Tag Archives: Water Rail

24th Mar 2018 – Coast & Brecks Weekend #1

Day 1 of a two day weekend of Bird Tours. Today was to be spent on the North Norfolk coast looking for lingering winter visitors and any early spring migrants. The weather was meant to be grey and cloudy, perhaps misty, with a chance of light rain. It was certainly the former, though we missed the latter, and we did even have a bit of sunshine at one point instead!

The winter thrushes are on the move at the moment, starting to make their way back north. On our drive down towards the coast, we saw a large flock of Redwings come up out of the trees in one of the river valleys.  A pair of Stock Doves were displaying over some old barns, hopefully a sign that spring is on its way. A pair of Bullfinches flew across the road, flashing their white rumps.

Our first stop was at Cley. We planned to have a walk up along the East Bank and see if any more birds were moving along the coast today. There were plenty of geese and ducks still out on the grazing marshes – the Wigeon, Teal and Brent Geese will all be leaving us soon, but the Greylags and Shelduck may stay to breed here.

A Marsh Harrier circled up distantly over Pope’s Marsh but we got nice views of a second one perched in a bush in the middle of the reedbed, a rather pale female. When we heard ‘pinging’ calls from the reeds along the ditch just below the bank, we looked down to see several Bearded Tits edging up the stems.

Bearded Tit 1

Bearded Tit – showed very well in the reeds from the East Bank

It was a lovely still morning, so the Bearded Tits put on a great performance for us. They would drop down deeper into the reeds but repeatedly climbed up again and perched in the tops giving fantastic views. There were at least six of them, including several smart males with powder grey heads and black moustaches. They are neither really bearded, nor actual tits – Moustachioed Reedling would perhaps be a better name!

They are great to watch as they clamber around in the reeds. Bearded Tits’ legs can stretch in all directions to cling on to the stems – they must be triple jointed!

Bearded Tit 3

Bearded Tit – this male was doing the splits!

There were a few waders on the muddy margins of the pools on the grazing marsh. A couple of Ringed Plovers were accompanied by two Dunlin out on a more open area. Two Common Snipe were busy probing in the mud along one of the grassier edges. A group of five Black-tailed Godwits flew in from the pools by the hides and over our heads, flashing their black and white wings. A couple of Ruff dropped in at the back, on Pope’s Pool, where we had a look at them in the scope. They are not yet getting their elaborate neck ‘ruffs’.

Avocet numbers are really building up now, ahead of the breeding season, and there were quite a few on Pope’s Pool today. The Redshank are already starting to display, calling and song flighting. When a flock of Lapwings flew in and dropped down onto the grazing marshes, it seemed to prompt one or two of the locals to start to display. We stood and watched an impressive performance from one Lapwing which twisted and tumbled in front of us over the edge of the reedbed.

Lapwing

Lapwing – put on an impressive display over the reedbed

There were lots more waders out on Arnold’s Marsh, where the water level has dropped nicely. We could see lots of Dunlin in the shallow water, along with a good number of Redshank, a few Curlew and more Avocets. Two Oystercatchers were asleep at the front. Scanning through carefully, we found two Turnstones on one of the gravel spits busy turning stones over and a couple of Grey Plover, still in grey non-breeding plumage.

On the brackish pools the other side of the path, we found out first Little Egret of the day. A smart pair of Pintail were busy upending out in the middle of the water nearby. A Curlew was catching the morning light. Further up, behind the beach, a couple of Meadow Pipits were busy displaying, fluttering up and parachuting down, though one of them had the sound turned off!

Curlew 1

Curlew – catching the morning light on the brackish pools

There was no sign of any migrants moving along the coast today, despite the mild weather. The sea was very calm and very quiet too, although it was a bit misty still looking out over the water. We decided to head back – with a smart male Reed Bunting perched up in the top of the reeds distracting us briefly on the way.

As we got back to the road, we were told that a Spoonbill was on the pool from Babcock Hide, so we walked round to have a look. A quick scan from the path, and we could see it was fast asleep at the back, behind a line of reeds, so we didn’t stop at the hide.

Our next destination was Holkham.  As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped to look at a pair of Egyptian Geese out on the grass. We noticed a Common Buzzard was on the ground nearby, busy ripping into something it had presumably just killed. The Egyptian Geese walked straight past it, as did a pair of Greylags approaching from the opposite direction. A little further on, we spotted a pair of Grey Partridge in the grass on the edge of one of the ditches.

Parking at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive, there were lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes still, busy feeding on the grass accompanied by a few Black-tailed Godwits and Curlews. A lone Brent Goose was out on the meadow the other side, presumably a sick or injured bird which has been left behind by the flock. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering in the distance.

Wigeon

Wigeon – on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive

We headed out towards the beach first, turning east along the edge of the saltmarsh. There were lots of people here today and dogs running around everywhere we went. A couple of Skylarks were singing overhead, but there was no sign of the Shorelarks today. Everywhere we went to look for them, we found people clambering in the dunes or dogs running around, but it may be that they have departed already. A Woodcock was a nice bonus from our walk out here. Presumably flushed from somewhere deep in the trees, it flew across the north edge of the pines before cutting back in further along.

When we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, it was time for lunch, so we made good use of the picnic tables and enjoyed the view. We watched a Great White Egret fly in from away to the west and it appeared to land in front of Washington Hide, so we made our way over that way after we had eaten.

The trees were pretty quiet at first – not even a Chiffchaff in and singing yet. At Salt’s Hole a Little Grebe was hiding in the reeds and a female Tufted Duck was asleep. A Treecreeper was singing nearby. Further along, we found some Goldcrests and Coal Tits in the holm oaks and eventually came across a flock of mostly Long-tailed Tits, although they shot through very quickly into the pines.

There was no sign of the Great White Egret now on the pool in front of Washington Hide – just a few more Tufted Ducks and a lone female Common Pochard – so we carried straight on to Joe Jordan Hide. Unfortunately there were several people in there already, who had spread themselves out or were eating their lunch, so there wasn’t a lot of room for us.

There were a few geese feeding on the grass on the old fort, so we got them in the scope. Most of the Pink-footed Geese have gone back north already, so it was nice to see about 15 here, although their pink feet were hard to see in the long grass! Four (Russian) White-fronted Geese were feeding nearby, but flew off back over the trees before everyone had a chance to see them through the scope. Thankfully we found another flock of about thirty down in the wet grass away to the right of the hide, and we had a good look at them, admiring their white fronts and blackish belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – there were around 30 from Joe Jordan Hide still

We managed to get better views of a Great White Egret here, standing in a reedy ditch in front of the hide, and some Spoonbills which weren’t asleep! At first, we spotted a Spoonbill further over, feeding on one of the pools, busy sweeping its bill from side to side. One or two were flying round in and out of the trees, then two more Spoonbills appeared on the large pool in front of the hide where we got a much better look at them through the scope.

Spoonbill

Spoonbills – we saw several from Joe Jordan Hide

As we couldn’t all fit in on the benches in the hide, we decided to head back once we had all had a good look at the main species we had come to see here. Once back at the car, we made our way further west along the coast road to Titchwell.

Making our way from the car park towards the visitor centre, we could hear Bramblings singing in the bushes. It is not much of a song, more of a wheeze! The more we looked, the more we realised we could see, and we stopped to admire several of them, including a smart male Brambling which was busy feeding on the buds of the sallows.

Brambling

Brambling – there were several singing in the sallows today

Most of the birds were in the bushes and trees today, and there was not much more on the feeders, apart from lots of Chaffinches. As we headed out towards the reserve, a quick scan of the ditches was rewarded with a Water Rail which gave very nice views, picking around in the leaf litter in the bottom.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showed very well in the ditch by the main path

The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ looked very quiet at first, but a careful scan was eventually rewarded. Several Pied Wagtails were feeding in and out of the vegetation right at the back, and a Water Pipit appeared nearby. It wasn’t easy to see though, and kept disappearing back into cover.

The reedbed pool held a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard diving out in the middle among the Greylags. On the near edge of the reedbed, a pair of Bearded Tits were feeding at the base of the reeds around the small pools, delighting the crowd gathered, although we had been spoilt with our views of Bearded Tits earlier this morning.

The water levels of the freshmarsh are still very high – they don’t seem to have come down at all, despite the drier weather recently. Consequently, there are next to no waders on here still. The fenced-off island where the Avocets are supposed to nest has been almost completely taken over by gulls.

At least it seems to be appreciated by the Mediterranean Gulls, with at least 60 being seen around the reserve at the moment. We could hear them calling almost constantly as we walked out. Pairs were flying back and forth, in and out of the freshmarsh, flashing their pure white wing tips. We had great views of a stunning adult Mediterranean Gull which had landed in the shallow water quite close to the path with a group of Black-headed Gulls to bathe.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – a cracking adult

There were a few more waders on the Volunteer Marsh – several Avocets, a couple of Grey Plover, plus one or two Black-tailed Godwits and Curlew. The deeper channel at the far side held more of the same, plus a couple of little groups of Knot.

The tidal pools are flooded at the moment, so we headed straight on to the beach. The tide was out but we could immediately see that most of the waders were out here. There were lots of Knot and Dunlin in big flocks and several Bar-tailed Godwits too, all feeding on the edge of the water. We managed to spot three Sanderlings running in and out in front of the waves, until they flew off east.

Looking out to sea, it was very misty and hard to see too far. We did manage to find a few things on the water. There were good numbers of Red-breasted Merganser close inshore and a couple of Common Scoter were with them. A Great Crested Grebe was out on the edge of the mist, but the highlight was a Slavonian Grebe close inshore, though it was diving constantly and making its way quickly east towards Brancaster.

It was time to head back, as we still had one last stop we wanted to make today. As we headed inland, up towards Choseley, a Barn Owl was already out hunting. They have been much more visible in recent weeks, presumably being much more hungry now after the snow.

On our way home, we diverted round via Bintree Mill. There were lots of ducks on the large pool nearby – Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal and a small number of Wigeon too. A drake Garganey had been seen here a couple of days ago and had been refound here again this morning. After a bit of scanning, we managed to locate it, upending constantly, hiding in the vegetation.

Garganey

Garganey – this smart drake was a nice end to the day

 

We had a good view of the drake Garganey through the scope, we could see its striking white supercilium and elongate scapular plumes. It was a nice way to end the day, with a proper summer migrant. And it was not far back home so we made it in good time for tea & cake!

Advertisements

4th Feb 2018 – Owls & More

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

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

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

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

Little Owls

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

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

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

Golden Plovers 1

Golden Plover – catching the sun, out on the Wash

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

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

Golden Plovers 2

Golden Plover – the flock swirled around in front of us

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

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

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – this drake flew past us over the pits

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

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl – roosting under the brambles again

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

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

Woodcock

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

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

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

Water Rail

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

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

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

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

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochards – the drakes sporting bright orange heads

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

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

Avocets

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

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

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

Lapwing

Lapwing – looking stunning in the bright sunshine

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

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

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

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

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting over the meadows this afternoon

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

Barn Owl 2

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

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

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – they would drop down in the grass occasionally

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

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

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

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

 

27th Jan 2018 – Owling in the Wind

An Owl Tour today. The weather forecast was not ideal. It started fine, with a lovely sunrise, but clouded over quickly and the wind picked up. There was some light drizzle too through the middle of the day but it wasn’t enough to put us off, and the rain stopped mid afternoon, so we were able to make the most of it. And see some owls!

After meeting up, we headed straight down to the coastal grazing marshes in the hope we might be able to find a late Barn Owl still out hunting. As we scanned the grass, there was no sign of any at first. It was a lovely bright morning, after a nice clear night, and it seemed like the owls might have gone in to roost already.

There were plenty of other birds to look at. We heard a Grey Partridge and looked over in that direction just in time to see the female fly across and land down in the grass. Just behind, the male was calling, standing upright, showing off the black kidney on its grey underparts and its orange face. It ran over towards the female. A large flock of Curlews was feeding a damper area in the meadow.

There were lots of geese flying round. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew in, dropping down onto the grass in the distance to graze. We had a look at them in the scope. Several more disorderly groups of smaller Brent Geese were flying back and forth too.

Pink-footed Geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – coming in to the grazing marshes this morning

The daytime predators were already out hunting. A Kestrel perched briefly in a tree but was seen off by the attentions of a Rook. Three Marsh Harriers circled up over reeds, the male calling. He then tried to chase off one of last year’s juveniles, swooping down at it as the three of them flew round. Then a pale grey shape appeared low over the reeds, a stunning male Hen Harrier. We watched as it flew right across the marshes – even having time to get it in the scope for a closer look.

Just when it looked like we might not find a Barn Owl this morning, a ghostly white shape appeared from round the corner of the bank. It floated silently across the grazing marsh and spent a couple of minutes hunting in and out of the reeds. We had hoped it might come out and land on one of the posts, but it flew straight up to a nearby owl box and disappeared inside. Always a good start to the day, to get a Barn Owl under our belts, particularly today given the forecast for the afternoon!

Our next target was to find a Little Owl. We drove inland, up to a regular site where they can often be found. It was cool in the breeze, but the sun was still poking through the clouds, so we hoped we might find one out. We scanned the roofs of the farm buildings and quickly found a ball of feathers tucked up in the lee of the ridge, a Little Owl.

Little Owl

Little Owl – warming itself in the morning sun

The Little Owl had found a sheltered spot, out of the wind and facing into the morning sun, where it could warm itself. We had a good look at it in the scope. It was fluffed up and facing away from us at first, but then it turned to look towards the sun. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the fields nearby and a large flock of Brent Geese flew over, heading inland to feed.

We continued on our way west, via several other sets of old barns where Little Owls live, but it was clouding over steadily now and there was no sign of any others out this morning. We did find a few Stock Doves on the farm buildings. Several Brown Hares were running around in the fields already. There were lots of Lapwings gathered in large flocks.

A Red Kite flew lazily past us beside the road – the first of a number we saw on our journey today. There were also several Kestrels hovering over the verges or perched in the trees as we passed, and a few Common Buzzards up enjoying the breeze.

Red Kite

Red Kite – the first of several we saw on our journey today

Our next destination was Snettisham. On our way there, it had already started to spit with rain and it was exposed on the edge of the Wash. We had a quick walk up to see if the Shorelark was still here, but we couldn’t find it today. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding along the tideline and flew up ahead of us.

The tide was still out and the Wash was a vast expanse of mud. A large dark mass out in the middle turned out to be a big group of Teal roosting on the edge of one of the muddy channels. The white Shelducks stood out much better against the grey, and were scattered liberally over the whole area, feeding.

Shelduck

Shelduck – out on the mud of the Wash, feeding

A flock of Dunlin was running round on the near edge of the mud, just in front of us, and there were several Redshanks and a Curlew close in too. Most of the waders were further out in the murk, but we could pick out lines of Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits as well as a few Grey Plovers. Something spooked the big flock of Golden Plovers which had been asleep out on the mud and they flew up and over the seawall, dropping down to the fields inland.

It was not a day to be standing out on the edge of the Wash, so we turned our attention back to owls. There have been a couple of Short-eared Owls roosting here and after a short walk we found them, both in their usual spots, unusually choosing somewhere where they can be seen.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

We had a good look at the Short-eared Owls through the scope. The first had found a sheltered spot under a bramble bush, but was turned towards us so we could see its bright yellow eyes. The second was perched up in the brambles a little further over. It had its head turned in, but would occasionally look round.

There were a few other birds on the Pit here as we walked round. A selection of ducks, mostly tucked up by bank out of the wind, plenty of Wigeon plus a handful of Gadwall. A few Tufted Ducks and a pair of Goldeneye, which were diving continually. With our mission here accomplished today, having seen the Short-eared Owls, we didn’t linger and headed back to the warmth of the car.

Given the weather, we decided to head round to Titchwell where we could find some shelter in the hides. On our way back to the main road, we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese in a field. We could see their dark brown heads, and small dark bills with a narrow pink band, very different from the Greylags we had been seen earlier. A pair of Egyptian Geese were nearby.

Pink-footed Geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – by the road on our way back from Snettisham

On our way round the coast, we called in briefly at Thornham Harbour. It was damp and blustery but we wanted to have a quick look to see if the Twite were around. As we walked up to the edge of the saltmarsh, they flew over calling and landed down in the vegetation in front of us, a flock of about 20 of them.

The Twite didn’t stop here very long though. After a couple of minutes, they flew up, circled round and dropped down behind us in the car park, to drink and bathe in the puddles. Again they didn’t stay long, but we had a great look at them here for a couple of minutes, before they were spooked by a car door slamming and flew off.

Twite

Twite – the regular flock came down to drink in the car park

It was time for lunch when we reached Titchwell. A Goldcrest was feeding in the trees right in front of the car when we arrived, just a metre or two from us. We headed over to the visitor centre for a hot drink and while we ate, we kept an eye on the feeders. As well as the regular Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches, there were a couple of Bramblings too today, a female on the feeders in front and a brighter male on the ones round the other side.

After lunch, we had a quick walk round Fen Trail and Meadow Trail, in the shelter of the trees. There was nothing to see from Fen Hide today and no sign of the Woodcock under the trees. But we did have great views of one of the Water Rails in the ditch by the main path, picking around in the dead leaves on the bank.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showing well in the ditch

We decided to make a bid for the shelter of Parrinder Hide. On the way out, a Marsh Harrier was circling out over the reedbed, enjoying the wind. A lone Grey Plover was on the edge of the large pool out on Lavender Marsh and several Teal and Wigeon were feeding on the saltmarsh nearby.

The water levels on the freshmarsh are very high through the winter and there was little of note on here today. The raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks were mostly tucked up against the reeds at the back. A lone Curlew dropped in for a bathe and preen on the edge of one of the few exposed bits of dry land.

The other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh, was much more productive and we had good views of several species of wader from here. A single Knot was feeding on the mud just below the hide, though a larger group were weaving in and out of the vegetated islands further back. There were also several Dunlin, including a little mixed group with Knot giving a chance to compare the two side by side.

Knot

Knot – there were several on the saltmarsh in front of Parrinder Hide

Further over, we could see one or two Grey Plover, standing still surveying the mud for potential food, they were extremely well camouflaged until they moved. A couple of Ringed Plovers were running around as well. We had nice views of a Bar-tailed Godwit feeding on the mud and further back a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were hiding in one of the muddy channels. A Curlew or two and an Oystercatcher rounded off the selection nicely here.

The weather was improving, and it had stopped raining now, even if it was still a but blustery, so we decided to head out further across the reserve. There were some more nice views of waders close to the main path on the Volunteer Marsh, down in the shelter of the main channel. In particularly a Black-tailed Godwit was busy probing deep into the mud, flashing its black tail as it did so.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding close to the main path

Emboldened by the improvement in the weather, we decided to make a bid for the beach. There were lots more birds on the tidal pools, including a couple of nice close Bar-tailed Godwits which gave us a great chance to compare them with several more Black-tailed Godwits nearby. They were also helpfully flying across occasionally, flashing their very different respective wing and tail patterns.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – nice views on the tidal pools

This is also where the Avocets were hiding. We counted at least thirteen today, though they were huddled up roosting along the spit at the back and it was hard to see all of them. Numbers are gradually starting to increase again, as birds start to return. There was also a large roost of Oystercatchers on the saltmarsh nearby.

A pair of Goldeneye were diving out on the Tidal Pools today, giving us better views than we had managed earlier at Snettisham. We had a great look at the male through the scope. There were also a few Pintail out here, including a couple of smart drakes, showing off their long pin-shaped central tail feathers as they upended to feed in the shallow water. One of the Little Grebes was diving just beyond the bushes right below the path.

It was nice to get out to the beach and into the shelter of the dunes, out of the wind. There were more waders out on the beach, even though it was around high tide now. More Bar-tailed Godwits were lined up along the water’s edge, with one or two Sanderlings running around in between them. A Turnstone walked past, picking at the seaweed along the high tide line, and another Sanderling ran past too.

It wasn’t as choppy as it might have been, given the wind, so we managed to find a few birds out on the sea. There was a group of six Long-tailed Ducks diving just offshore, including several smart drakes. We got them in the scope, but they took off before everyone had a chance to get a good look at them. They circled round offshore, before flying and landing back down much further out.

A line of dark, blackish Common Scoters was out there too, as well as a good number of Goldeneye. A couple of Guillemots were swimming just beyond the ducks and there were several Great Crested Grebes out on the water, but a Red-throated Diver was harder to see, diving constantly. Several Little Gulls flew past while we were watching the sea, the adults flashing alternately their black underwings and pale silvery grey upperwings.

The afternoon was getting on now and we had an appointment elsewhere at dusk, so we made a quick dash back to the car, heads down into the wind. We headed off inland on our way back east and checked out a couple of places in passing to see if there might be any more Barn Owls out, but they were probably in no hurry to come out this evening, given the wind.

When we got to the woods and started to walk along the track, we hadn’t gone very far when a male Tawny Owl started hooting from the trees behind us. It was an auspicious start, as we weren’t sure how active they would be given the wind tonight. We turned and walked back in the direction of the sound, and positioned ourselves where we know that particular Tawny Owl likes to perch up in the trees sometimes.

After a short wait, a dark shape flew towards us through the tops and landed in the back of an ivy-covered tree in front of us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see it from where we were standing so we stood very quietly and were rewarded a few seconds later when the Tawny Owl flew again, right over our heads and into a tree close by. They are big owls up close, with very broad, rounded wings when they fly. It turned to look down at us.

We had a great view of the Tawny Owl perched there for a minute or so,  but it knew we were watching it from below and was spooked by a car passing on the road. It flew off again deeper into the trees. We knew roughly where it had gone and followed after it. Then helpfully it started hooting again, so we could work out exactly where it was and get it in the scope. We had a good view of it silhouetted against the last of the light, high in the branches, hooting, turning round.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – silhouetted against the sky, hooting

The Tawny Owl flew off a little further into the trees, where it landed briefly and called, before dropping away again. As we walked back to the car, we could still hear it hooting, a great way to end the day.

14th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #3

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

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

Barn Owl

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

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

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

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

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

Waxwing

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

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

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

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

Linnets

Linnets – in their hundreds, lining up on the wires

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

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

Twite

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

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

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

Water Rail

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

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

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

Teal

Teal – looking very smart now in breeding plumage

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

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

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

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

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

Avocets

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

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

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

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

Long-tailed Ducks

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

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

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

Bar-tailed Godwit

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

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

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

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

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

Short-eared Owl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 6th January

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

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

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

Pink-footed Geese

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

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

Waders

Waders – the vast throng gathering in the mist this morning

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

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

Oystercatchers

Oystercatchers & Avocet – one hiding in with the others

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

Knot 1

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

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

Knot 3

Knot 2

Knot – tens of thousands twisting and turning over the Wash

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

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

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

Knot 4

Knot – thousands of birds flew right past us

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

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

Knot 5

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

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

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

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

Barnacle Goose

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

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

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

Redwing

Redwing – landed in the trees by the main path briefly

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

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

Water Pipit

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

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

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

Avocets

Avocets – the five that are currently hanging on here

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

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

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – flew in and landed on Volunteer Marsh

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

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

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

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

Bar-tailed Godwit

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

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

Water Rail

Water Rail – skulking under a tangle of branches

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

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

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

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – a ringtail, out over the heather

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

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

Sunday 7th January

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

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

White-fronted Goose

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

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

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

Grey Partridge

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

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

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

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

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

Shorelarks

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

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

Shorelark

Shorelark – flew past us and back down the beach

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

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

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – scaling the trunk of a pine tree

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

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

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

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – several were diving out on Salts Hole

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

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

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

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

Curlew

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

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

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

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – glowing in the winter sunshine

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

19th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TwiteTwite – around twenty were feeding on the saltmarsh vegetation

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

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

CurlewCurlew – warming itself in the morning sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TealTeal – good numbers on the freshmarsh for the winter now

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

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

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

Ringed PloverRinged Plover – there were several on Volunteer Marsh today

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

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

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

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

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

Golden PloverGolden Plovers – gathering on the freshmarsh at dusk

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

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

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!