Tag Archives: Water Pipit

31st March 2018 – Easter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Spring Tour over the Easter weekend. With the weather forecast better for tomorrow, at least in theory, we opted to head up to the coast today and aim for the Brecks on Sunday. The weather forecast was not too bad for today either – showers, with the chance of heavier rain spreading in late on. Unfortunately, it turned out to be anything but – it started to rain at about 10.30am and continued for the rest of the day. Still, we made the most of it – and good use of several hides!

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. We parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive and got out to see what we could spot out on the grazing marshes. There were a few Wigeon out here again today, as well as several Teal and a pair of Shoveler. In amongst them, we could see a few waders too – Curlew, Redshank and Oystercatchers.

There were a lot of gulls out on the grass the other side of the drive. They were predominantly Black-headed and Common Gulls but a quick scan with binoculars revealed there were quite a few Mediterranean Gulls as well. We got the scope on them for a closer look.

As we walked up towards the pines, we looked across to the hedgerow which runs along the north edge of the grazing marsh and noticed quite a few Blackbirds either down in the grass or up in the bushes above. There are a few which stay here for the summer, but these were presumably migrants, feeding up before flying back across to Scandinavia.

We took the track which heads west along the inland side of the pines. One of the first birds we heard was a Chiffchaff singing, a summer migrant which has probably only returned here in the last few days. Perhaps spring is not far away? A Goldcrest was initially flitting around up in the trees nearby but then flew across the path and landed in some low brambles right beside the path.

Salts Hole was fairly quiet today – just a pair of Tufted Ducks and a single Little Grebe at the back. But we heard a Treecreeper singing behind us and turned round to see it climbing up the trunk of a tall pine. A quick scan from the gate a little further on revealed several Jays, which dropped out of the trees and down onto the grassy bank, presumably looking for acorns which they had buried earlier. A pair of Grey Partridge were hiding in the grass nearby.

Marsh Harrier 1

Marsh Harrier – the male spent most of its time perched in a bush

When we got into Washington Hide, the first thing we saw was a smart male Marsh Harrier perched in one of the bushes at the back of the reedbed. There was a female Marsh Harrier around too, which flew across to chase off one of last year’s juveniles. Otherwise, they weren’t doing much on a cold, grey morning. Further back, two Common Buzzards were perched together in a small tree. They looked strikingly different – one classically dark brown, the other strikingly pale. A Red Kite was a bit more active, and drifted high across the middle of the grazing marshes.

There weren’t many ducks on the pool in front of the hide today, just four Tufted Ducks and no sign now of the Common Pochard we had seen drop in here earlier, on our walk out. Scanning round the edge of the pools out in the middle of the grass, we found a pair of Pintail preening, the last pair to leave here. A lone Pink-footed Goose out on the grazing marshes too had an obviously damaged wing. It had most likely been shot and injured and is now unable to fly back to Iceland to breed.

A Great White Egret was very distant from here, and then flew across and dropped down out of view behind the sallows. We had a better view of it from further along the path, where we could get it in the scope as it stalked around in a reed-fringed ditch. Interestingly this bird had a largely black bill, rather than the more usual yellow. The bill colour of Great White Egrets darkens when they are in breeding condition.

As we were walking through the holm oaks towards Meals House, we heard a high pitched call above us and looked up to see a Firecrest. We had a great view of it as it flicked around in the leaves, we could see its more boldly marked head pattern compared to a Goldcrest, with black and white stripes on its face. We watched it for a couple of minutes before it flew back and disappeared into the trees behind.

Firecrest

Firecrest – at Meals House, a record shot!

There were a few geese out on the grassy bank in front of Joe Jordan Hide. As well as all the usual Greylags and an Egyptian Goose, there were seven Pink-footed Geese. It was great to see the Greylags and Pinkfeet alongside each other for comparison – the latter noticeably smaller and darker, lacking the big orange carrot of a bill of the former.

Scanning through the rest of the geese carefully, we noticed a single White-fronted Goose, further back on the bank of the old fort. Through the scope, we could see the white surround to the base of its bill. It was lacking the black belly bars seen on adult White-fronted Geese, so it appeared it was a juvenile from last year. There were over 100 White-fronted Geese still here a week ago, but the rest have all left in the last few days, heading back to Russia for the breeding season. Why this one might have stayed behind was not immediately clear.

White-fronted Goose

White-fronted Goose – just this one is still hanging around

At this point, it started to rain. We assumed it would just be a shower, so we stayed in the hide. The Spoonbills were not doing much in the rain. We could see two tucked down in the trees, mostly hidden through the reeds behind the bank, doing what Spoonbills like to do best, asleep. While we watched, another Spoonbill would occasionally fly up out of the trees, circle round, and drop back in. One flew out and continued off towards Burnham Overy harbour.

One of the group spotted another Great White Egret, out in the wet grass away to the west of the hide. It was obviously different from the first one we had seen earlier, as it had a bright yellow bill. We could also still see the first, out on the edge of one of the pools to the east. After a while, this second Great White Egret flew up into the trees, but then came down and landed on the wet grass in front of the hide, where we got a great look at it.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – one of three from Joe Jordan Hide today

Then a third Great White Egret appeared, over towards the back. We could see them all at the same time, even though they were widely spaced out, in different parts of the marsh. This new bird was different again, with a very dirty yellow bill, presumably in the process of changing colour.

There was lots to see from the Joe Jordan Hide today, but we had really hoped to head out into the dunes from here to look for migrants this morning. We hung on for a bit to see if the rain would ease off but, after a discussion between the group, eventually decided we would head back to the car and avoid getting too wet!

We made our way over to Titchwell next. It was already lunchtime, so we ate our lunch before heading out onto the reserve. There were no Bramblings in the sallows on the way from the car park today, but we could hear one or two singing in the tops of the trees by the visitor centre. There was no sign of any at the feeders though, just Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a couple of Greenfinches.

After lunch, we made our way down the main path. There was very little on the Thornham ‘pool’ but while we were scanning we heard Bearded Tits calling behind us and turned to see a pair of them feeding in the reeds just below the path.

Bearded Tit 2

Bearded Tit – feeding in the reeds by the main path again today

The Bearded Tits put on a great show again today, despite the rain. They have been performing very well for the crowds for the last ten days or so now, regardless of the weather, which is unusual, but great to see.

We watched as they two of them clambered through the base of the reeds, the male Bearded Tit with its powder blue head and black moustache and the browner female. The male stopped for a while in a small block of reeds and kept climbing up a stem up to the seedhead at the top before dropping back down again.

Bearded Tit 1

Bearded Tit – a male with powder blue head and black moustache

Bearded Tit 3

Bearded Tit – very acrobatic, clambering through the reeds

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and headed out towards the freshmarsh. There were more Bearded Tits further along too though, as we stopped to look at the reedbed pool. There were just a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard on here, as well as a single Little Grebe at the back. A pair of Mediterranean Gulls circled over the reeds, calling their very distinctive ‘keeoww’.

The water level on the freshmarsh has been very high for several months now and all the rain overnight and today had not helped at all either. The few small areas of mud suitable for waders had disappeared again. As a consequence, there were not many on here today.

After starting to rise in February and early March, Avocet numbers have dropped back down again, and there were only two on the freshmarsh today. It will be interesting to see how many decide to try to nest on the fenced off ‘Avocet Island’ this year, given it has been taken over by gulls again. Otherwise, there were just a few Oystercatchers on here today.

There was no sign of the Little Ringed Plovers at first, which had been on the muddy areas again yesterday. We did eventually see one fly past, but it went through too quickly for the rest of the group to get onto and didn’t land. They are obviously going somewhere else at the moment, given the lack of suitable habitat here. A single Ruff was feeding in amongst the gulls inside the fence.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gulls – the adults are looking stunning at the moment

There are certainly plenty of gulls on the freshmarsh. The island has been taken over by lots of Black-headed Gulls and there are remarkable numbers of Medieterranean Gulls here too at the moment. It will be interesting to see how many pairs of the latter stay to breed this year.

The adult Mediterranean Gulls are looking stunning at the moment and we got a pair in the scope when they landed out in front of the hide, admiring their jet black hoods and white eyelids. There were also several Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls which dropped in to the water, and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull appeared with them too.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – dropped in to bathe briefly

As the tide was rising out at the beach, a few more waders did drop in, but none stayed for long. First, a single Bar-tailed Godwit flew in and had a quick bathe, before flying off again. Then a small flock of Turnstone landed on the pile of bricks. They too had a quick bathe before heading off back towards the beach. A single Common Snipe appeared out of the reeds along the bank and fed in the edge of the water.

Water Pipit had apparently been seen earlier, along the edge of the freshmarsh beyond the hide, in the low cut reeds, but it was not there when we arrived. We were almost about to leave when it flew across in front of the hide and landed down on the edge again. We had a good look at it through the scope, though it was hard to see at times in the vegetation. It is starting to moult into summer plumage, losing its black streaks below, though not yet especially pink on its breast.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – flew in and landed in the cut reeds along the edge

The rain at least eased a little, so we went round for a quick look at the Volunteer Marsh from the other side of Parrinder Hide. There were a few more Avocets on here – this is just about the only place they can feed at Titchwell at the moment. Two or three Grey Plover were out on the mud too and we found a single Knot half hidden in the vegetation.

It was now or never, so we decided to make a quick bid for the beach. On the other side of Volunteer Marsh there were a couple of Black-tailed Godwits with the Redshanks around the big muddy channel. The tidal Pools were full of water still and there was very little on there again apart from a few Shoveler.

Out on the beach, the tide was coming in. There were lots of gulls on the shore away to the east and a scattering of waders still feeding on the wetter areas of sand, mainly Oystercatcher and little flocks of Knot.

Looking out to sea, we quickly located the Long-tailed Ducks just offshore. There were eight of them, including a couple of smart drake with their long tails, one of them already moulting into breeding plumage. Further out, we could just make out several Red-breasted Mergansers in the mist. A Great Crested Grebe was a bit closer in and easier to see.

Long-tailed Ducks

Long-tailed Ducks – there were 8 still out on the sea today

 

It was not a day to be spending any time out on the beach today, so we decided to head quickly back. Two Little Egrets on the saltmarsh were good to see, as this species appears to have been hit hard by the cold weather this winter. Back at the reedbed, the Bearded Tits were still feeding around the edge of the pools by the path.

We made a quick detour round via Meadow Trail. There was nothing on the pool in front of Fen Hide but there were a few more birds on Patsy’s Reedbed. Two Great Crested Grebes were asleep on the edge of the reeds, and there were a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard too.

As we got back to the Visitor Centre, we could hear Bramblings singing again in the trees, though its is more of a wheeze than a song. Scanning the branches, we eventually managed to find a smart male in the top of a thick hawthorn, before it flew off, and then a female feeding on the appeared nearby feeding on the opening leaf buds.

Brambling

Brambling – we found a couple in the trees on our way back

The rain was finally easing, and there was even a hint of brightness where the sun should have been. Unfortunately, just as it was time to finish. Hopefully it bodes well for tomorrow. Still, we had enjoyed a very successful day despite the weather. Now it was time to try to dry out!

 

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19th March 2018 – Brecks & Fens

A Private Tour today down in the Brecks, but with a difference. We had a specific list of target species, which meant we would aim to spend the morning in the Brecks themselves and the afternoon at Lakenheath Fen and the surrounding area. After a frosty night, it was a lovely bright, clear, sunny day, but cold in the still blustery NE wind.

After an earlier than normal start, we headed out to look for Stone Curlews first. A few early birds have already arrived back and presumably must be regretting it! It had snowed a little yesterday and the fields were covered in a light dusting of snow this morning.

The first field we checked, where we had seen them a couple of days ago, was empty today, apart from a couple of Red-legged Partridges. We checked out the other field they favour and at first it appeared devoid of life too until somebody noticed two shapes huddled up tight against the hedge – the Stone Curlews. They were clearly trying to get out of the cold wind, despite the fact they were up to their knees in snow!

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – one of two sheltering from the wind in the snow this morning

The Stone Curlews walked out a short distance into the field, where we had a very good look at them through the scope, before they headed back in to the shelter of the hedge once more. Further over, out in the middle of the field, a pair of Grey Partridge were trying to hide in one of the wheel ruts.

Goshawk was another target for the day, but it was still a bit cold for them to be up. We drove round via a good site for them but a quick scan from the warmth of the car revealed very little aerial activity. There were several Fieldfares feeding on the ground out in the field nearby, along with a couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Chaffinches. We would come back later, when it had warmed up a little (relatively speaking!). In the meantime, we headed off to look for Woodlarks.

As we walked along the ride past the first clearing, there was quite a bit of snow covering the ground. It didn’t look especially promising. The second clearing we looked in was even worse. There is some farmland just beyond the forest here, and we figured they might have moved out to the fields to look for food, so we headed over that way.

As we walked past the third clearing towards the fields, we heard a Woodlark call and looked across to see two come up off the bare ground beyond. They flew over towards us and did a circuit of the clearing, calling to each other. The male twittered, but never really broke into full song. While one of them flew quickly back to the fields, the male Woodlark landed in the top of a small oak tree on the edge of the clearing, where he did start to sing rather half-heartedly.

 

We walked round to the oak tree for a closer look and got the Woodlark in the scope, getting a good look at it before he took off and flew away over the clearing and dropped down again onto the field beyond. Satisfied with what we had seen, we turned to go but we hadn’t got very far before a pair of Woodlarks flew in calling again. They circled round and landed only a short distance away from us, in a small patch in the clearing which was relatively free of lying snow.

Woodlark

Woodlark – a pair flew in and landed in a snow-free patch in the clearing

 

As we walked back to the car, it was still very cold in the wind but it felt like the sun was starting to get a bit more warmth to it, so we headed off to look for Goshawks. We hadn’t been there long before the first Common Buzzards started to appear, first one or two, then a group of three circled up behind.

Not too long afterwards, a Goshawk circled up too. It was rather distant, but through the scope we could see it was an adult, pale grey above and bright whitish below, a male by the looks of things. It didn’t gain much height as it circled, drifting slowly across and eventually dropping back down behind the trees. It wasn’t the best view, but at least we had seen a Goshawk. It was rather cold here standing out in the open, so we decided to head off and look for something else.

Willow Tit was the next species on the list. We drove round to a spot where some feeding tables have been set up in the hope of tempting them in. As we walked up the ride, a Redwing appeared in the trees by the path.

The feeding tables were well stocked with sunflower seeds and a steady stream of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits were coming in to take advantage, or flitting around in the pines nearby. A Marsh Tit appeared in the trees by the path – a bit too plain and grey compared to the one we were hoping for. We had nice views of a Nuthatch climbing down a tree trunk here too.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were lots around the feeders today

 

We didn’t have to wait long before we heard a Willow Tit, a male singing deep in the plantation behind one the feeders. For a minute or so, it sang repeatedly, a series of loud, ringing ‘tseeooo’ notes, and it seemed like it might be working its way towards us. Then it went quiet. We scanned the edge of the trees in case it came out but about ten minutes later, we got two more ‘tseeooo’s from about the same place, and that was it.

It gradually became clear that was all we were going to get for a while. We were about to leave when we looked up and saw a raptor circling low over the trees – a Goshawk. It disappeared back over the trees but a couple of minutes later, we saw it fly across the ride further up, closely followed be a second Goshawk. We thought there was a good chance they might start to display, so we walked up to a spot where there was an opening in the trees.

When we got there, we could see one of the two Goshawks still up above the pines. It was hanging in the wind, not really displaying, but with its white undertail coverts puffed out. It was a much better view than the distant one we had seen earlier. It gradually drifted away and dropped down behind the trees again.

Goshawk

Goshawk – hanging in the wind, with its undertail coverts fluffed out

As we walked back, the two Goshawks appeared again, high over the ride. The male was displaying now, way up in the sky, flying with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, while the larger female circled below.

Apart from actually seeing a Willow Tit, we had found all our Brecks targets already, and had very good views of all the rest of them. We decided to head off and try something different – we could always swing back round here on our way back later.

Common Crane was next on the list, which meant a drive over into the edge of the Fens. We had a look round several of the places they like to feed and, after stopping to check through various Greylag and Canada Geese off in the distance, we spotted a lone Common Crane flying over the meadows. It dropped down behind an area of thick rushes, where it started to feed.

Common Crane

Common Crane – on its own today

There is usually a pair of Common Cranes here and they are rarely seen apart, so hopefully the fact that it was on its own may suggest that this pair are getting down to breeding already.

It was getting on to lunchtime now, so we made our way round to Lakenheath Fen next, where we stopped for a bite to eat. After lunch, we headed out towards the Washland viewpoint. There were lots of Reed Buntings around the feeders outside the visitor centre.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – along the river from the Washland viewpoint

 

As we walked up onto the river bank at the Washland, the first bird we saw was a Great White Egret, a short distance away to the east along the river. Just behind it, a swan on the edge of the reeds turned out to be a lone Whooper Swan. They are not often on their own here and this one didn’t look entirely well, so perhaps it had been unable to follow the rest of the Whooper Swans back towards Iceland.

There were lots of ducks out on the Washland too, mainly Shoveler, Wigeon and Shelduck. A couple of small parties of Tufted Duck were down on the river, along with a few Teal.

The bird we had really hoped to see here was Water Pipit. There are usually quite a few along the river here, but they can be horribly elusive. Today, however, our luck was in as we quickly spotted one picking around one of the islands of rushes just below the viewpoint. It appeared to be in moult, gradually losing its streaked underparts before gaining the brighter pink breast of summer plumage.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – in the middle of moulting to summer plumage

Spoonbill is an unusual bird down here – much commoner up on the coast – so it was not one we had predicted as a possible today. However, following news that one was here yesterday, we had learnt at the visitor centre that it was still present today, along the river. We hadn’t ventured far from the Washland viewpoint, when we spotted a large white shape further downstream, feeding along the far bank. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Spoonbill.

We walked up the bank until we were roughly opposite the Spoonbill and had a good look at it. We could see the yellow tip to its spoon-shaped bill, the mustard wash across its breast and a flowing crest blowing around in the wind, suggesting it was an adult.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – on the river bank opposite New Fen

 

We were now opposite New Fen, so we cut back in onto the reserve. A pair of Gadwall and a couple of Little Grebe were the only new birds here. With out targets achieved so quickly, we decided not to walk out around the rest of the reserve and made our way back to the visitor centre.

Willow Tit was the only one of the species we had set out to see today which still eluded us, so we decided to head back over for one more go, on our way back to where we had started the day. When we arrived, we met a couple of people leaving who told us that it had just been singing and calling pretty constantly, but remained rather elusive.

Siskin

Siskin – had now joined the tits on the feeding table

 

We walked back up to the feeding stations, where a smart male Siskin had joined the tits down on the sunflower seeds. We stood and watched the comings and goings for a while, but it started to seem like we might be out of luck. Then we heard a Willow Tit calling in the plantation on the other side of the ride, a deep, nasal scolding. Once again, it sounded like it might be heading our way, so we stood and scanned the edge of the trees.

This time the Willow Tit did come out, but it flew from the tops of the pines of one side of the ride, right over our heads. It appeared to be dropping down towards one of the feeding tables, but then seemed to go down into the bushes beyond. We focused on the feeding table, expecting it to make a visit there, but we didn’t see it. The next thing we knew, it started singing from the pines behind.

The Willow Tit was not far into the plantation this time, so we followed the song and found ourselves standing below the tree where it was. It sang and sang for about 10 minutes, but even though we knew exactly which tree it was in, it was almost impossible to see. It was high in the top and not moving. Eventually, it started to move and we get a quick look at it when it came to the outer branches of the tree, before moving off and going quiet.

Perhaps not the best view ever of a Willow Tit, but at least we had seen it now. It meant we had completed the set, all the target species we had set out to find today. With long journeys back and after our early start, we decided to call it a day and 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.

4th Feb 2018 – Owls & More

An Owl Tour today, back in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was far from ideal – we were warned to expect cold and blustery NE winds bringing wintry showers in off the North Sea. Still, it didn’t turn out as bad as forecast and it is amazing what you can find when you go out looking, despite the weather!

After meeting up, we headed straight down to the coastal marshes to see if any Barn Owls might be out hunting still. It was cold and windy and, after passing through a sleet shower on our way down to the coast this morning, it was perhaps no surprise they had already gone in to roost. Not to worry. We hoped we might get another opportunity to look for Barn Owls later in the day, weather permitting.

There were other birds to see here. Several Marsh Harriers hung in the air over the reeds, coming out of their roost. A flock of Curlew flew up from feeding down in the damp grass in the grazing meadows below us. Little groups of Brent Geese flew back and forth. A Water Pipit came up from the recently cut reeds and flew off calling, and a Grey Wagtail flew high over us the other way.

We decided to try our luck inland and look for some Little Owls instead. At the first site we stopped at, we got out of the car and looked across to the roof of some farm buildings across the other side of a field. There, tucked in below the ridge out of the wind, facing into the few rays of morning sun coming through the clouds, were two Little Owls. We had a good look at them through the scope, spotted with white above and streaked below. It was nice to get the first owls of the day under our belts. Three Stock Doves were on the roof too, a little further along.

Little Owls

Little Owls – these two were standing on a barn roof out of the wind

From here, we meandered our way west. We were heading up to the Wash, but had a quick look at some other owl sites on the way, just in case any others might still be out. There weren’t any more owls, but we did have a nice variety of other things on the way. A pair of Grey Partridges were hiding in a stubble field. A Green Sandpiper was bathing in a stream but flew up and away as we pulled up. A Bullfinch zipped across the road in front of us and disappeared into the brambles, flashing its white rump. There were a few raptors too – a Red Kite flapped lazily across a field beside the road, a Sparrowhawk circled up, plus several Common Buzzards and Kestrels.

Eventually, we arrived at the Wash. As we got up to the seawall, we could see the tide was just going out. There were still lots of waders on the mud, chasing the rapidly receding waters down, so we stopped to take a closer look. The sky had cleared now and the first thing that struck us was a large flock of Golden Plover positively shining in the sunshine out on the mud.

Golden Plovers 1

Golden Plover – catching the sun, out on the Wash

Through the scope, we could see more waders. Large tight flocks of Knot and Oystercatcher, lines of Bar-tailed Godwits, plus Dunlin and Grey Plover more liberally scattered over the mud. In amongst them, we found two Avocets, hardy individuals which have probably decided to linger here through the winter (although others are already starting to move back). A few Redshank were picking around on the mud just below us and a Ringed Plover flew in and landed briefly nearby.

The waders were constantly on the move, following the tide. Periodically, a flock would fly up, whirl round and land again further down. It was great to watch the Knot in particularly, swirling out over the water, flashing alternately white and dark grey. The Golden Plover put on a show too, whooshing across in front of us, before circling up and then dropping back down to the mud. There was no sign of any raptors though, they were probably just nervous in the wind.

Golden Plovers 2

Golden Plover – the flock swirled around in front of us

There were ducks here too. The mud was covered with a sprinkling of white Shelduck, whereas the dark mass gathered on the edge of the water was a large flock of Teal. More Shelduck were swimming in the mouth of the channel and in with them we could see several Pintail too. A drake Goldeneye flew past behind us, flashing black of white, the first of several we saw here today.

However, we had not come here to look out at the delights of the Wash, so we tore ourselves away and headed round to the pits.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – this drake flew past us over the pits

There have been a couple of Short-eared Owls roosting here this winter and, carefully scanning the bushes on our way round, we quickly found one of them hunched up under a mass of brambles. We got it in the scope and could see its ear tufts and staring yellow eyes.

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl – roosting under the brambles again

Once we had all had a good look at the Short-eared Owl, we decided to head back to the car. The weather was much improved, but it was still cold in the wind and exposed out by the vast expanse of the Wash. We headed round to Titchwell for a couple of hours ahead of the afternoon owl shift.

It was time for lunch but, as we made our way from the car park to the Visitor Centre, we noticed a little patch of rusty colour, subtly contrasting with the browner leaves, half hidden underneath the sallows. A quick look confirmed it was a Woodcock! Gathering the group together, we had frame-filling views of it through the scope. Not an owl, but a real highlight to see one of these often so elusive birds so well.

Woodcock

Woodcock – feeding beneath the sallows between the car park & Visitor Centre

The Woodcock was tucked up asleep at first. After lunch (and a very welcome hot drink!), as we made our way back to the car to put away our bags, it was feeding more actively. We watched it walking round slowly, probing in the leaves, before it turned and disappeared beneath the branches.

There were a few birds around the feeders – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, plus Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits. As we started to make our way out onto the reserve, a quick look in the ditch by the main path revealed a Water Rail feeding on the far bank. It tried to hide under the overhanging brambles at first, before coming right out into the open for us, probing in the rotting leaves.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showing well in the ditch below the main path

The old pool out on Thornham grazing marsh looked particularly devoid of life at first. Scanning more carefully, we found a Reed Bunting feeding in some dead seedheads down near the front and, while we were watching it, a head popped up nearby. The Water Pipit was hard to see at first, lurking in a line of taller vegetation, picking around unobtrusively. Occasionally it would appear in an opening, and eventually we all got a good look at it through the scope.

A Marsh Harrier was circling over the reeds at the back and another was out over the reedbed the other side. Continuing on our way, the reedbed pool held a few Tufted Ducks and a scan of the Lavender Marsh as we passed revealed a single Grey Plover on the pool and a lone Black-tailed Godwit on the saltmarsh with a couple of Wigeon and Teal.

The freshmarsh is still flooded with water at the moment, meaning that there is not so much to see on here currently. The ducks like it though, with a number of Common Pochard in particular in a big raft towards the back. On the small piece of island remaining exposed above the flood by the junction to Parrinder Hide, we could see several Red-crested Pochards too, the males standing out with their bright orange heads (despite the fact they were all fast asleep), very different from their commoner cousins.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochards – the drakes sporting bright orange heads

With some dark clouds out towards the beach, we opted for safety and headed for Parrinder Hide. It was a wise call, as shortly after we arrived the skies opened and it started to hail heavily. Thankfully, it was just a shower and passed through quickly, but we were certainly pleased to be inside as it did.

There was not so much else to see on the freshmarsh today. There were lots of Lapwing on the fenced off ‘Avocet Island’ and a few Golden Plover in with them too. A flock of 14 Avocet flew in after the shower, but ended up landing out in the water, given the lack of islands to stand on. We watched them swimming for a while, bobbing up and down, looking decidedly out of place, before they finally plucked up the courage to fly over and join all the Lapwing.

Avocets

Avocets – swimming on the freshmarsh, given the high water levels

As the rain stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were a few waders out on the mud in front of the hide at first, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Redshank and Avocet, but they all flushed as a Marsh Harrier flew over and landed further back.

With the break in the weather, we made a quick dash out further along the main path. The sun even came out for a time! We had great views of several more waders close in along the near edge of the Volunteer Marsh, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Redshank. A Lapwing looked particularly stunning, its upperparts gleaming metallic green, bronze and even purple in the sunshine!

Lapwing

Lapwing – looking stunning in the bright sunshine

The Tidal Pools looked quite quiet as we stuck our heads up over the bank, apart from a couple of Little Grebes diving just below us. A more careful scan revealed a pale silvery grey and white wader asleep, tucked down on the edge of the saltmarsh, a lone Spotted Redshank in winter plumage. A nice bonus!

There was no time to head out to the beach today, as our focus needed to be back on owls for the afternoon. We made our way quickly back to the car, and set off back east. With the cold winds along the coast, we decided to head inland to see if we could find any sheltered spots where Barn Owls might be hunting.

Almost immediately, on our way down to the first meadows we wanted to check, a Barn Owl flew across the road in front of us. It disappeared round behind some houses, before reappearing again, back across the road and down to the meadows where we had hoped to find it. It worked its way quickly down a hedge through the middle of the meadow, flicking over either side, before landing on a post on the bottom of the field. We had a good look at it here, but by the time we got the scope up, it was on the move again and disappeared out the back.

That was a positive start, but we hoped to have more prolonged views of Barn Owls out hunting this afternoon. Spurred on, we drove round to another area where they like to hunt, and once again we spotted a Barn Owl before we even arrived! We followed it down to the main meadow and found somewhere to park. As we got out of the car to watch it, a second Barn Owl appeared.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting over the meadows this afternoon

The two Barn Owls quartered the meadow for a while, each seemingly oblivious to the other, focused solely on its search for prey. The second bird disappeared over the hedge at the back – we could still see it hunting over another meadow further down – before a third Barn Owl appeared over the grass in front of us.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – one of three out hunting these meadows this afternoon

For over half an hour, we watched transfixed as the Barn Owls hunted. They worked their way back and forth, round and round the meadows, seemingly in a random pattern, searching the grass. Occasionally, one would drop down into the grass, but we didn’t see them successfully catch anything while we were there. We did get a good look at them through the scope down on the ground though. In particular, as a light snow shower passed over briefly, they settled for a minute.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – they would drop down in the grass occasionally

Eventually, the remaining two Barn Owls started to move off, heading away in different directions, hunting different patches. We decided to move on too. We made our way back down to the coast road and headed back east. There were no more Barn Owls out hunting along here this afternoon, but we didn’t stop to look too hard, after enjoying such fantastic views of them earlier.

We had an appointment down in the woods at dusk. We were a little early arriving this evening, so we walked through to look out over the meadows beyond as dusk fell. We had to retreat to the shelter of the trees on our first attempt, as another wintry shower passed through. As it cleared, we walked back to find a Barn Owl perched on a post on the edge of the meadows. We watched it for a while as it resumed hunting, flying round over the grass, occasionally dropping down into the taller vegetation.

A Tawny Owl hooted and we made our way back into the trees and down to an area where one of the males is known to favour. The Tawny Owls were a bit subdued this evening, possibly due to the weather, and it got dark rather quickly given the cloud. We did hear another pair hooting back behind us, deeper in the woods. Eventually, the male Tawny Owl we were listening for hooted again a couple of times. We set off along the path to see if we could see it, but it went quiet again before we got there. The next time we heard it, it had moved further off.

We stood and listened to the male Tawny Owl hooting for a while, a really evocative sound and always great to hear, before it started to get too dark and we called it a night.

 

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.

20th Jan 2018 – Seeking Owls

An Owl Tour today. It was cloudy and rather cold all day, but with light winds and the rain mostly held off – just a little light drizzle late morning and spots of rain for a time again early afternoon.

With an early start, we hoped to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, and so it proved. After meeting up, we drove straight down to the grazing marshes on the coast and climbed up onto the seawall. There was a Barn Owl flying round over the grass. It flew up and down, landing a couple of times on a fence post, where we could get it in the scope. We all had a good look at it before it took off again and disappeared round the back of the reeds.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting still on our arrival this morning

The Barn Owl had been a bit distant from where we were standing, so we walked up along the seawall for a closer look. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds as we passed. Then a Water Pipit flew up calling from an area of recently cut reed and two Grey Partridge flew across and dropped down in the middle of the same cut area, presumably to feed on any spilled seed. A flock of Curlew flew past us calling, heading inland.

The Barn Owl reappeared again, and was much closer to us now. We watched as it flew round again, staring intently down into the grass. It dropped down at one point, but came up again quickly with no sign of having caught anything, before landing on a nearby post briefly. When it took off again, it flew straight over towards us and made its way right past below the bank, before heading off inland presumably to roost.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – a nice flypast as it headed off to roost

There were other birds here too. One or two Marsh Harriers quartered the reeds and we spotted a Kestrel perched on a telegraph post. Several geese were flying back and forth – including six Brent Geese which came right over our heads, and a couple of skeins of Pink-footed Geese further out over the grass. A Little Egret and a Rock Pipit were both feeding on the pools on the saltmarsh beyond the seawall. Another Barn Owl was only seen as it disappeared into a box to roost, before anyone could get onto it.

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding on the pools on the edge of the saltmarsh

With the Barn Owls here having probably gone to roost now, we walked back to the car. We could hear Grey Partridge calling and looked across to see a pair on the bank in front of us. They then flew down into the grass, where we got a good look at them in the scope.

Some movement in the reeds on the edge of the ditch below us turned out to be a Chiffchaff. Mostly this is just a summer visitor and passage migrant here, but with increasingly mild winters a few stay on. In contract, Cetti’s Warbler is resident. We had heard a couple calling on our walk and, having just explained how it was unusual to see one out in the open, a Cetti’s Warbler flew past us and landed briefly in the top of a clump of brambles!

Our next target for the morning was Little Owl. On our drive inland to look for them, we noticed a white shape flying along the verge beside the road in front of us, another Barn Owl still out hunting. We drove slowly behind it for several minutes, watching it – it seemed oblivious to our presence. It landed briefly on a road sign, then carried on hunting. When it turned down a side road, it flicked over the hedge out of view, working the edge of the field. Then it came back over the hedge further along, crossing the road in front of us and going over the hedge the other side, before flying back the other way, behind us. Great to watch!

We stopped by a set of farm buildings where we know there are Little Owls. There was no obvious sign of them at first – perhaps not a great surprise as they like to perch up in the morning sun and today was cold and cloudy! As we walked round the other side, scanning carefully, we found one tucked in under the roof of an old barn. It was not easy to see from here – we could only see half of it and it was facing the other way – but we could make out its back spotted with white and the false eye pattern on the back of its head.

Little Owl

Little Owl – we could jut see the back of this one, hiding under the roof

We walked back round to the front of the barns, but the Little Owl had tucked itself in so well it was not visible at all from this side. There were a few other birds here – a few Brent Geese, Common Gulls and Curlew in the fields, and a pair of Stock Doves on the roof of one of the other barns.

The weather looked like it might be brightening a little, so we carried on our way west, hoping we might find another Little Owl elsewhere. However, we hadn’t gone far before it started to spit with rain. We drove past several more sets of occupied barns on our way, but there was no sign of any of the other Little Owls. It was just not the weather now for them to be sitting out, and we weren’t helped by lots of disturbance today too – a farmer with his dog was walking round the buildings at one site, a shoot was gathering outside another. We did see another late Barn Owl still out, perched on a post out in a field, looking slightly bedraggled.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got up onto the seawall, a smart drake Goldeneye was diving on the pit below the bank. The tide was out, and we were greeted by a vast expanse of mud stretching across to Lincolnshire in the distance, the Wash. There were a few smaller waders on the near edge, little groups of grey Dunlin and a couple of Ringed Plover too with nearest of them.

Dunlin

Dunlin – feeding out on the mud of the Wash

There were clearly lots of waders out on the mud in the distance. Further out, we could see a few Grey Plover and Curlew. A tighter group beyond them was a line of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot, busy feeding. A slick of Golden Plover was spread out across the mud, remarkably hard to see until we got them in the scope. Another flock of Golden Plover whirled round over the fields just inland, before dropping down out of view.

There were ducks out on the Wash too, lots of Teal and Mallard in flocks asleep on the edge of the muddy channels. Shelduck were liberally scattered across the mud. Inland, a big flock of Wigeon flew up calling before dropping back down behind the inner seawall.

There has been a Shorelark here in recent weeks, but we hadn’t heard anything about it for a while. We had a quick walk up along the tideline to see if it was still here and just as it seemed like it might have gone, we noticed some movement in all the seaweed and dry vegetation lined up along the top of the beach. Sure enough, it was the Shorelark. We had great views of it as it crept around in and out of the piles of vegetation, looking for seeds, its pale yellow face with distinctive black bandit mask and collar.

Shorelark

Shorelark – along the tideline at Snettisham again this morning

As we made our way back along the track, we caught sight of a smart drake Pintail on the water below the bank. There were more Goldeneye diving out on the pits, and a couple of Little Grebes too. A flock of Tufted Duck flew off past us. On the main pit there were good numbers of Wigeon and a couple of Gadwall too, plus lots of Greylag Geese.

Walking round, we scanned the bushes and spotted a shape under the brambles. It was a Short-eared Owl roosting. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but it was facing away from us at first. Another scan and we found a second Short-eared Owl in the bushes nearby. This one was looking straight at us.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting here today

We stood and watched the Short-eared Owls for a few minutes. They were not doing very much, but would occasionally turn their heads. A pair of Brown Hares came chasing through the bushes towards them and ran straight into the brambles where the second Short-eared Owl was perched. We watched as it looking round and down towards them, making sure there wasn’t any threat, before going back to sleep.

After lunch back at the car, we started to make our way back east. We had hoped to have another go at finding another Little Owl on our way back, but having eased off earlier it now started to spit with rain again. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of any more owls still. We did find a big flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field beside the road and had a quick stop to look at them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field

When we got back to the coast, it stopped raining again, so we went back to the grazing marshes to see if any owls were coming out to hunt. As walked out on the seawall, we heard a Water Pipit call and looked down to see it feeding on the edge of a puddle where the reeds had just been cut. This time we had a good look at it through the scope, noting it pale off-white underparts with neat black streaking, and its prominent pale supercilium. A pair of Stonechats was feeding nearby too.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – feeding around a puddle in the recently cut reeds

It was getting late now, and the light was starting to fade. We could see a big flock of Brent Geese feeding out on the grass in the distance and watched as they took off and flew across the marshes, heading off to roost.

A Barn Owl appeared behind us. It flew in over the reeds, past us on the bank, and headed out across the grazing marshes. It was a noticeably darker bird than the one we had seen here this morning. It hunted for a minute or so around the edge of the reeds out in the middle, then headed off over the other side.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – a different bird, came out to hunt late this afternoon

It was getting late now. We already had a good haul of owls for the day, but there was one more still we wanted to try to see, so we headed inland again, and up to the woods. We walked through the trees and stood looking out over the grazing marshes as we waited for the light to fade. As we watched, several ducks flew in and landed down in the pools to feed, Mallard and Gadwall.

Then a Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. We walked back into the wood and it hooted again. We looked over in that direction and saw a large shape fly out, disappearing off through the trees, as the Tawny Owl came out of its roost and headed off for the night.

We walked down along a path to an area where we know another male Tawny Owl favours. We had a short wait, but after a while it finally appeared through trees, and perched high above us. We managed to get it in the scope, silhouetted against the last of the day’s light, and watched it hooting, turning round on the branch, looking down towards us.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – silhouetted against the last of the light, hooting

The Tawny Owl stayed in the trees above us for several minutes, hooting on and off, before eventually it took off and disappeared deeper into the wood. We could still hear it, hooting in the distance, as we walked back to the car. It was a great way to end a very successful day out, seeking owls.