a good look at them.

As we got up onto the seawall, a Wheatear flew across the grazing marsh in front of us, flashing its white rump as it went, and landed on a fence post a little further back. Looking inland, we could see a couple of Common Buzzards circling up over the trees, despite the cold and cloudy weather. A single Stock Dove was feeding in the grass out in the middle.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – one of many skeins arriving today

Loud yelping calls overhead alerted us to a small skein of Pink-footed Geese flying past high above us. They were to be a feature of the day today, with groups passing overhead at regular intervals all morning and still to a lesser extent during the afternoon. The Pink-footed Geese are just arriving back for the winter here, after spending the breeding season up in Iceland. Small numbers have been seen over the last few days but this was the first day with a really large number of geese coming in. Impressive stuff, migration in action.

There were hirundines on the move today too. We saw several small groups of Swallows and House Martins making their way west as we walked from the harbour and out along the seawall.

We stopped at the corner to look out across the harbour. There were several waders down in the channel, mostly Redshanks and several more Bar-tailed Godwits. We had a good look at them in the scope. Further over, we picked up a little group of Black-tailed Godwits bathing in the water. An obliging Curlew was feeding on the mud just below the seawall.

CurlewCurlew – feeding on the mud just below the seawall

A Marsh Harrier was out quartering the saltmarsh. It flew in from the direction of Titchwell, across the harbour and on towards Holme. As it passed over, it flushed lots of birds out of the vegetation below. Lots of waders flew up calling, Redshanks and Curlews, a couple of Little Egrets appeared out of the muddy channels, and a big flock of Linnets circled up above it.

Continuing on along the seawall, we spotted another Wheatear further up perched on a fence post. It kept dropping down onto the grassy bank and then returning to another post, gradually working its way towards us. At one point, it found a caterpillar. It took it back to a fence post, then dropped down into the grass to deal with it. When the Wheatear returned to the fence, it was now very close to us and we had a great look at it through the scope before it flew past and landed again behind us.

WheatearWheatear – 1 of 2 along the fence along the sea wall at Thornham

There were lots of Meadow Pipits down in the grass, but they were very hard to see until they flew. Suddenly they all took off and flew off towards Holme and we could see just how many had been there. Four Skylarks flew in and landed briefly, but were swiftly off again, over the seawall, and disappeared out over the saltmarsh. A little further on, we found another Skylark down in the grass closer to us. It was a young bird – we could see it still had several retained juvenile feathers – but unfortunately it seemed to be suffering with an injured leg, as it was hopping unsteadily through the grass.

With the rain still holding off, we decided to continue on towards the beach. There were lots of Coot out on Broadwater, and three Gadwall in with them. A family of Mute Swans appeared from behind the reeds. Much further over, towards The Firs, we could also see several Little Grebes. A small group of Wigeon flew in and circled over the water before continuing on west, possibly new arrivals.

The calls of several Long-tailed Tits alerted us to an approaching tit flock. They flew towards us from the direction of the dunes and landed in a lone elder bush just in front of the reeds. For a couple of seconds, the small bush was packed with birds – as well as the Long-tailed Tits, we could see several Blue Tits, a Coal Tit and a single Chiffchaff with them. But they didn’t linger here and quickly turned and flew back towards the dunes.

From up in the dunes, we had a quick look out to sea. A single adult Gannet flew past. One of the group picked up a lone duck out on the sea and through the scope we could see it was a moulting Eider, a 1st summer male. Further over, towards the mouth of the Wash, a long line of black dots was a large raft of Common Scoter, but they were too far away to make out much detail even with the scope.

As we made our way back to the car, we were caught by a shower. Thankfully it was not too heavy and the wind was at our backs now. It passed over quickly, before we got back to the car. As we crossed the sluice, the Greenshank flew in and landed briefly, before being spooked by our approach and disappearing off again.

It started to spit with rain again when we got to Titchwell, so we decided to have an early lunch and hope it passed over. It was the right thing to do, because it rained for most of the time we were eating, sheltering under the umbrellas on the tables outside the visitor centre. When it stopped, we got ready to head out onto the reserve. A quick look at the feeders added Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Great Tit to the day’s list. We didn’t get far along the path before the heavens opened, so we beat a retreat back to the visitor centre. This rain was mercifully brief and it had already started to ease off when we got back. Once it had stopped, we set off to have another go.

Thornham grazing marsh and the reedbed were rather quiet today. There were quite a few Lapwing on the saltmarsh pool. A small flock of Golden Plover circled over. A Little Egret flew in and landed at the back of the saltmarsh pool. We heard a Bearded Tit call from the reeds but it was too windy to see it out there today. We hurried on to Island Hide to get out of the wind.

RuffRuff – still lots feeding on the freshmarsh

There were lots of Ruff feeding on the mud right in front of the hide when we arrived. Most were adults, in grey and white non-breeding plumage now. Looking through them, we found a few browner juveniles too. Looking at the males and females side by side, we could see the big size difference between them.

Dunlin numbers have increased recently and there were about 50 on the freshmarsh today. The three Little Stints were very distant at first, but when something spooked all the waders they flew round and landed again much closer. Through the scope, we could see them feeding with Dunlin, giving us a much better impression of just how ‘little’ they really are. There were a few Ringed Plover on the grassy islands too.

The number of Avocet here has really dropped now as most have left for the winter. There were still seven on the freshmarsh, although they were quite a long way back at first. Thankfully when all the waders flushed, they came much closer too. The Black-tailed Godwits on the freshmarsh were all distant too, but there were some Bar-tailed Godwits roosting a little nearer. One of them in particular was still sporting rather rusty-coloured underparts, still moulting out of breeding plumage.

A shout from someone round the other side of the hide kindly alerted us to a Bearded Tit, which was feeding low down along the edge of the reeds. There had been no sign of any Bearded Tits when we arrived and, given the wind, we thought we might struggle to see one today. We had a good look at it through the scope as it hopped around on the mud, in and out of the base of the reeds.

Bearded TitBearded Tit – feeding on the mud opposite Island Hide

We could see that the Little Stints were now closer to the main path, so while it was dry outside, we decided to make our way round to Parrinder Hide. On the way, we stopped to admire the Little Stints and found that they were right next to the path. We had a great view of them just below us, feeding on the edge of one of the muddy islands. They really are tiny – amazing to think that they are on their way from the arctic down to Africa for the winter, stopping here to refuel.

All three Little Stints were juveniles. We could see the prominent pale ‘braces’ on their mantles. There was noticeable variation between them, seeing the side by side and so close to us. One was more richly coloured, rusty and orange, and one was rather greyer than the other two.

Little StintLittle Stint – 1 of the 3 juveniles, showing well, right by the main path

Tearing ourselves away from the Little Stints, we headed round to Parrinder Hide. One of the first birds we saw from here was a juvenile Spotted Redshank just in front of the hide, presumably the same bird we saw here a couple of days ago. It was with a Common Redshank, giving us a great opportunity to look at the differences between the two. The Spotted Redshank had a noticeably longer and finer bill, a much bolder white supercilium and more extensive pale spots on the wings.

The juvenile Spotted Redshank was feeding in a shallow pool in the wet mud, mostly picking at the surface as it walked around, though it did briefly do some rapid sweeping side to side with its bill in the water. While we were watching it, we also picked up an adult Spotted Redshank further over. In winter plumage, the adult was noticeably paler, with silvery grey upperparts and whiter underparts, paler than the Common Redshank too.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshank – the juvenile, just in front of Parrinder Hide again

There were more Ruff here and we had a better view of the Black-tailed Godwits, noting their plain grey backs compared to the more obviously streaked backs of the Bar-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier. A single Common Snipe was feeding in the grass on the edge of the island just inside the fence.

The gulls on the freshmarsh are mostly Black-headed Gulls at the moment. From round at Island Hide earlier, we had found a Mediterranean Gull with them at one point. A winter adult, we were admiring its pure white wing tips when it took off and flew away over the reeds. From Parrinder Hide, we spotted an adult Yellow-legged Gull on one of the islands. Through the scope, we could see its custard yellow legs and grey mantle a shade darker than the Black-headed Gulls it was with. There was also a single Lesser Black-backed Gull and later a few Herring Gulls flew in to bathe, and three young Common Gulls dropped in too.

Most of the male ducks are in duller eclipse plumage at the moment, but some of the resident birds are starting to emerge already. There were a couple of pairs of Gadwall in front of Parrinder Hide, the drakes already in their rather smartly patterned grey and black plumage. A real connoisseur’s duck! There were also lots of Teal on the freshmarsh, a few Wigeon and Shoveler and some Shelduck, but no sign of the Garganey which had been here earlier.

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

With the weather having brightened up a little, we made our way out to the beach. There were some nice close Black-tailed Godwits right by the path at the far end of Volunteer Marsh, which gave us some great views. The water was high in the channel as the tide was just going out, but right at the back, we could see a single Grey Plover on the edge of the mud. It had already largely moulted to winter plumage, with just a few scattered black feathers in its underparts still.

There were several Little Grebes down towards the back of the Tidal Pools today, presumably moved back in for the winter now. There were more waders on here too, more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks at first, then further along towards the beach, we could see a line of roosting birds out on one of the spits. Through the scope, we could see there were several Grey Plover, including one stunning bird still mostly in breeding plumage, with black face and belly. Nearby were a couple of Turnstones and further back, in the vegetation, were two Bar-tailed Godwits.

Grey PloverGrey Plover – stunning still mostly in breeding plumage

Out at the beach, the tide was in. The wind had picked up this afternoon and swung more to the north, which meant the sea was very choppy now and it was hard to see anything out on the waves. Despite the increase in the wind, there didn’t seem to be much moving offshore. There were a few waders out on the beach towards Brancaster, mostly Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers but running in and out between their legs, like clockwork toys, were several Sanderling too.

It was rather exposed out on the beach so, with time running out, we decided to start to walk back. Two white shapes flew up out of the saltmarsh way off towards Thornham as we walked – a Spoonbill and a Little Egret together. For a moment, it looked like the Spoonbill might fly over in our direction but unfortunately it quickly dropped down again out of view. Two Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air over Thornham grazing marsh and made their way over the trees, presumably heading off to roost.

There were not many insects or other subjects of non-ornithological interest today, perhaps not a surprise given the weather (it was not the sort of day for butterflies or dragonflies!), but on the way back, two things worthy of note did put in an appearance. First, a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle ran across the path. Then, almost back to the trees, we almost trod on a young Smooth Newt on the path.

Smooth NewtSmooth Newt – we nearly trod on this on the path on the way back

Then it was back to the car and time to head for home.

27th Feb 2017 – Seaducks, Divers & Grebes

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. The request was particularly to look for seaducks, divers and grebes, but there would be time for other birds too. It was cloudy but bright in the morning, but heavy showers were forecast for the afternoon. As it was the weather gods were smiling on us – we sat out one brief shower in the hide at Titchwell and didn’t see another until we were back in the car at the end of the day.

With the target to see some birds on the sea, we started the day at Thornham Harbour with a walk out towards Holme Dunes. As we parked the car, a lone Brent Goose was feeding on the saltmarsh by the road close by. It looked up briefly, but seemed disinterested in our presence.

6o0a8198Brent Goose – feeding in the harbour at Thornham

The tide was just going out and the tidal channel was still full of water. From up on the seawall, we could see a few waders on the areas of open mud – Curlew, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as several Redshank. The Twite have been rather elusive here this winter, tending to come and go, so it was no surprise that two small birds feeding down on the edge of the saltmarsh were a pair of Linnet.

6o0a8206Curlew – several were feeding on the mud in the harbour

Looking out across the harbour towards the sea, we could see a few ducks diving in the deeper part of the channel in the distance. Through the scope, we could see there were several Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of female Goldeneye. A Great Crested Grebe was just offshore beyond.

As we walked along the seawall, there were Skylarks singing over the grazing meadows behind us. A couple of Reed Buntings flew out from one of the bushes below the bank, as did a Wren. When two more small birds flitted across the saltmarsh below us, we expected those to be Linnets again, but a quick look revealed they were Twite. Through the scope, we could see their yellow bills and orange-washed breasts. They fed for a time in the vegetation on the edge of the mud, before eventually disappearing off back into the saltmarsh.

img_0953Twite – we found a pair on the saltmarsh on our walk out

Six geese flying in from the east over the harbour were Pink-footed Geese. We heard them calling and watched as they dropped down towards the grazing marshes to the west. Looking across, we could see a large flock of geese already down on the grass. Through the scope, we could see that the vast majority were Pink-footed Geese too. But then a head came up with a distinctive white surround to the base of the bill – two White-fronted Geese were hiding in with the Pinkfeet.

A shrill call high overhead alerted us to a displaying Marsh Harrier, a male, flying up and down with exaggerated, flappy wingbeats. Two more Marsh Harriers, females, flew in over the saltmarsh and, behind us, another two circled up over the grazing marshes. The bright conditions were obviously encouraging a burst of Marsh Harrier display activity this morning.

6o0a8240Marsh Harrier – this male was displaying overhead

A quick look out across Broadwater from the edge of the dunes added Tufted Duck and Common Pochard to the day’s list. A few Mallard and a pair of Shoveler were lurking in the reeds. A few Greylag Geese and a big flock of Curlew were in the fields beyond.

From the top of the dunes, we set ourselves up to scan the sea. Almost the first bird we set eyes on was a Great Northern Diver. It was not far offshore, but diving regularly and drifting east. It was clearly big and we got it in the scope and could see the contrast between the blackish upperparts and white throat and breast, with a black half collar.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water. Five large, heavy ducks flying in from the east were Eider – three all dark females and two 1st winter drakes, with contrasting white breasts. They landed on the sea further out where we could see them distantly. A little later, we looked back and found two smart drake Eider in the same area. There were a couple of Common Scoter out here too today, a blackish drake and a pale-cheeked female.

The Long-tailed Ducks have become more elusive in recent days. It is possible they have already started to move back north, although they may just have moved further offshore. Fortunately a few obliged us by flying in this morning. First, we picked up a lone Long-tailed Duck flying in from way out to sea, but it turned east and eventually landed some way away, off Thornham Point. We could just make it out through the scope. Then a pair flew in and landed out beyond the Red-breasted Mergansers. They were still distant, but we could see there was a smart male and browner female. The fourth Long-tailed Duck, a female, was even more obliging, and landed with the mergansers where we could get a much better view of it. To round out the total, a fifth flew past a little later.

While we were looking through the ducks, we picked up a Slavonian Grebe on the sea. It was clearly small, next to the Red-breasted Mergansers. It had a flat crown, white cheeks and a neatly defined black cap. Red-throated Diver is the most regular diver species here and we found one or two out on the sea. Black-throated Diver is the rarest so it was a bonus to find one just as we were about to call it a day. We were alerted to it by a flash of its white flank patch as it dived. It was rather distant, but when it surfaced again we could also see its very contrasting black and white colouration, and sleeker, slimmer structure compared to the Great Northern Diver we had seen earlier.

After such a fantastically productive morning here, we decided to head back to the car. Three species of diver and an excellent selection of seaduck was a great return for our efforts. A Little Grebe on Broadwater on the way back made it three species of grebe for the site today too!

As we walked back along the seawall, we could hear Twite calling. We assumed it would just be the pair we had seen earlier, but a flock of around 25 Twite flew up from the saltmarsh and across the path in front of us. A couple of males flashed bright pink rumps as they flew past. They dropped down by a pool on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back to the saltmarsh again. We had another good look at them through the scope.

6o0a8254Twite – a flock of about 25 had appeared on the walk back

There had been a Glaucous Gull reported by some pig fields inland from here yesterday, so we decided to have a quick drive round to see if we could find it. We did find a large flock of gulls loafing in a field by an irrigation reservoir, but all we could see there were Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls. There didn’t appear to be many gulls around the pig fields today.

The buntings were more obliging. There has been a big flock of Yellowhammers here through the winter and there must have been at least 60 here still today. Several were bathing in a puddle as we arrived, including some stunningly yellow males. They were rather flighty, constantly flying between the hedges and the field the other side. However, when they perched up in the hedge we could get a good look at them.

6o0a8275Yellowhammer – at least 60 in the flock today

As well as the Yellowhammers, there have been good numbers of Corn Bunting here and there were still at least 6 here today.We could hear one singing when we got out of the car, the song often compared to jangling keys, but we couldn’t see it through the hedge. Then one flew over as we walked along the road, we were alerted to it by its distinctive liquid ‘pit’ call. Finally we managed to get three in the scope, perched up together in the top of a small tree. They are getting so scarce now, it is always a delight to see Corn Buntings.

There were other things to see here too. There were several Reed Buntings in with the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in a recently sown field, much more delicate birds then the similarly grey Woodpigeon. A couple of Red Kites hung in the air over a nearby wood. When a Kestrel flew over the field, all the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings scattered.

Our destination for the afternoon was Titchwell. After lunch by the visitor centre and a welcome hot drink, we made had a look at the feeders. There were a few Greenfinches with the Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but the highlight was a couple of female Bramblings which dropped in to join them. The Water Rail was in the ditch by the main path as usual, but was lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing today.

6o0a8282Water Rail – lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing

The dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ looked devoid of life at first. We repositioned ourselves further along the path, so we could see round behind the reeds at the front. At that point, one of the group spotted a bird right down at the front – the Water Pipit we had been looking for. We had a great view of it through the scope, noting its white underparts neatly streaked with black, and well-marked white supercilium.

img_1011Water Pipit – showed very well on the grazing meadow ‘pool’

A single Great Crested Grebe was at the back of the reedbed pool, asleep amongst the ducks. While we were scanning around the edges of the pool, a small wader flicked up and dropped down on a patch of cut reed at the front. We had a very restricted view, with a line of reeds in front. Looking through with the scope we managed to see there was a Common Snipe feeding there, but the bird we had just seen fly in was smaller than that. Then, just behind it, we caught sight of a Jack Snipe.

The Jack Snipe flew across the water at the front and landed on another patch of cut reed the other side, out of view. By walking a little further along the path and looking back, we were able to find it again, though we still had to look through the reeds in the front. It was very well camouflaged, with its bright golden mantle stripes in amongst the reed stems, but the Jack Snipe was feeding with its distinctive bobbing action. Great to watch!

We could see dark clouds approaching from the west, so we made our way quickly round to Parrinder Hide to scan the Freshmarsh from there. As we walked round, a huge flock of Golden Plover flew up from the fenced off island and most of them seemed to drift off inland. We got into the hide just in time, as a squally shower blew in.

There is still a good variety of ducks on the Freshmarsh at the moment – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. The birds huddled up against the rain. There were also good numbers of gulls again, but we couldn’t find anything other than Black-headed Gull, Common Gull and Herring Gull on here today.

6o0a8324Teal – a smart drake, huddled up facing into the rain

There were lots of Redshank in particular on the Freshmarsh today. Perhaps they had been flushed off the Volunteer Marsh by something? Several Knot flew in too and landed in with the gulls. A noisy little group of Oystercatcher were gathered in a circle giving a piping display. There were also lots of Avocet on here – numbers are continuing to increase as birds return after the winter. A colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwit stood pointing into the rain.

img_1018Black-tailed Godwit – a colour-ringed bird in the rain

Thankfully the rain blew through quickly. Once it stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were several Knot, Grey Plover and Curlew on the mud in front of the hide when we walked in, but almost immediately something flushed all the birds and the waders all flew off. The Redshanks had gone over to join the others on the Freshmarsh – we could see them all busy bathing and preening from the window at the back of the hide.

As it was starting to brighten up again, we decided to make a bid for the beach. From round on the main path, we stopped to watch a couple of Knot and a couple of Dunlin which dropped back in together on the mud, a nice chance to compare the two species.

6o0a8332Shoveler – several were out on the Tidal Pools

The Pintail were all out on the Tidal Pools today, along with more Shoveler and Mallard. There were also a few waders on here, in particular several Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. This provided a good opportunity to compare the two species – the Bar-tailed Godwit being obviously smaller, shorter-legged and with paler, buffier upperparts streaked with dark.

The tide was coming in again out at the beach. Large groups of Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit were gathered along the shoreline. There was quite a lot of seaweed scattered across the sand today and we could see several silvery Sanderling feeding in amongst it.

There was a flock of Scoter further offshore and through the scope we could see they were mostly Velvet Scoter with a smaller number of Common Scoter in with them. Even better, a single Velvet Scoter was much closer in and we could see the distinctive twin smaller white spots on its face. A couple of Common Scoter were closer in too, and when it turned head on, we could see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill on the drake. Otherwise, the sea here was much quieter than it had been at Holme this morning – just a few Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Still, Velvet Scoter was a nice bird to round out the set of our seaduck for the day.

As we made our way back along the main path, we stopped for another look at the Jack Snipe. There were now two Common Snipe on the same side of the pool as the Jack Snipe, we could see their pale central crown stripes. The Common Snipe were out in the middle of the patch of cut reed, but typically the Jack Snipe was more secretive, still keeping nearer to cover at the edge of the tall reeds. However, it had worked its way out to the edge of a little puddle where we could see it better, its shorter bill and dark central crown.

img_1043Jack Snipe – feeding on the edge of the reedbed pool

On the way back, we cut round via Meadow Trail and out to Patsy’s Reedbed. The water level is being kept high on here this year – attractive for the Tufted Ducks, Common Pochard and Coot which were all diving on here. Several Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the reedbed, ahead of going to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler sand from the bushes.

The afternoon was getting on and it was starting to get dark, but when we turned to look behind us we could see another bank of dark clouds approaching from the west, so we decided to make our way back. We had heard Bullfinches calling on the way out and seen a couple of shapes disappearing off into the bushes. On the way back, they were more helpfully feeding in the top of a small tree, picking at the buds. The three females were perched in full view, while the pink male lurked a little further back. A couple of Jays called noisily from the sallows and we flushed a Muntjac from beside the boardwalk, which scuttled off into the undergrowth.

We got back to the car just in time, as a wintry shower blew through. We had been remarkably lucky with the weather today and we didn’t mind a bit of rain now we were on our way home.

3rd February 2016 – Winter Rarities, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour today, and the plan was to look for some of the rarities and scarce winter birds which are around North Norfolk at the moment. We had a ‘wish list’ for the two days, so we would try to see as many of those as possible.

We started at Choseley, with the target to try to find one of the Rough-legged Buzzards which is spending the winter here. It didn’t take us very long today, as we had only just driven a short distance scanning the trees and hedges when one circled across the road almost overhead!

P1160197Rough-legged Buzzard – first, one circled over the road this morning

We leapt out of the car and watched the Rough-legged Buzzard circle lazily away to the east. From underneath, we could see the black belly patch and black-tipped white tail. We drove round to the other side to see if might have landed in one of its favourite trees, only to find it hovering over the hillside and then drifting back towards where we had just been. Back in the car and back round again, we pulled into a layby and scanned the hedge and there were not one but two Rough-legged Buzzards in the same tree!

IMG_6064Rough-legged Buzzard – then one of the two in a tree

We watched the Rough-legged Buzzards for some time. One flew along the hedge and landed in another tree, then the second flew and forced it off its perch. The first then landed in a tree further along still and after a few moments the second came to join it. Finally the two of them drifted off back east towards the trees. It was an excellent way to start the day and great views.

Next, we stopped in an area of farmland where there are some nice overgrown weedy fields and unkempt hedges. Skylarks were singing and a Barn Owl was hunting out over the long grass. A tight flock of Linnets was whirling over the field and further along in the hedge we could see several Yellowhammers. A van came along the road and appeared to flush them all, but after they landed again we could hear a Corn Bunting singing distantly. As that was the bird we really wanted to see, we walked down along the road towards where they were.

They were hard to find at first. Lots of Yellowhammers came out of the hedges either side as we walked along, and dropped down into the weedy field beyond. When a farmer came along the road and drove into one of the fields, right by the hedge where most of the Yellowhammers had been, we thought that would be the end of it. But when we got further along, past where he was working, we could see all the birds gathered in the hedge on the other side of the field. Even better, perched in one of the small trees we could see five larger shapes. A quick look through the scope confirmed that they were Corn Buntings and we had a good look at them before they flew off.

P1160204Brent Goose – a few hang around in Thornham Harbour

With our second target in the bag, we headed down to Thornham Harbour. The usual little gaggle of Brent Geese were hanging around at the end, but there was no sign of the Twite at first. We decided to walk out along the seawall to look further down towards Holme. When we had got half way along the bank, the flock of Twite flew over our heads and landed back in the harbour, from where we had just come. We decided to carry on and try for a better look on the way back.

As we walked out towards the dunes, we could hear Pink-footed Geese in the distance behind us. We turned to see lines upon lines of them heading our way, there must have been at least 3,000 of them. They gradually lost height and started whiffling down into the grazing marshes between us and Holme, landing on the grass – it was a fantastic sight and sound.

P1160217Pink-footed Geese – several thousand came into the fields at Holme

A little further along and a tight flock of small birds came hurtling in over the saltmarsh, over the bank and down towards Broad Water. They were Teal and just behind them we could see why – a Peregrine was after them. The ducks crashed down into the water and the Peregrine had to fly off empty-taloned.

The other bird we wanted to see here was Shore Lark. So we walked on out to the beach, stopping briefly to scan the sea from the dunes, before making our way round to the end of the dunes, which is the area they favour. We had only just got out of the dunes when the three Shore Larks flew up from the high tide line just ahead of us. They had obviously been tucked down amongst the piles of dead seaweed and other detritus, had probably crouched down as another group of people had walked ahead of us, then taken off when we approached.

We had hoped the Shore Larks would fly out to their favoured spot, but they turned and headed inland, disappearing behind the dunes. We carried on anyway, just in case they had doubled back but there was no sign of them and they didn’t return while we stood and scanned the beach. There were lots of waders out on the sand – Dunlin, Turnstone and Grey Plover, plus a group of roosting Bar-tailed Godwits around one of the damper pools.

We had also hoped we might find some interesting seaduck out here today, but it was windy this morning and there was quite a swell. Still, we walked back and along as far as the firs, scanning the sea. Most of the ducks were a long way out to sea. We could see a huge flock of Common Scoter, hundreds or even a thousand strong, which peeled up off the sea out in the middle, midway between us and the Lincolnshire coast, and circled round before landing again. There were a number Red-breasted Mergansers diving closer in and several Great Crested Grebes. A few Red-throated Divers flew east and a Fulmar went west, presumably heading for the cliffs at Hunstanton.

On our way back, the Twite were more obliging. We had just made it to the first bend in the seawall when they flew up from the saltmarsh below, a flock of around 30 of them. They flew off towards the harbour and looked like they might go down way over in the middle, but changed their minds and turned back. Eventually, they dropped back down where they had come from. This time we could get a good look at them in the scope, admiring their orange faces and breasts and yellow bills.

IMG_6115Twite – about 30 were around Thornham Harbour again

On our way back to the car, we stopped to admire a single Knot feeding in the mud, right beside the path. Then, as time was getting on, we headed round to Titchwell for lunch.

IMG_6151Knot – feeding in the mud at Thornham Harbour

We really wanted to see if we could find some seaduck at Titchwell today, rather than explore the reserve, and we didn’t have much time available. Still, we tried to pick up many of the regular birds here as we went along. The feeders around the visitor centre were chock full of finches as usual, and it didn’t take long to find a smart male Brambling amongst them.

IMG_6174Brambling – a male on the feeders at Titchwell

We stopped at the grazing meadow pool for a quick scan, but it looked rather quiet this afternoon. There were a couple of Rock Pipits but no sign of the Water Pipit with them. Other than a few Lapwing and a single Redshank, that was it out there today. A Kingfisher flashed over the reeds at the front and disappeared down into the channel on the saltmarsh.

The water level on the freshmarsh has gone well down now, and most of the birds were right out around the remaining water at the back. There were still a few Avocet and a small number of Black-tailed Godwit. A large flock of Dunlin did seem to be making the most of all the mud. A few Lapwing were feeding round the edges.

P1160247Lapwing – on the muddy edge of the freshmarsh

Duck numbers are now well down. There were still quite a few Teal, but nowhere near the number there has been, plus a small group of Mallard and a couple of Shoveler. We didn’t hang around here today, but moved quickly on to the Volunteer Marsh. There were all the usual waders on here – Curlew, Redshank and Grey Plover, plus a couple of Ringed Plovers as well.

IMG_6199Ringed Plover – a couple were on the Volunteer Marsh

There was no sign of the Spotted Redshank on the Tidal Pools again today, but there were several Bar-tailed Godwit here. We did enjoy good views of three Goldeneye, including a smart drake. We also spent some time admiring the Pintail which were all on here today, all eleven of them.

IMG_6200Goldeneye – this drake and two females were on the Tidal Pools

Our next stop was the beach and the tide was in, so there were not may waders out here today. We set ourselves to scan the sea. Once again it was very choppy, which didn’t make it easy. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers, but the flock of Common Scoter, while not as far offshore as the ones we had seen earlier, were still rather distant. We had hoped to see if there were any Velvet Scoter with them again today, but it was hard enough to see them in the waves and they were just that bit too distant.

P1160263Black-tailed Godwit – by the path on the Tidal Pools

We made our way quickly back. A Black-tailed Godwit flew in and landed right by the path on the Tidal Pools. Back at the grazing meadow pool, there was no sign of any pipits now out on the mud, but a call behind us alerted us to one heading our way. It flew in high over the main reedbed, over the path and out towards Thornham over the mud, then turned and flew straight back to the reedbed before dropping down out in the middle of the reeds. When it came overhead, we could see it was very white underneath and relatively unstreaked – it was the Water Pipit, but it was not playing ball today.

Our final destination of the day was to be Roydon Common for the harrier roost, but we still had a little time to play with. It was a straight choice between going to see the Red-necked Grebe at Brancaster or go for another try looking at the sea at Holme. The choice was for the latter, so we drove back west along the coast road and set off across the golf course.

The sea didn’t look any more amenable here and the first couple of scans revealed nothing new – a few Great Crested Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers. Out in the distance, a couple of auks whirred past. Then another scan revealed a pale duck out on the water which caught the afternoon sun. It was a Long-tailed Duck, but it was a long way out, drifting fast with the tide and diving. It was all but impossible to see and as soon as we found it, it was lost again. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t find it again to get everyone onto it. We had a date with some harriers and we had to tear ourselves away.

We arrived at Roydon Common in good time, and there was already quite a crowd assembled. The Pallid Harrier had arrived for the last couple of nights around 3.30pm. A Marsh Harrier was out over the heath, quartering back and forth. A ringtail Hen Harrier was already in when we arrived and eventually got up and did a fly round. The clock ticked on, and still there was no sign of the Pallid Harrier. It was a lovely evening, with clear skies as the sun dipped down behind us.

P1160277Roydon Common – it was a lovely evening out on the heath

A second Hen Harrier flew in and dropped down into the grass. Still we waited. There were some nervous glances around the crowd now. The sun dipped below the horizon and a third and then a fourth Hen Harrier came in. By now, the light was just starting to fade a little and gradually the crowd started to leave. Eventually there were only about half a dozen of us left. However, harriers can come very late into roost, particularly on such a fine and calm evening, where they might choose to carry on hunting until the last moment. We were also still down on the usual count of Hen Harriers here, so we figured there must be more to come. We decided to stay.

It paid off. Suddenly the Pallid Harrier appeared – we could immediately see its comparatively small size and the dark patch or ‘boa’ really stood out on the side of its neck in the late evening light, and we could see the pale collar too. It circled round and the Hen Harriers started to get up for a last fly round as well. It was great to see the two species side by side – the Pallid Harrier smaller, slimmer with much more pointed wings and more buoyant flight.

Then even better, a Marsh Harrier appeared in the same view – the Pallid Harrier was the sandwich filling between the Marsh and a Hen Harrier! The Pallid and the Hen Harrier took it in turns to swoop down at the Marsh Harrier, before turning away in opposite directions.

It was a great way to end the day – a magical place, and well worth the wait!

31st January 2016 – Raptor Quest

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, our last day, and a day of general birding along the coast. We were trying to catch up with a few of the good birds around Norfolk at the moment which we hadn’t seen yet this weekend. Depending which weather forecast you looked at, it was either going to rain all day or just some heavy rain around the middle of the day. As it was, it did neither and was a lot better than expected. A bonus! We met in Wells and made our way west along the coast road.

We hadn’t gone far when we made our first impromptu stop. A Barn Owl was hunting over a field beside the road, head down, focused intently on the ground below. We watched it for a minute or so, flying round, before it disappeared out of view behind a hedge.

One a short distance further along the road, we had to make another stop for another Barn Owl, this one perched on a post. Despite our best efforts, it flew off just as we got out and circled round the field hunting. It then had second thoughts and came back to perch on the post again, just so we could have a good look at it! Then it was off hunting over the grass once more. Two Barn Owls – a great way to start the day.

P1150959Barn Owl – our second of the morning

Brancaster Staithe is always a nice place to stop, with a good selection of waders in the harbour and normally a few Red-breasted Mergansers in the channel. There had been a Red-necked Grebe here for much of December, going missing for a fortnight before reappearing again for a week in mid January. It had not been seen since 15th January, so we weren’t expecting to see it, but we had a good scan of the harbour just in case. We had to content ourselves with several smart Red-breasted Mergansers this morning.

IMG_5782Red-breasted Merganser – showing off his spiky punk haircut

The tide was coming in, already quite high, and there were several Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlin feeding along the water’s edge by the car park. A Turnstone ran in front of the car across the stones. Further over were on a sandbank were several Grey Plover and Ringed Plover. A pile of debris on the shore were the mussels had been brought in and washed was being picked over by a little posse of Oystercatchers and more Turnstones.

P1150964Bar-tailed Godwits & Dunlin – by the car park at Brancaster Staithe

Having had a good look round, we decided to press on, cutting inland towards Docking. We stopped to scan some trees in the hope of finding the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its favourite perches. We couldn’t see it, but while we were watching a flock of Chaffinches and Yellowhammer feeding on the edge of a field, a ghostly grey shape appeared over a cover strip the other side. A stunning male Hen Harrier, it was hunting low over the ground and against the dark trees in the background we could see the black wing tips contrasting with the silvery grey upperparts. It got to the back of the field and dropped down over the ridge the other side out of view.

We hopped in the car and drove round, in the hope that we might be able to find it again, but it was gone. So we carried on along the road, scanning the trees and hedges. At only our second stop, we found the Rough-legged Buzzard. It was perched on the top of a hedge – its very white head stood out a mile off. We got it in the scope for a closer look – we could even see the feathered tarsi (bottom half of its legs) from which it gets its name.

IMG_5806Rough-legged Buzzard – around Choseley again today

The Rough-legged Buzzard dropped down to the ground and appeared to land, but shortly after we picked it up again flying low along the hedge line, before swooping up to land in one of its favourite trees. It was round the other side of the tree, out of view from here, so we drove back round to where we had been looking earlier. We were much closer, but the view wasn’t much better from here – we could see its head and shoulders above the branches. It perched for a while, before dropping down out of the tree and flying off – we were treated to great flight views as it did so, flashing its mostly white tail with just a black terminal band. Great stuff.

A little further along the road we stopped again to count the Brown Hares. There were at least ten in one field and another four in a smaller field next door. Most of them were hunkered down, but a couple were sitting up feeding. At one point they had a half-hearted chase, before resuming what they were doing. It was probably a bit too cold and damp to expect much boxing today.

We made a quick detour round by an area where we had seen Corn Buntings in the past few weeks. They had been a little erratic more recently, so we weren’t expecting much. As we drove along the road, we could see a large flock of Linnets circling over the field. Then a little group of Skylarks got up as well. The next thing we know a flock of buntings flew across the road in front of us and landed in the hedge the other side. We pulled into a convenient gateway and got out to have a closer look. We could see there were several Yellowhammers, but at least one had looked bulkier as they flew in.

Unfortunately, before we could get a good look at them, first a Sparrowhawk flew across the road carrying some poor unsuspecting victim – probably why everything had flown out of the field in the first place – and then a very helpful soul came bombing along the road in his Land Rover and hooted his horn at us. That was the end of the buntings, as they all burst into the air. We could hear Corn Bunting calling and saw at least one as they erupted and flew off. After a short while, the Yellowhammers started to return to the field but the only Corn Bunting we saw flew over calling, a liquid ‘ptt, ptt’, and disappeared over the horizon. We scanned the hedges as we went on, but all we could find was a large flock of Chaffinches and Linnets, although we did glimpse a Brambling briefly with them.

We made our way down to Thornham Harbour next. We didn’t see anything as we drove in, so we walked down to the edge of the creek. A Rock Pipit flew off from the edge as we approached. A Spotted Redshank called a couple of times as it flew over, but we couldn’t get onto it. Then one of the group spotted the Twite behind us, landing in the vegetation by the side of the road. We made our way back towards them and had just set up the scope for a closer look when another helpful soul, our second of the morning, came down along the rutted harbour road at high speed in his shiny Range Rover and the Twite were off again.

IMG_5821Twite – 25-30 were at Thornham Harbour again today

The Twite landed over on the seawall, so we set off round to try again. They were rather jumpy at first and wouldn’t settle, but eventually landed down on the saltmarsh below us and resumed feeding. This time we could get them in the scope and have a proper look at them, before they made their way back to the place from which they had been flushed earlier.

The cloud was now starting to thicken and it began to spit with rain. With heavy rain forecast, we thought we would spend the middle of the day at Titchwell, with the benefit of some hides to shelter in if need be. Unusually for mid-morning on a Sunday, there were spaces in the main car park. We set out towards the visitor centre, stopping to watch a Goldcrest in the tangled branches on the way.

The feeders in front of the visitor centre were a hive of activity – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. A male Brambling flew off before everyone could see it and a Marsh Tit came in and out too quickly as well. A Coal Tit was more obliging. However, we were more successful round at the feeders the other side. There were several Bramblings here – at least three males and two plainer females which we saw simultaneously, so probably a few more. The males are starting to look particularly smart, bright orange breast and shoulders and increasingly black heads as the pale tips to the feathers wear off through the winter. The Marsh Tit was also more obliging on this side, though still darting in, grabbing a seed, and flying back into the bushes to eat it.

IMG_5845Brambling – a smart male, with an increasingly black head

IMG_5856Brambling – another male, this one with a paler head still

Unusually, there was no sign of a Water Rail in the ditches on the way out onto the reserve – there was always the way back to have another look. We stopped at the drained grazing marsh ‘pool’, and once again it was covered in Rock Pipits, at least 20 out on the mud. It took a bit of scanning, but eventually we found the Water Pipit nearby – it was remarkably well camouflaged against the grey brown mud. Compared to the Rock Pipits, the Water Pipit was much cleaner white below, with the heavy streaking more restricted to the breast.

IMG_5864Water Pipit – well camouflaged against the mud

It was starting to drizzle a little harder now, so we made for the shelter of Island Hide. It was a bit of a surprise to see just how far the water levels have fallen on here in recent days. There was a lot of exposed mud, but the waders don’t seem to have read the script and there were precious few taking advantage of it. A lone Redshank was out in the middle.

P1150992Freshmarsh – a lone Redshank on acres of mud

Further over, towards the back, the Avocets were at least enjoying it. They have often been asleep in recent weeks, but today they were all wide awake and feeding, sweeping their bills side to side through the shallow water. Over towards the Parrinder Hide, a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a deeper pool.

There were not so many ducks on here today. A pair of Teal were feeding in the muddy channel below the hide, and lots more Teal were over towards the back on the open water. With them were a few Shoveler and Gadwall. A number of Brent Geese were also swimming around at the back.

P1150987Teal – a pair were feeding in the mud below Island Hide

We decided to carry on out towards the beach. We were scanning from the main path when we noticed a Merlin in the air, beyond the back of the freshmarsh out towards Brancaster. We could see it was chasing a small bird – it looked like a pipit. The pipit was desperately trying to get away – climbing higher in the sky, constantly changing direction – and all the while the Merlin was stooping at it, then towering back up above it to stoop again. The two of them went high into the sky, before dropping back down sharply again, at which point we lost sight of them behind the bank. History does not relate what befell the pipit!

We stopped to have a look at Volunteer Marsh. There were several Grey Plover quite close to the main path on the mud. A Ringed Plover was there as well. A single Knot was standing on the edge of one of the channels. We were just getting the scope on it when all the waders took off – we couldn’t see what had spooked them.

IMG_5877Grey Plover – there were several on the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, we could see several Little Grebes and several Goldeneye, all diving in the shallow water. A Cormorant was wrestling with a large eel which it had caught. The eel wrapped itself round the Cormorant’s neck, and the Cormorant kept plunging the eel into the water. At one point it even tossed it into the air and caught it again. Eventually, it worked it round so it had hold of it by its head and it managed to swallow it with a bit of effort. We could see the Cormorant‘s distended crop afterwards. When we came back from the beach it was standing on one of the islands, probably attempting to digest its huge meal!

We couldn’t find the Spotted Redshank here today, but in its place was a single Greenshank, in with the Common Redshank. There were several Bar-tailed Godwits on here and, further out by the beach, a single Black-tailed Godwit. It was now starting to drizzle harder, so we made our way out to the beach.

IMG_5872Black-tailed Godwit – on the tidal pools behind the beach

Out on the beach, the tide was now in. As a consequence, there were not so many waders as usual – just a few Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling. We would normally have had a good look at the sea, but the drizzle had turned to mist and we couldn’t see very far offshore at all. A couple of Common Scoters were helpfully just offshore behind the breakers, but that was all we could see. At least it gave us a good excuse to head back.

Almost back to the visitor centre, we had another good look in the ditches either side of the path. This time we found the Water Rail, lurking underneath a mass of branches over the water, preening. It was really hard to see until eventually it finished preening and came out onto the far bank, probing in amongst the rotting leaves.

P1160103Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path again

While we were having lunch, it stopped drizzling and started to brighten up. At the same time, some news came through – the Red-necked Grebe had reappeared, just where we had been earlier this morning. This bird is nothing if not erratic! We couldn’t let it get away with that, so after we had finished eating we made a quick detour back there. Sure enough, there it was bobbing about on the water, diving occasionally. It swam towards us and it was clear the Red-necked Grebe wanted to come past us along the channel, so we stood close to the car where we would frighten it less. It kept diving and surfacing again much closer and then it bobbed up right in front of us. Cracking views.

IMG_5906Red-necked Grebe – came right past us in the harbour channel

It surfaced a couple of times right in front, then the Red-necked Grebe swam up the channel away from us.  We had planned to go to Flitcham this afternoon, but going back for the Red-necked Grebe had cost us time. At least with the weather improving, we thought the Pallid Harrier might be out hunting now. As it turned out, it had been there earlier but had flown off when the rain stopped. At least we hadn’t hurried over there and not seen the grebe as well, because we would have missed it anyway.

We had a good scan of the fields. Another Merlin was up in the sky some way away, hunting in exactly the same way as the one we had seen earlier, chasing some unlucky small bird. Once again, we did not see the outcome as they both dropped down out of view.

The hedges here are alive with finches – Chaffinches, Bramblings, Goldfinches – as a consequence of the cover strips and wild bird seed mix strips which have been sown around the edges of the fields and the over-wintered stubbles in various fields. This is how farms used to be, but modern agriculture and flocks of seed-eating birds seem to be incompatible unless food is specifically sown for them. In with the finches, we found several Tree Sparrows. This is one a the few remaining regular spots for them in Norfolk, a bird which used to be common. Again, a sad reflection of the impact of modern agriculture on our wildlife.

IMG_5925Tree Sparrow – in the hedge, with a Brambling bottom left

Although we had missed the Pallid Harrier at Flitcham, we still had one last card to play. While it has often been at Flitcham on and off during the day since mid December, it has not been known where it has been roosting. Last night it was seen going in to roost with Hen Harriers at nearby Roydon Common. So tonight, we decided to see if we could find it there. Several other people had the same idea, and left Flitcham before us.

We had just arrived at Roydon when we received a phone call from one of them to say the Pallid Harrier was there. We quickened our pace and got out to join them. It was a bit misty and drizzley again at first, although we could see the bird perched down in the grass. Then the sky cleared again and we got a better view – we could even see its collar now.

The Pallid Harrier then took off and flew round for a while – we admired its slim wings and pointed ‘hand’, giving it a rather falcon-like silhouette. We lost it, probably down on the ground, then the next harrier we saw was a ringtail Hen Harrier circling round. The Hen Harriers were starting to arrive, and we saw at least another two ringtails come in over the trees and drop down onto the common. The next time we saw the Pallid Harrier, it was flying again and this time with a Hen Harrier – it was great to see the two of them alongside each other. They even tussled a little, stooping at each other as they flew across the heathland. Then the Pallid Harrier dropped down again out of view.

It was a lovely way to end the day – and the weekend – out on the heath in the wilds of NW Norfolk, watching the harriers coming in to roost.

19th January 2016 – Winter on the Coast

A Winter Tour today, on the North Norfolk coast. It was cold and generally rather overcast, a little misty at times later on, but mostly dry and with only light winds which meant we could make a good day of it. We met in Wells and worked our way west.

P1150017Wells Quay – at dawn

We had a quick stop down at the quay in Wells first. There was some lovely hazy sunshine out to the east first thing, before the cloud built. We had hoped to find the Shag which seems to have taken up residence in the harbour for the winter, but it was not in its usual place on the jetty when we arrived. We contented ourselves with admiring the Brent Geese bathing out in the harbour channel and loafing around on the sand bars, before drifting off over to the fields the other side of the harbour wall to feed.

IMG_5242Brent Geese – bathing and loafing in the harbour at Wells

Scanning across to the other side of the harbour, we finally picked up the Shag, which was swimming further down along the quay, diving repeatedly in among the boats. It showed no sign of returning to its favoured resting place, so we drove further along to where we could get a better look at it. The Shag was diving just off the quay and surfaced with a large fish. After a couple of attempts to get it turned round the right way, it managed to swallow it. Two Cormorants were also fishing in the harbour, giving us a good comparison.

P1150046Shag – fishing in the harbour at Wells

Our next stop was at Holkham. Just by the road opposite the church we pulled over to admire a little group of Pink-footed Geese on the grazing meadows. Most of the thousands which normally roost here overnight had flown off inland to feed already, but it was good to get a chance to study these few lingering geese more closely. One was sporting a small amount of white around the base of the bill, a not uncommon variant of Pink-footed Goose.

IMG_5248Pink-footed Geese – one had a small amount of white around the bill

We couldn’t see any other geese with the Pinkfeet, but a little further along the road we stopped again and a scan of the grazing marshes revealed yet more geese. Many of them were Greylags – larger and paler with a big orange carrot of a bill. In amongst them were some White-fronted Geese, smaller and darker, with a noticeable white blaze around the base of the all pink bill. This white was much more extensive than on the single Pink-footed Goose we had just seen. The adult White-fronted Geese were also sporting distinctive black belly bars.

IMG_5253White-fronted Geese – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

There were other birds to see here too. A Barn Owl was still out, flying back and forth over the marshes. It landed on a post for several minutes for a rest. Several Marsh Harriers circled overhead and two of them had a brief go at a Grey Heron which flew out of the trees and landed in the grass. A couple of Bullfinches flew along the hedge in front of us calling and landed briefly in the top of a tree.

We carried on our way west, stopping again briefly on the way to watch another Barn Owl which was hunting around some paddocks by the road. We diverted inland at Titchwell, around the back to Choseley, hoping to find the Rough-legged Buzzard which has made the area its home this winter, but there was no sign of it on our way past. We didn’t stop for any length of time. There were lots of Brown Hares in the fields and they are starting to chase each other round already – we even saw a very brief bout of boxing!

The hedges south of the barns have been full of Yellowhammers in recent weeks, but they were empty today. A tractor was working its way up and down the road flailing them back to the proportions of a rather small rectangular box, so the birds had flown. We decided to make our way back down to the coast and on to Thornham.

As soon as we arrived at Thornham Harbour we could see the flock of about 30 Twite, even before we got out of the car. They were buzzing around the saltmarsh right by the road. We pulled up and got out, just as they landed in the vegetation just behind us. We got them in the scope and had a quick look at them, but just at that moment some people tried to walk right up to them and they were off again, out onto the saltmarsh. The Twite came back shortly after, but were quickly flushed again and flew out towards the seawall. We gathered our stuff and set off in their direction.

IMG_5299

IMG_5276Twite – around 30 were still around Thornham Harbour

We could see the Twite again from up on the seawall, feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh just below us. Several of them were colour-ringed with individual combinations of coloured plastic rings which identify exactly where they have come from, mostly from the Pennines, with a couple from Derbyshire. We could see their peachy-orange breasts and small yellow bills. One – a male – was even showing off his pink rump! Two Reed Buntings were feeding around the low Suaeda bushes nearby.

We carried on out along the seawall towards the dunes at the east end of Holme beach. We had hoped to catch up with the three Shore Larks which are spending the winter out here, but there was no sign of them at first when we arrived. However, we hadn’t been there too long, when we spotted them flying in along the edge of the dunes from the direction of Holme and over our heads. There were quite a few people milling around on the edge of the beach which perhaps put them off, although that doesn’t generally seem to affect them, but the Shore Larks didn’t drop down onto the beach today and kept on flying inland until we lost them in the sun. Unfortunately, we would have to make do with a flypast as they didn’t reappear while we were there.

We had a look round while we waited. There were a few Goldeneye swimming around in the harbour channel. Out on the sea, we could see a good number of Great Crested Grebes and a single Red-breasted Merganser. A Red-throated Diver was diving constantly, which made it very hard to get everyone onto it. Down on the beach, the selection of waders included several Bar-tailed Godwits and a couple of Sanderling scuttling around on the sand. We decided to move on.

On the way back, some of the Twite were still feeding further out on the saltmarsh, a little less skittish now. A Red-breasted Merganser in the harbour channel gave us better views than we had had of the one out on the sea earlier. A Bar-tailed Godwit flew in and landed close to the seawall on the mud. A Knot was bathing further out in the channel.

IMG_5302Bar-tailed Godwit – in Thornham Harbour

We planned to head on to Titchwell next, but on the way there we took a quick diversion inland. From an unflailed hedgerow by the road, we flushed a large flock of buntings which disappeared across the field to the other side. We pulled in and got the scope onto them – we could see there were lots of Corn Buntings and a smaller number of Yellowhammers. It was a real treat to see so many of these increasingly scarce farmland birds. The Corn Buntings were larger, and buffy-brown – we could even hear some of them singing already, a distinctive sound like jangling keys. Several of the Yellowhammers were very smart males with bright canary-yellow heads.

IMG_5311Corn Buntings – we came across a large flock by the road

From there, we made our way back round towards Titchwell. While checking for oncoming traffic at a road junction, we glimpsed a raptor crossing the road in the distance and disappearing behind a hedge. A quick turn round and drive out beyond the hedge and we could see it was the Rough-legged Buzzard, flashing its white tail with black terminal tail band as it flew away from us. Just when we had least expected it.

We watched the Rough-legged Buzzard heading out across the field, before it turned and made its way along a hedge at the back, showing us its black belly patch contrasting with its pale head as it did so. It then landed in a small tree and we got it in the scope. It was a way off by this stage, but still we got a good look at it. It was a nice bonus to find it along here, having not seen it around Choseley earlier.

IMG_5316Rough-legged Buzzard – just when we least expected it

Then it was time for Titchwell. After a quick break for lunch, we set off to walk out onto the reserve. There were lots of finches on the feeders by the Visitor Centre, but the most notable was a single Brambling which was hiding in the bushes behind with a small group of Chaffinches. While we were watching it, the Barn Owl appeared over the grazing marsh beyond, but by the time we had torn ourselves away from the feeders it had disappeared again. The Water Rail in the ditch nearby disappeared into the reeds as we approached, unfortunately before everyone got a chance to see it.

IMG_5325Brambling – by the feeders at Titchwell

We stopped at the still dry grazing meadow ‘pool’. At first it looked fairly quiet, apart from a small selection of plovers – a Lapwing, a Grey Plover and a couple of Ringed Plovers. Looking from a different angle, we could see that there were actually several pipits out on the mud behind the reeds. We started to have a closer look through them but all we could find today was Rock Pipits. Then it started to drizzle a little, so we made for the shelter of Island Hide.

The water level on the freshmarsh continues to drop nicely, exposing more mud, although the birds don’t seem to be appreciating it yet. There is still a good number of Avocets on here for this time of year, and they were feeding more actively today rather than just sleeping, as were the Black-tailed Godwits. All around the edges of the exposed mud we could see a good smattering of Dunlin.

There are still plenty of ducks on the freshmarsh, particularly good numbers of Teal. Several smart drakes and their accompanying females were feeding in the mud below the hide. There were also still quite a few Shoveler and Mallard, but not so many Wigeon at the moment. The Wigeon prefer somewhere where there is more grass to graze on, so are often out on the saltmarsh.

P1150087Teal – still lots on the freshmarsh

The weather had closed in a bit and it was starting to get rather grey and misty, even if the earlier drizzle had now eased off. We decided to head out towards the beach. The Volunteer Marsh produced a good selection of waders, as it has done in recent weeks. There are always lots of Redshank on here and normally a good number of Curlew too. A single Black-tailed Godwit was feeding along the edge of the deep channel by the path, very well camouflaged against the grey-brown mud, but giving us great up-close views.

IMG_5333Curlew – the Volunteer Marsh is usually a good place to see them

However, the stars of the show on the Volunteer Marsh were the plovers. There were several Grey Plovers out on the mud and through the scope we could admire their delightfully white spangled upperparts. One in particular had a long battle with a worm – the latter was understandably reluctant to leave its hole and the Grey Plover stood pulling at it, with the worm stretched out like an extension to its beak, for some time. A couple of much smaller Ringed Plovers were nearby and some similarly sized Dunlin flew in to join them, giving a good comparison.

IMG_5328Grey Plover – very smart birds, even in winter plumage

The Spotted Redshank was right at the back of the Tidal Pools as usual, but we got a clear view of it through the scope before it disappeared out of view. Noticeably paler silvery grey and white compared to all the Common Redshanks, with a longer and finer bill. Closer to the main path were a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits and two more Ringed Plovers.

The Pintail were back on the Tidal Pools today. A drake flew over as we were admiring the waders and disappeared towards the freshmarsh, but a pair and another couple of females were still busy upending out on the main pool further along towards the beach. We stopped to admire them in the scope.

IMG_5340Pintail – this pair was on the Tidal Pools

Out on the beach, the tide was well in. There were still quite a few Bar-tailed Godwits along the shoreline and plenty of Oystercatchers on the sand picking around the remains of the shells. It was a bit misty now, looking out to sea, but we found a line of Common Scoter out on the water on the edge of the cloud. Closer in, a few Red-breasted Merganser were swimming around just offshore. There didn’t immediately appear to be anything else of note, so we didn’t stay too long out there and started to make our way back.

As we walked back along the main path past the Volunteer Marsh, a particularly streamlined wader whipped in low across the mud, flashing a white tail and plain grey wings, a Greenshank. It dropped down out of view in the tidal channel at the back. Out on the freshmarsh, lots of Black-headed Gulls were starting to gather to roost.

We stopped for a short while to admire the Marsh Harriers out over the reedbed. The closer we looked the more we saw. There were several circling around and a few more perched in the dead trees over the back, in among all the Cormorants. A couple more flew in while we stood there – one high overhead from the direction of Thornham and a second low in from the back. At one point we counted ten Marsh Harriers all in view together.

We were losing the light quickly now, so made our way back towards the Visitor Centre. As we walked along, we scanned the ditches either side of the path. A Water Rail down in the bottom of the ditch on one side scuttled quickly into cover, but a second Water Rail on the other side was more obliging and spent a couple of minutes rooting around in the rotting leaves on the far bank. When a large – and rather noisy – group arrived behind us and stopped to ask us what we were watching, it hurried back into cover. We decided to do the same and headed for home.