Tag Archives: Tree Sparrow

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.

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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.

 

17th Apr 2017 – Bempton Cliffs

On our way south from Scotland, we broke the journey and then stopped off at the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs on our way home. It was much nicer weather here today, sunshine and lighter winds. We had intended to stay just a couple of hours but ended up stopping here for much longer, marvelling at all the seabirds on the cliffs. It is always a fantastic combination of sights, sounds and smell!

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6O0A6283Bempton Cliffs – all the seabirds gathering on the cliffs for the breeding season

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Puffins stole the show. They are not as easy to see well here as some other places, as they don’t seem to nest on the cliff tops, although they do apparently sometimes come up onto the grass to collect nest material. We saw several lower down on the cliff faces or flying in and out from the cliffs. We explored all the viewpoints, hoping for a closer one, and eventually our persistence paid off with great views of several Puffins at the top of the cliffs.

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6O0A7570Puffins – we eventually found some on the top of the cliffs where we got great views

Getting photos of Puffins in flight was much trickier. They are small birds and move remarkably quickly in and out of the cliffs.

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6O0A7426Puffins – trickier to photograph in flight!

The other highlight was the Gannets. Around 20,000 nest here and they are seen everywhere along the cliffs and over the sea. However, while we were there they were coming down onto the top of the cliffs to collect grass for nest building. At one place in particular loads of Gannets were gathering very close to the fence, giving us views down to just a few metres.

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6O0A7191Gannets – coming down to collect grass on the clifftop

We stood for ages watching the Gannets here, as the birds flew in along the clifftop and hovered down to the grass. At one point we nearly had our heads taken off by a Gannet which misjudged its approach and came in very low behind us – we could hear the panicked flapping as it tried to pull up at the last minute, eventually just skimming over as we ducked!

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6O0A6347Gannets – some came very close as they flew in

The were lots of other auks on the cliffs. Razorbills are very smart birds up close, and we had great fun trying to photograph them flying in and out of the cliffs at high speed.

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6O0A6877Razorbills – looking very smart, in summer plumage

There were plenty of Guillemots too, much browner than the Razorbills and without the more dramatic bill markings, but great birds nonetheless.

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6O0A6726Guillemots – there were plenty of these on the cliffs too

The Kittiwakes were particularly noisy, with many pairs squabbling on the higher bits of the cliffs, their calls sounding appropriately just like their name!

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6O0A6089Kittiwakes – very noisy, squabbling on the cliffs

The seabird interest was rounded off with a few Fulmars gliding effortlessly along the cliff face.

6O0A6182Fulmar – gliding effortlessly along the cliffs

There is not a great variety of different species here on the cliffs, but it was great to see so many of them really close up. And what a spectacle the whole thing is!

There were a few other birds here, not just the seabirds, although we didn’t spend a lot of time looking around the area. On our walk down to the cliffs in the morning, a Grasshopper Warbler was reeling away, tucked down on the other side of a hedgerow out of sight. After watching the seabirds for several hours, we came back to the visitor centre for some lunch. It was nice to see so many Tree Sparrows here – an increasingly scarce species further south. As we ate our lunch outside in the sunshine, a Short-eared Owl was hunting over a field beside the car park.

6O0A7646Tree Sparrow – great to see good numbers still here

It had been a great way to finish our trip, calling in at Bempton Cliffs. It is a fantastic reserve and well worth a visit. We could have stayed much longer and eventually had to tear ourselves away so we could get home in good time. We will certainly be going back sometime soon!

22nd Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 3

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, our final day. Once again, it was a frosty start and then a gloriously sunny winter’s day, great weather for being out. We headed up to north-west Norfolk today.

Our first destination was Titchwell, but on the way there we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese in a field beside the road. The winter wheat was coated with frost and they were huddled together in a tight group. We stopped for a quick look – they looked quite smart in the early sunshine.

6o0a4152Brent Geese – huddled together in a tight flock on a frosty morning

The car park at Titchwell wasn’t too full yet. A couple of Long-tailed Tits appeared on the sunny edge of the trees opposite as we parked up. Then we made our way down to the visitor centre. There were not too may birds on the feeders yet, a few tits and a Goldfinch or two, but more action below where several Moorhens, Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Chaffinches were tidying up the spillage.

There were a few birds up in the alders nearby, mostly Goldfinches. But a careful look through revealed a Redpoll. It was quickly joined by three more. We got them in the scope and confirmed they were Mealy Redpolls, quite pale around the face, grey brown above with prominent pale lines down the middle of their mantles and, when they hung upside down and parted their wings, we could see the pale ground colour to their rumps. One was a smart male, with a lovely pink wash on its breast, in addition to the darker red poll on the front of its head.

img_0081Mealy Redpoll – four were feeding in the alders by the visitor centre

img_0098Mealy Redpoll – one of the four was a very smart pink-breasted male

When the Mealy Redpolls flew back away from us through the trees, we set off onto the reserve. A careful look in the ditch by the path revealed a Water Rail. We watched it for a while, digging in the leaf litter on the side before running further along in the water in the bottom. While we were standing there, a Sparrowhawk zoomed low through the trees only a few metres in front of us.

6o0a4234Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path

As we came out of the trees, the reserve was quite a picture, with the low winter sun catching on the tops of the reeds. A quick stop by the now dry again Thornham grazing marsh pool revealed a single Water Pipit feeding out on the mud. We had a good look at it before it wandered over to one side and disappeared into the rushes.

On the other side of the path, the reedbed pool was almost completely frozen. A pair of Mute Swans had managed to crack through the ice and created a small pool for themselves right in the middle. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reeds at the back. We heard a Cetti’s Warbler sing half-heartedly from the brambles in the reedbed and looked across just in time to see it fly down and disappear into the reeds.

The freshmarsh was also almost completely frozen. A Little Grebe was diving in the one area of open water around the tallest island over in the back corner. It was surrounded by ducks – Mallard, Gadwall and Teal – also trying to feed. More ducks were standing around in groups on the ice, sleeping.

A large flock of waders flew up from the fenced off island. We could hear Golden Plover calling and a couple of smaller groups broke away from the larger numbers of Lapwing and headed off inland. With the water levels still very high on here, there were not very many islands left poking out of the ice. A small muddy remnant over towards Parrinder Hide held three Ringed Plover, as well as a few Lapwing and a lone Golden Plover. Otherwise, that was about it for waders on here today, not a surprise given the ice.

6o0a4170Bar-tailed Godwit – our first of the day, on the Volunteer Marsh

There was more to see on the Volunteer Marsh, though that too was fairly icy today, despite the salinity of the water on there these days. A Bar-tailed Godwit seemed to be finding plenty of food in the mud, despite it sliding around on the ice. A couple of Knot down on the edge of the channel below the path were joined by two Dunlin, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them side by side. There were also a couple of Grey Plover and several Redshanks on here.

6o0a4184Knot – one of two along the edge of Volunteer Marsh today

More birds were hiding out on the Tidal Pools, which had not frozen. The Avocets had come on here from the freshmarsh, about 13 of them braving out the winter in Norfolk, and they were sleeping on the spit at the back. There were also more godwits on here, as well as a few more Bar-tailed Godwits there were a couple of close Black-tailed Godwits too, always good to get a chance to compare these two very similar species.

There were more duck on here than usual, lots of roosting Teal and Shoveler around the edges. Over towards the back, we could see several Pintail asleep too. The Little Grebes are always on here in the winter, but they were very close to the path today. We watched them diving, puffing out their feathers when they surfaced and then flattening them down again just before going back underwater.

6o0a4197Little Grebe – diving close to the main path on the Tidal Pools

Our main targets here today were out at the sea. We stood up in the dunes with the sun on our backs and scanned the water. There have been good numbers of sea duck here in recent weeks and counts have continued to climb in the last few days. They were a little distant today, but we were not disappointed. The first thing we saw were the Long-tailed Ducks. They were hard to count, as birds were diving constantly, but there were at least 100 all together in one enormous raft, probably more. In recent years, numbers of wintering Long-tailed Duck in Norfolk have been quite low, so to see this many together is a real treat.

Further out we could see a huge raft of scoter. They would be predominantly Common Scoter, but they were too far off to sort through properly. Thankfully, there was a long line of much closer birds. Again, they were mainly Common Scoter but looking through them carefully, we could see a good number of Velvet Scoter with them too. The female Common Scoter have extensive pale cheeks, but the female Velvet Scoter have two smaller white dots on their faces. On some, you could also see the white wing flash on the Velvet Scoter and one helpfully flew past, showing off the white patch in the wing perfectly.

In with the closer group of scoter was a single Scaup. It was a first winter drake, its upperparts now quite extensively grey as it gradually moults out of its brown juvenile plumage. We could also see a few Goldeneye scattered over the sea. Four Common Pochard flew round out over the rafts of seaduck, presumably looking for somewhere to go, with so much water inland frozen over.

There were plenty of Great Crested Grebe out on the water, but one of the reserve volunteers picked up a couple of smaller grebes with them, two Slavonian Grebes. We had hoped to see some divers too, but they were all rather distant. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving again, but eventually we located a single Black-throated Diver on the sea. Even if it was a long way off, we could see the distinctive white rear flank patch between dives.

That seemed like a great selection of birds for the sea, so we decided to make our way back. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a Kingfisher whizzed in from the saltmarsh and disappeared away over the mud, too fast for everyone to get onto. Thankfully, as we were almost back to the grazing marsh pool, another Kingfisher flew right past us and dropped down into one of the channels on the saltmarsh. Again, they were probably looking for places to feed with much of the fresh water frozen over.

There was a small crowd on the main path staring out at the saltmarsh, so we stopped to look. Down in the grass, we could see a Jack Snipe. They have a very distinctive feeding action – bobbing up and down all the time, as if their legs are on springs – so we knew immediately what it was. Through the scope, we had a great view of it.

img_0122Jack Snipe – feeding out on the edge of the saltmarsh

Then it was back to the car, stopping briefly to admire another Water Rail on the other side of the path to the one we had seen earlier this morning. There were also two Muntjac under the sallows and while we were looking at them, yet another Water Rail scurried past.

It was already lunchtime, but we decided to drive the short distance to Thornham Harbour and eat there. We couldn’t find any sign of the Twite around the harbour, but it was perhaps not a surprise as it was unusually busy here today, with lots of people out for a walk in the winter sunshine. We did hear a Spotted Redshank calling and turned in time to see it fly round over the saltmarsh and drop down out of view. Another Kingfisher was perched on a mud bank out along the edge of the harbour, glowing electric blue in the sun.

After lunch, we walked out along the bank towards Holme. When we got out to the dunes where we could look out over Broadwater, we were not surprised to find that it was mostly frozen. A few ducks, mostly Mallard and Gadwall, were sleeping around the edge of the reeds. There were more ducks further over, but the light was not so good from here – we were looking into the sun. Still, we could see a nice selection, including a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard. But there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck from here, so we decided to walk round to the other side of Broadwater for a better look.

From round on the boardwalk by the NOA Car Park Hide, it didn’t take us long to find the Ferruginous Duck. It was asleep at first, over by the edge with all the other ducks, but we could see its distinctive rust-coloured body plumage and bright white undertail. Even with its head tucked in while sleeping, it would open its eye occasionally and we could see the white iris. Then it was disturbed by one of the Mallards and woke up, swimming out into the middle of the water to join the local Tufted Ducks. It didn’t stay there long and promptly swam back to the bank and went back to sleep.

img_0152Ferruginous Duck – woke up and swam out into the middle with the Tufted Ducks

Ferruginous Duck is a very scarce visitor to the UK, from southern Europe and further east. However, it is also a very common duck in captivity, and it is always hard to tell whether the ones which turn up here have come from the wild population or escaped from someone’s collection. Still, it is an interesting bird to see.

While we were watching the Ferruginous Duck, we could hear a Fieldfare calling. We looked round to see it perched in the top of a bush by the car park. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but as soon as the camera came out, a Magpie hopped up through the bush and flushed it. It was a shame, as it looked very smart in the winter sunshine.

We walked back to the beach and stopped for a quick scan of the sea. One of the first birds we set eyes on was a Black-throated Diver. It was much closer than the one we had seen earlier at Titchwell. It was still hard to get everyone onto, as it was diving constantly, but we all got a really good look at it in the end. There was another first winter male Scaup off Holme too. We could also see quite a few Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water and a small group of Eider. A close-in Guillemot was nice to see too.

There were a few seals out to sea as usual. We could see a crowd gathered further along the beach to the east, on the edge of the water, but only when they moved round could we see that they had been surrounding a Grey Seal pup. We walked over and the crowd had largely dispersed as we arrived. The pup seemed to be breathing heavily and had shown no signs of moving when everyone had been so close to it, so we messaged one of the reserve wardens about it, just in case.

6o0a4240Grey Seal pup – on the beach at Holme

We left the seal pup on the beach and made our way back up through the dunes and along the seawall back to Thornham Harbour. There was still not sign of the Twite, but we did see a Greenshank in the harbour and a Stonechat perched on a bush by the seawall. Out across the grazing marshes, a Sparrowhawk was perched on a post in the distance.

The sun was already starting to sink in the sky and the temperature was dropping again. We made our way inland and started to drive round the farmland inland. We could see lots of Yellowhammers flying round in the hedges and so we pulled up in a convenient layby. In the small tree in the hedge nearby, we could see a single Corn Bunting – it was immediately obvious, given its much larger size. Then all the buntings flew and disappeared across the field behind the hedge.

We carried on our drive and eventually came to another place where lots of birds have been feeding in a plot planted with wild bird seed cover. The hedge beside the field was full of birds, masses of Reed Buntings and a good number of Yellowhammers too. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling and looked along the hedge to see several perched up with all the buntings, we counted at least eight there and at least another two calling in the hedge behind us. Tree Sparrows are an increasingly rare bird in southern Britain, so it was great to see them still clinging on here.

img_0160Buntings – the hedge was full of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers

The birds in the hedge would gradually thin out, as they flew down into the field to feed. Then, periodically something would spook them and the field would erupt and everything would fly back to the hedge. When it did, we could see there were lots of Chaffinches here too, but they would fly up into the tops of the trees rather than into the hedge with the buntings.

It was great to watch all these birds – bringing back memories of how winter flocks in farmland used to be everywhere. But the light was starting to fade now as the sun began to set, so it was time to head for home, after a fantastic three days of winter birding.

Jan 2017 – Happy New Year, 2017

There is a tradition in certain birding circles for New Year’s Day, which sees birders heading out to make a start on their ‘Year List’. On the 1st January, all species become ‘year ticks’ again, so there is an incentive to see commoner birds as well as rarer ones once more. Even though we are not obsessive year listers, we decided to head out on New Year’s Day this year to see how many species we could see.

The weather forecast was dreadful, rain all day and increasingly blustery, cold north winds. Unfortunately, for once, the Met Office turned out to be right. Not ideal birding conditions. Undaunted, and armed with waterproofs, we set out to see what we could see.

A Little Owl sheltering under the roof of a barn was a good start, given the conditions. A stop at Holkham produced 22-23 Shorelarks out on the saltmarsh and the regular Black Brant hybrid with a small group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese there too. There were a couple of small groups of Pink-footed Geese by Lady Anne’s Drive and a party of 36 White-fronted Geese on one of the grazing meadows by the main road. A Great White Egret out on the freshmarsh was a nice bonus.

6o0a2978Great White Egret – out on Holkham Freshmarsh in the rain

Titchwell was our next port of call. A Chiffchaff was flitting around beside the path from the car park but there were no Bramblings around the visitor centre as we walked out, so we decided to have a look on the way back. A Water Rail was feeding in the ditch by the main path and, following a tip off, we found a Jack Snipe on the Thornham grazing marsh pool. While we were watching it, it was promptly joined by a second Jack Snipe! The Water Pipit was slightly less accommodating, lurking in the vegetation at the back, but at least we managed to find it.

We hurried out to the sea to try to collect some seaduck. There have been large numbers of Long-tailed Ducks and Velvet Scoter off the coast this winter, but they were hard to find today in the swell and with rain and spray driven in on the wind. A couple of Velvet Scoter helpfully flew past, flashing their white wing patches, and an Eider flew in and landed close inshore. It took some time, but eventually we managed to find some Long-tailed Ducks and then beat a hasty restreat.

The pools at Titchwell gave us a really nice selection of waders, as hoped. A Greenshank helpfully flew up from the back of the tidal pools, and the unseasonal Little Stint on the freshmarsh was distinctly unexpected at this time of year. We got the set of dabbling ducks, including several smart Pintail, and a detour round via Patsy’s Reedbed added Coot and Tufted Duck.

Stopping to eat a nice hot pasty back at the visitor centre, a Brambling appeared at the feeders and a Mealy Redpoll was perched low down on one the alders where it was easy to see. Even better, a pair of Bullfinches flew over calling and landed in the top of a tree briefly. This can be a tricky species to find on a day like today.

Thornham Harbour was our next destination. As we got out of the car, the flock of wintering Twite helpfully flew up from the saltmarsh by the car park. We walked round to get a better look at them and could hear Spotted Redshank calling. It was hard to work out where it was coming from at first, in the wind, but a look from the old sluice revealed two Spotted Redshanks calling quietly to each other on the mud just below. It was not a day for photography today, but we couldn’t resist getting the cameras out, as they were posing so well!

6o0a2995Spotted Redshank – 1 of 2 at Thornham Harbour

A drive round through the farmland inland and we managed to find various flocks of finches and buntings, including a few Corn Buntings. Even better, while searching through one of the flocks, we found several Tree Sparrows perched up in a hedge – a hard bird to see in Norfolk these days! We were told about some geese feeding in a cut beet field nearby and drove round to find a large flock of Pink-footed Geese. A quick scan through them produced the hoped for Tundra Bean Geese – two of them, their bright orange legs showing up well despite the dim light.

There was olnly an hour or two of light left, so we had to decide where to finish the day. Holkham Park seemed like a good option, out of the wind and with the possibility of a few woodland birds. The trees produced Treecreeper and Goldcrest. The lake added Common Pochard to the day’s list, although a Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid was not eligible for inclusion. Walking back to the car, a Grey Wagtail flew away over the trees calling, another bonus. Then, with the light fading, we headed for home. A drive round some suitable farmland on the way produced a Barn Owl out hunting – a great way to end the day.

Back at home, with a nice hot mug of tea to warm us up, we went through the list and added up the day’s total – 110 species. This was a great number, particularly given the weather conditions. It just goes to show, you really can see birds in any weather if you put your mind to it!

The following day, we went out again (albeit a late start today!), to try to catch up with a few of the species we didn’t have time to get to on the 1st. The weather was much better, still cold and windy, but with sunny spells and only the odd shower. Unfortunately, we missed the Waxwings at Cromer – they had flown off by the time we arrived. A Purple Sandpiper at Sheringham was some compensation on the way back, and a male Stonechat feeding out on the rocky sea defences among the waves was a bit of a surprise.

The blustery north winds had blown in several Glaucous Gulls and one was roving up and down between Blakeney and Salthouse. We eventually managed to catch up with it on Simmond’s Scrape at Cley, a biscuit-coloured juvenile, with pale wingtips. We were lucky, as it didn’t stay here long. A Water Pipit was feeding nearby, on the mud on the edge of the scrape.

img_9684Glaucous Gull – a juvenile at Cley

Round at Salthouse, we walked out to see the flock of Snow Buntings which have been frequenting the beach here this winter. There were about 40 of them there today, a mixture of Scandinavian and Icelandic birds.

6o0a3141Snow Bunting – a 1st winter Scandinavian male

On our walk back to the car, the Glaucous Gull had reappeared on the pool at the end of Beach Road. We had a quick look at it before all the gulls flushed and it disappeared out onto the sea. As we drove back to the main road, we spotted another juvenile Glaucous Gull flying in from the east over the fields, our second of the day!

On the drive back home today, with the light fading, we spotted several Woodcock flying out of the trees from the car.

It just goes to show, winter birding can be exciting in Norfolk, whatever the weather!

21st January 2016 – Winter Rarity Hunting

A Private Tour today. The mission was somewhat different to normal tours – with a concerted effort to find some of the lingering rarities which are around North Norfolk at the moment, as well as catching up with some of our scarcer wintering species. It was going to be an all action day!

It dawned very frosty and with a bit of lingering fog, although the sun was already doing its best to burn that off. We met in Wells and, after a quick look in the harbour on the way which didn’t produce anything noteworthy today, we made our way along to Holkham where we pulled in just off the road to scan the grazing marshes below.

We quickly located a good selection of geese. A long line of birds on the frozen grass beyond the hedge revealed themselves to be mostly White-fronted Geese, with an obvious white blaze around the base of their all-pink bills and orange legs. In with them, was a small group of Pink-footed Geese, very dark-headed with pink legs and a small, mostly dark bill with a pink band around it. There were also plenty of Greylag Geese too, much larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and a pair of Egyptian Geese.

IMG_5352White-fronted Geese – out on the frozen grass at Holkham

We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and see odd groups flying back and forth in front of the pines, but it was only when we moved so that we could see round past the hedge and look out further over on the freshmarsh, that we could see just how many were out there.  Thousands of birds were huddled together out on the grass and around the frozen pools. The Pink-footed Geese roost on the marshes here and would normally fly inland to feed during the day, but perhaps the lingering fog and frost had caused them to stay this morning. They were quite a sight!

A careful scan of the marshes and a white shape was just visible half-hidden in the reeds towards the back. When it put its neck up, we could see through the scope that it was the Great White Egret that has been hanging around here for several months. It was hard to see well in the reeds, but thankfully it flew, first to a small area of marsh nearby and then across and into the trees where it perched on a branch in full view.

IMG_5353Great White Egret – flew up into the trees where it was easier to see

That was a great way to start, then we carried on west along the coast. With the remains of the fog burning off slowly, we made another stop at Brancaster Staithe to have a quick look in the harbour. A smart drake Red-breasted Merganser and a pair of Goldeneye were diving in the harbour channel. A little posse of Brent Geese were chattering noisily from the water’s edge, before flying off over the saltmarsh to feed.

P1150205Brent Geese – gathering in the harbour channel

There was a nice selection of waders on view here too. A group of Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers were roosting on the edge of the water, with a Curlew standing head and shoulders above them. Nearby, a Black-tailed Godwit gave a good opportunity to go through the key differences from the Bar-taileds. A couple of Grey Plovers were higher up on the mud. Where someone had hauled up and washed a load of Brancaster mussels, two Turnstones were picking around in the debris. Down on the sandbars in the channel, we could see several Redshanks but a Greenshank unfortunately only flew up briefly as a Marsh Harrier passed overhead, before dropping down out of sight again.

IMG_5365Bar-tailed Godwits & Oystercatchers – roosting in the harbour

The sun was now starting to come through more strongly, burning off the mist, so we decided to have a drive round via Choseley to see if we could find the Rough-legged Buzzard. Driving along the lane, we spotted a harrier working its way low along a hedge beyond, into the sun from us. It looked slim-built so we tried to catch up with it. As it dropped ahead of us along the side of the road, we got a flash of a white rump patch and it landed briefly, before continuing its journey east across the fields. We could confirm it was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail, working the hedges.

Scanning the hedges all around, we could see our first Buzzard but it was clearly too dark, a Common Buzzard. Over the other side of the road, two more Common Buzzards were perched up in the morning sun, and away in the distance beyond we could see yet another. They were all out warming up in the sunshine, but try as we might we could not find a Rough-legged Buzzard doing the same. We drove round to the corner south of the drying barns, were a couple of cars were just leaving. When we asked what they had seen, we were told they had been watching the Rough-legged Buzzard and, even better, it was still in view. Unfortunately, a quick look confirmed it was actually another Common Buzzard, looking rather pale-breasted in the morning sunshine, but not like a Rough-legged Buzzard should. We had a quick and unsuccessful drive round some of the Rough-legged Buzzard’s other favourite haunts and then decided to move on.

We had a particular request to try for the Pallid Harrier today, which has been gracing various sites around Norfolk since we first saw it back in mid-November. In recent weeks it has been seen inland, around the village of Flitcham, but it typically only makes intermittent flights over the fields here, before disappearing off to hunt elsewhere.

We arrived and stationed ourselves at one end of the fields where a small group were scanning the thick hedge and cover strip in front. There were lots of Chaffinches flying up and down from the field to the hedge and in with them we could see a few Bramblings. Three Yellowhammers flew into the hedge as well and perched up so we could get them in the scope. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling as well. The Pallid Harrier had made a pass over the stubble field here about twenty minutes before we arrived, so we waited hopefully for it to return.

Thankfully we hadn’t been waiting very long when we got a surprise. There were others looking out over the fields a short way further along the road, but they hadn’t shouted anything across to us. It was only when a minibus pulled up alongside that we were kindly informed that the Pallid Harrier was actually being watched in a tree over there! We hastened down and sure enough, there it stood. We got a great look at it in the scope.

IMG_5369Pallid Harrier – perched up in a tree at Flitcham

We were just making our way a little further along to join the crowd there for a closer view when it became clear it had taken off – apparently, someone had got a little too enthusiastic and had tried to go into the field, so scaring it off. Very helpful! It disappeared off over the fields beyond, so we had a quick look to see if it would loop round and do a circuit over the stubble again, but there was no sign of it. We had a number of other things we wanted to see today, and with our main target here achieved, we decided to move on.

As we walked along the road, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling again and when all the finches flew up into the hedge from the weedy strip beyond, we got a good view of a Tree Sparrow right in front of us. Historically a common farmland bird here, they are now getting very scarce and it is always nice to catch up with them. There were also lots of Bramblings in the hedge here too.

P1150210Brambling – lots were in the hedges at Flitcham

We made our way back towards the coast, and dropped down towards Titchwell via Choseley. We pulled up to talk to another birder in the layby where we had been earlier and were told the Rough-legged Buzzard had been reported again about half an hour earlier. A quick scan and there it was, perched in a tree in the distance. It really stood out with its striking pale head and contrasting black belly patch, very unlike the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier.

IMG_5375Rough-legged Buzzard – flashing its black-banded white tail in flight

We had a quick look through the scope, then drove round to get a better look. The Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched in the tree across the field in front of us, watching us. Then suddenly it dropped down and flew a short distance across the field, flashing its distinctive mostly white tail as it did so, before flying up into another tree. When it landed we could see why – it had joined another Rough-legged Buzzard which was already sitting there. Two Rough-legged Buzzards for the price of one! We had a fantastic view of them in the scope. In the end we had to tear ourselves away.

IMG_5389Rough-legged Buzzards – two sat in a tree together!

We had originally thought we might have a look at Titchwell, but a discussion about some of the other good birds along the coast led to a change of plan. With our luck running, we had seen most of the birds we had hoped to catch up with quite quickly, so we had time to play with. We hopped in the car and headed back east, all the way to Cley.

There has been a Grey Phalarope in the area for several days now and it had been showing this morning from the new Babcock Hide on what used to be Pope’s Marsh. We made our way out to the hide and as soon as we got in there, we could see everyone looking at the mud below. There was the Grey Phalarope, right in front of the hide. Stunning views!

P1150282Grey Phalarope – right in front of Babcock Hide

Grey Phalaropes are more often to be seen swimming, twirling in circles to stir up the water and picking for food brought to the surface, or even out on the sea. They are mostly pelagic in the winter, surviving out in the Atlantic, generally only forced in by adverse weather. This one had presumably been blown inshore by the storms we had last week, and had come in to feed up on the marshes.

The water levels have gone down on Watling Water, the new pool in front of Babacock Hide, for the first time. There was a great selection of other waders out on the exposed mud. There were lots of Dunlin, with three larger Knot in with them, down by the water’s edge – a good chance to see the two alongside. A good number of Ruff were feeding higher up the mud, along with a few Redshank. Around the edges of the islands, we could see a few Snipe, well camouflaged against the reeds.

There were several Pied Wagtails around the drier margins of the mud, along with a number of Meadow Pipits. Then, from behind one of the islands, a Water Pipit appeared with them. Larger than the Meadow Pipits, greyer brown and less streaked above and plainer, whiter below.

IMG_5399Water Pipit – feeding around the edge of Watling Water

Having seen what we wanted to see so quickly, and so well, we had time to try something else. We drove further along the coast to Weybourne to look for the flock of Redpolls which has been feeding in the fields here for some weeks now. However, the field was harvested a week or so back and when we arrived the few remaining weeds were quiet. We walked up and down the road briefly, but all we could find was a Grey Wagtail which flew up and landed on the wires above briefly. It seemed like our luck had finally run out.

We were just packing up to leave when a flock of about 20 small finches flew in and circled overhead, before dropping down and landing in the hedge nearby. They were Redpolls and we could just see around half of them perched in the top. They were mostly face on to us and several were clearly rather brown around the cheeks and even washed onto the upper breast, Lesser Redpolls. One was clearly different, very frosty around the cheeks and breast, contrasting strongly with the black chin and red ‘poll’, with no brown tones on the underparts and bolder black streaks on the flanks – this was a Mealy Redpoll. Another bird hopped up from lower down in the hedge, and perched back on. It was less distinctive than the first from this angle, but still had a grey (rather than brown) face and looked a rather cold grey brown above with a distinctive pale rump streaked through with black – another Mealy Redpoll.

Unfortunately, they didn’t stop long and flew off strongly west over the field. Still, we couldn’t believe our luck that they should just drop in for us like that. We wanted to end the day at the raptor roost, but we still had a little time to play with, so we drove back to Cley and stopped at the Visitor Centre.

A Red-necked Grebe has been around the reserve for the last few days and was reported from Pat’s Pool today – supposedly visible from the Visitor Centre. We had a quick scan from the car park, but couldn’t see it anywhere around the open water. With the water levels very high, four Avocets were huddled together on the edge of one of the few remaining islands. We decided to pop into the Visitor Centre and get a hot drink to go and use the facilities quickly. While we were waiting, the Red-necked Grebe suddenly appeared close to the bank, wrestling with a small fish. It was distant, but we could see it clearly through the scope.

IMG_5402Red-necked Grebe – a record shot, on Pat’s Pool today

It disappeared again, then as we returned to the car we could see it further out on the water, diving. We got a better look at it from the car park and it quickly became clear why it was hiding close to the edge. It caught another fish and immediately a Black-headed Gull flew over and started to harass it. The Red-necked Grebe dived, but when it resurfaced half way to the bank, the gull was after it again. This happened three times, before the Red-necked Grebe got over to the bank and finally swallowed its catch.

We finished the day at Warham Greens. There was a nice flock of Linnets and Yellowhammers in the hedge of the walk down to the front, with the odd Reed Bunting in with them. When we arrived, one of the first birds we saw was a Barn Owl which was hunting up and down over the rough grass on the edge of the saltmarsh.

P1150355Barn Owl – hunting along the front at Warham Greens

We had really come for the raptors. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the back of the saltmarsh and a single ringtail Hen Harrier drifted in from the east, further back. In the end we saw 2-3 ringtail Hen Harriers, one flying closer across the saltmarsh and away inland, presumably for some last hunting, and another perched preening out in front of us. Then we picked up a Peregrine standing on a sandbar out on the beach. We just needed a Merlin to complete the set here and a careful scan of the saltmarsh eventually produced its reward, with one perched on the top of a bush. Then we decided to head back.

What a day! Pallid Harrier, two Rough-legged Buzzards, Grey Phalarope, Great White Egret, Red-necked Grebe, Water Pipit, Mealy Redpoll, plus a host of other good raptors, waders, geese, ducks and farmland birds. There aren’t many places you could see all of those – welcome to Norfolk in winter.

18th September 2015 – Autumn Migrants & More

The first day of a long weekend of tours today. The plan was to catch up with some lingering autumn migrants in the Wells-Holkham area. The forecast was for the possibility of thundery showers today, so we set off for the dunes at Burnham Overy with our waterproofs just in case.

As we walked out along the path across the grazing marshes, we could hear Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps calling from the hedges. A Pied Wagtail flew over calling, followed a little later by a Grey Wagtail. There were lots of Swallows and House Martins heading east over the grazing marsh, though it was harder to tell if they were on the move today or just forced down to feed by the low cloud. We had just gone through one of the gates when we heard a bird calling from the bushes behind us. We walked back and a Redstart flew out, flashing its red tail as it darted across the track and disappeared over the hedge. A nice autumn migrant to start the day.

There were several Curlew calling and a little flock dropped down onto the grazing marshes alongside the track. Several Common Snipe flew overhead, including a flock of 6, possibly flushed from the grass by a tractor topping the meadows. A large flock of Golden Plover circled out over the harbour. Standing up on the seawall, a Greenshank flew past calling and dropped down out on the saltmarsh. Further over beyond the harbour channel, we could see a little roost of Grey Plover pushed off the mud by the high tide. When they were disturbed and flew round we could see several smaller Dunlin with them.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reedbed by the seawall. Scanning the tops of the reeds, we spotted a pair climbing up into the branches of a dead elder. We just had time to get the scope onto them before they disappeared across the reeds and dropped back down into cover. A Cetti’s Warbler sang from the brambles on the edge of the reeds and gave a similarly brief view – perching up on an old fence before diving back into the bushes.

IMG_0705Linnet – several were in the boardwalk bushes as usual

The bushes by the boardwalk seemed a little quiet at first, but as we stood quietly and looked closely, more birds appeared. There were several Linnets as usual, a couple of the juveniles still begging food from the attendant adults, and the regular Dunnocks. A Chiffchaff appeared low down in brambles next to one of the local Common Whitethroats. A Goldcrest flew across between the bushes and disappeared into the undergrowth calling.

Then the biggest surprise of all – a Tree Sparrow dropped in. We watched it for a while, but it was very restless, moving around between the brambles and the apple tree. Tree Sparrows are getting very scarce in Norfolk now and are very unusual out here, so this was a real treat. Then suddenly it took off and flew strongly west towards Gun Hill.

While we were standing by the boardwalk, we heard the first group of Siskins flying over. They have been on the move for over a week now and there was a steady stream passing overhead this morning, calling as they flew west over the dunes. Once or twice in amongst them we could hear a Redpoll or two calling as well. While we were in the dunes, we tried to keep a count – at least 265 went through. More Siskin flew over while we were in the pines, but we couldn’t see them to count them, so the actual total past this morning would have been a bit higher. Real visible migration in action.

IMG_0707Common Buzzard – watching from up in the dunes

From the boardwalk, we made our way east towards the pines. A Common Buzzard sat up in the tops of the dunes. A Wheatear appeared on the fence just in front of us, but unfortunately we were already too close and it darted off again immediately. Thankfully, as we walked over the crest of the dunes, we could see it or another Wheatear down on the path just ahead of us. It flicked up and landed on the fence where we could get a good look at it through the scope.

IMG_0720Wheatear – perched on the fence on the edge of the dunes

There have been several Redstarts in the dunes in recent days and, although we had seen one briefly on the walk out, we wanted to get a better look. As we walked towards the west end of the pines, we could hear Redstarts calling. From a convenient high vantage point in the dunes, we scanned the bushes. First we picked up a young male Redstart, with white feather tips partially obscuring its black face, then a female flicked up into a hawthorn nearby. The male showed particularly well, perching in the brambles and branches of a dead young elder just beyond the fence.

IMG_0745Redstart – this male showed particularly well

IMG_0728Redstart – the plainer female was a little more shy

While we were admiring the Redstarts, a glance across the grazing marshes towards the wood revealed a large white shape flying across. There has been a Great White Egret hanging around at Holkham for getting on for three weeks now, but at times it has been rather elusive. We could immediately see how big it was as it dropped down onto one of the pools. We hadn’t intended to walk any further, but with the promise of getting a better view of the Great White Egret we set off to walk to Joe Jordan hide.

The walk along the path on the south side of the pines was uneventful at first. As we got almost to the crosstracks, we could see the Great White Egret out on the pool preening, so we had a quick look at it through the scope in case it flew off again. That also gave us the opportunity to stop and scan through the tit flock which was feeding in the pines before the hide. There was the usual variety, Long-tailed, Coal, Great and Blue Tits, Goldcrests, Treecreeper and Chiffchaffs.

IMG_0758Great White Egret – towering over the local Greylag Geese

From up in the hide, we got a much better view of the Great White Egret. There was a Little Egret on the other side of the pool which allowed a great size comparison – the Great White Egret looked huge even next to several big Greylag Geese! While we were in the hide, a Red Kite drifted in and circled the trees, landing in the tops for a while. There were also several Marsh Harriers flying back and forth.

After a suitable rest in the hide, it was time to head back. As we walked along the path just a little west of the hide, yet another Redstart flew across in front of us, again flashing a red tail as it went, our fourth of the day. The rest of the way back to the boardwalk was fairly uneventful, although the Wheatears had multiplied – there were now two on the fence. We had enjoyed much better weather during the morning than we had anticipated, but we could now see dark clouds to the south of us. At first they seemed to be passing us by, but as we turned to head south along the seawall we finally ran into a little rain. Coats on, we walked back quickly and thankfully the worst of it missed us.

P1090281Fallow Deer – there is a large herd in the deerpark at Holkham Hall

We drove round to Holkham Hall for lunch, and sat out the rain while we ate. Some of the resident Fallow Deer herd came to look at us. A Nuthatch was calling in the trees nearby and another Red Kite drifted over the park. It stopped rainging and brightened up nicely just as we finished, with even patches of blue sky overhead, so we walked down to the lake. An injured Pink-footed Goose was hanging around with the flock of Egyptian Geese across on the other bank.

There had been a juvenile Black Tern around the lake for the past couple of days, but it gave us the run around for a while. There was no sign of it around the southern end, so we set off to walk to the other side. We were about half way along when the Black Tern appeared ahead and flew along the edge of the lake right in front of us – straight back to where we had just been standing! As we turned to walk back, we watched it hawking over the water, dipping down occasionally to the surface. Needless to say, when we got back to where it was, it immediately set off back towards the northern end. We had had a good look at it so decided to leave it to it.

We headed round to Wells Woods to finish the day. There had been a report of two Pied Flycatchers there earlier, but we struggled to find any birds at all at first. It was very disturbed with lots of dogs running amok and their owners standing nearby shouting and whistling. We made our way over to the relative quiet of the drinking pool and quickly located one of the local tit flocks. As well as the regular variety of tits, Goldcrests and Treecreepers, we could see one or two Chiffchaffs and a single Willow Warbler, but no Pied Flycatcher. A Green Woodpecker called nearby and a Great Spotted Woodpecker did the same.

Out in the brambles on the edge of the trees, we found a Lesser Whitethroat. It made itself elusive at first but we followed it as it flitted between the bushes calling. Eventually it landed in a small hawthorn and sat out in the now emerging afternoon sunshine. Then a second Lesser Whitethroat appeared with it. A browner Common Whitethroat, with rusty wings, hopped out nearby. Another tit flock whisked through.

P1090316Small Tortoiseshell – one of several butterflies out in the afternoon sun

There were still a few insects about. With the sun coming out, the butterflies came out too. We had seen one or two Speckled Wood earlier, but now we found several Red Admirals and a Small Tortoiseshell basking in the sun. One of the sharp-eyed members of the group spotted a large caterpillar on the path as we walked through the pines – on closer inspection, a Pine Hawkmoth caterpillar. There were also a few dragonflies buzzing around – Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers.

P1090297Pine Hawkmoth caterpillar – on the path in the pines

We made our way back via the Dell, but still with no sign of the flycatchers. Almost back to the car park, just before the boating lake, we came across yet another small tit flock on the edge of the pines by the main path. We stood watching it for a while, with a couple of Long-tailed Tits performing for the crowd. We were just about to leave when something flitted across high up in the pines – a Pied Flycatcher! Unfortunately it didn’t hang around and, no sooner had it appeared than it was off through the tops of the pines and we couldn’t find it again. Still, it was a nice way to round off the day.

P1090319Long-tailed Tit – one of many in the woods at Wells