Tag Archives: Tree Sparrow

16th Jan 2019 – A Big Day on the Coast

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. It was to be a different day to normal, as we were planning to try to catch up with a selection of the scarcer winter visitors along the coast, as well as aiming to see as many different species as possible. We would need to cover quite a bit of ground, a bit of a whistle-stop tour of North Norfolk. After a grey start, it brightened up for a time during the morning, though it was rather breezy all day. We were forecast rain in the afternoon, and it arrived a bit earlier than forecast, but it didn’t stop us having a great – and very successful – day out.

It was an early start. As we drove up towards the coast, it was just getting light. We stopped off on the way, just in time to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, before it went in to roost. An over-wintering Chiffchaff was calling from some trees nearby and the first Pink-footed Geese flew over, heading inland to feed.

barn owl

Barn Owl – one of the first birds we caught up with, early this morning

At our next stop, as we walked out beside the grazing marshes, the first bird we saw was another Barn Owl out hunting. It flew round over the field, disappeared over the bank, then came back again and did a couple more circuits before landing down in the grass. It stayed there for a minute, looking round, before flying off round the trees beyond. It was still early and rather cold here, and there didn’t seem to be many other birds awake yet. A Marsh Harrier quartered the grazing marshes.

We looped round to Cley and headed down to the beach. There has been a large flock of scoter on the sea here in recent days, but there was no sign of them this morning. While we were scanning, we noticed a flock of small birds fly up from the beach away to the east. Snow Buntings. We walked down along the shingle for a closer look.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, flying up well before we got anywhere near, and heading further down the beach. Thankfully, as we got to where they had been feeding, they flew back in and landed on the shingle right in front of us. They were remarkably well camouflaged against the stones, but they were really close so we got a good really look at them. We counted at least 70 of them in the flock here today, although it was hard to get an accurate figure as they wouldn’t stop moving!

snow buntings 1

Snow Buntings – very well camouflaged on the shingle

While we were walking out for the Snow Buntings, we noticed a couple of gulls on the beach beyond. One was rather pale, and through the scope we could see it was the juvenile Glaucous Gull which has been hanging around here for a few days now. It has been feeding on dead seals washed up on the beach in last week’s storms, but this morning it was loafing. When we got down the beach, it was lying down on the beach, dozing. Still, we could see its very pale wing tips, much paler than the rest of the bird.

glaucous gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile was dozing on the beach first thing this morning

Looking out across North Scrape, there were several Shelducks scattered around the water. A small group of ducks closer to the front were all Pintail, busy upending in the shallows. As we turned to walk back, several groups of Brent Geese flew in, from the direction of the harbour where they had presumably roosted last night.

We stopped to have another scan of the sea when we got back to the beach car park. There was still no sign of the scoter flock, but we did pick up a Red-throated Diver on the water just offshore. A Guillemot flying past was a nice bonus too.

It was a very successful stop at Cley, but we had a busy day ahead and no time to explore the rest of the reserve today, so we moved on. We headed inland again next, to check out some farm buildings where there are sometimes Little Owls. It didn’t feel like a particularly good day to be looking for them – given the grey skies and wind – and they have not been very active recently anyway, but we thought we would have a quick look. Our luck was in. The first place we stopped, we spotted a Little Owl. It had found a sheltered spot, out of the wind, in the window of an old barn.

We moved on again, heading back across and down to the coast at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see more Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grass too, and a scattering of Teal around the pools.

Parking at the north end of the drive, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese feeding in the field next door. Most of them are Dark-bellied Brents, the regular form here which breeds in Siberia and spends the winter along the coast here. Looking through them carefully, we found one which was noticeably paler below, brighter white on the flanks and round under the belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent, a scarce visitor here.

There was also a darker goose with them, with a more striking white collar than the others – one of the regular Black Brant hybrids, the result of a past pairing between a Black Brant (the third form of Brent Goose, which normally winters along the Pacific coasts) and one of our Dark-bellied Brents. They are regular here, with as many as three in the Wells / Holkham area, returning to the same fields each winter. A pitfall for the unwary, they are often misidentified as pure Black Brants.

black brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – one of the regular birds, with the Brents by the Drive

A careful scan around the field produced a Grey Partridge, over towards the back. We could see its orange face and the distinctive dark kidney mark on its belly through the scope. We were heading out for the beach, so we cut through the trees, which were quiet today.

Since Christmas, the Shorelarks have been more elusive and spend a lot of their time feeding in the taller saltmarsh vegetation where they can be hard to see. Thankfully, as we walked out towards the cordon, someone had already found them and a small group of people had gathered to watch them.

The Shorelarks were only a few metres out from the path, but were still very difficult to see, creeping around in the vegetation. Thankfully, one stopped to preen on a little tussock and we were able quickly to get it in the scope. We could see its bright yellow face and distinctive black mask. Once we had found one, we could see there were more around it. Probably there were all 26 here, but we could see no more then 3-4 at any time and at times it was hard to see any at all!

shorelark

Shorelark – hard to see in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

Continuing on to the cordon, a flock of small birds flew up from the edge of the sandy path ahead of us, and landed back down again. More Snow Buntings. There were eighteen here now (they were joined by another two when we walked back), the flock having declined since Christmas as some of the birds seem to have moved on. They are very obliging though, and let us walk right past them without flying off.

snow buntings 2

Snow Buntings – another 20 were at Holkham today

The sea at Holkham has been quiet in recent days, but we thought we would try our luck here, as we were doing so well. There were several Cormorants out on the sandbar just offshore, drying their wings. A few Oystercatchers were out there too, and a small flock of Sanderling whirled round and landed in with them.

Having set up the scope, we found it happened to be pointing right at a small party of Red-breasted Mergansers which were bobbing about on the water in front of the sandbar. Otherwise, the sea looked pretty empty on our first scan – just a single Common Scoter offshore.

On our next scan across, we spotted a diver quite close in, behind the breakers. We assumed it would be one of the two Great Northern Divers which we have seen here regularly in the last couple of weeks, but when it surfaced again from behind the waves we realised it was actually a Black-throated Diver. We could see the distinctive white patch on the rear flanks. A good bird to see here, the rarest of the three regular divers in Norfolk. Further down the beach, we then found a Great Northern Diver just offshore too. A three diver day – a rare treat indeed in this part of the world!

Back at the car, we made our way on west. We could see a lot of geese in one of the fields by the road, more than usual, so we pulled into a conveniently placed layby to check them out. A quick scan with binoculars revealed there were several Russian White-fronted Geese in with the regular Greylags and Egyptian Geese. Unfortunately, just at that moment a Marsh Harrier drifted across. The geese put their heads up and, as the harrier began to circle over them, they were off.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – flushed by a Marsh Harrier as we pulled up

As we quickly got out of the car, we realised there were more White-fronted Geese out here – probably at least 120 in total. We watched as they all disappeared off over the grazing marshes towards the pines. The one thing we failed to find here was a Great White Egret, but rather than linger we figured we could have another quick look on our way back later.

A quick diversion down to the harbour at Brancaster Staithe added Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit to the day’s list, as well as Little Egret. But there didn’t seem to be anything much else here, so we continued on to our next destination, Titchwell.

The feeders in front of the Visitor Centre were well-stocked but rather unusually devoid of birds when we arrived. There were a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a single Greenfinch on the feeders the other side, as well as Blue Tits and Great Tits for the list. We headed straight out onto the reserve, and a quick look in the ditch by the main path as we passed quickly revealed a Water Rail lurking in the water in the bottom.

water rail

Water Rail – lurking in the ditch by the main path

The sun was out as we walked along the path by the reedbed. It almost felt for a moment as if the forecast of rain later might be too pessimistic. The reedbed pool produced Gadwall and Tufted Duck, and we could see a single Grey Plover and a Curlew on Lavendar Marsh, but was otherwise fairly quiet, so we continued out to Parrinder Hide.

The Freshmarsh is very full of water at the moment, so there are not many places for waders here currently. There were a few Lapwings and a little group of Dunlin on the small remaining muddy island by the junction to the hide. Scanning through the ducks on the bigger, drier fenced-off island we were struck by the lack of Golden Plovers today – they must all have been feeding in the fields inland. Well, almost all, as we eventually found just a single one pretending to be a Wigeon.

There has been a Water Pipit regularly on this island, but it can be very elusive in the vegetation. Thankfully today, we found it pretty quickly, feeding on the spit on the front edge.

redshank

Common Redshank – on Volunteer Marsh as we passed

With not much else on here, we decided to head straight out to the beach. Apart from a few Redshanks and a couple of Grey Plover, there wasn’t much to see on Volunteer Marsh either. The now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water after last weeks high tides, which means there is very little island space left for roosting waders. There had apparently been some Knot on here earlier, but all we could find now was Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits, along with a small number of Dunlin and a couple more Grey Plovers.

The sea has been very productive at Titchwell in recent weeks and was one of the main reasons for coming here today, but when we got to the dunes one of the reserve volunteers was just leaving and told us there wasn’t much out there. He wasn’t wrong. All we could see on the sea was a single Common Scoter. We could see some cloud building from the west, and it started to spit with rain, so we decided to cut our losses. On the walk back to the car, the raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Duck which hadn’t been on the Freshmarsh on our way out had now reappeared.

We did a quick loop inland via Choseley on our way to Thornham, but the hedges along the side of the road here were quiet again, as they had been at the weekend. We decided to stop for lunch at Thornham Harbour and try for the Twite. While we were eating, the Twite first flew up and landed on the fence by the old sluice gate, then flew in over the saltmarsh and over to the coal barn, where they landed on the roof. After a couple of minutes they flew back in past us and landed down by the puddles in the car park for a drink, where we finally got a good look at them.

twite

Twite – flew in and landed in the car park while we were having lunch

After lunch, we headed round to Holme. As we drove down the track towards the Firs, we could see a photographer with a long lens pointing it into one of the gardens, his car abandoned in the middle of the road with the door still open. As we passed, we looked across to see what he was trying to photograph and saw a Barn Owl on a pile of brash in the back garden. A couple of Mistle Thrushes were in one of the trees on the other side of the road.

When the seaduck are not at Titchwell, Holme can be a good place to look instead. As we got down to the beach, there didn’t seem to be much offshore at first, apart from a trawler being followed by a huge mob of hungry gulls. As we scanned across, we first found a few Great Crested Grebes out on the water. Then we picked up some Eider a bit further offshore, which helpfully started to fly in much closer after the trawler had passed, lots of females, several 1st winter drakes and one or two very smart adult drakes.

A paler bird caught the light a bit further out, on the sea away to the east. It didn’t look like a gull and when it surfaced again from behind the waves we could see it was a drake Long-tailed Duck, one of the birds we were hoping to see today.

There were more waders on the beach here, over towards Thornham Harbour, with a small group of Knot in with the Grey Plover and Dunlin. It had brightened up again while we were at Holme, but now we could see some very dark clouds heading our way. We got back to the car, just as it started to rain.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got out onto the seawall, the tide was well out. There was a big flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, and a large huddle of Oystercatchers on the beach away to the north. More waders scattered liberally around, mostly Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Dunlin. But it was raining hard now and windy and exposed up here, so we couldn’t spend long standing and scanning without risking getting very wet.

We had come here mainly to try to see the Smew which has been at Snettisham on and off for several weeks now. It can disappear at times, but thankfully today it was on the first pit just south of the cross bank, diving with three drake Goldeneye. We had a quick look at it – it was a bit more sheltered on the inland side of the seawall – and then continued on down towards the hide.

smew

Smew – still at Snettisham on one of the pits today

The Short-eared Owl, which had gone missing at the weekend, was apparently back under its usual bramble bush yesterday, so we made our way round to see if we could see it. Sure enough, there it was. It looked a bit bedraggled in the rain, and we were in danger of becoming the same, so with our mission here accomplished we made a swift retreat. Still, it meant we had racked up three different owls on our travels today.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – back under its usual bramble bush in the rain

Back in the car, we made our way back east inland. We made a quick stop by a field with a strip planted with seed mix. We were looking mainly for Yellowhammers, and could see lots of birds in the hedge right at the back. They were mainly Reed Buntings, but as we scanned through them we found several Yellowhammers in with them. Even in the gloomy conditions, the bright yellow males really stood out.

Then we spotted a Tree Sparrow too. It dropped straight down out of sight, but as we scanned back we found a second Tree Sparrow a bit further back which stayed put until we all got a look at it. We could see the black spot on its white cheek. Not a great view in the driving rain, but a real bonus and not one we were expecting to get today.

There were a few common farmland birds which we had missed on our way out, so we had a look to see if we could find them on the way back, cutting across back to the coast road at Holkham. But it was a bit of a struggle to find much in the rain now. A quick stop back at Holkham was more productive though. Having drawn a blank on Great White Egret this morning, we found four together out on the grazing marshes this afternoon. For what was not that long ago a rarity in the UK, four together is quite a sight (well, away from Somerset at least)!

We had planned to finish the day at one of the raptor roosts, but when we got there the conditions were really dreadful. It was getting dark, but the driving rain meant visibility was much worse than it should have otherwise been. We headed for shelter and were told by the two people already there that they had just seen a male Hen Harrier land out on the marshes. Unfortunately they couldn’t find it again now – they couldn’t even find the post it was next to at first!

Thankfully, as we scanned across trying to find it, we spotted a harrier fly up at the back of the saltmarsh. It was not the male, but it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. We could see the flash of the white square at the base of its tail. It landed again and we could just make it out, perched on the ground.

That was more than we thought we would see, given the conditions, so we decided to call it a day. When we got back to the warm and dry, we tallied up the day’s list. 100 species! Not bad at all for a mid-winter day, and even more so given the conditions this afternoon. It just goes to show…

 

27th March 2018 – Brecks Birding Again

A Private Tour down in the Brecks today. The forecast earlier in the week was for heavy rain all day, which by yesterday was tempered to heavy rain clearing mid morning. As it was, we didn’t get any heavy rain at all, although it did rain in the morning and stayed stubbornly grey and misty all afternoon. Still, the weather almost never stops us getting out and seeing some good birds.

Our first target for the day was Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. As we parked in the Forestry Commission car park it was drizzling still, so we donned boots and waterproofs and set off. On our way down to the bridge, we could hear Bramblings singing in the trees – more of a wheeze than a song. We found several in the trees by the feeders and had a good look at one male in particular which perched nicely above us.

Brambling

Brambling – several were singing down by the bridge

 

As we set off along the river bank path, a Treecreeper was singing in the first poplars and we eventually located it in a tree right above the path. A little further along, we found a Chiffchaff flitting around in the sallows above the ditch. This was the first of several we came across this morning, feeding low down along the edge of the river.

Although there has been the odd Chiffchaff singing here in recent weeks, these seemed like they might be new arrivals, returning for the summer.

Chiffchaff

Chifchaff – feeding feverishly along the river bank

We hadn’t gone much further when two Kingfishers flashed past, one over the reeds on one side of the path and the other back past us along the river. With a shout of ‘Kingfisher‘, half the group watched one as half saw the other and only afterwards we realised we were looking at different birds!

The Kingfisher which had flown along the river landed in one of the bushes overhanging the water just behind us, where we had a nice look at it, before it dropped down into the river and then flew off again.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – one of the two which flew past us simultaneously

As we were walking on along the path, we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call in the distance. Unfortunately, it was a long way back from the river and on the other side to us. We stood for a minute or so and listened in case it should call again, but it would be impossible to see it here anyway, so we decided to carry on to another favoured spot and try our luck there.

A little further on, and we found our first Mandarins of the day, a pair. At first we noticed the female, on a grassy pool just beyond the far bank. Then the drake swam out into view too. Stunning birds, and the first of many we would see today – they were hard to count!

Mandarin

Mandarin Duck – our first pair of the day were on a grassy pool by the river

It was non-stop action along the river bank at first, but once we got to the area where we hoped to find the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, all was quiet at first. As we walked slowly along, scanning the trees and listening carefully, we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker calling and drumming and then found it high in a poplar by the river.

There were flocks of Redwings in the trees too and Siskins flying back and forth. We heard a couple of Marsh Tits singing and found a pair of Nuthatches flying around high in the trees. Thankfully the rain eased off a little as we stood and waited.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long. A series of sharp ‘ki,ki,ki,ki…’ calls alerted us to the arrival of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and a few seconds later we spotted it as it flew over to another tree. We got it in the scope and could see it working its way up a dead branch high in one of the poplars. It stayed just long enough for everyone to get a quick look at it through the scope, and then flew across to another.

We could still see the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker through binoculars, but it was on the move constantly. When it flew again, we lost sight of it in the branches further along. We walked up to where it had seemed to land, and a minute or so later flew again. This time it seemed to go a long way, although again we lost sight of it from where we were and couldn’t see whether it had flown across the river.

We walked back slowly along the path, listening and scanning the trees, but the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker didn’t call again, so perhaps it had gone away across the river. Having seen it already, we decided not to wait any longer for it to reappear and started to make our way back. Another pair of Mandarins had been flying round constantly as we waited and now we found them perched up in the trees beside the river. A different male landed on the water below, before they all flew off again.

As we got back to the bridge, a pair of Siskins were flitting around in the sallows and the male started songflighting. We had a quick look in the poplars by the road, but all was quiet. When we got back to the car, we heard Mandarin calling and looked up to see a group of five flying over the trees up towards the church.

It was time for a coffee break, so we drove down to the picnic area at St Helens. As we got out of the car there were lots of Redwings chattering in the trees. A male Grey Wagtail was singing from the handrail of the footbridge before flying off upstream. Yet another pair of Mandarins flew over calling and dropped down towards the river.

The coffee stop was quickly interrupted as a pair of Woodlarks dropped down into the cultivated field nearby. We managed to get one of them in the scope, but they quickly flew again, the female Woodlark up into a nearby beech tree while the male started to sing, fluttering round in circles on butterfly wings over the field.

Woodlark

Woodlark – the female turned out to be colour-ringed

 

When the female Woodlark dropped down into the field again to feed, much closer this time, we could get a better look at her. We could see that she was colour-ringed, with a combination of different coloured plastic rings. This normally would allow us to find out the details of where and when she was ringed and has been seen since, but at the time of writing this is proving harder to find out than it should! We watched as the Woodlark crept around in and out of the clods of earth.

It had stopped raining now, but it was still showing no signs of brightening up. We had been hoping to look for Goshawks, but we knew it would be difficult in the cold, grey and misty conditions. We headed over there anyway, but took a detour on the way to see if we could find any Stone Curlews. They are only back in very small numbers so far, possibly not a surprise given all the recent cold weather, and they proved elusive today too.

We did have nice views of a Tree Sparrow in a hedge while we were looking. There were a few Shelducks and a couple of Oystercatchers in the pig fields. A rather pale Common Buzzard was perched in a tree, but a second Buzzard flew low past us and we noticed a Red Kite circling over a nearby wood. The first raptor activity we had seen today.

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow – hiding in the hedge

 

 

 

It was time for lunch so we decided to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and headed over to an area to try our luck for Goshawks. As we ate, we scanned the trees, but there was not a single raptor visible, not even a Common Buzzard up here today. A little group of Yellowhammers perched up in a bush with a couple of Reed Buntings. Several Roe Deer were out feeding in the edge of one of the fields and a pair of Greylag Geese were hiding in the winter wheat too.

The highlight was a pair of Curlew which flew in calling and circled down slowly into one of the fields. They are still very scarce breeders here, so it is always good to see a pair presumably back on territory.

After lunch, we decided to move on and try our luck with Willow Tits instead, while waiting to see if it might brighten up. We walked in to an area of plantation where some feeding tables have been set up for them. Just as we arrived, a brief sighting on one of the tables looked good for a Willow Tit, but it didn’t hang around or reappear.

As we stood and watched for a few minutes, a succession of Coals Tits, Marsh Tits and other tits came in and out. Then a Willow Tit started singing from the trees nearby. We followed the song, and eventually found a Willow Tit high in one of the pines. It seemed like there might be a pair here today, as at one point there appeared to be two birds present.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – out hunting in the early afternoon

 

It was still cloudy and grey, but it felt like the cloud had lifted a little, so we thought we could have one last look to see if there were any raptors up. On our way round, we spotted a Barn Owl on a post out among the bushes in a grassy meadow. They can be seen out hunting much more often in the daytime at the moment, probably still hungry after the recent snow.

Our efforts were rewarded with a lone Red Kite which appeared briefly above the trees, but there was still no sign even of any Common Buzzards taking to the air. Then the cloud base descended again and it started to rain once more, so we decided to admit defeat.

 

Our final destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. Thankfully we drove out of the rain and it was dry again when we arrived. As we got out of the car, we noticed a small bird flitting around in one of the deciduous trees by the car park and a quick look confirmed it was a Firecrest.

Firecrest

Firecrest – flitting around in the trees by the car park

 

It was hard to make out any detail on the Firecrest at first, high in the trees, but it would periodically chase after an insect on the wing and flutter down lower, where we could see its strongly marked face pattern and brighter green upperparts than a Goldcrest. A second Firecrest then started singing from one of the fir trees nearby, but it was presumably deep in the thick foliage and we couldn’t see it.

We made our way quickly down towards the paddocks, stopping briefly to look at the feeders from the gate. Even though there were more fatballs today and more seed spread on the ground, it was rather quiet here, just a few tits and a Chaffinch. There was very little seed left out for the birds at the bridge, so we added a couple of generous helpings of sunflower seeds and headed down to check out the paddocks.

As we walked up to a gap in the hedge, one of the group spotted the first Hawfinch high in one of the hornbeams. We had a good look at it through the scope – it was a smart male, bright chestnut coloured. Shortly afterwards, it was joined by a duller grey-brown female and then a second male Hawfinch appeared with them too.

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – a bright male up in one of the hornbeams

 

When the Hawfinches all dropped down out of the tops of the trees, we scanned the ground underneath. We couldn’t see them there, but we did find a female Hawfinch right out in the open, in the middle of the grass with the Redwings! It hopped around for a couple of minutes, in and out of the tussocks, picking at the ground, before it flew back to the trees.

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – this female was hopping around in the middle of the grass

 

Having enjoyed great views of the Hawfinches, we made our way back to the bridge to see what was coming in to feed on the seed we had put out earlier. There were plenty of tits coming in and out, and we had great close views of several Marsh Tits here. Three different Nuthatches kept zooming in to grab beakfuls of seeds too.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming in for sunflower seeds down at the bridge

Then suddenly all the birds spooked and disappeared off into the trees. We looked around but couldn’t see any sign of something which might have frightened them. We decided to go and have a look around the lake. As we set off along the path, a quick look up into the trees in the paddocks and we noticed lots of birds in the tops. A closer look through the scope confirmed there were now at least seven Hawfinches here, though they were hard to count from here as there were several well hidden in the branches.

The Hawfinches all gradually dropped down through the branches, and we continued on. A Treecreeper was feeding on the trunk of one of the trees by the path and proved remarkably tame, allowing us to walk almost alongside. A second Treecreeper appeared too and we followed them for several minutes as they moved ahead of us along the path.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – great views feeding by the path beside the lake

There were not many ducks on the lake today – just a couple of pairs of Gadwall and a Mallard or two. Two Canada Geese were on the lawn beyond, along with several Moorhens. Our final pair of Mandarins for the day flew over the paddocks calling. We could hear Little Grebes laughing at us and eventually found one hiding in the reeds.

It was time to start heading back now. A quick glance back over the trees revealed a large, long-winged, long-tailed raptor in the distance, flying steadily towards us out of the clouds. Through the scope, we could see it was a Marsh Harrier, not what we were expecting here and possibly a bird migrating back north. When we got back to the bridge, the birds had all returned to feed again, including a female Reed Bunting now.

Then it was a nice gentle walk back to the car and off to make our way home. Despite the difficult weather, we had enjoyed a great day out and seen a very good selection of Breckland birds.

25th Mar 2018 – Coast & Brecks Weekend #2

Day 2 of a two day weekend of Bird Tours, and we were heading down to the Brecks today. The clocks went forward last night, so we had lost an hour of sleep but gained an hour relative to the birds clocks which we could use to our favour! It was forecast to be cloudy in the morning and brighten up in the afternoon.

With the chance in the clocks, we figured we could afford to be ‘later’ looking for Goshawks today, so we started off heading out to look for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers first. When we arrived at Santon Downham, there seemed to be lots of people standing around looking for Parrot Crossbills, but our priority was the woodpeckers so we headed straight down to the river. A Kingfisher was in the bushes by the bridge, but flew off upstream as a large group of people arrived.

As we walked down along the new path beside the river, we could hear Bramblings wheezing in the trees and looked up to see one perched high in a poplar. Another Kingfisher was perched in one of the branches of a tree which had fallen into the river, but flew off when it saw us approaching. A pair of Mandarins flew past us along the river, before circling round and coming back through the trees where they landed high in one of the poplars. They are tree-nesting ducks and were probably looking for a suitable nest hole.

Mandarin

Mandarin – one of a pair which perched high in the poplars

 

We had been told that the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had been around earlier this morning, but they had not been seen for around half an hour when we arrived. We stood and listened to see if we could hear them, and were rewarded with the wrong woodpeckers.

First, we could hear a Green Woodpecker laughing at us from the trees on the other side of the river. It gradually worked its way towards us and finally appeared on the dead trunk of a tree. Then we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and shortly after another calling across the river. One eventually appeared in the top of one of the alder trees where we could get it in the scope.

That was a nice start, but not the one we were looking for. There were some other birds around – a Nuthatch appeared in the trees too, there were plenty of tits including Marsh Tit singing, Siskins zipped back and forth overhead and a big flock of Redwings flew up into the tops of the trees before heading off over our heads and across the river.

When we noticed a couple of people look up at a small bird heading towards us from the Suffolk side of the river, we looked up too to see a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker coming out way. It flew in over our heads and we thought it would land in the poplars in front of us, but instead it carried on over the trees and dropped down somewhere over the back, way off in the distance. At least we had seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but it was not the views we were hoping for this morning.

Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long. After about ten minutes, we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call and one of the group spotted it right in the top of one of the poplars. We got the scope on it and everyone had a good look, before it flew towards us and landed in another tree a little closer. It perched there for a couple of minutes, in full view, before flying again and this time heading back over the river and away, off in the direction from where it had flown in earlier.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – perched in the top of the poplars

 

Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are declining rapidly in the UK and we still don’t know why. So it was great to see one and to enjoy such good views of it. Even better, we got the full set of woodpeckers for the morning! With our main target achieved, we headed back along the path.

There were some Siskins in the alders on the other side of the river and when we stopped to look at them, one of the group asked whether we might see any redpolls too. Right on cue, we heard a redpoll calling and looked up to see one fly across and land in the top of one of the poplars by the path. Through the scope we could confirm that it was a Lesser Redpoll and a second bird, a smart red-breasted male, flew in to join it.

We had heard a Grey Wagtail calling back at the bridge earlier, while we had been distracted by the Kingfisher, but we hadn’t seen it. A quick scan from the bridge again when we got back and we spotted it picking around the base of one of the tangles of branches down along the bank just upstream. We walked up along the path beside the river and got it in the scope, a smart male Grey Wagtail with black throat.

There was still no news on the Parrot Crossbills, which had been coming in to drink in one of the ditches close by on the previous two days. It seemed like they must have decided to drink elsewhere again today. We had a quick look back at the area where they had been seen, which produced nice views of a singing Marsh Tit  and a Common Buzzard which circled low overhead.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – circled low overhead

 

The churchyard at Santon Downham can be a good place to see Firecrest, so we had a wander up to look there. We heard several Goldcrests singing but not their scarcer cousin. It feels like the Firecrests have been slightly slow to get going this year, possibly in response to the colder weather in recent weeks. A Treecreeper appeared in the trees by the road too.

As forecast, the cloud was now starting to break and patches of blue sky were appearing. It felt quite a bit warmer too. A Sparrowhawk circled up over the village, flapping vigorously between glides, reminding us that it was getting to raptor o’clock and we should be heading off to look for one of our other targets soon.

We walked back down towards the car, stopping to look at the feeders by the bridge where a smart male Siskin was singing above our heads. The Kingfisher was showing well again, perched in the trees just by the bridge.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – showing well by the bridge today

As we made our way over to look for Goshawks, the sun was out and the air was warming up nicely. Even though it was already after midday, to the Goshawks it was still late morning – perfect timing! When we arrived, there were already several Common Buzzards circling up above the trees. We hadn’t even had time to get the sandwiches out before we picked up our first Goshawks.

The initial ones we saw were rather distant. An adult male Goshawk was soaring high in the sky away to our right. Then a young male circled up above the trees too and started to display, flying across with slow, deep, deliberate wingbeats first before launching into a series of rollercoaster swoops, diving down, then turning sharply up, climbing vertically before stalling at the top and repeating over again. It gradually lost height, dropping down behind the trees.

Then another adult Goshawk appeared, a little bit closer. As it circled up it attracted the attention of one of the local Carrion Crows which decided to chase after it. The Crow mobbed it for several minutes, the Goshawk just jinking out of the way occasionally. After gaining height, it drifted off over the road and away to the west, until we lost sight of it, with the Crow still pursuing it.

We were busy watching the original young male Goshawk, which had come up again, when one of the group noticed yet another Goshawk circling up in front of us. This one, a different adult, was much closer, and we had a great view of it as it circled up, pale grey above and almost white below. It gained height very quickly, before drifting off north.

Goshawk

Goshawk – one of at least four on view over lunch

After that one disappeared, we turned our attention back to the young male Goshawk which was still displaying away to our right. The adult male was up again too now, and had clearly decided to chase off the interloper. It started to display, slow flapping, and headed straight towards the youngster, which decided to head off, and we lost it behind the trees.

In between all the Goshawk action, we had even found time to eat our lunch! There were other raptors up too – in addition to all the Common Buzzards, a Red Kite circled up and two Kestrels hovered over the field behind us. We had been really spoilt with raptors now, so we decided to head off and try something else.

We made our way round to a clearing to look for Woodlarks next. We thought they might be singing now, with the sun having come out, despite it being the middle of the day, but it was surprisingly quiet. We had a quick walk round, but it was rather disappointing – the only birds of note we saw were a Linnet singing in the tops of the trees close to where we parked and a smart male Yellowhammer perched in a low bush calling. A couple of Common Buzzards circled over, including a very pale bird, almost pure white below.

We decided to try something else and made our way over to Lynford Arboretum. As we walked in along the path, we had a great view of a couple of Goldcrests busy feeding low down in the larches. There was very little food left in the feeders from the gate and almost no birds down in the leaf litter, so we headed straight down towards the paddocks.

There were lots of birds coming down to the food put out on the pillars of the bridge. We stopped just long enough to admire a variety of tits, including several Marsh Tits which were coming in and out repeatedly, giving great close views.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – great views coming in to the food put out at the bridge

Hawfinch was our main target here, so we didn’t wait too long before continuing on down to the paddocks. We were quickly rewarded, as almost instantly something spooked all the finches and Redwings feeding under the trees out in the middle and we saw two larger birds with obviously white-tipped tails fly up. They were a pair Hawfinches and we got them in the scope as they dropped down to the ground again.

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – this duller grey-brown female showed very well

 

Over the next few minutes, the Hawfinches were continually dropping down to the ground and flying back up into the trees above, generally spooked by a cock Pheasant which insisted on calling loudly from time to time and shaking its wings, upsetting all the other birds. We had particularly good views of a female Hawfinch, which perched on a dead branch lying on the ground for a minute or so at one point, and then showed very well in a low hawthorn, climbing about in the branches and feeding on the leaf buds.

When two Hawfinches flew up from the trees and off towards the Arboretum, we though at first that was the pair we had been watching, but looking back at the hawthorn the female was still there in the branches. Then we noticed a male Hawfinch had appeared and was perched slightly higher up. Through the scope, we could see his much richer chestnut colouration, really striking in the afternoon sun.

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – the more richly-coloured male perched up too

 

 

When the Hawfinches finally disappeared back into the trees, we decided to walk back to the bridge. We topped up the seed mix on the pillars with a generous handful of sunflower seeds, and the Nuthatches appeared to appreciate it, coming in and out regularly to grab a beakful.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming in to grab some sunflower seeds

As well as all the tits coming and going, there were Chaffinches and Dunnocks too. The Siskins were not here for the seeds, but were feeding in the alders nearby and we had great views of a bright male just above our heads.

 

Siskin 2

Siskin – this smart male was singing above our heads

It was time to start making our way back, so we walked up to the car park. We stopped for a minute and listened, but there was no sign of any Firecrests singing here either today, although it was hard to hear anything at times with all the cars and people coming and going. Then we noticed some movement high in one of the fir trees and as we looked up with binoculars, a Firecrest flitted out and landed on a branch.

Unfortunately, by the time the rest if the group had made it over, the Firecrest had disappeared and been replaced by a Goldcrest instead. It was a frustrating few minutes before the Firecrest finally appeared on the edge of the next fir tree along and we all had a good view of it flitting in and out of the branches high above our heads.

We still had time for one last stop on our way back. The first Stone Curlews which had returned a week or so back had become rather elusive since the snow, so we weren’t sure we would be able to find them today. We stopped to scan the field where they often like to roost during the day, but there was no sign of them. A Tree Sparrow in the hedge nearby was some compensation.

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow – appeared in the hedge while looking for Stone Curlews

 

The Stone Curlews are not in the pig fields so often at this time of year, but we decided to have a look anyway just in case and there they were, three Stone Curlews. We got them in the scope and had a good look at them, noting their staring yellow eyes and short yellow and black bills. They didn’t appear at all concerned by the pigs walking either side of them!

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlews – unconcerned by the pigs walking past!

That was a great way to end the tour, watching the Stone Curlews out in the field. It had been a really enjoyable couple of days with some good birds and excellent company. Time to head for home!

20th Feb 2018 – Winter or Spring, #1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour. We were to spend the day in North Norfolk. It was forecast to rain all day today, particularly in the morning, but once again it was nowhere near as bad as predicted. We managed to successfully dodge the showers and even though the wind picked up in the afternoon we still saw some great birds.

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up towards the coast it was raining but by the time we got up to Lady Anne’s Drive it was already easing off. We had a look at the pools and fields by the road. There were plenty of ducks – lots of Wigeon plus Teal and a few Shoveler on the pools. A pair of Mistle Thrushes showed very well in the field next to the road and three Grey Partridge were feeding along the edge below one of the hedgerows.

Mistle Thrush

Mistle Thrush – one of a pair by Lady Anne’s Drive this morning

After we had parked at the north end, we scanned the grazing marshes again. There were more ducks here, plus a few waders, mainly Common Redshanks plus a couple of Oystercatchers. We could see a stripy Common Snipe in the grass, looking less well camouflaged against the green vegetation here.

A white shape working its way along one of the ditches out in the fields was hidden by a bramble bush at first, but immediately looked big. When it finally came out into view, we could see its long, yellow, dagger-shaped bill and our suspicions were confirmed – it was a Great White Egret. A very nice bird to start the day with here.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding in one of the ditches out from Lady Anne’s Drive

A little flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling but as we walked up towards the pines, we spotted another, a lone bird, out on the grass. We could see its dark head and through the scope we got a good look at its pink legs and delicate bill, mostly dark with a narrow pink band around it. A Greylag Goose was nearby for comparison, larger and paler and sporting a large orange carrot for a bill! On the other side of the Drive, four Brent Geese were feeding out on the grazing marsh too.

We had seen a flock of Fieldfares disappearing into the distance from the car as we drove up. We finally relocated them in the fields behind the construction site for the new Orientation Centre & Cafe, out in a grassy field among the molehills, mixed in with a large flock of Starlings. A pair of Stonechats were feeding on the grassy bank nearby.

With the weather now dry, we decided to head out towards the beach and take advantage, in case it should get wet again later. As we made our way through the pines, we could see more Brent Geese together with several Shelduck out on the saltmarsh. It was a bit windier on this side of the trees though and the walk east along the north edge of the pines was rather quiet. We flushed a small charm of Goldfinches from the high tide line along the dunes as we walked.

When we got to the eastern end of the saltmarsh, we stopped to scan. It didn’t take long to find our quarry, as the nine Shorelarks were feeding in their usual spot again today. We walked over and had a lovely view of them scurrying around among the sparse low vegetation. Through the scope, we could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks.

Shorelark

Shorelark – the nine were out on the saltmarsh again today

After watching the Shorelarks for a while, we decided to make our way back. The walk was only relieved by a couple of flyover Rock Pipits and a pair of Skylarks which flew up from the saltmarsh as we passed. Back on the other side of the pines, a pair of Egyptian Geese had now joined the four Brent Geese we had seen earlier.

Almost back to the car, we stopped for another look out over the grazing marsh. As we scanned, we noticed a large white bird circling over the trees out in the middle. It wasn’t another egret – it was flying with its neck stretched out in front – it was a Spoonbill! This is the first we have seen back here this year, although they breed here at Holkham and hopefully more will follow soon. It might not have felt much like it today, but spring is on its way now.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – the first of the year, back at Holkham

The Spoonbill turned and came straight towards us, flying over Lady Anne’s Drive just a short distance from us and disappearing off east towards Wells. We could see its distinctive spoon-shaped bill as it came overhead. A rather pale Common Buzzard was busy tearing at something it had caught out on the grass but was rather ignored until the Spoonbill had gone. A couple of Marsh Harriers hung in the air over the reeds at the back.

We were planning to make our way west this morning, but we had a quick stop further along the coast road to admire six White-fronted Geese in a grassy meadow with a flock of Greylag. In direct comparison, we could see the White-fronted Geese were much smaller and more delicate, with a smaller pink bill surrounded with white at the base. The adults were also sporting their distinctive black belly bands.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – six were by the road at Holkham this morning

An even whiter Common Buzzard was perched on an old pill box just behind the geese, a striking bird and a regular at this spot. A little further along the road, a couple of hundred Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a stubble field.

Our next diversion off the coast road was at Titchwell, where we turned inland along Chalkpit Lane. There has been a Hooded Crow here, but it is often very elusive. We had a quick scan for it on our way past, but there were several people looking who had not managed to locate it. We did stop to admire a winter wheat field which held at least 20 Brown Hares. On the other side of the road, a bare beet field was chock full of Lapwings and Golden Plovers when you looked closely.

Round at Choseley Drying Barns there was quite a bit of disturbance today, with tractors coming and going and people walking past, and the hedges were quiet. We did stop to look at a Grey Partridge and a Red-legged Partridge feeding side by side, a nice opportunity for comparison.

A little further on, there was much more activity and the hedges were packed with small birds which took off as we approached. They landed again further along, so we rolled up slowly for a closer look. There were loads of Chaffinches and Bramblings in the bushes and we got a great look at some of the latter right next to the car. Then another vehicle came speeding the other way and they all took off again and flew further back.

Brambling

Brambling – we came across a large mixed flock with Chaffinches

At our next stop, we got out to look at an overgrown grassy field and were immediately greeted with several Skylarks singing out in the middle, another sign that spring is on its way. Then a flock of birds flew over from the other side of the road – another thirty Skylarks all together – and they dropped down into the grass. There are often buntings here too and we found a large flock of them in the hedge at the far corner of the field. There must have been at least 20 Yellowhammers here, including some lovely bright yellow-faced males. Stunning birds!

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – a nice bright male to brighten a dull grey morning

We were still not done with our farmland exploration and a little further still we stopped again by a cover strip on the edge of a field. The hedge alongside was absolutely full of birds – mainly Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers. As we set up the scope for a closer look, 15-20 Tree Sparrows flew out of the hedge by the road and across to join the other birds. We had a great look as several of the Tree Sparrows perched up nicely in the top of the hedge.

Tree Sparrows

Tree Sparrows – with Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers in the hedge

As we made our way back down to the coast, it started to rain again. We had been very fortunate that our morning to this point had been almost completely dry – not what had been forecast! We drove down to Thornham Harbour and had a quick look to see if the Twite were around the car park. There was no sign of them here and we decided not to linger in the rain.

We did pick up a nice selection of waders here. The mud below the old sluice held a couple of Common Redshank, a Curlew and a Black-tailed Godwit. Down in the harbour channel by the boats, the highlight was a single Greenshank feeding down in the water, along with a Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover too on the mud nearby.

Greenshank

Greenshank – feeding in the harbour channel at Thornham

As we started to drive back up the road, a quick scan of the channel behind the old coal barn revealed another wader feeding up to its belly in the water. It was clearly very pale, but was almost swimming and upending at first. When it finally raised its head, we could see its long-needle fine bill, a Spotted Redshank. A Common Redshank walked along behind it on the mud, picking at the surface, providing a nice comparison, particularly of the two closely related species very different feeding techniques.

It had been an action packed morning, so we made our way round to Titchwell for a late lunch while the rain passed over. Over a welcome hot drink at the visitor centre, we scanned the feeders which produced another Brambling and several Greenfinches. Afterwards we headed out onto the reserve.

The wind had picked up as the rain had passed through, so we hurried straight out to Parrinder Hide. Thornham grazing marsh looked very quiet. There were a few ducks on the reedbed pool – mainly Mallard, plus a few Tufted Ducks and three Common Pochard. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the breeze over the back of the reeds.

Out on the freshmarsh as we walked out to Parrinder Hide, we could see a gathering of Avocets on the edge of one of the islands. We counted thirty today, another increase here in recent days as birds return now ahead of the breeding season.

Avocet

Avocets – numbers are up to 30+ now as birds are returning

There were a few more waders as we got to Parrinder Hide. A Ringed Plover flew off over the bank towards Volunteer Marsh, but three Dunlin dropped in and started to feed around the edge of one of the islands. Then two Black-tailed Godwits flew in to bathe in front of the hide, flashing their black tails.

Scanning carefully along the edge, where the reeds have been freshly cut, revealed two Common Snipe feeding in the shallow water. They worked their way closer to the hide, until we had scope-filling views of them. They were incredibly well camouflaged against the dead reed stems with their golden-striped plumage, much more appropriately dressed than the Common Snipe we had seen out on the green grass at Holkham earlier.

Snipe

Common Snipe – very well camouflaged in the recently cut reeds

We had also started to scan the cut reeds along the edge for Water Pipits, which like to feed along here. Then one handily flew in and landed out on the edge of one of the bare muddy islands and walked into the water to bathe, which made it much easier to spot! When it flew over to the bank to preen, we then found another Water Pipit creeping around in the cut reeds nearby.

There were a few duck out on the freshmarsh too today, but not as many as recent weeks. There were plenty of Shoveler and Teal, but a careful scan revealed a smart drake Pintail and a pair of Gadwall too. A flock of Brent Geese dropped in for a drink and a bathe briefly before heading back out to the saltmarsh. Gulls were starting to gather on the freshmarsh already, ahead of going to roost. They were mainly Black-headed Gulls but several Common Gulls dropped in to bathe too.

The other side of Parrinder Hide was also very productive for waders. First we spotted a smart Grey Plover just below us, then a Knot appeared out on the vegetation on the mud nearby. There were a couple of Dunlin right in front of the hide too, but then a flock of about twenty more Knot flew in with a couple of Dunlin with them, allowing a nice comparison of the two.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – showed well on the Volunteer Marsh from Parrinder Hide

It was cold and windy, and we had somewhere else we wanted to finish the day, so we decided against walking out to the beach and made our way back to the car. As we made our way back east, we turned off inland again. We were quickly rewarded with a Barn Owl which flew along the verge just in front of the car, hunting for several minutes, before turning out across the field as we tried to get ahead of it.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – flew along the verge ahead of the car

It was rather grey and windy this afternoon, not really Barn Owl weather, but they are probably hungry after several nights of rain in recent days.

There has been a very showy Bittern in some flooded meadows along one of the river valleys near here in recent weeks. It was a bit grey and gloomy when we arrived and we weren’t sure at first whether it would still be here. We almost walked past it, even though it was right out in the open close to the path.

Bittern

Bittern – trying to pretend it wasn’t there, looking like a clump of reeds

When we realised where the Bittern was trying to hide, we got it in the scope and had a great close-up look at it. It was hunched up and frozen still, pretending it wasn’t there, with its bill pointing up and turned to face us, with its striped neck making it look just like a clump of reeds. Even when you knew where it was, it was still hard to spot, despite being out in an open area with only very sparse vegetation. What a stunning bird!

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away and let the Bittern resume whatever it was up to before we arrived. It was a great bird to end the day, with a Tawny Owl then hooting from the trees as we walked back to the car.

 

9th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours, which will see us visit various parts of Norfolk. Today was the turn of the North Norfolk coast. It was a cold and cloudy day, with a couple of wintry showers particularly in the afternoon, although we managed to dodge the worst of them.

Our first destination was Holkham. As we parked on Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of birds out on the wet grazing meadows either side of the road. A large flock of Wigeon was feeding on the grass near the fence, the birds giving their distinctive ‘wheeoo’ whistle. There were also a few Teal and Shoveler out in the field with them, as well as lots of Common Redshank feeding around the pools. On the other side of the road, a single Pink-footed Goose was all alone out in the middle, presumably a sick or injured bird.

Wigeon

Wigeon – a large flock was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

We were heading out towards the beach, but a shower blew in at that point and we sought shelter under a large holm oak by the start of the boardwalk for a couple of minutes while it passed over, watching the Brent Geese flying in to feed on the grazing meadows. A flock of Golden Plover whirled round and dropped down again out of view.

The rain stopped quickly and we made our way through the pines. A Sparrowhawk flew over the Gap ahead of us, before disappearing over the tops of the trees. We heard a Goldcrest singing and managed to locate it, feeding busily in a holm oak. There were lots of Shelduck out on the saltmarsh, but otherwise it seemed fairly quiet out here today. We flushed a small group of Goldfinch from the edge of the dunes as we made our way east.

There was no sign of the Shorelarks in their usual favoured spot out on the saltmarsh, but it was quite wet out here after heavy rain overnight. So we continued on a little further east and, scanning the ground ahead of us as we went, we quickly located them out on the drier sand. We had a quick look through the scope in case they flew, then made our way over a little closer.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – the usual 9 were still out on the saltmarsh today

We watched the Shorelarks for a while from a discrete distance. They were feeding busily, running round, picking at the dead stems of vegetation, occasionally flying up and landing again. Through the scope, we got a good look at their yellow faces and black masks.

As we made our way back, we stopped briefly to scan the sea. It was fairly choppy and looked rather quiet – just a few Cormorants out on the water and a couple of distant Red-throated Divers flying past.

There was more action back at Lady Anne’s Drive. As we came through the pines, we spotted a Red Kite flapping lazily across the grazing marshes. Back at the car, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese now out on the grass and a quick scan through revealed a slightly darker bird with a more obvious pale flank patch, one of the usual Black Brant hybrids which can often be seen with the Dark-bellied Brents here.

Driving back towards the main road, we noticed a few thrushes out on the short grass in one of the fields. A quick stop and check confirmed they were mainly Fieldfares, but with a single Song Thrush and a pair of Mistle Thrushes alongside. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew across and disappeared into the bushes.

A little further west, another stop to scan the grazing marshes quickly revealed a few Russian White-fronted Geese feeding down in the wetter grass. The first pair were rather distant, but then a family of four appeared from behind the trees down at the front. We could see the white surround to the base of the bill and the black belly bars on the adults. There were lots of Egyptian Geese and Greylags here too, plus a few Canada Geese and a single Barnacle Goose which had presumably hopped over the wall from the feral group in the Park.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – there were several out on the grazing marshes today

There were a few waders out on the wet grass too. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was busy feeding, probing for worms with their long bills. Careful scanning also revealed a couple of Ruff, though they were very flighty and kept disappearing behind the trees. A female Marsh Harrier appeared in the top of a bush in front of us. A Green Woodpecker flew in across the marshes and disappeared over the road into the park.

Then one of the group spotted a Great White Egret, the other bird we were hoping to catch up with here. It was right over the back, against the reeds below the pines, but it was immediately obvious that it was big even at that distance and through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding in the reeds at the back of the grazing marshes

After a very productive short stop here, we continued on our way west. One of the group had asked about Bean Geese earlier. They have been very thin on the ground this winter, but fortuitously we received a message at this point that one or two had been reported along the coast at Ringstead again this morning, having first been mentioned yesterday. We made our way straight over.

It wasn’t immediately clear where the geese were (‘in field viewed from beet pile’ perhaps not being the most helpful of directions!!), so we had a drive round the area. A quick stop by a cover strip sown along the edge of a field revealed a hedge full of birds. On one side, we could see loads of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers, but the other side revealed our target here – several Tree Sparrows. It is a sad sign of the times that we have to go some way these days to find this once very common species.

While we were here, we worked out where the geese were most likely to be found and when we got round there we found a couple of cars pulled up on the verge. A large flock of a thousand or two Pink-footed Geese were feeding out on a recently harvested sugar beet field. One of the Tundra Bean Geese had been seen earlier, close to the front of the flock, but had disappeared. At least that narrowed the search area a little, and we quickly managed to locate it, fast asleep, sitting down, hiding its best features – the orange legs and bill band!

Tundra Bean Goose 1

Tundra Bean Goose – asleep in the middle of the Pink-footed Geese

Through the scope we all had a good look at it. Even though we couldn’t see its legs or bill, the Tundra Bean Goose was subtly different from the surrounding Pinkfeet, with noticeably darker feathers on the back and wings with more contrasting pale edges. Thankfully, after a while it woke up and started to walk round, feeding on the bits of beet left behind in the field. At that point, its day-glo orange legs were particularly striking!

Tundra Bean Goose 2

Tundra Bean Goose – showing off its bright orange legs

After enjoying great views of the Tundra Bean Goose, we dropped back down to the coast at Thornham and headed out to the harbour. As we drove down past the old coal barn, we could see four people with binoculars staring down at the saltmarsh by the road and as we pulled alongside we could see Twite flitting around in the vegetation. We pulled in just past them, by the barn, but at that moment they took off and flew away up the harbour.

Parking down at the end, we had a look in the Twite‘s other favourite spots. We walked up to the corner of the seawall and scanned the saltmarsh, but we couldn’t see them anywhere. There were lots of waders in the harbour – several Curlew and Grey Plover, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, and Redshank. A couple of Little Grebes were diving in the channel and further out we could see a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers.

Then a little flock of about thirty small finches flew in with bouncing flight, straight past us. The Twite had returned. They circled round over the car park, where they usually like to drink in the puddles, but were possibly put off by the number of cars and people. Instead, they flew back towards us and landed down on the seawall just a few metres away to drink on the puddles there. We had a great view of them.

Twite

Twite – flew in to drink at the puddles on the seawall

The Twite didn’t stay long at the puddles, but quickly took off again, flying round a couple of times before landing a short distance out on the edge of the saltmarsh. Here, we had a good look at them in the scope, before they were off again, this time heading out over the harbour, out of view.

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way round to Titchwell. While we ate, we scanned the feeders by the Visitor Centre. A few Greenfinches arrived to join the numerous Chaffinches and a couple of Long-tailed Tits appeared on the peanuts. Then a couple of Bramblings appeared too, a brighter orange male and a slightly duller female.

Brambling

Brambling – one of two by the feeders at lunchtime

After lunch, it started to spit with rain. We had a quick look round via Meadow Trail for the Woodcock, but it was keeping well hidden today. Three Bullfinch flew over our heads calling. We set out onto the reserve. It was cold and windy out of the trees, so we put our heads down and walked quickly out to seek shelter in Parrinder Hide. A Marsh Harrier was circling over the reedbed on our way past.

The staff have been cutting the reeds around the edge of the freshmarsh this week, and it has been very disturbed. Coupled with the still very high water level, this means there are not many birds on here at the moment. Still, recently cut vegetation had attracted a Common Snipe, which was feeding along the edge one side of Parrinder Hide, and a Water Pipit which was picking its way along the edge the other side.

Snipe

Common Snipe – well camouflaged against the recently-cut reeds

We were glad of the shelter, as a heavy sleet shower then blew in off the sea. We waited for it to pass through in the north side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. A particularly forlorn looking Grey Plover was huddled on the edge of one of the vegetated islands, trying to get out of the weather, as were a couple of Avocets. We managed to find a single Knot and a couple of Dunlin, but most of the waders seemed to be hiding.

Avocet

Avocet – there were several out on Volunteer Marsh, when the sleet stopped

Once the sleet stopped, more waders arrived. A Ringed Plover appeared from nowhere in front of the hide and several small flocks of Knot and Dunlin flew in and landed on the mud. We decided to brave the cold wind and make a bid for the beach.

There were more waders along the edges of the muddy tidal channel. We had a good close look at a couple of Black-tailed Godwits just below the main path. There were also more Curlew, Grey Plover and Dunlin. Scanning carefully where the channel heads back away from the path, we managed to pick out a single Spotted Redshank on the edge of the water towards the back.

There was not much out on the Tidal Pools now, but it was very windy and exposed out here. Apart from several Little Grebes diving in the water just below the path, there was a large roost of Oystercatcher on the saltmarsh at the back. A pair of Gadwall were lurking in the vegetation nearby.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the Tidal Pools

We did make it out onto the beach today and found a bit of shelter in the edge of the dunes. More Bar-tailed Godwits were scattered along the shoreline and we got a single Sanderling in the scope. Another flock of Sanderling flew past, led by a lone Turnstone. The sea was very choppy and it was hard to find anything out on the water. We did get a Goldeneye in the scope, but it proved very difficult to see. The other ducks were even further out. We decided to head back.

As we walked back along the main path, the Marsh Harriers were already gathering to roost. We counted at least 12 in the air together over the back of the main reedbed. By the time we got back to the car, the light was already starting to fade, so we headed for home.

23rd Jan 2018 – A Winter’s Day

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk, looking for some of our regular wintering species. It was forecast to rain this morning, and it certainly started cloudy with some drizzle, but thankfully that cleared very quickly and we even had some blue sky and sunshine by the afternoon. In the damp conditions first thing, we decided to head up to the west end of the coast, so we would have the option of the hides at Titchwell if need be.

As it was, when we got there the weather wasn’t too bad so we carried on along to Thornham first. As we drove down to the harbour, the tide was almost in and several waders were feeding of bathing on the strip of mud left along the edge of the main channel. We had great views of several Bar-tailed Godwits and a single Black-tailed Godwit side by side, a lovely comparison of these two easily confused species, plus a Curlew and a couple of Common Redshanks nearby.

As we got out of the car, we could see another wader out on the mud the other side of the road. It was noticeably paler than the Common Redshanks we had seen earlier, with a longer finer bill, a Spotted Redshank. Most head down to the Mediterranean or Africa for the winter from their Arctic breeding grounds, but a very small number stay the winter here. They often feed out in the muddy channels on the saltmarsh, and this one had probably been pushed out by the rising tide.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – one of the small number which stay here for the winter

The Spotted Redshank swam across the pool and disappeared behind the old sluice, so we walked round there for a closer look. It was feeding around the edge of the pool, wading up to its belly in the water, sweeping its bill vigorously from side to side. It came out onto the muddy edge and a Common Redshank walked across behind it giving us a good opportunity to compare the two.

A Rock Pipit flew past us calling and dropped down onto the edge of the saltmarsh. It was rather windy this morning and the poor bird was struggling to avoid being blown away out on the mud. Still, we got a great look at it – dark, oily greenish-brown upperparts and dirty underneath with diffuse dark blotches. One to remember for later!

There was no immediate sign of the Twite around the car park, so we were planning to brave the wind and walk up along the seawall. Thankfully, just at that moment the Twite flew in towards us. It looked like they were hoping to go down to drink at the puddles in the car park, but a car was manoeuvring through the middle of them just at that moment, so they circled over but flew off and landed on the roof of the old coal barn. We had a distant look at them through the scope.

We were about to walk over to get a closer view, but with the car having gone, the Twite took off and flew straight towards us. We were right on the edge of the car park but stood very still and they landed straight down on the edge of the puddle just a couple of metres in front of us. We had a front row seat as they drank! We could see their yellow bills and burnt orange breasts. There were 17 of them, winter visitors to the saltmarsh here from the Pennines.

Twite

Twite – 17 came down to drink at the puddles right in front of us

Having seen the Twite so well, we decided against walking out along the seawall, and instead headed off inland to look for some farmland birds. We stopped on the edge of a field, where a cover strip had been sown beside a hedge. We could see lots of birds in the bushes and they were periodically flying in and out of the cover strip to feed. They were mostly Reed Buntings, but in with them we managed to find a couple of Tree Sparrows and one or two Yellowhammers too.

A little further on, we stopped again at another weedy field. At first, all seemed rather quiet, but then several Skylarks flushed from out in the grass and fluttered up singing. Then we noticed several Yellowhammers in the hedge further along, and we walked down for a closer look. We got a smart male in the scope and admired its bright yellow head and chestnut rump.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – a bright male perched in the hedge

The Yellowhammers dropped back out into the middle of the field but after a couple of minutes a much bigger flock of buntings came up out of the vegetation. We hoped they might land in the hedge again, but unfortunately disappeared off over the road the other side.

We carried on along the road and hadn’t gone far before we started to flush dozens of finches from the hedges either side, just ahead of us. Most of them landed again a little further along, so we coasted slowly up to them. They were mostly Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but in with them were quite a few Bramblings too. We could make them out from their brighter orange breasts and whiter bellies as they tried to hide in the hedge as we passed.

Brambling

Brambling – a bright orange male, hiding in the hedge beside the car

It was great to see so many finches here. They are feeding in a large weedy field which has been sown with seed mix – a fine testament as to what can happen when food is made available for birds. We pulled up in a gateway to watch a Marsh Harrier work its way low along the edge of the field, it too looking to take advantage of the availability of food.

Our destination for the rest of the morning was Titchwell. A Coal Tit was singing from the trees as we got out of the car and a little flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the sallows by the path to the visitor centre. A pair of Kestrels appeared to be displaying to each other around the trees, the male calling and fluttering around below the female. The feeders were rather quiet this morning, so we headed out onto the reserve.

We stopped by the old pool out on Thornham grazing marsh. It looked rather bleak at first, but scanning carefully, we found first a Pied Wagtail and then a Rock Pipit out in the middle. Neither was what we were really hoping for here, but then we noticed a paler bird just in front of them, a Water Pipit. It was very well camouflaged against the mud and hard to see unless it moved, but we all had a good look at it. Rather similar to the Rock Pipit we had seen so well earlier, but noticeably paler off white below, with finer blackish streaks, plus a more prominent pale supercilium and paler wing bars.

A single Marsh Harrier circled over the reeds at the back, and another couple were interacting at the back of the reedbed, the other side. There were a few ducks out on the saltmarsh – a nice little group of Wigeon, plus a pair of Shoveler and a couple of Teal. When they flushed and flew across to the freshmarsh, a couple of Common Snipe appeared up out of the vegetation too. A single Grey Plover was feeding on the edge of the Lavendar Marsh pool.

The water level on the freshmarsh is kept very high through the winter. This is good for diving ducks at the moment, with about thirty Common Pochard and a smaller number of Tufted Ducks in a raft over by the edge of the reeds. Unfortunately, it means there is not much else on here at the moment, apart from a few Teal and Shelduck and a couple of Gadwall.

Avocet numbers are slowly starting to creep up again, after their midwinter low, with twelve today sleeping on the small island which just pokes out above the water by the path to Parrinder Hide.

Avocet

Avocet – numbers are up slightly, with 12 now on the reserve

There were a few more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. Several Common Redshanks were feeding down at the front, with a couple of Ringed Plover and Dunlin around the edge of the muddy channels just behind. Two Black-tailed Godwits were hiding here too, along with singles of Curlew and Grey Plover further back. A small flock of Knot were feeding in the edge of one of the islands of vegetation out in the middle of the mud.

As we walked over the bank towards the Tidal Pools, a small party of Brent Geese took off from the saltmarsh and flew straight over our heads. They disappeared off towards the freshmarsh, presumably to drink and bathe.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flew over us, from the saltmarsh to the freshmarsh

The first thing we noticed on the Tidal Pools were the Little Grebes, three of them which were diving out on the water just beyond the bank. There were a few more duck on here too, and in particularly a little party of Pintail over towards the back corner, busy upending. We got them in the scope and had a look at them – smart ducks!

There were a few more waders on here too – some nice close godwits, both Black-tailed Godwits and Bar-tailed Godwits, which gave us another opportunity to look at the differences between the two species. The Bar-tailed Godwits are slightly smaller, shorter legged, with a bill which turns up slightly, and noticeably paler with streaks on their upperparts.

Ba-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – showing off its slightly upturned bill & barred tail

Several Oystercatchers were roosting on the spit at the back of the Tidal Pools, but most of the waders were out on the beach today, although they were flushed as we arrived by a Common Buzzard circling out over the dunes.

The real draw out here at the moment is the seaduck, and we found ourselves a sheltered spot in the lee of the dunes to see what we could see. A quick scan of the sea and we found several Long-tailed Ducks diving just offshore, including a number of smart drakes. They were sporting even longer tails than the drake Pintail we had just been looking at!

Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck – a smart drake, diving just offshore

There were several Common Scoter and a good number of Goldeneye on the sea too, which were relatively easy to see, despite all the ducks disappearing in the steady swell. The pair of Red-breasted Mergansers were harder for everyone to get onto, as they were diving constantly, as was the Red-throated Diver. The Guillemots were very hard to see on the water too, but several flew past including one right along the tide line, which was much easier to get onto.

After a productive session out at the beach, we beat a hasty retreat to the Visitor Centre for lunch. Afterwards, we made our way back to the car, with a Treecreeper in the sallows by the path a welcome bonus. Then we made our way back east along the coast to Holkham for the afternoon.

As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive towards the pines, a Stonechat posed nicely on the fence beside the car. There were lots of Common Redshanks feeding around the pools in the grass, formed by the recent rain. On the other side, a big flock of Wigeon grazing by the fence were spooked by a passing Curlew and flew up whistling noisily.

Wigeon

Wigeon – a large flock was grazing beside Lady Anne’s Drive

Out first target here was the flock of Shorelarks which often feed out on the saltmarsh, so we headed straight out through the pines towards the beach. A flock of Linnets was flushed by a dog running around in the middle of the saltmarsh, and whirled round in a tight flock. We turned east and walked along the path below the dunes. We hadn’t gone far when we noticed a large group standing out on the edge of the saltmarsh and saw a flock of nine pale birds whirl round and land down again in front of them – the Shorelarks.

We joined the small crowd and set to admiring the Shorelarks as they scampered around on the saltmarsh just in front of us. The clouds cleared just at that moment and the sun appeared. Perfect timing, as the canary yellow faces of the Shorelarks shone in the low afternoon light. Great birds!

Shorelark

Shorelarks – several of the nine feeding out on the saltmarsh

Shorelarks are winter visitors in very small and variable numbers to the UK from Scandinavia. They have declined in recent years, and North Norfolk is now one of the only (fairly) reliable places to see them, so it is always a delight to spend some time watching a flock of Shorelarks here on the coast. They are always better to see in action, so the short video below gives a better sense of how lovely they are to watch!

As we made our way back through the trees, we heard a Goldcrest calling in the holm oaks and watched it flitting around in the dark leaves. A flock of Pink-footed Geese flew in calling and landed out on the grass to the west of Lady Anne’s Drive, so we stopped to have a look at them in the scope.

We had been intending to walk west to the hides this afternoon, but we received a tip that the White-fronted Geese were over the other side of the grazing marsh today, so we drove round there instead. We were soon watching a flock of at least 75 – they were hard to count as they were tucked down behind the trees, but this is the most we have seen here this year. Numbers have been lower than normal this winter, due to mild weather on the continent which means that many of the geese have stayed there.

Through the scope we could see the distinctive white surround to the base of the bill on the adult White-fronted Geese, from which they get their name, and their black belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – we counted at least 75 here today

Great White Egrets are now a regular sight at Holkham and a pair bred here for the first time in 2017. They like to feed in the pools and ditches out on the grazing marshes. One was hiding round behind the trees when we arrived, but thankfully flew out and landed in the middle of the marshes where we could get a good look at it.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – helpfully landed out in the middle of the grazing marsh

A Grey Heron flew across in front of us while we were scanning the marshes and a Marsh Harrier was quartering the grazing marshes over towards Meals House, flushing all the Wigeon and Lapwings. A striking pale Common Buzzard was perched in the top of one of the hawthorn bushes.

Having not had to walk out to the hides at Holkham this afternoon, we had an hour to spare now. We decided to drive back along the coast to try to catch up with a few raptors coming in to roost. When we arrived at the car park, we were told we had just missed a male Hen Harrier, but thankfully we were soon watching another, a ringtail, as it made its way slowly past long the back edge of the saltmarsh. Through the scope we could see the distinctive white patch at the base of its tail.

The Hen Harrier dropped down onto the saltmarsh, but when we next saw it a second ringtail was with it. We watched as the two of them tussled with each other, before dropping back down into the vegetation.

Then a Barn Owl appeared. It was distant at first, perched on a signpost along the edge of the saltmarsh from where we were standing. It started to make its way towards us, hunting the grassy bank below the trees, but then three boys appeared between us and the Barn Owl, playing noisily on the edge of the wood, and the owl turned back the other way. The boy’s mother called them in for tea, but it was just to late for us! A little group of Fieldfares flew over the trees tchacking loudly.

Finally, the male Hen Harrier reappeared. We watched as it made its way in from the east, high over the saltmarsh. It dropped down along the northern edge as it passed by in front of us, flushing a Merlin from the bushes below it. The Merlin flew off fast ahead of it, hugging the vegetation. As the male Hen Harrier headed in towards the roost, with the light fading, we decided to call it a day and head for home too.

6th & 7th Jan 2017 – NW Norfolk in Winter

This was a Private Tour, over a day and a half, for a group based in NW Norfolk. It was to be a relaxed paced tour, enjoying some of the sights and sounds of the coast in winter.

Saturday 6th January

After an earlier than normal start, our first destination was Snettisham. It was a big high tide forecast for this morning, although not big enough to cover all the mud and force all the waders off the Wash. Still we hoped the thousands of waders forced in by the rising water might put on a good display for us.

As we arrived up on the seawall, the tide was already well in. A couple of swirling lines of waders overtook us on their way to the remaining mud in the far corner. We made our way quickly down towards Rotary Hide and then stopped to scan the water. There were lots of duck just offshore, bobbing on the tide, mainly Shelduck and Mallard closer in. Beyond them, we could see a couple of big rafts of Teal, which flew up and circled round before landing back in the water, along with a few Wigeon. Nearby, we found a handful of Pintail too, including some smart drakes sporting their elongated tail feathers.

There was a light mist this morning, but further out we could see a large flock of geese also swimming on the tide. They were Pink-footed Geese which had roosted here overnight. As we stood and watched, they started to take off, flying in towards the shore a few hundred at a time. As they approached us, they turned and started trying to gain height, presumably fearful we might be shooting at them with something other than cameras, before turning inland again further up the beach.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – a few of the many flying over us early this morning

As the number of Pink-footed Geese flying over gradually dwindled, we turned our attention to the waders. Through the mist, we could see a dark slick smeared across the mud and through the scope we could see it was a massed throng of birds. The tide was still coming in and they were shifting gradually up ahead of the rising water. More birds were flying in to join them from further up the Wash, long lines of Oystercatchers and Knot.

Waders

Waders – the vast throng gathering in the mist this morning

We walked on, down to the grass opposite Shore Hide. From here we could see the waders more clearly. In the deeper water at the front, were the Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits. Behind them on the mud were the Knot, tightly packed in their tens of thousands, looking almost like a single amorphous mass. Behind those on the drier mud, we could see lots of Grey Plover with the diminutive Dunlin in amongst them, the birds here more widely spaced. At the back, towards the saltmarsh beyond, were the much larger Curlews.

The Oystercatchers started to peel off quite early, flying in towards us in small groups, piping noisily. Over our heads, they dropped down towards the pit behind to roost. In one group, we spotted a single Avocet in with them. The vast majority of the Avocets have gone south to warmer climes for the winter, but a small number hang on here right through, as long as it doesn’t get too cold.

Oystercatchers

Oystercatchers & Avocet – one hiding in with the others

A couple of times, the Knot all flushed, bursting into the air and wheeling around high over the water before settling back down onto the ever-shrinking area of mud. There didn’t seem to be any immediate reason to panic; though a Marsh Harrier was patrolling the saltmarsh some distance behind them. After one of the flushes, with the exposed mud fast diminishing, several long lines of Knot flew in past us and dropped down onto the pit behind to roost.

Knot 1

Knot – a long line, flying in off the Wash and down to the pit to roost

The tide had stopped rising and the waders all seemed to have settled down on the last semicircle of mud. We started to think that would be it, when suddenly everything erupted. We looked at the clouds of birds and in the middle of them spotted a Peregrine. It swept through the Knot as they took off, scattering them, before swooping up and turning for another stoop. A small wader peeled off from the flock and the Peregrine set off after it for a second before turning back to the throng again.

Knot 3

Knot 2

Knot – tens of thousands twisting and turning over the Wash

The flocks of Knot swirled and twisted, making some amazing patterns as they turned, flashing alternately grey and white. Then they started to gain height. The Peregrine flew up too, trying to get above them, but it had lost the element of surprise now and eventually gave up.

The Peregrine started to fly in towards us, away from the swirling flocks of waders, high over the water. As it got in over the saltmarsh, it started to fly down until it was skimming low over the ground as it came in over the grass. It accelerated as it flew in, up over the bank before it turned sharply and disappeared down into the pit where the waders were all roosting.

Presumably mass panic ensued, but it was a surprising few seconds before we saw anything. Perhaps they were just hidden from our view, behind the bank, but at first the few Oystercatchers we could see over the far side did not seem to react. Then a large flock of Knot burst over the bank and low over the grass right past us. All we could hear was the whoosh of thousands of pairs of wings beating. A second flock of Knot followed a second later, the same noise. What a sight!

Knot 4

Knot – thousands of birds flew right past us

The Oystercatchers were up too now, as were flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover. Most of the waders headed out over the water again and circled as the Peregrine climbed into the sky again and flew off north, empty talonned. We could see it was a young bird, still a juvenile, so rather inexperienced.

We headed in to the hide now. Once the Peregrine had disappeared, many of the waders settled back down onto the pit. There were lots of Oystercatchers on the shingle banks around the south end of the pit and in one corner they were accompanied by some large and tightly packed groups of grey Knot.

Knot 5

Knot & Oystercatchers – packed into tight flocks to roost on the pit

Up the other end, there was a sizeable party of Redshank asleep on the tip of one of the spits. A single Ruff flew in and landed right in the middle of them – we could see its paler face and scallop-patterned back. There were also lots of Turnstone on the rocks out in the middle and a good number of Lapwing scattered all around.

There were plenty of ducks out on the water here too. Lots of Wigeon and Mallard, a few Shoveler and eventually we found a lone pair of Gadwall too, asleep on the bank at the back. There were diving ducks too, a liberal scattering of Tufted Ducks and a good number of Goldeneye. We got a couple of the male Goldeneye in the scope for a closer look – very smart ducks!

The geese on here were almost all Greylags, but a single Canada Goose was with them too. One of the group then spotted a much smaller Barnacle Goose, hiding in amongst the Greylags. We do get wild Barnacle Geese here sometimes, usually with the Pinkfeet, but given the company it was keeping this one was most likely a feral bird.

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Goose – most likely a feral bird, associating with the local Greylags

It had felt quite mild here at the start of the day, despite the light mist and a patchy frost inland, but we noticed the wind in our faces on the walk back to the car. It had picked up while we were in the hide, and there was now a noticeable chill. A small flock of Fieldfares flew south over our heads, possibly cold-weather migrants arrived from the continent – we have seen a few along the coast in the past few days.

Round at Titchwell, we stopped at the visitor centre for a warming coffee. The feeders were just in the process of being filled, and as soon as they were they were covered in the usual selection of finches – Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch. After the coffee break, we had a look in the ditches either side of the main path on our walk out onto the reserve. We couldn’t see any Water Rails at this point, but a Redwing flew in and landed in the trees in front of us before dropping down onto a post on the edge of the grazing marsh.

Redwing

Redwing – landed in the trees by the main path briefly

As we walked up along the main path, we could see a few people with telescopes gathered overlooking the grazing marsh pool. They were looking at a Rock Pipit out on the bare ground and as we set up the scope to get a better look at it, we noticed something else moving down at the front, much closer to us. A quick look through binoculars confirmed it was a Water Pipit, the bird we really wanted to see here.

We got the Water Pipit in the scope first and all had a really good look at it down on the mud. We then turned our attention back to the Rock Pipit which was still feeding a little further behind. It was really good to be able to compare these two similar species – the Water Pipit was noticeably much paler below, less dirty looking, and greyer above.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – great views feeding at the front of the grazing marsh pool

Several Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed and a Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from deep in the reeds. We stopped again to scan around the edges of Lavendar Marsh next. There were lots of Lapwing down in the vegetation and on closer inspection we found four Common Snipe in with them too, feeding in between them, probing vigorously in the mud with their long bills. They were very well camouflaged against the yellow and browns of the vegetation.

There is a lot of water on the freshmarsh at the moment, which the ducks seem to be enjoying. As well as the usual selection of dabbling ducks, particularly Teal and Wigeon, we found a smart pair of Pintail which we had a look at it in the scope. Further back, there were a few Common Pochard in with the larger raft of Tufted Ducks. Several Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh and landed out on the water.

Avocets

Avocets – the five that are currently hanging on here

With most of the islands under water, there are not many places for waders to rest here at the moment. Five Avocets were asleep on the small remnant of one of the islands by the path to Parrinder Hide, the brave souls which are hanging on here through the winter, and a couple of Snipe were feeding on there too. We wanted to have a quick look at the sea first, so we continued on up the main path.

There were more waders on Volunteer Marsh – several Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Curlew. We had just stopped to look at them when we heard a Spotted Redshank call. We looked across to see it fly in and land in the channel at the far end of the marsh. We hurried up there and got it in scope – we could see its pale silvery grey upperparts spotted with white, paler than the Common Redshanks next to it, and its much longer, finer bill.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – flew in and landed on Volunteer Marsh

It was cold in the wind out at the Tidal Pools, so we hurried straight on to the beach. Unfortunately the sea was rather choppy now that the wind had picked up and it was harder to see the ducks. The Common Scoter were easier to see, dark black and brown, contrasting against the water, but even they kept disappearing in the waves. Several Long-tailed Ducks were with them and were more difficult to pick out in the swell, despite being mostly white. Eventually everyone got their eye in and managed to see them.

There were a few Goldeneye out here too and we managed to find a single Red-throated Diver on the sea close enough in to see. The tide was still fairly high, so there was not so much to see on the beach today – lots of gulls, and a few Sanderling running in and out between them. It was rather cold and exposed out here today, so we beat a hasty retreat to somewhere warmer!

Back at the Parrinder Hide, with the sun shining now we were looking straight into the light. As well as all the ducks as before, we had a closer look at the Golden Plover and Lapwings which were roosting on the bits of the fenced off island which were not under water. A single Snipe was on the island too.

The light was better on the other side of Parrinder Hide, looking over the Volunteer Marsh. A close Bar-tailed Godwit gave us a good opportunity to look at it in detail. There was also a Grey Plover and two Knot in front of the hide, as well as the usual Redshanks. A small flock of Linnet flew across in front of us.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – showing well in front of Parrinder Hide

It had been an action packed morning and we still hadn’t managed to stop for lunch, so we headed back towards the visitor centre. As we got into the trees, we scanned the ditches carefully again and this time we spotted a Water Rail just below the path. It was skulking underneath a tangle of branches, and hard to see until you knew exactly where it was. Eventually we all got good views of it feeding in the rotting leaves on the edge of the water.

Water Rail

Water Rail – skulking under a tangle of branches

We retired to the pub for a late lunch today. A nice opportunity to warm up over a plate of sandwiches. It was tempting not to venture out into the cold again but we did!

After lunch, we headed inland. We stopped by a cover strip sown on the edge of a field. The hedge alongside was full of birds, mainly Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers, which kept dropping down into the field to feed. A few Tree Sparrows were in with them, we could see their chestnut caps and black cheek spots. A nice bird to see – once a common countryside bird, just a few years ago, they are getting very scarce here now.

Carrying on inland, our next stop was at Roydon Common. The afternoon was already getting on, and the sun was starting to drop in the sky as we walked out across the heath. It was quiet at first as we made our way to the ridge, but we didn’t have to wait long. A Hen Harrier appeared up out of the vegetation in the bottom, a ringtail. It flew across, flashing the distinctive white square at the base of its tail, before landing again on the top of the heather.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – a ringtail, out over the heather

We had a good look at the Hen Harrier in the scope while it perched for some time. Then it took off again and flew low out across the heath, possibly a late hunt for food, over to the far side where it dropped down again out of sight.

As we waited to see if it or another Hen Harrier would appear, we could see a band of dark clouds to the north. It looked like they might miss us at first, but we were just caught by the edge and a mercifully brief shower. It passed through quickly, but the light was really going now, so we decided to head for home.

Sunday 7th January

The next morning, we met in Thornham again and this time headed east along the coast road to Holkham. It was a lovely morning, mostly clear with some patches of cloud, heading in to a beautiful sunrise. It was certainly nice in the car, but cold out of it in a blustery NE wind!

As we drove along the main road, we could see lots of geese in the fields alongside. We pulled up and had a quick scan – they were mostly Greylags, a few Pink-footed Geese too, and then we spotted two White-fronted Geese in with them. This was a species we were hoping to see here today, so we found somewhere to park off the road and walked back to look at them.

White-fronted Goose

White-fronted Goose – one of two by the road this morning

We had great views of the White-fronted Geese through the scope – we could see their black belly bars and the white surround to the base of their bills. We had a close look at the Pink-footed Geese and Greylags too. It was great to see the three species side by side, and get such good comparisons.

After watching the geese for a while, we continued on to Lady Anne’s Drive. As we turned off the main road, we could see several thrushes on the wet grass field next to the drive, so we pulled up for a look. There were several Fieldfares, possibly more fresh arrivals fleeing cold weather on the continent, and two Mistle Thrushes were with them. A little further along and four Grey Partridges were feeding on the edge of the drive, before running off into the field as we approached.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridges – feeding beside Lady Anne’s Drive early morning

As we parked at the top end of the Drive, we could see three Brent Geese feeding very close to the fence, a nice chance to take a good look closely at our smallest geese, dark slate grey with a white half collar and paler streaked flanks. There were lots more Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and a single Egyptian Goose too.

We made our way out towards the beach first, through the pines before walking east along the edge of the saltmarsh. There were quite a few Skylarks tucked down in the saltmarsh vegetation, along with a couple of Rock Pipits and a Meadow Pipit flew off ahead of us calling.

Our target out here was Shorelark. There has been a flock of eight of them here, on and off, for the last few weeks, but there was no sign of them in their favoured spot when we arrived. We carried on east. As we got out of the lee of the trees, it was cold with the wind in our faces, so we headed across to the comparative shelter of the dunes, where we thought they might be hiding. There was still no sign of the Shorelarks along the high tide line here. We got almost to the beach huts at Wells, but it was exposed and windswept out on the beach beyond here, with lots of people too.

We started to walk back. We hadn’t gone far before we spotted another birder in the distance ahead of us stop and put up his scope. Scanning in front of him with binoculars, we could see eight tiny pale dots running around on the flats – the Shorelarks. We had a quick look through the scope, even though we couldn’t make out any detail at that distance but just in case they flew off, and then we hurried over.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – five of the eight birds feeding out on the mudflats

When we got within range, we stopped and got the Shorelarks in the scope. We all had a good look at them, their bright yellow faces catching the sun and contrasting strongly with the black mask and bib. It was just in time – suddenly, for no reason, they took off and flew in the direction we had just come, landing back down on the tideline by the dunes in the distance.

Shorelark

Shorelark – flew past us and back down the beach

On the walk back, we stopped for a more leasurely look to admire the Skylarks and Rock Pipits on the saltmarsh. We got the scope on them, and looked at the differences between larks and pipits. When they spooked and suddenly all took off, we were amazed at how many had been hiding in the stunted vegetation – at least 40 Skylarks appeared from nowhere!

Once we got back to the pines, we caught some movement in the trees and looked across to see a Treecreeper scaling a trunk. It flew across to another tree and, in typical fashion, disappeared round the back! After we encircled the tree, it had nowhere to hide and it came out so we could get a good look at it.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – scaling the trunk of a pine tree

There was more movement above the Treecreeper in the pines and we looked up to see two Goldcrests flitting around in the branches. Unfortunately, just at that moment, two people with a dog walked right in front of us, just where we were looking with our binoculars, and underneath the Goldcrests, flushing them up into the tops. Very helpful!

On the other side of the pines, we walked west along the track. It was nice in the sun here, sheltered from the wind. A pale Common Buzzard flew overhead and disappeared over the tops of the trees. We found a couple more tit flocks in the trees beside the path – Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits, and another Goldcrest flashing its golden yellow crown stripe in the sun.

We stopped for a couple of minutes by Salts Hole. Several Little Grebes were out on the water, diving. We watched their feathers puffed out when they were up and the surface and then how they flattened them just before they dived. There were also lots of Wigeon sleeping out on the pool here, the smart drakes with chestnut heads and a creamy yellow stripe up their foreheads looking like it had been painted on. A Marsh Harrier hunted over the grazing marsh behind.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – several were diving out on Salts Hole

It was surprisingly warm in Washington Hide, the dark boards had obviously absorbed a lot of heat from the sun’s rays, a great place to rest for a few minutes. Unfortunately, we were looking straight into the sun, but the light catching the reeds in front of us was stunning. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the breeze just beyond and a Common Buzzard was perched on bush behind that. As we were looking at it, a Red Kite was flushed from the grassy field behind by another Marsh Harrier. It landed again, and was mobbed by a third Marsh Harrier having a go at it.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the warmth of the hide and we made our way back to the car. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, a Red Kite was hanging in the wind over the grazing marsh in front of the car, possibly the same one we had just been watching.

We only had a half day out today, so we started to make our way back west. We arrived back in Thornham with a little bit of time to spare, so we made our way out to the Harbour. There was no sign of any Twite around the car park today, but it was very busy with lots of people out for a Sunday stroll. There was lots of disturbance – a couple of boys strangely decided to walk right out across the thick mud from the car park to the seawall – and in entirely unsuitable footwear!

Up on the seawall, it was exposed and very windy now. There were several Redshank scattered around the harbour channel and a lone Curlew was huddled up asleep, trying to shelter behind a spit of saltmarsh vegetation, out of the wind but catching the sun.

Curlew

Curlew – asleep in the sunshine, trying to shelter from the wind

We walked a short distance out along the seawall. A female Stonechat was working her way along the fence line on the edge of the grazing marsh below the bank, flying down to the ground and back up to perch on the next post along. This is another area the Twite often feed, but it was no quieter here – a dog ran down the bank and out onto the saltmarsh, chasing back and forth across the muddy channel trying to catch the Redshanks, which just flew off calling.

Unfortunately, we were out of time, so we turned and headed back to the car. We were almost back to the car park when we glanced across the saltmarsh to see a bright blue jewel sparkling on the mud the other side. It was a Kingfisher. It looked absolutely stunning in the sunshine, against the dark oily brown muddy bank on which it was perched. We stopped to admire it.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – glowing in the winter sunshine

The Kingfisher was a fitting way to end the tour, one and a half days of great winter birding on the North Norfolk coast. Then it was off to the warmth of the pub for Sunday lunch.

4th Jan 2018 – New Year of Birds

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. A different type of tour today, it was to be a whistlestop journey along the coast, from east to west, trying to pick up as many interesting birds as we could in the time available. The weather was not particularly amenable, with some light drizzle through the morning and then thickening cloud in the afternoon after a brief spell of blue sky around the middle of the day. Thankfully, it didn’t start to rain again until just after we had finished and we were on our way back.

Our first destination was Cromer. There has been a juvenile Iceland Gull on the golf course here for several days. We parked and walked back along the pavement, scanning the grass and it didn’t take long to find it, walking around on one of the fairways not far from the side of the road.

Iceland GullIceland Gull – showing very well on the fairway at Cromer Golf Course!

We had a good look at the Iceland Gull. We could see it was a rather delicate large gull with longish wings, pale biscuit colour overall, with paler wingtips. The eye was dark and the bill mostly so, with a hint of a paler base developing, confirming it as a juvenile.

Further along the edge of the road, we met a couple of people looking for some Redpolls which had been seen going into a weedy area by the edge of the golf course. When one of the greenkeepers drove past, they flew up and looked as if they might land in a large hawthorn bush. Unfortunately instead they disappeared round behind it. We waited a while to see if they might reappear, but after the greenkeepers had driven past a couple more times and nothing had come out we figured they must have gone somewhere else. With a busy schedule for the day, we headed off.

Our next stop was at Salthouse. We were hoping to see the flock of Snow Buntings here, but they have been very mobile, roaming up and down several miles of the shingle ridge, right up to the end of Blakeney Point, so we needed a bit of luck. Unfortunately, our luck was out – there was no sign of them in any of the places they have been favouring. It was not particularly pleasant standing up on the shingle in the drizzle, so we decided to carry on our way west rather than wait to see if they would reappear.

We did add a few other birds to the day’s list while we were at Salthouse. Scanning offshore, we picked up a couple of Guillemots out on the sea and a couple of Red-throated Divers flew past. A Skylark and a Meadow Pipit were feeding around one the small pools on the edge of the grazing marsh. A few Wigeon were scattered about the grass too and a drake Shoveler was on one of the pools below the shingle ridge. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead calling.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – several skeins flew over us at Salthouse

After negotiating our way round an unscheduled road closure, we managed to get onto Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham. A small covey of Grey Partridge were on the grass not far from the side of the drive. An Egyptian Goose flew past, flashing its bold white wing patches.

The Shorelarks out on the saltmarsh here had not been reported yesterday, but we thought it was worth a quick look anyway. As we walked through the pines, a birder coming back the other way told us there was no sign of them. We went out to look for ourselves anyway, but the best we could manage was a large flock of around 30 Skylarks. There was quite a lot of water on the saltmarsh today. It was still drizzling steadily, so we headed back to Lady Anne’s Drive.

As we walked back towards the car, a small group of Bullfinches flew up from the brambles beside the ditch and landed a little further along – we could see a couple of smart pink males and at least one female. A flock of about 100 Brent Geese had appeared on the grazing marsh by the car park while we were out on the saltmarsh. A quick look through them revealed that one was slightly darker than the others, with a slightly brighter white flank patch. It was the regular Black Brant hybrid which is often with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese here.

Black Brant hybridBlack Brant hybrid – second from left, with the Dark-bellied Brents

There were lots of Pink-footed Geese calling noisily, flying over and landing in the fields. We could see a few Marsh Harriers out over the grass and a Common Buzzard or two perched in the trees or flying round. As we drove back up Lady Anne’s Drive towards the main road, a Stonechat perched on the fence and kept dropping down to the ground to look for food.

StonechatStonechat – feeding from the fence beside Lady Anne’s Drive

A little further on and we stopped again to look at the grazing marshes. There was quite a bit of water on there today, after all the recent rain, and at first there didn’t seem to be much in the way of birdlife. But then we spotted a Great White Egret flying in from the east and it dropped down by the edge of one of the ditches. Even before it landed, we could see just how big it was and when it touched down we could see its long yellow bill.

Great White EgretGreat White Egret – flew in and landed out on the grazing marsh

This is often a good place to see geese, but there didn’t seem to be too many out here today. There were a few Greylags, but more of them seemed to be in the fields by the road today. A careful scan eventually brought its reward – first a little group of Pink-footed Geese and then, just beside them, a pair of White-fronted Geese, the one we were really looking for here. We could see their distinctive dark belly stripes and, when they raised their heads, the white surround to their bills.

Looking out to the west, we also spotted a single Red Kite circling out over the grazing marshes. Then it was time to carry on our way west. We got as far as Titchwell on the coast road and turned in land. As we headed up the road towards Choseley, a couple of Red-legged Partridges were in the fields, but the area around the drying barns was very busy and there were no birds here today.

It was starting to brighten up nicely now. Continuing on inland, we came across a huge flock of finches in the hedge beside the road. We stopped the car and got out for a closer look – there were lots of Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Linnets. A couple of Greenfinches perched unobtrusively in the bushes. Looking carefully threw the throng, we eventually found a couple of Bramblings with them too.

A little further on, we spotted several Yellowhammers dropping down into the middle a field. They had disappeared out of view, so we decided to have another look here on our way back. The last field we checked seemed to have many more birds – there were lots of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers in the hedge which kept dropping down into the cover strip below. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling and it wasn’t long before one appeared in the hedge too.

As we got back into the car, an approaching tractor driving down the road flushed a Sparrowhawk from the hedge and it flew straight towards us and landed in the trees right next to us. Needless to say, as we opened the window and raised the camera, it was off! We were on a roll now, and back to the first field where we had seen the Yellowhammers land earlier and we arrived just in time to see several birds fly up out of the crop. Two larger birds flew across and landed in the top of the hedge on the far side – two Corn Buntings, the bird we had hoped to see here. While we were watching the Corn Buntings in the scope, we spotted a couple of Stock Doves flying over too.

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit – feeding in Thornham Harbour

It had clouded over again when we arrived in the car park at Thornham Harbour. We met one of the local wildlife photographers just packing up to leave and he told us he had just been watching the Twite on the edge of the saltmarsh immediately beyond the car park so we hurried straight over. We couldn’t see them at first as they were hiding down in the vegetation on the other side of the channel. There were a couple of Redshank and a single Black-tailed Godwit out on the mud.

We were just scanning for the Twite when they flew up out of the vegetation and straight towards us. They circled over and landed down by the puddles in the car park just behind us. We had a great look at them as they drank, there were about 20 of them in total. We could see their orange faces and yellow bills. They didn’t stay there too long though and the next thing we knew they were off again, out across the saltmarsh.

TwiteTwite – came down to the puddles in the car park to drink

After the Twite had flown off, a Rock Pipit flew past us and landed on a post just in front of us. They are fairly common winter visitors to the saltmarshes along the coast, Scandinavian Rock Pipits rather than our British ones which favour rocky coasts.

Rock PipitRock Pipit – landed on a post just in front of us

Having seen the Twite, our main target here, so quickly we made our way straight round to Titchwell next. After a quick bite to eat, we headed out to explore the reserve.

The main birds we wanted to see here today were out at the sea, so with the wind starting to pick up a bit, we made our way fairly quickly in that direction. A quick look in the ditches by the path failed to produce the hoped for Water Rail. Thornham grazing marsh and the reedbed pool looked rather quiet, although a Cetti’s Warbler shouted to us from deep in the reeds. A single Common Snipe was out on Lavendar Marsh, along with lots of Lapwing.

The water level on the freshmarsh is very high now and there are not many places for waders here. The tiny remnant of the island by the junction to Parrinder Hide had about twenty Ruff huddled round it, along with 5 Avocet which have decided to try to slug it out here rather than head south for the winter. There were a few more Lapwing too. Further out, the top of Avocet Island still protruded from the water and was fairly covered in Golden Plovers.

There were lots of duck out on the freshmarsh, enjoying all the water. As well as the usual Teal, Wigeon and Mallard, Gadwall was a welcome addition to the day’s list here. It was really nice to see quite a few Pintail too, including several very smart drakes. There was a raft of diving ducks around the taller island over towards the back – several Common Pochard and a couple of Tufted Ducks – but we couldn’t see the Red-crested Pochard which had been reported earlier. A big flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh out towards Brancaster and landed out on the water to bathe & preen.

There were more waders on the mud on Volunteer Marsh. From the main path, we could see several Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, as well as a number of Redshanks and a Curlew or two. There were more waders down along the muddy channel which runs away beside the bank at the far end, including several Black-tailed Godwits, but no sign of the Spotted Redshank that had been reported here earlier. With the tide out now, it could easily have been hiding in the bottom of the channel somewhere.

Ringed PloverRinged Plover – one of several on the Volunteer Marsh

A single Dunlin with all the Black-tailed Godwits roosting on the Tidal Pools was the only bird of note, but we didn’t really stop to look here. Then it was on to the beach. We got ourselves into the shelter of the dunes and started to scan. There was an excellent variety of birds out here today.

Just about the first birds we found out on the sea were the Long-tailed Ducks. There were about 12 of them, diving just offshore, including some very smart long-tailed drakes. Also just offshore, we could see a few Common Scoter and Goldeneye. We picked up a drake Red-breasted Merganser on the sea too, before a group of about eight more flew in. A single female Eider rounded off the great selection of seaduck.

There had been a Great Northern Diver off here earlier, but that took a little longer to find, mainly because it was diving constantly. Eventually we got that in the scope too. A distant Great Crested Grebe was another addition to the list. While we were looking at all the birds on the sea, we kept one eye on what was flying past. A small gull, flashing alternately pale silvery grey/white upperparts and black underwings was an adult Little Gull, closely followed by two more. Several have been lingering offshore here in recent days.

There were lots of waders out on the beach too. Scanning through them carefully produced several Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Grey Plovers, Turnstone and Oystercatchers. Unusually, a single Sanderling took a bit of finding amongst all the Dunlin out on the sand today.

Having done so well out on the beach, we started to make our way back at a more leisurely pace. Scanning carefully around the Tidal Pools, we finally located two Spotted Redshanks. They were asleep, tucked down behind one of the islands, but one woke up long enough to flash its long, needle fine bill and more prominent pale supercilium than the regular Common Redshanks.

We stopped in at Parrinder Hide on the way back. There was still no sign of the Red-crested Pochard, nor any Water Pipit around the remnants of the islands, but there was a single Goldeneye diving out on the water. The Golden Plover were very nervous, flying up continually, whirling round calling plaintively, before landing down again.

Golden PloverGolden Plover – periodically whirling round nervously over the freshmarsh

It was starting to get dark now, so we continued on our way back towards the car. We stopped briefly by the reedbed where the Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost. We counted 18 all in the air together at one point. Then it was time to head for home.

We had missed a few birds today – not a surprise given the weather and the fact that we didn’t have time to stop and wait for things to appear – but even so we had managed to see some very good ones. And, when we added up the total at the end of the day we had amassed a very respectable 97 species (96 seen, and the Cetti’s Warbler which we had just heard). A good way to start the year!

7th Sept 2017 – Early Autumn Action

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. The weather was good – sunny and warm in the morning, clouding over in the afternoon but still staying dry until after dark. A great day to be out. We met in Wells and headed east along the coast.

Our first stop this morning was at Stiffkey Fen. As we made our way down along the footpath, a Marsh Harrier flew low over the field beside us. Through binoculars, we could see it was carrying green wing tags, but it was too far away for us to read the all-important code on them. It hung in the air or a second over the trees and was joined by  second Marsh Harrier, this time a dark chocolate brown juvenile. As we continued along the path, a Green Woodpecker flew over the field and disappeared across the path behind us.

In the trees down by the river, a couple of Chiffchaffs were calling. We could hear a flock of Long-tailed Tits coming, and as we came out of the trees we found a mixed tit flock moving ahead of us. In with the tits were several Blackcaps and a single Reed Warbler too, feeding high up in the sallows. As we walked on along the path, we flushed a good number of Greenfinches from the brambles, where they were feeding on the blackberries, along with a couple of Chaffinches and Goldfinches. A small number of lingering House Martins were still fluttering around the eaves of the house on the hill and a Mistle Thrush over.

The vegetation is tall along here now, so it is hard to see much of the Fen from the path. However, through a gap in the trees we could make out a long line of large white shapes over towards one side, amongst all the geese. A big group of Spoonbills. There is a better view from up on the seawall and now we could see them properly and count them – 39 in total, all in one group.

SpoonbillsSpoonbills – 39 in one flock, out on Stiffkey Fen, all asleep!

The Spoonbills were doing what Spoonbills like to do best – sleeping! Just occasionally one would lift its head briefly, but it was still great to see so many together like this, the product of a productive breeding season here this summer.

On the way out, we had heard the distinctive ringing call of Greenshanks. We found them in one corner of the Fen, a flock of 24 of them roosting together. They come in to here from the muddy channels out on the saltmarsh to roost over high tide. There was a big flock of Redshank too, closer to us, just beyond the reeds. The tide was already going out fast and first the Redshanks started heading back out, calling noisily.  Several of them dropped down onto the mud beside the harbour channel just beyond the seawall and they were joined by a single Greenshank, giving us a great comparison side by side through the scope.

There were also lots of Black-tailed Godwit asleep here, roosting on the Fen, but they seemed to be showing no inclination to head back out to the harbour. Several Ruff were picking around the islands among the masses of Greylag Geese and ducks. There were plenty of Mallard and a few Gadwall, but numbers of Teal are starting to increase as well now as birds return for the winter and we found a handful of Wigeon in amongst them too.

It was already looking like a good day for raptors. A Hobby flew in low and fast over the saltmarsh and zipped away inland across the field just beyond the Fen. Then we looked up to see seven Common Buzzards circling in the sunshine. They were trying to make their way west, but turned to head out over the edge of the saltmarsh, looking for thermals. There were clearly a few Common Buzzards on the move today, as these would not be the only ones we saw.

Common BuzzardsCommon Buzzards – 2 of the 7 which circled west this morning

Continuing along the path out towards the harbour, a small group of Meadow Pipits flew over calling, also on the move today, heading west. A female Yellowhammer which flew off calling from the top of the hedge was most likely a local bird.

Out in the harbour, the number of waders is increasing steadily now. With the tide going out fast, they were starting to spread out across the mud. We could see lots of black and white Oystercatchers and several Curlew. A cracking Grey Plover still in full breeding plumage caught our attention, with jet black face and belly surrounded in gleaming white. Stunning. There were lots more Grey Plover further out on the mud, in various different stages of moult to greyer winter plumage.

There were several Black-tailed Godwits feeding out on the mud now, and in with them we could see several smaller waders. The larger, dumpier, greyer ones were Knot, the smaller ones were Dunlin. A Ringed Plover stood out with its black and white ringed head. A single Bar-tailed Godwit was further out on the mud.

As we turned to walk back, a Stonechat appeared on a low Suaeda bush next to the path. It flicked across to the other side and then more Stonechats appeared following it, there was clearly a little group of them. They didn’t appear to be a family party, so most likely this was a small post-breeding group which you sometimes get at this time of year. After they had gone, we flushed a Whitethroat which was skulking in the vegetation by the path.

Speckled WoodSpeckled Wood – there were several out in the sunshine this morning

On the way back, there were several insects out enjoying the sunshine. We saw several Speckled Wood butterflies and a nice selection of dragonflies – Migrant Hawker, plus Common Darter and Ruddy Darter. We picked up the tit flock again, in the sallows by the path, and while we were following them we heard a couple of Bullfinches calling plaintively, getting a brief glimpse of them as they flew across overhead. A Cetti’s Warbler sang rather half-heartedly from the river bank. singing. Then back at the car, we stopped to look at the Stock Doves with the Woodpigeons in the field beside us. The metallic green neck patch on the one we got in the scope was really shining in the sun.

Our next destination was Cley. We still had a bit of time before lunch, so we made our way round to the beach car park. On our way there, a Wheatear flicked across the road right in front of the car, flashing its white rump. It landed on the West Bank right beside us, so we stopped to get a closer look at it. But another car pulled up right behind us and they were impatient, clearly in a great hurry to get to the car park beyond, and honked their horn. The Wheatear promptly flew off. We drove into the car park and stopped, and as we got out we saw the car behind in discussion with the attendant. Presumably they didn’t want to pay, as they turned round and headed back up Beach Road. So much for them being in such a hurry to get here!

We headed out along the beach towards North Scrape. Thankfully there were several more Wheatears on the fence posts along here, so we got a chance to stop and look at them at our leisure. Smart birds, autumn migrants stopping off to feed on their way south. There was no sign of any of the Whinchat with them though, which had been reported earlier. A Green Sandpiper was calling incessantly out on Billy’s Wash, but we couldn’t see it from the path.

WheatearWheatear – one of several along the Eye Field fence today

Out at North Scrape, yet another Wheatear was perched obligingly on the reed screen, reluctant to leave the area of strimmed grass where it had presumably been feeding. There seemed to be lots of water on the scrape and didn’t look to be much of note on there at first, mostly a few ducks, Teal, Shoveler and Shelduck.

There was the grand total of five waders on the edge of the nearest island so we had a quick look at them. A juvenile Ruff and two Redshank were predictable enough, but the two smaller ones turned out to be a Curlew Sandpiper with a lone Dunlin. The Curlew Sandpiper was a juvenile, with a peachy orange wash across the breast and scaly back. We got a good view through the scope, at one point the two of them were feeding together, the Curlew Sandpiper noticeably bigger and with a longer, more down-curved bill.

Curlew SandpiperCurlew Sandpiper – a juvenile on North Scrape

A real long distance migrant, it was remarkable to think that this Curlew Sandpiper had stopped off here to feed on its way from arctic Siberia, where it was raised over the summer, to Africa for the winter.

As we got up to walk back, we could see someone photographing the Wheatears along the fence line back towards the car park. Just beyond, we could see another smaller bird perched on the fence. Through the scope we confirmed that it was the Whinchat. We had a quick look from here, then hurried back along the path before it might be flushed. The photographer was so focused on one of the Wheatears that she hadn’t seen it. Thankfully it was still there when we got there and we got a good look at it through the scope.

WhinchatWhinchat – had reappeared on the fence on our way back

The Whinchat was more strongly marked than the Wheatears, patterned brown and black on the upperparts and with a noticeable pale supercilium. It dropped down from the fence and flew into the field, where it perched on a dead dock seedhead for a while, scanning the ground below for insects, occasionally dropping down into the grass. Eventually it moved further out into the field and was lost to view. As well as more Wheatears, we flushed several Meadow Pipits and Linnets from the vegetation on the shingle on the walk back.

After lunch back at the visitor centre, we headed out to the hides. There was a nice selection of waders on Simmond’s Scrape. Several Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff were feeding down at the front, giving us better views than we had had of them earlier. A couple of Common Snipe were hiding down in the wet grass on the edge of the scrape, only really visible when they ran up and across the bank, striking birds with their long bills and golden stripes.

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit – feeding down at the front of the scrape

Further back, two Knot were busily feeding on the wet mud with a small flock of Dunlin. A Common Sandpiper was feeding along the back edge of the scrape, bobbing up and down as it worked its way along the edge of the grass. We could hear another Green Sandpiper and looked out of the side of the hide to see it on the edge of the water out behind Whitwell Scrape. A Greenshank flew past calling.

There were two more Spoonbills here on the scrape. One was asleep, just like the birds we had seen earlier, but a juvenile Spoonbill was walking round on island, pecking at the mud. It seemed like it had not got the hang of feeding yet – it should be in the water! But at least we could see its distinctive spoon-shaped bill, plain fleshy brown on a juvenile.

A few Black-headed Gulls were dotted around the scrape, now in winter plumage and lacking their summer brown heads. Further over were three larger gulls and one of them caught our attention. It was smaller than the two Great Black-backed Gulls it was with, and we could see that although it was obviously a young bird, juvenile/1st winter or 1st calendar year, it already had a strikingly pale whitish head. It was hard to see properly at first, hiding behind the larger gulls, but eventually it came out and our suspicions were confirmed, it was a Caspian Gull.

Caspian GullCaspian Gull – appeared briefly on the scrape

After a good look at the Caspian Gull through the scope, we discussed some of the finer identification points with the benefit of some photos. The rather solid grey-brown wing coverts with neat pale edges and contrasting dark tertials with bright white ‘thumbnail’ tips are all juvenile feathers. It has already moulted its mantle extensively, with lots of new and rather plain grey 1st winter feathers. Caspian Gulls are regular here at this time of the year, but they are mostly seen coming in very late in the evening on their way to roost, so it was great to see one so well in the middle of the afternoon.

At that point, everything flushed and scattered as a Hobby appeared overhead. It was joined by a second Hobby, the two of them buzzing the scrapes, scything through the startled birds. One of them stooped at an unsuspecting Dunlin, the latter successfully taking evasive action as the Hobby turned and climbed again sharply. They made a pass or two right in front of the hide, giving us stunning close up views.

HobbyHobby – one of two which started buzzing the scrapes

Then two Marsh Harriers joined in, circling out over the scrape, possibly hoping to take advantage of the general pandemonium. The two Hobbys started to mob the Marsh Harriers, stooping at them, trying to drive them back to the reedbed. It was real all-action stuff! We didn’t know where to look.

Hobby vs Marsh Harrier 1

Hobby vs Marsh Harrier 2Hobby – mobbing one of the local Marsh Harriers

Eventually, the Hobbys gave up and moved on. As things started to settle down again, four more Common Buzzards circled over the reeds and drifted off west over the hide. The Spoonbills had taken off too, even the adult which had been sleeping almost constantly since we arrived had woken up. They circled round and landed in front of the hide, on the edge of the nearest island, giving us a great view now. We could see the adult Spoonbill’s black bill with distinctive yellow tip, very different from the juvenile’s fleshy bill.

SpoonbillSpoonbill – the adult coming into land, flashing its yellow bill tip

Most of the small waders had cleared out after the Hobbys and Marsh Harriers had done their stuff. We walked round to Teal Hide and had a quick look on Pat’s Pool. The Black-tailed Godwits, Ruff and Lapwing had all settled back down onto the scrape, but other than that there were just a couple of Dunlin and a single Ringed Plover left on here.

After walking back to the car, we headed out to East Bank. A single Sand Martin flew past over the reeds – numbers of hirundines are steadily dropping now as birds head off south already. Apart from a large gaggle of Greylags and Canada Geese, we could see a few Lapwing down in the grass with several moulting juvenile Starlings in amongst them. A Ruff and a Common Snipe were hiding down on the edge of one of the small pools. Four Avocets were busy feeding, up to their bellies out on the Serpentine.

Common SnipeCommon Snipe – hiding in the grass on Pope’s Marsh

Further over, on Pope’s Pool, there were lots of Teal and Redshank. Looking through them carefully, we found a single Spotted Redshank too, paler silvery grey above and white below compared to the Common Redshanks. Its feeding action stood out too, walking around in circles with its long bill down in the water, sweeping it from side to side.

The biggest surprise of the day came when we were scanning the grazing marsh to the east of the East Bank. We picked up a tight flock of small birds flying directly towards us low over the grass. As they flew up and over the bank we could see they were Tree Sparrows, eight of them. They used to be common birds, but Tree Sparrows are now very scarce here, victims of agricultural intensification. Back in the 1970s, counts of migrating Tree Sparrows numbering in the hundreds were not unknown on some days on the coast, but sadly this is now a thing of the past and only very small numbers are seen these days on passage.

The Tree Sparrows continued on strongly west over the reedbed the other side of the path. There were a few more Meadow Pipits flying west too, more birds on the move already. Further along, we heard a Bearded Tit calling, and turned to catch a glimpse as one flew across, skimming the top of the reeds. Despite more calling, we didn’t see another one, but it was rather breezy up here this afternoon.

Out at Arnold’s Marsh, there were several Cormorants standing around or dying their wings around the island at the back. A good number of Black-tailed Godwit on here were mostly asleep, although one rather rusty bird, still sporting quite a bit of bright summer plumage, drew attention to itself. Otherwise, there were several Curlew and a plenty of Redshanks here. A Brown Hare on one of the vegetated shingle spits was quite hard to see, its black tipped ears more visible through the scope.

Even though it was cloudy, we stood and admired the view, looking out east across the marshes towards the cliffs at Weybourne and Sheringham. The saltmarsh vegetation, samhpire and sea lavender, was striped in various autumnal shades of orange and red.

Arnold's MarshArnold’s Marsh – looking east towards Weybourne & Sheringham

As we walked on towards the beach, several Little Egrets were flying around or preening on the edge of the pools. We talked about how this used to be a rare bird here in UK, so at least some things are doing well, while others like Tree Sparrow seem in unstoppable decline. Six Wigeon flew in off the sea and dropped down towards North Scrape, presumably freshly arrived from their breeding grounds in Russia for the winter.

Out at the beach, the sea was calm and quiet. A Fulmar circled offshore. A small group of four Ringed Plover flew west along the shoreline, yet more birds on the move today. The migration season is certainly well underway now. Unfortunately, at this stage, it was time to call it a day and head for home. It had been a great day though, with lots of action and different things to see, plenty of memorable moments.

9th June 2017 – East Anglian Round-up, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Private Tour today, our last day. We were planning to head down to the Brecks for the day. It was a nice day today, mostly cloudy but brighter later, lighter winds than of late, and we managed to dodge a couple of quick showers in the afternoon.

As we got down into the northern part of the Brecks, we started to see more pig fields. We stopped by one of them where we could see there was a large mob of gulls. The pig nuts had just been spread out in amongst one group of pigs and the gulls were squabbling in between them trying to help themselves. Then there was a loud ‘Bang!’ as a bird scarer went off and all the gulls took to the air.

When they landed again, down in a dip in the middle of the field, we scanned through the gulls we could see. We had hoped we might find a Caspian Gull, but they were mostly Lesser Black-backed Gulls here today, of various ages, plus a couple of Herring Gulls. We had thought we might come back and have another look here later, but our day ended up taking us off in a different direction.

Stone Curlew was our next target and we quickly found a pair in a field by the road. The vegetation is growing up now and they are getting harder to see, particularly when they sit down. It took a careful scan to find them, but we could just see two heads peeping out. We got them in the scope and could see their staring yellow irises. A nice start to the day.

Stone CurlewStone Curlew – one of a pair hiding in the field

When originally discussing possible targets for these three days, Wood Warbler was one species which came up. Unfortunately the bird which had been singing near Brandon last week had not been reported for several days, but we wondered whether this might be just because of the windy weather. We went for a quick look just in case, but all was quiet in the trees where it had been, so we didn’t linger here.

Our next stop was more successful. We parked by a ride in the forest and walked along the track until we got to a large clearing. We could hear Goldcrests and a Treecreeper calling in the pines as we passed. As we approached the clearing we could hear a Stonechat calling and we looked over and saw a smart male perched on the top of an old stump row. A female was perched nearby with food in her bill. They clearly had young in the nest nearby.

StonechatStonechat – the pair in the clearing appear to have young

We were looking for Tree Pipit here and it didn’t take too long to find one. It was perched in the top of an elder tree just along from the Stonechats. We got a good look at it through the scope, swaying about in the wind, before it flew off and up into the pines trees beyond.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – perched in an elder tree briefly

Continuing on round the clearing, we caught a snatch of song, quite sweet and melodic but more rolling than a Blackcap. It seemed an odd place for a Garden Warbler and the first bird we saw come out of the young pine trees was a Whitethroat which led to a brief bout of head scratching – could we have imagined it? Thankfully, a couple of seconds later the Garden Warbler flicked up into the top of some brambles in the stump row behind, a nice bonus to see here and not one we had expected.

Back to the car and we drove round to another part of the forest. There has been a Redstart singing here recently, but we couldn’t hear it today. Whether it was just busy feeding somewhere out of view or has failed to find a mate and moved on was not clear. A smart male Yellowhammer flew in calling and landed on the fence in front of us.

We had a walk round and flushed a Cuckoo from the grass. It landed on a fencepost briefly, before flying off along the fence line. A second Cuckoo appeared and flew out to a small bush nearby, where we got a great view of it in the scope. Then we heard what we assume was the first Cuckoo singing in the distance, so there were two males here. A little later the second Cuckoo flew over and attempted to chase off the first, before flying back to its favoured bush.

CuckooCuckoo – one of two males here today

Another Tree Pipit flew in and dropped down into the long grass. We walked over to try to get a better look at it, but it had managed to sneak away. As we scanned the spot where it had dropped in, the next thing we knew it took off again from further along and flew off towards the trees.

As we turned to walk back, we could hear a Woodlark calling. Suddenly a male Woodlark flew up from a short distance ahead of us and started to sing, fluttering up over our heads, before drifting away over the clearing. We took a few more steps and heard another Woodlark calling. It sounded to be a long way away, but they are masters at throwing their voice and looking at the grass just ahead of us, we spotted it perched on a tussock, presumably the female.

WoodlarkWoodlark – perched on a tussock close to the path

We stopped immediately and had a good look at it through binoculars, but when we tried to get the scope on it, the Woodlark took off and landed in the grass further back, out of view. We headed back to the car and drove on. Having seen Stone Curlew earlier this morning, we were not to worried to see another, but we stopped briefly at Weeting on the way past anyway. We couldn’t find the Stone Curlews here today, but we did find three regular Eurasian Curlews out in the grass, a reminder they still breed in the Brecks in small numbers.

We stopped for lunch at Lakenheath Fen. While we were eating at one of the picnic tables, a Hobby drifted overhead. We had intended to explore the reserve after lunch, but with most of the possible species we might see here already on our list for the three days, another idea sprang to mind. There has been a Red-necked Phalarope at Welney for the last couple of days, which would be a new bird for one of us. It seemed like it would be a great way to round off the trip.

While Welney is not far away as the crow flies, it was a circuitous journey round from Lakenheath, through the Fens. When we arrived at the Welney WWT visitor centre, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling from the bushes outside, but couldn’t see them. We decided to look for them later, and with other things taking priority headed straight out to look for the phalarope. The staff at the visitor centre confirmed it had still been present just a short time ago, so we set off to walk the almost 1km down to Friends Hide.

When we got to the hide, The Red-necked Phalarope was out of view. There were several pairs of Avocets on here and quite a few chicks. A pair of Little Ringed Plovers had a couple of small fluffy juveniles with them too. We had been lucky with the weather today – it was warm and bright as we walked out to the hide – but we had been promised showers in the afternoon and a brief heavy rain shower came through. The adult Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers called to their respective young and sheltered the juveniles under their wings while the rain passed over.

AvocetAvocet – sheltering their chicks under their wings during the rain shower

It quickly brightened up again and the juvenile Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers were let out. The Avocets were being very aggressive. Their idea of childcare is to let the young fend for themselves and chase off potential predators. But they have got their definition of what might be a threat to their young awry – they were busy chasing off anything and everything!

A couple of adult Avocets kept having a go at the poor Little Ringed Plovers, chasing after them while they were trying to protect their young. The adult Little Ringed Plovers tried to lead them away with a distraction display, walking away with wings dangled, trying to look injured. It didn’t really work. The Avocets would follow them at first, then when the Little Ringed Plover felt it had got far enough away, it ran back to its chick but the Avocet simply chased back after it.

Avocet and Little Ringed Plover 1Avocet & Little Ringed Plover – the latter giving a distraction display, feigning injury

The Avocets kept chasing the Red-necked Phalarope too, which was probably why it spent so much time hiding in the reeds at the front of the pool. Every time the Red-necked Phalarope swam out, it was promptly chased off. We had a couple of quick views of it. At one point, when chased, it flew across the front of the scrape and landed on a small patch of mud, but the Avocet was still after it and once again it disappeared back into the reeds.

Eventually, the juvenile Avocets moved away from the Red-necked Phalarope’s favoured corner and it managed to swim about for a while feeding out in the open where we could get a good look at it. It was a male, which in phalarope’s means it is the duller plumaged of the sexes, with the females being brighter. The females do all the displaying and leave the males to incubate and rear the young. This male Red-necked Phalarope was still a smart bird, swimming round non-stop, in and out of the reeds, picking at the waters surface for insects of ducking its head under.

Red-necked PhalaropeRed-necked Phalarope – swimming around in front of the hide

We watched the Red-necked Phalarope for a while, swimming once it finally came out into the open for a while. They are rare visitors here and this bird was probably heading up to Scandinavia or Iceland for the breeding season, though where it had spent the winter is anyone’s guess with Scandinavian birds wintering out in the Arabian Sea but recent studies showing that some of the small number of birds breeding in the Shetland Islands migrating to join the North American population in the South Pacific Ocean! When it finally swam back into the reeds again, we decided to start walking back.

On the way back, we stopped for a quick look in the other hides. There did not seem to be too much on view from Lyle Hide, apart from more Avocets – good to see that they appear to be doing so well at Welney. We heard a song that sounded vaguely reminiscent of jangling keys and looked out of the front of the hide to see a Corn Bunting perched on the top of the vegetation. We got a great look at it as it stayed there for a couple of minutes singing, before being spooked by a big flock of Rooks and dropping back down out of view.

Corn BuntingCorn Bunting – singing in front of Lyle Hide

There were several Black-tailed Godwits out to one side of the hide, but the light was bad here as we were looking into the sun. We got better views from the Nelson-Lyle Hide further back. This confirmed our suspicions that they appeared to be a mix of two different races. Nominate limosa or Continental Black-tailed Godwit breeds across Europe east from the Netherlands. Only about 50-60 pairs breed in the UK on the Ouse and Nene Washes, including a couple of pairs at Welney. First summer islandica or Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits often remain in UK in rather than migrate up to Iceland to breed. There appeared to be a mixture of the two here, including a couple of nice limosa, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them.

Continental Black-tailed GodwitContinental Black-tailed Godwit – of the nominate race, limosa

Back at the Observatory, we could see a pair of Whooper Swans in front of the hide. This is a pair of injured birds which are not capable of flying back up to Iceland to breed, so have instead nested for the last six years at Welney, where they normally spend the winter. We could only see two of the four cygnets they were meant to have this year, but  presumed the others were hiding in the vegetation. Further back across the washes we could see another six or so Whooper Swans, presumably also all injured birds.

Whooper SwanWhooper Swan – with two cygnets

Back at the visitor centre, there were three more Black-tailed Godwits on Lady Fen. A quick look at the feeders as we were leaving finally got us views of the Tree Sparrows, with at least a couple coming and going, including one with only a half-grown tail.

Tree SparrowTree Sparrow – coming to the feeders in front of the visitor centre

It was a lovely way to end three exciting action-packed days of East Anglian summer birding, watching the Red-necked Phalarope and all the other birds at Welney. It rounded off the list nicely – we had managed to see a nice set of rarer birds despite it being early June, as well as a great selection of our resident and scarcer breeding species. A job well done, we set off back for home.