Tag Archives: Water Rail

12th Oct 2017 – Autumn Extravaganza Day 1

Day 1 of a four day Autumn Tour today. It looks like we are set for some warmer weather, with southerly winds bringing mild air up from southern Europe by the weekend. It was already sunny today, and warm out of the slightly fresh SW wind. A lovely day to be out and about.

With the Red-necked Phalarope still lingering at Kelling, we headed straight round there first thing this morning. As we walked up the lane, there were lots of Blackbirds in the hedges, which flew off ahead of us. We flushed a couple of Song Thrushes and two Mistle Thrushes flew out of the bushes and away across the field towards Muckleburgh Hill too. It felt like a lot of migrants had come in overnight.

There were lots of Dunnocks along the lane too today, always hard to tell whether these are just local birds but it seemed like there were more than usual, so presumably some of these were migrants too. There were also finches feeding on the berries – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches in the hedges. A single Yellowhammer appeared with them briefly at one point. As we got to the copse, a couple of Siskin flew over calling and disappeared away to the west.

When we got down to the Water Meadow, we could see the Red-necked Phalarope straight away. It was hiding behind the island, so we set off towards the far corner, from where we would be able to see it. When we got to the cross track, we noticed a group of smaller waders feeding on the mud on the near edge of the water. There were three juvenile Curlew Sandpipers together with a couple of Dunlin, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see the Curlew Sandpipers were slightly larger, longer-legged and longer-billed, with cleaner, scaly upperparts and paler below.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshank – one of the two here, this photo taken a few days ago

A couple of Spotted Redshanks were feeding in the deeper water just behind the Curlew Sandpipers. One of the Spotted Redshanks was noticeably darker, a rather dusky bird, still pretty much in full juvenile plumage. The other Spotted Redshank was much paler, white below and paler grey above, but with the same dusky grey wings – another young bird which was already much more advanced on its way in its moult to 1st winter plumage.

At that point, the Red-necked Phalarope flew in to join them. It landed in the water by the Spotted Redshanks and started swimming in circles, stirring up the mud below and picking at the surface at anything which it managed to stir up. We had a great look at it through the scope, and then it started to work its way down to the front and along the edge of the vegetation just in front of us. The Red-necked Phalarope is still pretty much in full juvenile plumage, its dark upperparts with distinctive pale golden lines on the mantle and scapulars.

Red-necked PhalaropeRed-necked Phalarope – showed really well again today

There was a really nice selection of other waders on the Water Meadow today too. A couple of juvenile Ruff came down to join the Dunlin and Curlew Sandpipers at the front. Further back were a single Black-tailed Godwit, one Curlew and a lone Common Redshank. A Common Snipe was feeding unobtrusively on the front edge of the island and we looked across to the wet grass the other side and saw three more Common Snipe there too.

Continuing on round the Quags, a Reed Bunting perched up nicely in the brambles by the path. There was a good sized flock of Linnets feeding on the dried up pool out in the middle of the grass – occasionally they spooked and all flew around in a tight group. As we started to walk up the hillside behind the beach, a couple more small flocks of Linnets came west along the back of the beach, flying purposefully, so presumably migrants on the move. There were a few other birds moving today, most notably a couple of Rock Pipits which flew over us calling.

Looking towards the sea, we noticed a small falcon flying low and fast behind the bushes between us and the beach.  A Merlin! It continued out across the Quags, skimming just above the grass, at which point it flushed the big flock of Linnets. They all flew up in alarm and tried to climb up higher into the sky and the Merlin set off after them. We watched for several minutes as the Merlin swooped at them. It managed to separate one Linnet from the flock and the two of them towered higher into the sky, the Linnet trying to stay above the pursuing falcon. Whenever the Merlin dived at it, the Linnet just managed to evade it, but it was touch and go for a while before the Merlin finally gave up and flew on west. Exciting stuff!

At this point we noticed a message saying that four Common Cranes had just been seen flying west over Cley. This meant that they had probably already passed us by – most likely flying west along the ridge inland before dropping down to the coast as they usually do, rather than coming over us. We therefore were not expecting to see them as we raised our binoculars and scanned over the marshes to the east, but there they were. The Cranes were distant, but we could see their distinctive long-necked, long-legged silhouette through the scope as they turned. A real bonus!

A quick look out to sea, and we noticed a single Brent Goose flying past over the water, presumably just arriving back from Russia for the winter. Otherwise, there did not appear to be a lot moving out to sea today and it was quiet too past the gun emplacements, so we set off back down to the Water Meadow. We had heard a Stonechat earlier, and just caught a glimpse of it as it disappeared round behind the reeds, so it was nice to see a pair of them on the fence on the edge of the Quags on our way back past. A single Redpoll flew over calling and disappeared away to the west.

As we walked back past the Quags, we could hear a Bearded Tit calling. When we worked out where the sound was coming from, we could see it perched in the tops of the reeds, swaying in the breeze. From round on the cross track, we had a much better view – it was a female and it appeared to be on its own. It flew a short distance a couple of times and dropped down into the reeds, but each time quickly climbed back up to the tops and started calling.

Bearded TitBearded Tit – this lone female was down at the Quags today

The Bearded Tit appeared to be looking for more of its own kind. Some birds disperse away from their breeding reedbeds at this time of year, but they are more often seen in small groups. Eventually, after calling for a while to no avail, it took off, climbed into the sky and set off west.

We set off back up the lane. We heard the Yellowhammer calling again and, as we stopped to try to see it, a couple of Goldcrests came out of the same tree. We followed them up the lane, eventually getting a brief view of one at very close quarters in the hedge right next to us. A tit flock came down the lane the other way and we stopped to admire a couple of Long-tailed Tits. A Chiffchaff was feeding in the garden of the village school.

With the sun out, the raptors started to circle up. Two Common Buzzards appeared over Muckleburgh Hill and a third circled over our heads calling. It was quite warm along the lane now ,out of the wind. There were several butterflies out, Red Admirals, and dragonflies including lots of Common Darters and one or two Migrant Hawkers.

Common BuzzardCommon Buzzard – circled over the lane, calling

Our next destination was Cley, and before lunch we decided to have a look up along the East Bank. A Mute Swan and Coot on Don’s pool were additions to the day’s list, but the Aylesbury Duck with the Mallards did not count! Out on the grazing marshes the other side, we could see lots of Canada Geese loafing in the grass.

There were a few waders out on the grazing marshes and along the Serpentine too. We stopped for a closer look at a couple of Lapwing – stunning birds, particularly in the sunshine when their glossy green upperparts shone bronze and purple too. There were lots of Ruff – neat brown and buff juveniles, paler white and grey-brown adults, with males and females of very different sizes. A single Common Snipe was hard to see feeding in the wet grass until it ran across out in the open.

At the end of the Serpentine, a small flock of Black-tailed Godwits had gathered to feed, most up to their bellies in the water. The majority were in plain grey non-breeding plumage, but one still had extensive rusty feathering on its breast, the remainder of its summer attire.

RuffRuff – an adult and two juveniles

Several small skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew in from the east. We could hear their distinctive high-pitched yelping calls. There were a couple of Greylag Geese too – we could see their paler grey heads and large orange carrot bills.

There were more ducks out on the grazing marshes here. Most of the drakes are still in dull eclipse plumage, but increasingly some are starting to regain their smart breeding dress. The largest number were Wigeon, feeding out on the grass. There were quite a few Teal and Shoveler along the edges of the Serpentine too. Further back, we found first a female Pintail and then a couple of drakes which were starting to look smarter again. There were a few Gadwall sleeping in amongst the Canada Geese as well.

WigeonWigeon – there is a good number now out on the grazing marshes

A stop at the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh gave us a chance to sit down and get out of the breeze. There were more waders on here – more Curlew, Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, Ruff and Dunlin. Scanning through a group of Dunlin, we found a much paler, whiter wader in with them – a lone Sanderling. It had probably just stopped off here briefly on its journey.

A couple of Ringed Plover were hiding in the saltmarsh in the middle – we could just see their black and white heads sticking out. Further over, we found two Grey (aka Black-bellied!) Plover on the islands and, right at the back, a big flock of Golden Plover hunkered down too.

When all the waders flushed, we couldn’t see the cause at first. A few minutes later a Peregrine appeared, just as everything had started to settle down, and spooked them all again. It chased round after a big flock of Black-tailed Godwits first, then seemed to head back towards Salthouse, before we picked it up again over the beach, chasing a Redshank. Like the Merlin we had seen earlier, the Peregrine chased after the Redshank relentlessly for several minutes, swerving, climbing, stooping at it repeatedly and passing within what looked like millimetres of it, before we eventually lost sight of them.

Out at the beach, the sea looked fairly quiet still. We picked up a single Great Crested Grebe out on the water and a Razorbill or two as well. Two or three Gannets were circling out in the distance and periodically plunging into the sea. There did not appear to be much moving offshore, with a couple of Ringed Plover flying in off the sea being the highlight.

Time was getting on now, so we set off back to the car. There were several Little Egrets on the brackish lagoons and one fishing right down the front of Arnold’s Marsh. We could hear more Bearded Tits calling out in the reedbed, but they were keeping well tucked down today out the wind. Then it was back to the Visitor Centre for a late lunch.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding on the front of Arnold’s Marsh

After lunch, we headed out to the hides in the middle of the reserve. As we walked out along the boardwalk, a pair of Stonechats were perched on the fence posts on the edge of the reedbed. They would periodically flycatch out over the reeds, hovering before flicking back to one of the posts.

From Dauke’s Hide, we could see there were lots of birds on Simmond’s Scrape today. It didn’t take long to find our first target. Scanning carefully around the islands, we found several Little Stints. On our first count we got to nine, then shortly afterwards we got up to thirteen. They were mostly quite widely scattered, but when all the small waders flushed from time to time, they would bunch up together for a while after they landed. By the end, we had managed to count at least 18 Little Stints on here today, an impressive number.

Little StintsLittle Stints – two of at least 18 on here today, all juveniles

We got some of the Little Stints in the scope and had a closer look at them. We could see they were small, particularly when one walked past a Dunlin, which in itself is not a big wader, at which point they looked tiny! They were all juveniles – we could see their pale mantle braces and split supercilium.

There were three Curlew Sandpipers on here too, again all juveniles. They were feeding separately, but occasionally one or other of them would fly in with one of the little groups of Dunlin and land on the front edge of the nearest island, where we could get a really good look at it.

Curlew SandpiperCurlew Sandpiper – a juvenile, in front of a juvenile Dunlin

In with the Little Stints on the drier mud in the middle of the islands, there were a few Ringed Plovers too. At one point, a lone Knot appeared at the back briefly, with a single Dunlin and one of the Curlew Sandpipers. Otherwise, the waders on here were mostly more Ruff, along with a few Lapwing and one or two Redshank. We could hear Greenshank calling from time to time, but did not manage to see one on either of the scrapes. A Common Snipe was more obliging, feeding for a while in the grass on the far side of the channel in front of the hide.

We had heard a couple of Cetti’s Warblers singing earlier today, but as is typical they were keeping well hidden. So when one started calling just outside the windows of the hide, we didn’t really expect to see it, but there it was on the edge of the reeds. Unfortunately, it did not stay very long and quickly darted back into the reeds before everyone could get a good look at it, before flying across the channel and disappearing into the vegetation the other side.

Cetti's WarblerCetti’s Warbler – perched just briefly in the reeds right outside the hide

The Water Rail put on a better performance. The next time we glanced over towards the reeds just outside the hide, we noticed something moving at the base out of the corner of our eye. A quick look confirmed it was a Water Rail. It was well hidden in the reeds at first, but gradually came out into the open, picking its way furtively in and out of the vegetation.

It worked its way towards us and soon the Water Rail was right out in the open just outside the hide window. Stunning views and so close we almost had to zoom out to take a photo! It was nervous, but stayed out in view for several minutes before finally deciding it preferred the shelter of the reeds.

Water RailWater Rail – stunning views right outside the window of the hide

A while later, the Water Rail crept out of the reeds again. This time it picked around for a few minutes, gradually working its way out into the open, before starting to swim out through the open, cut vegetation towards the channel. It obviously didn’t fancy swimming right across the open water, because it suddenly took off and flew over to the other side, dropping into the reeds and squealing as it did so.

There are lots of Pink-footed Geese at Cley at the moment, unusually so for this time of the year. There were several thousand loafing around on the islands at the back of Simmond’s Scrape, and on the grazing marshes beyond. Periodically groups would fly in and out – it is amazing to watch and listen to the skeins of Pinkfeet as they fly in to join the throng.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – there were several thousand at Cley today

There had been no sign of any Marsh Harriers earlier today, but finally when the waders all scattered, we looked up to see a female flying past, over the scrape. We made our way to Avocet Hide next, and when just the small waders all took off again, we looked across to see a Sparrowhawk flying low over the grass at the back of the scrape, rounding off a very nice selection of raptors today.

We had hoped we might catch a few early gulls coming in to bathe on Whitwell Scrape before going to roost, although possibly given the sunny weather, birds would be slower to come in today. There were a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls dropping in and we could see a single young (1st calendar year) Common Gull and a Herring Gull in with the Black-headed Gulls.

Then it was time to make our way back. A few Collared Doves on the wires and a Stock Dove which flew off from the grazing marsh were the final additions to today’s list. We will see what tomorrow will bring!

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22nd Aug 2017 – Late Summer Birding

A Private Tour today for a visitor from India, so we went out looking for all the commoner species, as well as some of the more unusual ones. It was bright in the morning, even sunny at times, before clouding over a bit more in the afternoon, but thankfully it stayed dry all day.

The plan was to spend part of the day at Titchwell, but on our way there we turned inland to look for some farmland species first. We stopped at the start of a footpath, lined with overgrown hedges and brambles. As we got out of the car, we flushed a covey of Red-legged Partridges from the edge of the field. A Common Buzzard was calling and we looked over the fields to see one circling up out of the trees in the distance.

As we walked along the footpath, we could hear a Common Whitethroat and it flicked away ahead of us a couple of times before diving back into cover. A Yellowhammer was perched in the top of the hedge, but silhouetted against the sky and it dropped down out of view as we approached. Thankfully when we returned to the car, a smart yellow-headed male Yellowhammer had appeared in the top of the hedge right by the road. A Reed Bunting sat up nicely here for us too.

A little further along the road, a Eurasian Curlew flew past us as we drove along. We were just talking about how you can find large flocks feeding in the fields here when we passed the next hedge and found about twenty Curlew in a stubble field. Some smaller birds were running around just beyond them, very hard to see at first in the tall stubble. We stopped and wound down the windows for a better look and confirmed they were Eurasian Golden Plover. Some were still sporting the remains to their black summer underparts, to a greater or lesser extent.

Golden PloversGolden Plovers – very well camouflaged in the stubble

Carrying on towards Choseley, another Common Buzzard took off from a telegraph post by the road and glided away effortlessly ahead of us, while we stopped to look through a large flock of Black-headed Gulls and Herring Gulls. There were several (Northern) Lapwing in the field too. A little further on and  a family of Grey Partridge hopped out of the grassy verge and ran along the road ahead of us. Despite being only half grown, the youngsters had no problem flying over the hedge eventually.

A weedy strip along the edge of a field held a nice flock of finches, which flew up and landed on the wires so we could look through them. They were mostly Linnets, lots of brown, streaky females and juveniles, but with a few males still sporting their red breasts from the summer. There were several Goldfinches and a couple of Greenfinches with them too. Up at the drying barns there was quite a bit of disturbance – tractors, combine harvester and birdwatchers! – so we didn’t linger here and made our way on, down to Titchwell. Approaching the reserve, a few Common Swifts were hawking for insects over the fields beside the road.

As we got out of the car, we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees by the car park. We walked over for a closer look and found a mixed flock, with Blue Tits and Great Tits and a couple of Chiffchaffs in with them too. The first cars were starting to use the overflow car park, so it was not as quiet as it might have been, but we did still manage to see a couple of Blackcaps as they flew out of the brambles where they had been feeding. The Wood Pigeons were showing well around the car park as usual and were duly admired today – they are much harder to see in India apparently! A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over calling.

Long-tailed TitLong-tailed Tit – a mixed flock was feeding in the car park

The feeders by the visitor centre produced a few more common birds for the day’s list – a male Chaffinch hopped around under the bird table and a pair of Dunnocks few under the feeders. The resident Robins here were unusually reticent to come and perform today, although we did see one in the trees (they are usually hopping around under the picnic tables!). A Grey Squirrel on the feeders the other side of the visitor centre was also a source of interest.

As we walked out onto the reserve, a Wall butterfly was basking in the sunshine on one of the signs on the sea wall. We heard a Bearded Reedling (aka Bearded Tit!) calling from the reeds by the Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’, but despite waiting here for a couple of minutes, it didn’t show itself. A Marsh Harrier flapped up out of the reeds at the back before dropping back down and a Little Egret flew up from the other side of the reeds at the front and disappeared over the path behind us.

WallWall – basking on one of the signs on the sea wall

Other than a couple of Little Grebes, there were just a few Mallard on the reedbed pool, so we continued on towards Island Hide. Just before we got there, we stopped to listen to more Bearded Reedlings calling. Unfortunately one flew up out of the reeds just as we were looking in different directions and dropped in again too quickly for us both to get to see it. We decided we might have a better chance of seeing one on the edge of the reeds from the hide, so we continued on to there.

A few Common Teal were feeding on the mud right in front of the hide. Numbers are gradually increasing now, as they return here for the winter. Ducks in general are not looking their best at the moment, with all the drakes in drab eclipse plumage. The adult Shelduck have all left the UK and gone over to the Wadden See to moult, leaving behind all the duller juveniles, one of which was also dabbling in the mud by the hide.

ShelduckShelduck – a juvenile feeding on the mud in front of the hide

There were a few waders close to the hide too. At first, there were several Ruff here, the males already in winter plumage, having quickly lost their breeding plumage on their return. A Lapwing was a little further back on the edge of the mud too. We stopped a while to get some photographs of the various birds here.

RuffRuff – a winter plumage male in front of the hide

There are usually a few Avocets in front of the hide here and this is generally a good place to get photographs of them. At first today they were all much further over, but eventually our patience was rewarded when one came in and started feeding right in front of us, sweeping its bill from side to side across the surface of the wet mud.

AvocetAvocet – one eventually performed for us in front of the hide

There were other waders here, further out on the freshmarsh. Through the scope, we could see a good number of Black-tailed Godwits. A little group of Dunlin were feeding on the exposed mud along the edge of the reedbed, mostly streaky-bellied juveniles but a single adult was still sporting a solid black belly patch.

Four Spoonbills over the back of the freshmarsh were all asleep, but we eventually found a Bearded Reedling on the edge of the reeds, working its way along just above the mud, weaving in and out. We had a good view of it in the scope.

After our very productive photography session in Island Hide, we made our way round to Parrinder Hide next. We quickly located the two Common Snipe which we had been told were feeding by the fence on the edge of Avocet Island. A couple of the Spoonbills had woken up now, so we got a look at them through the scope before they went back to sleep.

A Meadow Pipit dropped in to bathe on the edge of the water just along from the hide. A careful scan through the Pied Wagtails feeding out on the islands produced a couple of Yellow Wagtails in with them.

The Volunteer Marsh looked quiet at first, but as we walked out towards the beach, we could see quite a few waders feeding along the banks of the channel at the far end. There were several Common Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits and half hidden down in the channel we managed to find a single Grey Plover, well camouflaged with its back to us against a background of grey mud. It was still mostly in summer plumage and, when it turned, we could see its black face.

Out at the beach, the tide was out. We walked down to the mussel beds to look through the waders. As well as lots of very noisy Oystercatchers, we could see quite a few Bar-tailed Godwits, with a couple of them still in bright rusty summer plumage. There were several Curlews and (Ruddy) Turnstones too. A juvenile Spoonbill out here on the mussel beds looked distinctly out of place!

Scanning along the beach, we found a couple of Sanderling running around on the sand in amongst the gulls, which included a few Great Black-backed Gulls for the day. In the distance, a line of (Great) Cormorants were drying their wings out at Thornham Point. A lone Fulmar circled overhead on stiff wings and made its way west along the shoreline, before a couple of distant Sandwich Terns flew past offshore and two adult Gannets flew back the other way a little bit closer in.

TurnstoneTurnstone – feeding along the high tide line

At the top of the beach, we stopped to watch a couple of Turnstones feeding along the high tide line. They were not turning stones today, but pulling and shaking at the dry seaweed to try to dislodge any invertebrates. A Whimbrel called from somewhere out to sea, but then went quiet.

We stopped briefly to talk to a couple of local birders scanning the sea and they kindly pointed us in the direction of a Common Scoter out on the water. It drifted across and was joined by a second. A couple of Great Crested Grebes were out on the sea too.

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit – a bright juvenile of the islandica subspecies

It was time for lunch now so we made our way quickly back. As we got to the freshmarsh, we could hear a Greenshank calling but didn’t see where it landed. A couple of juvenile Black-tailed Godwits were more obliging, feeding just below us along the edge of the reeds. Their bright rusty plumage confirmed they were of the islandica subspecies, which means they had just been born and raised in Iceland over the summer.

The Spoonbills commute in and out from the saltmarsh to feed and which we were walking back a couple of them flew back in, straight past us standing on the bank, giving us much closer views.

SpoonbillSpoonbill – flying back in from feeding out on the saltmarsh

On the walk back, a Cetti’s Warbler sang from the reeds briefly as we walked back but remained typically well hidden down in the vegetation. We heard a Common Sandpiper calling from the reedbed pool, but it remained out of sight, probably feeding around the muddy edges behind the reeds.

Then it was back for lunch in the picnic area, where one of the local Robins was a little more obliging than earlier in the day. A couple of Migrant Hawker dragonflies were hawking around the willows here too and a single Common Darter stopped to bask on one of the benches.

After lunch, a couple of Bullfinch were calling in the trees by the car park but went quiet before we got a chance to track them down. A quick visit to use the facilities revealed a nice selection of moths and other insects on the walls in the toilet block. They are attracted by the lights which are left on here overnight. A quick look at the moths revealed a Light Emerald, a Snout and a couple of Brimstone, accompanied by a Speckled Bush-cricket!

Light EmeraldLight Emerald moth – on the wall in the toilet block

For the first part of the afternoon, we wanted to explore the rest of Titchwell, Fen Trail and round to the Autumn Trail which is open at this time of year. A Jay was in the sallows along Fen Trail, hopping around above our heads, but otherwise the trees were rather quiet.

The surprise find along here was a Willow Emerald damselfly (also known as Western Willow Spreadwing) which was perched on the vegetation by the path. This species is a very recent colonist in the UK, from about 2007 in Norfolk, and has only started to occur in North Norfolk with any regularity in the last few years. Apparently there are still only a very few records from Titchwell!

Willow EmeraldWillow Emerald damselfly – still a rare species at Titchwell

The water levels on Patsy’s Reedbed are high now, so there were quite a few ducks out on the pool. They were mostly Gadwall and Mallard, but we also managed to find a single Tufted Duck and a couple of Common Pochard to add to the day’s tally. A careful scan around the edge of the reeds produced a Reed Warbler feeding low down at the water’s edge, before it or another flew up and started flycatching in the sallows in front of the viewing screen.

Stopping to look at a flock of finches in the dead trees by the paddocks, we noticed a couple of smaller birds chasing each other in and out of the hedge, two Lesser Whitethroats. Eventually they gave up chasing each other and one flew in and landed in the hedge much closer to us, before feeding on the blackberries, where we could get a good look at it.

Round at the end of Autumn Trail, we stopped to look out over the back of the freshmarsh. A single winter plumage Spotted Redshank was asleep over towards the Avocet Island fence, but there was no sign now of the Greenshank which had apparently been here earlier.

A careful scan along the edge of the reeds revealed a Water Rail picking its way across the mud, in and out of the vegetation. There were a couple of volunteers here who had just finished erecting some fence posts nearby and the Water Rail disappeared back into the reeds when they came over to try to see it. As soon as they left, it walked out into a gap in the reeds and stood preening for several minutes, so we could get a good look at it in the scope. Typical!

As we walked up to here, we had heard the distinctive ‘pinging’ call of Bearded Reedlings and we had had a quick glimpse of one as it flew up from the edge of the cut reed. When we heard more pinging calls just across the mud in front of us, we up to see two juvenile Bearded Reedlings perched in the top of the reeds just above the Water Rail. We didn’t know where to look! We had a great view of them through the scope.

Bearded TitBearded Reedling / Tit – perched up nicely in the reeds at the end of Autumn Trail

As we started to walk back, many of the Black-headed Gulls which had earlier been loafing on the freshmarsh were now hawking for insects, probably flying ants, over the reedbed. A smaller, dark shape dropped sharply out of the throng, a Hobby. It set off briefly after a Starling which was flying below, before giving up and flying back up into the mass of gulls where it also appeared to be catching insects.

We had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon at Holkham, so we made our way back to the car and headed back east along the coast road. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive we discovered that it was closed. ‘For operational reasons’ was the only explanation we could get from the parking attendant at the gate, despite the fact that there were still plenty of cars parked along the drive and the horse box and taxi in front of us were allowed in. They seem to be making an annoying habit of closing Lady Anne’s Drive at the moment!

A quick change of plan, and we made our way over to Wells beach car park instead,  in the hope of picking up some woodland birds in the pines. As we had hoped, at this time of day the car parks were already emptying and there were plenty of spaces. We walked in through the gates and past the boating lake, along the main path on the edge of the trees. It was fairly quiet at first here. The highlight was a juvenile Marsh Harrier hunting out over Quarles marsh. It was wearing a couple of bright green wing tags but was unfortunately too far off to read the codes.

We headed for the drinking pool in the hope we might be able to intersect with a tit flock and were almost there when we ran into a large flock of birds coming in the opposite direction. We heard the Long-tailed Tits coming first and quickly found ourselves surrounded by birds. There were lots of Coal Tits in the tops of the pines, so we got a good look at those first. There were good numbers of Blue Tits and Great Tits with them too.

When we heard a Treecreeper calling, we looked across to see one climbing up the trunk of a tree. It disappeared back onto another tree, before reappearing chased by a second Treecreeper and the two of them followed each other up another trunk. Then a Great Spotted Woodpecker appeared in the top of the pines above them. As the tit flock moved on back through the trees alongside the path, we followed them. As they crossed the path, we found a few Goldcrests in the flock too and with patience we got good views of them lower down in the trees.

When the flock moved further into the trees, we left them to it and walked on to the drinking pool. Perhaps not surprisingly, with all the birds heading in the opposite direction, it was quiet here now, so we went back and quickly picked up the tit flock again. It seemed to be heading out into a more open area now, so we followed. Some of the birds flew out into the scattered bushes in the open, while others were reluctant to follow, remaining in the birches. The flock seemed to stop here for a few minutes, unsure which way it was going, which gave us another chance to look through it.

A small lemon-yellow breasted bird appeared in the top of the birches with the tits, a juvenile Willow Warbler, perhaps bred locally or possibly a migrant on its way south already. Unfortunately, it was very hard to get onto in the birches, flitting around constantly and only showing itself briefly a few times. As the flock finally made up its collective mind and then turned to head back into the trees, we picked up three Blackcaps which flew out of the bushes behind the rest of the birds.

It was time to make our way back to the car now, but at least our mission here had been successful in adding some woodland birds to the list. A Jay flew out and hopped around on the path in front of us on the way,

JayJay – flew out onto the path on our walk back

It had been a very successful day with an excellent variety of birds seen, and several different butterflies, moths and dragonflies too. A great introduction to birding in the UK!

 

 

27th Feb 2017 – Seaducks, Divers & Grebes

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

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

6o0a8198Brent Goose – feeding in the harbour at Thornham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a8240Marsh Harrier – this male was displaying overhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a8275Yellowhammer – at least 60 in the flock today

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

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

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

6o0a8282Water Rail – lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a8332Shoveler – several were out on the Tidal Pools

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

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

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

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

img_1043Jack Snipe – feeding on the edge of the reedbed pool

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

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

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

24th Feb 2017 – Wildfowl, Waders & Larks

A Winter Tour today in North Norfolk. After Storm Doris had blown through yesterday (thankfully, with no tours arranged!), bringing gusts of up to 81mph, it was a welcome return to calmer conditions today. It was mostly cloudy, but we did enjoy some nice sunnier intervals later in the afternoon.

Our first stop was at Holkham. As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see large flocks of Wigeon still on the grazing marshes. It won’t be too long now before they will start to depart for their Russian breeding grounds.

6o0a7998Wigeon – still large flocks on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Most of the Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, although they will stop off in northern England or Scotland before continuing on their way to Iceland. However, there are still a few around and we managed to find a small party of Pink-footed Geese further over on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope, and we discovered there were a couple of White-fronted Geese with them too and a single Brent Goose.

Walking through the gap in the trees towards the beach, there were lots of small branches and leaves scattered over the path, the remnants of last night’s storm. We made our way east, along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. Out in the vegetation, we could see a small group of Brent Geese and Shelduck. Most of the geese were Dark-bellied Brents, the commonest subspecies here in winter, they breed in northern Russia. There is also a regular Black Brant hybrid here, the returning progeny of a vagrant Black Brant which had paired up with a Dark-bellied Brent Goose many years ago, this hybrid now comes back every year to the same place.

img_0920Black Brant hybrid – the regular returning bird, still with the Brent flock at Holkham

It didn’t take long to find the Black Brant hybrid in with the small flock of Brents. It has a noticeably whiter flank patch and more extensive collar, as well as being a touch darker above and on the belly than the accompanying Dark-bellied Brent Geeese. However, it is not quite dark or contrasting enough to match a pure Black Brant. It is always an interesting bird to see here.

As we walked along, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the saltmarsh, but it wasn’t until we got to the east end that we found the Shorelarks, in their regular spot. They are currently feeding mostly in the slightly taller vegetation, so can be hard to see. Thankfully we were able to find them before some other birders walked right through the area they were hiding.

img_0906Shorelark – still 29+ here, feeding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

We watched the Shorelarks for a while. At first, it looked like there were only 5-6 of them again, but gradually we spotted more creeping around in the sea lavendar seed heads. With their heads down, they were particularly hard to see, but occasionally a bright yellow face with black bandit mask would pop up out of the vegetation.

When a Common Buzzard drifted out from the pines and across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks all took off and only at that stage could we see how many there really were. They landed on a slightly more open sandy ridge and a quick count suggested there were 29, although we could easily still have missed one or two. Then they scuttled quickly back into cover.

We walked over to the dunes and had a quick look at the sea. It was still rather rough after yesterday, and there didn’t appear to be a lot visible today. We did find a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers feeding in the breakers. There were also lots of Oystercatchers and gulls on the beach, feeding on shellfish washed up after the storm, and several Sanderling were running in and out of the waves between them.

As we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, a small bird came zipping low across the saltmarsh and out towards the dunes. It was a Merlin. Often that is all you see of them, as they disappear off into the distance, but this one helpfully decided to land on a small Suaeda bush, where we could get a great look at it through the scope. It perched there for several minutes, before flying off over the dunes and away west over the beach. As we got back to the boardwalk, a Sparrowhawk was circling over the pines.

img_0932Merlin – perched up for us to get a great look at it

From Lady Anne’s Drive, we walked west on the inland side of the pines. A tree was down across the path and the wardens were in the process of clearing it with chainsaws. Despite the noise, we could hear Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits in the trees. Further along, a Treecreeper was singing. Salts Hole held a Little Grebe, a pair of Tufted Ducks, plus a few Coot and Wigeon. A Jay flew across, over the back of the water.

As we approached Washington Hide, we saw a Spoonbill fly up briefly, which appeared to drop down again, possibly onto one of the pools. We had a scan of the grazing marshes from the boardwalk by the hide, but couldn’t see it from there. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reedbed. Then the Spoonbill flew up again and disappeared off further west.

At Joe Jordan Hide, there didn’t seem to be as much activity as recent days at first. There was a scattering of commoner geese – Greylags, Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese – out on the grass. A small group of White-fronted Geese were feeding on the old fort, but as we sat and watched, a steady stream of small groups flew in and joined them, mostly from the other side of Decoy Wood.

6o0a8013White-fronted Geese – flying in to land on the grazing marshes

A juvenile Peregrine was standing by the edge of one of the pools further over, but took off just as we turned the scope onto it. It proceeded to have a go at most of the other birds in the vicinity, swooping down at ducks and geese, but didn’t really seem to know what it was doing. We also saw several more Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards from here – it is often a good spot for raptors.

Finally, we managed to find the Spoonbill. It was right out across the other side of the grazing marshes and feeding in a small pool. With its head down, it was impossible to see, but just visible occasionally as it lifted its head up. Thankfully, after a while it flew out and landed on the open grass where we could get a slightly better look at it. It was a juvenile, lacking the yellow bill tip and bushy crest of the adults. There was no sign of the other three Spoonbills today, or any Great White Egrets from here.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables over looking the grazing marshes. As well as the Wigeon still, there was a selection of waders out on the grassy pools, including Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew down out of the pines. After lunch, as we drove back towards the coast road, the Pink-footed Geese were now close to Lady Anne’s Drive so we stopped quickly for a better look.

6o0a8028Pink-footed Geese – nice views close to Lady Anne’s Drive after lunch

From the road, we pulled up to scan the other side of the marshes and quickly spotted a very tall white shape, a Great White Egret. We stopped and got the scope on it. Helpfully, there was a Grey Heron just next to it for comparison and we could see that the Great White Egret was as tall or even slightly taller! The long yellow-orange bill also really stood out.

img_0934Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Scanning across the marshes, we found a second Great White Egret, hiding in a reedy ditch. There were also lots more White-fronted Geese this side, which is why there were not so many visible from Joe Jordan Hide today. Amongst a flock of Lapwings and Starlings down on the wet grass, we found a little group of Ruff too.

As we made our way further west along the coast road, a shout from one of the group alerted us to a Barn Owl perched on a post right beside the road as we drove past. Never an easy place to stop, we managed to reverse back to it. It sat for a few seconds looking at us, but then flew a little further along as another car pulled up behind. Driving forwards very slowly, we were able to watch it only about 10 metres away from us. Stunning views! Eventually, the growing number of cars stopping to look seemed to spur it into action and it flew across the road and started hunting over the marshes.

6o0a8049Barn Owl – perched on a post right beside the road in the middle of the day

There has not been as much daytime Barn Owl activity this winter, which may reflect the generally mild and clement conditions we have enjoyed. It they are not hungry, then there is no need for them to hunt during the day. Presumably Storm Doris had made hunting very difficult yesterday and overnight, so this Barn Owl had come out to try to catch something during the day. We could see that it was ringed, but unfortunately couldn’t read the full number from photos. Many wild Barn Owls are ringed in the nest in North Norfolk.

After that unexpected bonus, we continued on to Titchwell, where we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon. The feeders round the visitor centre held a selection of the commoner finches and tits, but no sign of any Brambling today. The Water Rail put on a good show, feeding out in the open in the ditch by the main path, probing in the decaying leaves, seemingly unconcerned by the large lenses pointed at it.

6o0a8104Water Rail – still in the ditch by the path

The grazing meadow was rather quiet again but the reedbed pool did at least provide Common Pochard as an addition for the day’s list. The water levels on the freshmarsh have been slowly coming down and there was a nice selection of birds on here today.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived was the gulls. There were large numbers of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls loafing on the edges of the islands or in the shallow water. In with them were a few Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We had a scan through from Island Hide, but it was only from further up that a Mediterranean Gull was visible. It was an adult, with white wing tips and bright red bill, just moulting in to summer plumage, with white speckling still around the front of its jet black hood.

img_0949Mediterranean Gull – an adult moulting into summer plumage

There was still the usual variety of ducks on the freshmarsh. The Teal were looking particularly smart, in the afternoon sunshine, just below the path. Further over, we could see a selection of Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler and a pair of Pintail. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster, calling noisily, and landed on the water to bathe and preen.

6o0a8122Teal – a smart drake in the sunshine

Wader numbers on the freshmarsh are increasing now, in particular the number of Avocets, as birds return north. There were also more Black-tailed Godwits today, though mostly sleeping in amongst the gulls. A small group of Dunlin included a single Knot for comparison. Singles of Grey Plover and Turnstone had presumably flown in from the beach ahead of high tide. The fenced off Avocet Island at the back was packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing, with more small flocks of Golden Plover dropping in to join them all the time.

6o0a8190Curlew – on the Volunteer Marsh

There were more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. As well as more Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover, there were lots of Redshank and Curlew. A single Ringed Plover was a welcome addition to the day’s list. With high tide approaching, more waders were roosting on the Tidal Pools, particularly several Bar-tailed Godwits. This gave us a great opportunity to compare them to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding nearby. Even without seeing their respective tails, the buffier tones, black streaked upperparts, shorter legs and upturned bill all quickly distinguish the Bar-tailed Godwits.

6o0a8144Avocet – on the Tidal Pools

There were also more Knot and Redshank on the Tidal Pools, and several Avcoets feeding, including one close to the path.

We wanted to have a look at the sea, but there was not as much activity out here as there has been in recent weeks. There was still a big swell running, after the storm yesterday, and several of the ducks appeared to be quiet a way offshore. Fortunately, there was a nice group of about twenty Velvet Scoters close in, diving for shellfish. Several were holding their wings loosely folded, revealing the white wing flash as a stripe on their flanks. The face pattern is rather variable, particularly at this time of year, but it was possible to see the distinctive white spot at the base of the bill on some.

Helpfully, there was also a female Common Scoter with them for comparison, with a very extensive pale cheek and dark cap, and no white wing flash. There were more Common and Velvet Scoters in a larger raft much further out. A female Goldeneye drifted past in front of them, but most of the other Goldeneyes were a long way offshore today. A Fulmar flew past too.

Back at the Tidal Pools, we stopped to look again at a group of roosting waders, particularly with Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit side by side. But a scan further along revealed that a Spotted Redshank had flown in while we were out at the beach. We walked back and had great views of it feeding in the shallows not far from the path. With a Common Redshank nearby for comparison, we could see that the Spotted Redshank was noticeably paler, more silvery grey above and whiter below, with a longer and finer bill and a better marked, brighter white supercilium.

6o0a8170Spotted Redshank – had flown in to the Tidal Pools while we were on the beach

As we passed the freshmarsh on our way back, the Golden Plovers and Lapwings all spooked, They took off and whirled round in flocks overhead, the Golden Plovers particularly tight packed. We couldn’t see anything which might have alarmed them, although they had been jumpy all afternoon, and they quickly settled back down again.

6o0a8192Golden Plovers – whirling around over the freshmarsh

A quick look down along one of the reedy channels in the reedbed revealed a Kingfisher, perched up on a reed along the edge. We had a quick look at it through the scope, before another bird spooked it and it flew off across the reeds. We looked back to see a second Kingfisher had appeared, presumably having chased off the first. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home.

18th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, and we spent the day in North Norfolk. It was forecast to be dull and cloudy all day, but thankfully we were treated to some long spells of sunshine, great winter weather to be out birding. There was still a bit of a chill in the brisk SW wind though – it is February after all!

As we made our way down towards the coast, a Red Kite circled lazily through the trees beside the road. We flushed a Common Buzzard out of the trees too, as we stopped, which flew away across the fields. A dead Brown Hare lay on the tarmac, which was obviously being eyed up by the local raptors. We watched as the Red Kite turned over the trees, twisting its tail like a rudder, before it too reluctantly drifted away, leaving behind its potential meal.

Our first destination was Holkham. There were lots of ducks on the pools alongside Lady Anne’s Drive – Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal. However, there were no Pink-footed Geese here today. Numbers of geese are now falling as the birds have started to make their way back north again after the winter.

Parking at the north end of the road, we made our way out through the pines and onto the saltmarsh. There were several birders making their way back along the sandy path who told us that our quarry was ahead. Shorelarks. The birds had been harried and chased around by a photographer, who was just leaving as we arrived, and they were rather skittish and unsettled initially.

They had been mostly keeping to the longer vegetation but when the Shorelarks were flushed by a loose dog and its associated walker, they flew round calling and landed on a more open area. We got them in the scope from a distance at first, and admired their canary yellow faces with black bandit masks, bright in the morning sunshine.

6o0a7241Shorelarks – their bright yellow faces catching the morning sun

6o0a7181Shorelarks – around 30 were still at Holkham this morning

The Shorelarks flew round again and settled near the path. We positioned ourselves nearby and waited patiently, rather than chasing in after them. Gradually, a small group, four of them, came out of the taller sea purslane towards us and started picking at the seedheads of the saltmarsh vegetation in front of us. We enjoyed some great close up views through the scope of them feeding. The poor Skylark singing its heart out in the sky high overhead was all but ignored until we realised that we could listen to one and watch the other, and enjoy both.

6o0a7266Shorelark – came to us as we waited patiently

The Shorelarks are winter visitors to the coast here, in very variable numbers. In recent years, only a very small number have typically made it here, but this winter has seen a resurgence. Early on in the winter, 70-80 were here at Holkham but they have now dispersed along the coast a little. Still, it was a real treat to see a flock of 30 here today.

After watching the Shorelarks for a while, we made our way over to the dunes and had a look out to sea. A drake Red-breasted Merganser we got in the scope was asleep but a drake Goldeneye was awake, its glossy green head catching the sunlight. Several Great Crested Grebes were mostly rather distant, but a winter plumage Red-throated Diver was diving just off the beach. Between dives, everyone eventually got a really good look at it through the scope.

After a great start to the morning, we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive. The lure of a hot drink at the coffee van proved too strong and we drank it by the picnic tables looking out over the marshes. There was a lot of action here. As well as all the Wigeon and Woodpigeons, a pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding out on the grass, amongst the molehills. The sunshine had brought the raptors out and at least four Common Buzzards circled over us.We had failed to find any Pink-footed Geese on the grass by the drive earlier, but a flock of about 50 flew in from the west and landed on the marshes, though unfortunately behind a hedge where we couldn’t get a clear look at them.

6o0a7274Common Buzzard – several circled over Lady Anne’s Drive in the sunshine

Three large white shapes circled up out of the trees in the middle of the marshes. With their long necks held outstretched in front and long legs trailing behind, we could see they were Spoonbills. They dropped down into the trees, but a few minutes later were up and circling again. They repeated this a couple of times more. The UK’s only colony of Spoonbill breed here so these were early returning birds presumably checking out the colony. Spring is definitely in the air!

We made our way round to the other end of the freshmarsh, closer to the trees, and it wasn’t long before the Spoonbills were up and circling again. We had a much improved view of them from here. Even better, when they landed back in the trees at one point, one was in view so we managed to get it distantly in the scope. We could see the yellow tip to its black spoon-shaped bill, confirming that it was an adult Spoonbill.

6o0a7322Spoonbills – early returning birds checking out the colony

Another large white bird out in the middle of the freshmarsh was a Great White Egret. Even without binoculars, we could see it was huge, with a long neck. Through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill. There were also three Ruff feeding out on the grass around one of the pools. Several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards circled in the sunshine or perched around in the trees.

6o0a7339Marsh Harrier – a female, circling above the marshes

The other highlight here was the geese. Scattered across the grass, mixed in with the Greylags, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese. Smaller and darker than the Greylags, through the scope we could see their more delicate pink bills with distinctive white surrounds to the bases. We could also see the distinctive black belly bars on the adult White-fronted Geese. They should be on their way back north soon, back to northern Russia where they breed.

img_0760White-fronted Geese – there were still a good number at Holkham today

From here, we also finally managed to find some Pink-footed Geese on the ground and in view. There were just two of them, but they were handily with a couple of Greylags for comparison. Again, the Pink-footed Geese were smaller and darker, particularly dark on the head and neck, with a more delicate dark bill. Through the scope we could see the pink legs and pink bank around the bill. There were also a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the grass, just to round off the goose selection nicely.

Leaving Holkham, we made our way west. Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe, where the tide was on its way out. There was a nice selection of waders feeding around the harbour. We had a good look at some Bar-tailed Godwits, noting the dark streaks on their pale buff-coloured upperparts an the long but slightly uptilted bill.

6o0a7360Bar-tailed Godwit – showed well at Brancaster Staithe

Lots of Turnstones and several Oystercatchers were picking around the piles of discarded mussels on the shoreline. A couple of Grey Plovers were picking around on the mud, and a group of smaller Dunlin were feeding feverishly in the shallow water.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at Titchwell, so we made our way to the picnic area. We had been intending to sit at the picnic tables, but we didn’t get a chance! First of all, we heard a Goldcrest singing and walked over to see it flitting around in the bare sallows right by the path. There were lots of Goldfinches twittering high in the alders and then a pair of Siskin appeared with them. The male fed in the top of one of the trees in the sunshine for a minute or so, where we could get a good look at it.

Then one of the group spotted another bird in the top of the same alder. It was hanging on one of the outer branches, picking at the cones. It was much paler and browner, and when it turned to face us we could see that it had a small red patch on its forehead and a bright pinkish red wash across its breast. A Mealy Redpoll and a smart male too. When it climbed around reaching for the cones, we could see it had a distinctive pale whitish rump streaked with black.

6o0a7398Mealy Redpoll – feeding in one of the alders opposite the picnic area

After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. We had a quick look at the feeders the other side of the visitor centre, but at first there were no birds. Gradually, they started to reappear – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. Finally a Brambling flew in and joined them. It was a female, with greyish head and a pale orange wash across the breast and shoulders contrasting with the white belly.

6o0a7430Brambling – a female on the feeders by the visitor centre

On the walk out along the main path, we had a quick look in the ditches either side but could not see a Water Rail – we resolved to have another look on the way back. The grazing meadow dry ‘pool’ was rather quiet again, but the reedbed pool the other side held a small group of Common Pochard, along with the regular Mallards and Coot. We stopped to have a look around the reeds. There had been a Bittern feeding in one of the channels yesterday, but there was no sign of it this afternoon. However, we did find a Kingfisher perched in the edge of the reeds.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still rather high, although a few small islands have started to reappear. This is continuing to prove popular with the wildfowl, and there were good numbers of Teal on here still today, as well as a selection of Shoveler, Gadwall and Wigeon. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from over towards Brancaster and dropped in for a wash and a drink.

The number of Avocets is now starting to increase again. They were mostly sleeping by one of the smaller islands, until everything was spooked and they flew round flashing black and white as they twisted and turned. A small group of Knot and Dunlin were bathing on one of the other small islands. The larger fenced-off island was absolutely packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing.

6o0a7468Avocets – numbers are increasing again as birds return after the winter

The mud on the Volunteer Marsh is proving a more attractive feeding ground for waders and there was a nice selection on here again today. A lone Ringed Plover looked very smart in the scope, with the black and white rings around its head and neck. A Grey Plover was looking very pale in the sunshine. There were lots more Knot and Dunlin on here, plus a few Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit.

As we made our way over to the bank at the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, one of the group spotted a Water Rail scuttling into the vegetation right below the bank. We waited and eventually it showed itself again briefly. We thought it might work its way all the way along beneath us, but when it came to a more open area it stood lurking in the vegetation for a couple of minutes before thinking better of it and heading back in the better hidden direction from whence it came.

6o0a7478Water Rail – lurking in the bushes on the edge of the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, there were a couple of nice close Black-tailed Godwits. Conveniently, a Bar-tailed Godwit was also nearby, giving us a chance to compare the two. We could see the buffier upperparts of the latter, extensively streaked with black, compared to the plainer, duller grey Black-tailed Godwit. The Bar-tailed Godwit was also noticeably smaller and shorter legged, with a distinct upturn to its bill compared to the straighter billed Black-tailed Godwit.

6o0a7489Black-tailed Godwit – showing very well on the Tidal Pools

Next stop was the beach. As soon as we came through the dunes, we could see a huge raft of scoter out on the sea, several thousands strong. It looked like a massive black oil slick across the water. Periodically, parts of the raft would take off and fly a short distance and in flight we could see that the vast majority of these birds had all black wings, making them Common Scoter.

Closer in, we could see some smaller rafts of scoter and through the scope we could see they were made up of a nice mixture of Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter, including at least 30 of the latter. Several of the Velvet Scoter were conveniently holding their wings loosely folded, which meant that we could see the white wing patch as a white stripe across their sides. Others had more distinctive twin white spots on their faces, very different from the pale cheeks of the female Common Scoter.

Two Long-tailed Duck flew across and landed on the sea next to one of the closer scoter rafts. We managed to get them in the scope, but they were hard to see against the water, which was also a bit choppier now than it had been this morning. While we were trying to get everyone to get a look at them, they flew again and disappeared.

It is very mild at the moment for February, but out of the sun in the lee of the dunes, and with the chill in the wind, several of the group were getting cold. With the sun already starting to sink in the sky, we decided to call it a day and make our way back.

There were still some more things to see. Scanning along the channel on the north edge of the Volunteer Marsh, a much paler wader caught our eye. It was a Spotted Redshank in silvery grey and white winter plumage. It walked across the mud and dropped down into the deep channel in the middle. Thankfully we picked it up again walking towards us in the channel and then it climbed out again onto the mud.

As we walked past the freshmarsh, all the waders took flight. They seemed to be especially jumpy this afternoon. We stood and watched the Golden Plover and Lapwing wheeling in the sky over the water, and then a large group of Golden Plover flew towards us and right overhead – we could hear the beating of their wings.

We had failed to find the Water Rail in the ditch by the path on the way out, but on our way back it was feeding down in the bottom, under an overhanging tree. We got a good look at it through the branches, probing around in the rotting leaves. A nice way to end the day, then it was back to the car and time to head for home.

11th Feb 2017 – More Owls & More

Another Owl Tour today. The weather forecast was not ideal for owls – cold, cloudy and windy with the risk of snow showers! Thankfully, once again it was not as bad as forecast and we had a great day. We managed to find some owls and some other good birds besides.

We started with a drive round to see if we could find some Barn Owls still out hunting, but with the conditions it was perhaps no surprise to find that they had already gone in to roost. At one brief stop two Stock Dove flew past, we flushed a Little Egret from a wet meadow and listened to Greylag Geese flying inland honking. A little further along and we could see a large skein of several hundred geese flying towards us over the fields. Pink-footed Geese presumably looking for a recently harvested sugar beet field on which to feed. We pulled over and listened to them as they flew overhead, their distinctive higher pitched yelping calls very different from the Greylags we had heard earlier.

6o0a6356Pink-footed Geese – a large skein flew over the road calling

Making our way further inland, we headed for one of our regular Little Owl spots. It didn’t take long to find our first Little Owl, perched up in a sheltered spot on the roof of one of the farm buildings. It was a long way off, so we drove along the road for a slightly closer look. We could see it better from here but it was still some way away, a little ball of feathers fluffed up against the cold.

A short distance down a footpath, we made our way round to the back of some other farm buildings which are more sheltered. Sure enough, here we found another two Little Owls, a little closer still. They too were hunched up under the roof of a barn. One of them did fly out onto the roof at one point, but clearly thought better of it and headed back quickly to where it had been tucked up out of the wind.

On our way back to the car, we disturbed a Brown Hare, which ran across the path in front of us at high speed and disappeared into the trees. A stubble field nearby held a nice flock of Curlew, all but invisible until they flew round. A group of Lapwing flew inland from the direction of the coast.

Carrying on our drive westwards, we stopped briefly at another couple of sets of barns, which we know are occupied by both Little Owls and Barn Owls. Given the weather, it was perhaps not a great surprise that no owls were perched out here today. We did see some nice farmland birds on our drive. A covey of Red-legged Partridges next to the road were accompanied by a pair of Grey Partridges – always nice to see. Several Kestrels were perched on posts or wires, looking down from there for food rather than hovering this morning. And we saw several more Brown Hares, although they were mostly hunkered down in the fields.

6o0a6364Grey Partridge – a pair were by the road with a covey of Red-legged Partridges

A little further on, we had hoped to catch up with a flock of geese in a recently harvested sugar beet field, where they have been feeding for the last few days. However, when we got there, we couldn’t find any sign of them. We thought they might be loafing in another field further back, so we drove round there to have a look, only to find a long line of twenty or more men with shotguns strung out across the landscape. Perhaps it was no surprise that we couldn’t find any geese today! With the shooting season for most game having closed at the beginning of this month, they were shooting Brown Hares. We could see that many of them had dead Hares hanging from their waists. Sad to see such beautiful animals like this.

With the morning getting on, we decided to head for Titchwell to do some more general birding and resume our search for owls later. As we set off from the car to head for the visitor centre, one of the group asked about the Woodcock which has been seen recently by the path here. Often it is further back in the trees out of view, but today we were lucky. Just as we were talking about it, we glanced into the bushes and there was the Woodcock less than 10 metres from the path!

6o0a6419Woodcock – great views, feeding by the path at Titchwell

The Woodcock was feeding actively, walking about among the branches and probing its long bill into the wet leaves looking for earthworms and other invertebrates. They are surprisingly large, chunky birds, with very intricate patterning which provides great camouflage. Against the rather dark brown rotting leaves here, this Woodcock’s rusty colouration meant it rather stood out! We watched it for a while as it worked its way further back into the trees and disappeared from view. Given Woodcock are mainly nocturnal, it was great to see one so well, a rare treat.

The feeders by the Visitor Centre held a nice selection of finches, mainly Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. But in amongst them we managed to find a single female Brambling, which kept flying out of the bushes behind and hovering by one of the feeders, but it seemed reluctant to land. We scanned the alders for redpolls, but all we could find in the trees today were more Goldfinches and Greenfinches.

The Water Rails were more obliging. As we got out onto the main path, one was feeding in the ditch straight ahead of us. We had a great look at it as it walked around nervously out in the open, probing in the dead leaves. A little further along, a second Water Rail was in the ditch on the other side of the path briefly.

6o0a6441Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the path again

Out of the shelter of the trees, there was a keen cold breeze, so we made our way quickly along the path. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed at the back of the still dry Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’. The Water Pipit appeared briefly out of the ditch along one side, but flew off behind the reeds before everyone could get onto it. Otherwise, it was very quiet on here again today. The reedbed pool held a single Tufted Duck and a few Mallard.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still rather high, but has now dropped a fraction. We made our way straight round to Parrinder Hide to scan from the comparative warmth inside! There was a nice selection of winter ducks on here today, including several Pintail sleeping in front of the hide. Through the scope, we could see the drakes’ long, pin-shaped tails.

6o0a6460Pintail & Wigeon – sleeping on the freshmarsh

A single Bar-tailed Godwit was bathing on the edge of the mud, and then flew across to join the ducks in the shallower water and preen. A single Black-tailed Godwit dropped in nearby too, and we were able to get a good comparison looking between them  and see the key differences between these rather similar species in winter plumage. A few Knot flew in too and in with them we found a single Ruff (a female, or Reeve), similar sized but longer legged and with distinctive scaly-patterned upperparts.

The thirteen over-wintering Avocet have returned to the freshmarsh, now that the water level has dropped a little. The fenced off island was covered with roosting Lapwing and in one corner were several Golden Plover which had obviously just been bathing and were now preening and flapping. While we watched, another large flock of Golden Plover flew in from the fields and dropped in to join them.

From the other side of Parrinder Hide, we had a look out across the Volunteer Marsh. There was a nice selection of waders in front of the hide here. Several dumpy grey Knot were feeding on the mud just below the windows with a few smaller and browner Dunlin nearby for comparison. A Grey Plover was hard to pick out against the mud until it moved. There were also several Curlew and Redshank.

6o0a6483Knot – in grey winter plumage

Having warmed up in the hide, we decided to make a quick dash out to the beach. On the way, we stopped briefly to admire a Black-tailed Godwit on the mud just below the path on the Volunteer Marsh and a couple of close Little Grebes on the near edge of the tidal pools.

6o0a6507Little Grebe – on the tidal pools

There was a chill in the north-easterly wind out on the beach, so we didn’t want to stay out there long. The tide was out but we had a quick look at the sea from the edge of the dunes. About 30 Velvet Scoter were diving just offshore, hunting for shellfish. We could see the twin white spots of the females, although the young males with them are now looking mostly dark headed. We could see the white in the wings, visible on the flanks of several which were holding their wings loosely and on others as they flapped. The Common Scoter were much further out, probably about 2,000 today, visible as a long black slick spread out across the water.

While we were watching the Velvet Scoter, a couple of Long-tailed Ducks appeared with them briefly. We just had time for a quick look at them through the scope, before they flew off. There were also a few Goldeneye and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser out on the sea today. Then, with the group starting to get cold, we made a quick turnaround and walked back.

After finishing lunch back at the car (the first sitting had been held in Parrinder Hide), we set off again. It was still a bit early for owls, so we had a quick look in the harbour at Thornham first. There was no sign of the Twite here today, but we did find a few waders in the channel – including Black- and Bar-tailed Godwit and Curlew. A very obliging pair of Brent Geese fed on the tiny strip of saltmarsh between the road and the boats.

6o0a6535Brent Goose – one of a very obliging pair at Thornham today

A quick look in at Brancaster Staithe produced a few more waders. The highlights were a few Turnstone and Oystercatcher feeding around the piles of discarded mussels. Several Goldeneye were diving down in the harbour channel. Then, with the afternoon progressing, we made our way back west to look for owls again. We stopped off at several regular Barn Owl sites on the way, but with the weather as it was it always seemed unlikely we would encounter too many out hunting before dark. We would need a bit of luck!

There were no Barn Owls out yet at Holkham either. We scanned the freshmarsh for geese too, but all was quiet here apart from a Grey Heron. There are still good numbers of White-fronted Geese here normally, but there was no sign here today. A few hundred metres further down the road we found out why – they were all in a field beside the road! We pulled up with our hazard lights on and had a look at them from the car so as not to flush them. There were more than a hundred White-fronted Geese here, we could see the white around their bills and black belly-barring on the adults, along with a few Greylags.

6o0a6554White-fronted Geese – over a hundred were next to the road at Holkham

A little further along, we found a single Egyptian Goose  in the same field and at Lady Anne’s Drive we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese out on the grass. The wind had picked up and it was quite blustery on the coast, so we decided to continue our search inland. We stopped at a set of barns where a pair of Barn Owls roost, but there was no sign of them out hunting yet today, despite it being around the time they usually emerge.

We drove on, round via several more sites where Barn Owls like to hunt. We had just checked out one grassy field, without success, and were driving away when we happened to glance over and caught a glimpse of a white shape through the trees. Reversing carefully, we pulled up in a gateway and could see it was indeed a Barn Owl on a post.

6o0a6573Barn Owl – on a post

There was a convenient path we could walk along to overlook a rather overgrown field which was sheltered on all sides by a belt of trees. From here, we had a great view of the Barn Owl perched on a fence post. Given the wind, it was probably trying to hunt by sight, and it worked its way down along the fence line in short hops, stopping each time to scan the ground below.

Then a second Barn Owl appeared, flying over the field at the back. It landed in a tree further over. While we were watching it, the first Barn Owl then started to hunt more actively, circling round over the field, dropping down into the tall grass from time to time. It came much closer, hunting round into the corner of the field closest to us, great to watch. Eventually, it retreated to the trees where it perched and the second Barn Owl started to hunt over the grass. We watched them both for some time, leaving them only when both had disappeared into the trees to rest.

6o0a6596Barn Owl – eventually started hunting over the field in front of us

These two Barn Owls had obviously found a sheltered field to hunt, which was why they were out here today and showed no inclination to go anywhere else. Great for us. It was already getting on towards Tawny Owl time, but we had a quick swing round via some other meadows where there are often Barn Owls, without further success.

We arrived at the woods just in time. As we got out of the car, we could already hear a Tawny Owl hooting, earlier than normal tonight, possibly due to the grey and overcast skies meaning the light was fading fast. We made our way quickly down to the area where we know one of the Tawny Owls likes to roost, just in time to hear it hooting from the roost trees. At least this meant we knew roughly where it was going to emerge tonight.

After a couple more hoots, the Tawny Owl flew out of the trees and straight towards us. It normally likes to perch up further back first, but perhaps because of the wind, it came further through the trees. It landed on a perch not far from us, but was hard to see against the dark background of ivy-covered trunks. Before we could get it in the scope it took off again, possibly surprised by our presence, and disappeared back into the trees. Then it went silent.

The other Tawny Owls had stopped hooting too, and it seemed for a few minutes like that might be it for tonight. We tried a quick whistled hoot, but got no response. The trees were quiet, but for the raucous coughing of the many Pheasants going to roost in the trees. We were about to give up, but tried one more whistle. Without a sound, a large dark shape came out of the trees behind us and flew over our heads. The Tawny Owl was back!

I had disappeared back into the trees again, but after a few seconds it flew back out and landed in a tree right above us. Once again, the Tawny Owl was frustratingly hard for the group to get onto here, against the ivy in the gloom, despite the fact that it was only a few metres above us. We tried to get it in the scope, but before we could it was off again. Thankfully, this time it flew across the path and landed in a bare tree, silhouetted against the sky. Now everyone could see it. It perched there for some time hooting, before flying back through the trees towards us and landing above us again. Fantastic stuff!

6o0a6632Tawny Owl – perched above our heads, hooting at dusk

The Tawny Owl remained above us hooting for a couple of minutes. At one point it flew across the path, right over our heads, to a tree the other side. It was great to see it overhead, to get a real sense of its large size and broad, rounded wings. Eventually, it dropped back into the trees and was lost to view. It was getting dark as we made our way back to the car, but we still had the evocative hooting of the Tawny Owls from the trees to listen too, a great way to end another very successful Owl Tour.

 

 

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.