Tag Archives: Waxwing

Jan/Feb 2021 – Through Winter, now into Spring

I am conscious that I haven’t written any blog posts for several months now – COVID-19 has meant no tours have run since last October, with a succession of national lockdowns interspersed with ‘tiered’ regional restrictions which have meant it has not been possible to operate.

As we head into spring, hopefully there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Following last week’s announcement by the Government, we are planning to restart tours on a limited basis from April 12th and then look to run a full programme from May 17th. If you might be interested in joining us, please check the website to see what we have planned or contact me directly.

In the meantime, this is what I have been up to, keeping busy over the last couple of months…

2021: Happy New Year

In Norfolk, we found ourselves put into Tier 4 from Boxing Day. Normally, my son and I would have a ‘big day’ on January 1st, trying to find as many species as possible up and down the coast to see in the New Year. With the restrictions in place, that wouldn’t be possible this year, but we did manage a couple of short trips out locally.

We drove down to the beach at Weybourne for a walk on New Year’s Day. Our journey there took us over Kelling Heath, where fortuitously a Waxwing was feeding on rosehips right next to the road. We stopped briefly to watch it – they have been in very short supply this winter, so it was a real bonus to be able to catch up with one so close to home today. One of everyone’s favourites, and a great way to start the year.

Waxwing – feeding on rosehips by the road on New Year’s Day

Continuing on down to Weybourne, we had only just walked up onto the beach when the lingering juvenile Iceland Gull flew up from the shingle in front of us. A scarce bird in Norfolk in most winter’s, and another good one to get 2021 underway. A walk along the beach didn’t produce much else, but the Iceland Gull patrolled up and down the shore past us a couple of times.

Iceland Gull – this juvenile has been lingering along the North Norfolk coast

Driving back along the coast road, we stopped briefly half way down Beach Road at Cley. As we climbed up the West Bank, a Kingfisher was perched on the concrete sluice the other side. A lone Canada Goose was out on the grazing marshes, lots of Pintail were asleep on the brackish pools and the hoped for Barn Owl was picked up hunting in front of the Mill.

On Jan 2nd, we went for a walk at Holkham. Heading down through the trees in the park produced a selection of commoner woodland birds and the lake added a few ducks to the slowly growing year list. But the surprise of the day was finding six Cattle Egrets (or should that be ‘Deer Egrets’?!) in the park feeding in amongst the Fallow Deer.

Cattle Egrets – four of the six feeding in the park among the deer

It was a nice gentle start to the 2021 birding year, but little did we realise that would be the end of it. On the evening of January 4th it was announced we were all going into a new National Lockdown the following day. That was that!

Staying Local

At first, staying local meant turning my attention to the garden and the surrounding fields. We are lucky with owls here, and regularly, early morning or late afternoon, one or two of our local Barn Owls could be found out hunting.

Barn Owl – often found out hunting early morning or late afternoon

We also have a pair of Little Owls here. On sunny days, they like to perch up somewhere and warm themselves and this year one of them has sometimes used a holly tree outside the back door of the house, from where it watches us coming and going.

Little Owl – watching from a sunny spot in the holly tree

The garden has delivered some surprises this lockdown – as well as an occasional Grey Heron or a pair of Mallard, we often get one or two Teal drop in to the overgrown pond at the back of us here, but a Water Rail there on January 10th was more unexpected. However, possibilities in the immediate area are always going to be slightly limited and there are only so many times you can walk up and down the footpath here, particularly with the rest if the village using it, and the ground getting increasingly muddy.

Still within the local area, there are lots of woods and footpaths which I have never explored, so I set off on foot to see what I could find. The fields and hedgerows held small number of winter thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings come here from Scandinavia for the winter.

Redwing – small flocks could be found in the fields

Some of the fields have game cover or wild bird seed mix strips along their edges, and one area in particular held impressive numbers of Bramblings, with a flock of at least 100 in one location. There were smaller numbers of Siskins and Lesser Redpolls around too, plus a few Common Crossbills in the conifer blocks.

The best find of early January were the Hawfinches. They used to breed in many of the local parks when I was a boy, but they have sadly declined to the point where they only seem to be regular now in the Brecks. Variable numbers also still come to the UK from the continent in winter, and I often wonder if birds could still be lingering in some of their traditional haunts, as they are surprisingly unobtrusive creatures for so big a finch. Still it was a big surprise out on one of my walks to see two Hawfinches fly in over the fields and land in some trees behind some houses on the edge of the village.

I encountered the Hawfinches regularly over the next couple of weeks, with a maximum of four on a couple of occasions, but mostly they were distant in the tops of the trees or flying over. Then on 18th Jan, I was walking along a track out of the woods and a lone Hawfinch flew up from the verge in front of me. It landed in some bare branches above my head, looking down at me, before flying back into the trees. Just a moment of luck – that was the only time I got close and I never did see one in the same spot again!

Hawfinch – flushed from the verge and landed in the tree above my head

The other highlight locally were the Goshawks. Once confined to the Brecks in Norfolk, they finally seem to be spreading more widely, and lots of people seem to have found them locally to them across the county in the last couple years. A succession of lockdowns has probably helped, with people forced to explore closer to home. There seem to be very good numbers of juveniles around at the moment, presumably birds dispersing after a good breeding season last year. The best time to look for them is on sunny days from the turn of the year, when Goshawks can be found displaying – perfect timing for Lockdown 3.0!

Goshawk – seem to be expanding rapidly now in Norfolk

The little things matter in lockdown too. It got colder around the end of January and this seemed to stimulate a bit of movement. A female Stonechat took up residence on the fence around a field full of sheep, the first I have ever seen locally. Common enough on the coast in winter, and in some of the bigger river valleys in Norfolk, but rarer than hens’ teeth in the agricultural desert that is much of inland Norfolk.

A couple of milder days at the start of February lulled some creatures into a false sense that spring was imminent. A Peacock on my walk on 4th was my first butterfly of the year and my first Hoverfly (Eristalis tenax) appeared in the garden that afternoon. A drake Goosander flying over the woods was a bit of a surprise late one afternoon, as was a Marsh Harrier flying high north towards the coast at dusk on another evening.

Then the snow arrived on 8th February and over the next couple of days, we found ourselves with up to a foot of lying snow, the most I have seen here for many years. Where the hedges have been grubbed out along the road out of the village and the verge had been helpfully mown flatter than a billiard table just the week before, the snow was drifting in the wind too. So that day was a stay at home day.

It was a surprise to find one of the local Barn Owls out hunting in the worst of the snow and wind that morning, before it then more sensibly settled onto a post on the edge of the meadow where it was more sheltered to see if it could hear something in the grass below. Obviously already hungry and with a problem with one of its eyes, it didn’t seem like it would survive a prolonged period of snow (spoiler alert: somehow it did and it is still here!).

Barn Owl – out hunting in the worst of the snow
Barn Owl – then tried to find food from the fenceposts

There was an arrival of Woodcock on the coast before and during the snow, presumably fleeing even colder weather on the continent. People close to the coast reported big numbers – on the beach, in coastal scrub and fields and even on the lawn in some lucky peoples’ gardens! This arrival didn’t seem to percolate this far inland though. We always have a few Woodcock which spend the winter in the woods here and numbers seemed to be much as usual.

Woodcock are normally very nocturnal, and seldom seen during the day unless flushed, but when they are struggling to feed and hungry in snowy or icy conditions, they can sometimes be found out in the middle of the day. Despite searching all the places where I have seen Woodcock locally in the past, the most I could find in the snow here were birds flying past or deep in the trees which flew off before I even saw them. We have had them on the lawn here before, in the snow, but no such luck this year.

There were also reports of large numbers of Common Snipe and smaller number of Jack Snipe elsewhere, displaced by the snow. We always have two or three Green Sandpipers which spend the winter in farm ditches locally, and I had regularly seen one or two on my walks prior to the snow, but otherwise we have few wet areas suitable for waders. It was not a great surprise therefore that I had failed to even see a single Common Snipe so far this year. So when a Common Snipe was reported by one of the other birders in the village from the ditch where the Green Sandpipers could often be found, I was very pleased to be able to catch up with it. The next day, I then flushed two Common Snipe from the old farm pond behind the house – just like buses!

Given the lack of snipe here, I thought a Common Snipe would be the best I could hope for. It was therefore an even bigger surprise the following day, when I stopped on my daily walk to scan the ditch where the Common Snipe was still feeding, and as I looked further back I noticed some bright golden mantle stripes bobbing up and down. A Jack Snipe! The first I have ever seen locally.

Jack Snipe – found feeding in a ditch locally, in the snow

Having scoured the woods in the local area for a daytime-feeding Woodcock, I received a message one day from one of the other birders in the village that he had seen one early that morning on the edge of the small copse directly across the lane from our garden! I had looked in there most mornings, on my way out for a walk, and had not seen anything. Surely it wouldn’t still be there now, but I had to have a quick look just in case.

There was no sign of it where it had been earlier, but after walking up and down on the edge of the copse several times, I noticed a rusty brown lump not far into the trees. The Woodcock! It was out in an open patch, on the ice which had been a large puddle, presumably trying to feed in the damp edges just above, where the lying snow was less deep. It froze when it saw me, presumably not realising that its wonderful cryptic plumage did not provide much camouflage against a background of white snow!

Woodcock – finally I got to see one out in the daytime

After a week, the weather changed and the snow melted very quickly. The waders – Woodcock, Jack Snipe, Common Snipe – all disappeared, the snipe not helped by the rapid rise in water levels in the ditches over the next few days. Finally able to get out further afield again, it became clear that other things had been forced to move by the snow too – there was no sign of the Hawfinches or Stonechat now, and numbers of Bramblings in the fields seemed to have dropped too.

For the last week or so of February, temperatures then rose so that for a while it felt like spring. The insects responded quickly, with my first Common Wasp of the year on on 20th and several Honey Bees gathering pollen around the snowdrops on 21st. Two Brimstone butterflies were out in the sunshine in the woods on 24th and over the following days the bee list expanded with Early and Buff-tailed Bumblebees, and Yellow-legged (Andrena flavipes) and Gwynne’s Mining Bees (A. bicolor) all in the garden.

Honey Bee – one of several gathering pollen around the snowdrops

There had already been several reports of Common Cranes on the move elsewhere over the previous few days, but that is another species we struggle with here. They wander from the Broads in early spring but tend to follow the coast or the major river valleys, and seldom seem to wander over the open fields in the agricultural middle of the county. I was really missing not having seen them in the Broads this year, one of the highlights of Jan and Feb for me. I was therefore delighted when I was out on my daily walk on 26th February in the sunshine and heard bugling high overhead. I turned to see a small group of five Common Cranes circling in the sun. After a few seconds they broke off and continued on their way west.

Common Cranes – these five flew over in the sunshine

I was pleased enough to see them, but when I got home later I noticed a message on the newswires that the Cranes had actually flown over my village a few minutes before I saw them. I hope they didn’t go over my house – it is still one I need for my garden list!

It remained warm right to the end of the month. A Chiffchaff singing in the garden on 27th February may be our earliest ever here, and seemed to be part of quite a widespread arrival across the county that day. With a sunny morning on 28th, it felt like a day for raptors so I stood on the lawn for a while scanning as the local Buzzards started to circle up. I probably saw upwards of 15 Common Buzzards and four Sparrowhawks, but nothing more exotic.

I left my scope on the lawn and walked out through the gap in the tall hedge at the back, onto the footpath beyond, to scan the fields to the south. As I emerged, I noticed a pale shape hovering over the rough grass field just beyond the hedge. It looked the wrong shape for one of the Barn Owls which usually like to hunt over there, before it turned and the penny dropped. It was a cracking silvery-grey male Hen Harrier! And for once I didn’t have a camera with me.

I ran back into the house and grabbed one, but by the time I got back out, the Hen Harrier was working its way down the field away from me, into the sun. I set off down along the footpath, and for a few seconds when it got to the far end of the field it looked like it was going to work its way back again. But then it disappeared round behind the trees and was gone. I have only ever seen one Hen Harrier here before, also a male, back in early 2011. It just goes to show what you can sometimes find when you are forced to stay home. As I walked back into the house, a Peacock butterfly was basking on the steps in the sun.

Peacock – basking on the steps in the sun

The weather has turned cooler again at the moment. The last three days have been dull, grey, foggy and have given me a chance to sit down in the office and write this. But it finally feels like spring is just around the corner and I cannot wait to get out again and explore the rest of Norfolk in just a few weeks time.

Late Oct 2019 – Scilly Season

Not a tour, but a family holiday – and Scilly is conveniently a great place for birding in October! The Isles of Scilly are perhaps best know in birding terms for the number of American landbirds they have historically attracted in Autumn. We stayed on the island of Tresco, but we made several trips over to St Mary’s too.

Late October is not the best time, and sure enough all the ‘Yanks’ which had previously appeared cleared out a few days before we arrived. Still, there were more good birds to find, and one rarity at least had the decency to linger long enough for us to catch up with it.

The day we arrived, our first stop was to see the Blue Rock Thrush which had been hanging out on the rocks around the Garrison and Peninnis on St Mary’s. It was very mobile and could disappear for long periods but conveniently, it was located just before our plane took off and we were able to catch up with it after only an hour or so of casing up and down the clifftop path (it had taken others several days to see it!).

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – not especially blue, but on a rock!

The Blue Rock Thrush was not especially blue – it was a young bird, a 1st winter. But it was flying around and feeding on the rocks, which is what a proper wild Blue Rock Thrush should be doing.

After that, we still had a bit of time before our boat over to Tresco, so we walked down to Lower Moors. The Spotted Crake helpfully appeared just as we arrived, in the ditch beside the path. This bird had been very obliging on previous days and it didn’t disappoint today. We watched it down to just a couple of feet, and at one point it passed right beneath the wooden footbridge on which we were standing. Amazing views of what can be a very secretive species, possibly my best ever.

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake – absurdly close views at Lower Moors

The following day we found ourselves heading back to St Mary’s, when a report emerged of a Chestnut-eared Bunting on Peninnis first thing in the morning. It had flown off but we went over anyway just in case it was refound – it wasn’t! We did find a rare bunting ourselves, also on Peninnis, but unfortunately it was just a Yellowhammer. Rare on the Isles of Scilly perhaps, but not quite so unusual back in Norfolk!

Monday was spent on Tresco. A Citrine Wagtail appeared on St Mary’s and a few bits and pieces on St Agnes, but we didn’t manage to find anything unusual. The Red-breasted Flycatcher which had been at Borough Farm for a week or more was still present, and it was good to catch up with that. It could be surprisingly elusive, but it remained in the same group of trees for much of our stay.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher – was present on Tresco for most of our stay

There are almost always good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers at this time of year, and a quiet day on Tresco gave us the chance to catch up with a few of those too.

Yellow-browed Warbler 1

Yellow-browed Warbler – there are generally a few on Tresco at this time of year

Things hotted up on Tresco on Tuesday. After a quiet start to the morning, one of the few other hardy Tresco regulars, Steve Broyd, called to say he had found an Isabelline Wheatear up on Castle Down. We raced up to help him pin it down, as it was very mobile initially but eventually settled down around a favoured area of rocks. It would remain here for several days and we got fantastic views of it over subsequent days. It has been a good autumn for this very rare south-eastern European species this year.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – it has been a good year for this species in UK

Birders from St Mary’s coming back from seeing the Isabelline Wheatear later that day found a Waxwing on the wires at New Grimsby. It was a lovely sunny day and it was flycatching from the telephone wires. When it flew off, it couldn’t be refound until it was found feeding in an apple tree in one of the nearby gardens the following day.

Waxwing

Waxwing – flycatching from the wires behind the quay in New Grimsby

It was back to St Mary’s the next day. The Citrine Wagtail seen a couple of days previously had settled down at Salakee Farm and had been showing down to a few metres yesterday. When we arrived in the morning, it was a bit more distant and and we were looking into the light. After spending some time exploring St Mary’s, which also gave us the chance to catch up with the Dartford Warbler on Peninnis (a ‘Scilly tick’ for us), we returned in the afternoon and were treated to views of the Citrine Wagtail down to a few metres as it fed in the long grass in the corner of the field.

Citrine Wagtail

Citrine Wagtail – showing down to a few metres as it fed in the long grass

The following day, it was back to scouring Tresco for something new. Those efforts were rewarding with the finding of a 1st winter drake Ring-necked Duck on Abbey Pool. It was present all day, although it spent some time tucked in the edge of the vegetation asleep, but could not be found subsequently, although the weather was not particularly conducive to finding it again!

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck – this 1st winter drake spent the day on Abbey Pool

It was a lovely sunny day and the Yellow-browed Warblers were particularly active and vocal. There were three regularly around the Rowesfield area and it was interesting to watch one today behaving very territorially, chasing the others off from its favoured sallows.

Yellow-browed Warbler 2

Yellow-browed Warbler – this one was chasing the others from its favoured sallows

The next two days were very windy and wet at times, so if there were any new arrivals they would be very hard to locate. Things improved dramatically on 27th, which was largely clear and sunny at times, with much lighter winds. Starting off on the regular circuit of the island, the first thing that became apparent was that there had been a big arrival of Siberian Chiffchaffs. After one up at Borough Farm, there were three together in the sallows at Rowesfield crossroads. There were plenty of Common Chiffchaffs in too, great to compare them side by side.

Siberian Chiffchaff

Siberian Chiffchaff – one of three at Rowesfield crossroads

At least one of the Siberian Chiffchaffs at Rowesfield crossroads was rather vocal, its call a rather plaintive ‘iihp’. It was even singing on and off in the sunshine – not something you hear in the UK very often. Fantastic!

Any other day, that would have been the highlight of the morning but today there was more to come. Walking along the edge of the old heliport, a bunting flew up from the long grass beyond the fence and started to call – a distinctive ‘ticking’. Thankfully, it circled round and dropped down into the top of the brambles behind me. A Rustic Bunting!

Rustic Bunting

Rustic Bunting – a nice find on the edge of the old Heliport

Unfortunately the Rustic Bunting flew over into the sallows on the edge of Abbey Pool with a Reed Bunting and didn’t show itself for the birders who were just arriving from the boat over from St Mary’s. It was seen again, back in the original spot, together now with three Reed Buntings in the early afternoon and we found it there again at dusk.

Rustic Bunting 2

Rustic Bunting – still present the following morning

The Rustic Bunting was still present the following morning, with the Reed Buntings in the same place on the edge of the Heliport, but unfortunately it was now time for us to leave. We caught the boat back over to St Mary’s that afternoon and bid our farewells to the Isles of Scilly.

There was a sad side to what was a wonderful week. I have been visiting Tresco regularly for 24 years now and over that time I have seen some great birds up at Borough Farm. The farm had been leased out and worked traditionally for bulbs, flowers and vegetables, but a couple of years ago the Tresco Estate took it back under its own management. The estate has long eschewed traditional mixed farming in favour of focusing on intensive beef cattle, meaning the other fields around the island have already been turned over to improved grassland.

It was sad to see this year that Borough Farm seems to be heading the same way – the once weedy fields are now mostly covered with grass, the hedges have been cut right back and then browsed heavily by cattle. Apart from the one corner where the Red-breasted Flycatcher was, which still has some taller sycamores, there were very few birds there this year. It seems surprising to see ongoing ‘dewilding’, intensification of loss-making modern agricultural practices, particularly in this part of the world, at a time when many other estates are looking to ‘rewilding’ as a better way forward.

Borough Farm

Borough Farm – sad to see it in the process of being ‘dewilded’

I am not sure how any more years I will continue to go back to Tresco. It is still a beautiful island, but not as beautiful for wildlife as it used to be. The only good news is that there are plenty of other islands in the Scillies to explore which have not been so extensively ‘tidied up’, where there are still weedy fields and overgrown hedges. Is it time to join the growing exodus of birders who have moved on from Tresco to explore other islands?

Sunset

Tresco – sunset, looking over the channel towards Bryher

 

9th Nov 2018 – Late Autumn Rarities

A Private Tour today on the North Norfolk coast. It was a lovely sunny start to the day, and very mild out of the SE breeze, although there was a bit more cloud around at times in the afternoon. With several lingering rarities still along the coast, we decided on a day catching up with some of our scarcer winter visitors together with a bit of ‘twitching’!

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see some groups of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. Several birds were right next to the road, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see their pink legs (and feet!), and small, dark bill with a pink band.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – showing well by Lady Anne’s Drive

While we were watching the Pink-footed Geese, we looked up to see a large white bird flying away from us across the grazing marsh. It was a Great White Egret – we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill. Great White Egrets have bred here for the last couple of years, but can be harder to find in winter, so this was a bonus.

Several small groups of Wigeon flew in to the pool on the other side of the road, but by the time we turned our attention to that side, they had gone back out to graze on the grass. We carried on up to the end of the Drive. A digger was clearing one of the ditches, piling the mud out on the bank, and two Grey Herons were standing by to take advantage of anything edible which it scooped out. As we got out of the car and scanned, a Marsh Harrier was quartering the marshes and a Kestrel was hovering nearby.

We walked through the pines and out onto the beach. Several Brent Geese were feeding out on the saltmarsh, so we stopped briefly to look at them through the scope. As we set off again, walking east, two Red Kites were hanging in the air over the dunes, flashing burnt rusty red as they circled in the morning sunshine. A Marsh Harrier flew past, a young bird, chocolate brown with a pale head, and then a rather pale Common Buzzard flew in over the saltmarsh and almost over our heads. The raptors were obviously out in force this morning enjoying the fine weather!

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – this very pale bird flew in off the saltmarsh

When we got out to the newly cordoned-off area of the saltmarsh, we could see a couple of small birds creeping about in the vegetation which caught the light. Looking more closely, we could see they were Shorelarks. We got them in the scope and could see their bright yellow faces, shining in the morning sunshine, contrasting with their black bandit masks and collars. Looking carefully, we counted six at first but then another five or so more flew in to join them.

Shorelark

Shorelark – one of at least eleven at Holkham today

Shorelarks are scarce and localised winter visitors to the UK most winters, and Holkham is a very traditional site for them. However, they are very vulnerable to disturbance and the beach here has become increasingly popular, particularly with dog walkers. Hopefully, the new fence, which was erected this week by the wardens, will help to keep disturbance to a minimum and will encourage them to remain here again for the winter.

While we were watching the Shorelarks, we could see a flock of Snow Buntings feeding further over, but by the time we had finished looking at the Shorelarks, they had disappeared. We walked over to the beach and scanned the shingle, as Snow Buntings can be very hard to spot when they get in the stones. But the next thing we knew they flew back in, flashing white in their wings and twittering, and landed behind us on the edge of the saltmarsh again.

Snow Buntings 1

Snow Buntings – flew back in to the saltmarsh

We stopped to admire the Snow Buntings for a while, as they fed on the sparse seedy vegetation. They were very active, running around on the sand, occasionally flying up and landing again, always on the move.

After watching the Snow Buntings for a while, we turned our attention to the sea. Scanning the water, we spotted a few seaduck out in the Bay. They were not easy to see at first though – even though the sea looked fairly flat, it was surprising choppy, enough to hide the birds. First we came across two female Eider, with long wedge-shaped bills. Then we found three darker birds with two white spots on their faces, Velvet Scoter. They were busy diving for shellfish, but the white spots caught the sunlight when they surfaced.

A couple of Gannets flew past, white adults with black wingtips. Then we noticed a larger gathering of Gannets further out. One had obviously found a shoal of fish and attracted the others as they were all busy feeding. We watched as one after another folded back its wings and plunged headlong into the water.

There were a few other birds out on the sea too – a winter plumage Red-throated Diver, its white face catching the light, and several Great Crested Grebes too. A couple of Guillemots were not playing ball though, diving constantly so that they were impossible to see.

There were lots of gulls out on the beach too, plus several Oystercatchers, and a few Sanderling and Turnstone were flying back and forth out along the shoreline. A small group of Brent Geese were fast asleep right down by the water’s edge. Something had obviously spooked the Snow Buntings again, because they suddenly flew up over the dunes and landed out on the beach in front of us. We watched them busily preening in the sunshine before they eventually plucked up the courage to fly back again.

Snow Buntings 2

Snow Buntings – flew out onto the beach to preen for a while

As we made our way back towards the Gap, the two Red Kites were still circling over the dunes – there must have been some carrion out there which they couldn’t resist. When we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, three more were circling out over the grazing marshes on the other side of the pines.

Then, as we drove back towards the main road, we stopped to watch yet another Red Kite circling very close by. It dropped down into the grass and came back up with a rat in its talons. We couldn’t tell whether it had already been dead or not, but the Red Kite carried it out into the middle of the field and started to devour it.

Red Kite

Red Kite – feeding on a dead rat it found out on the grazing marshes

From Holkham, we headed east along the coast road to Kelling. There have been some Waxwings here for the last few days and we could see several large lenses pointed up into the dead tree right next to where we parked. They were right above our heads as we got out! Thankfully they didn’t seem to be in the least bit worried by us, and we walked across the road from where we could get a better angle to look at them.

With their punk haircuts and multi-coloured wing markings, Waxwings are one of the most charismatic birds and always worth a diversion to see. There were at least five of them here today. They occasionally dropped down to a neighbouring garden to feed on the rowan tree, then flew back up into the top of a dead tree, where they perched, digesting.

Waxwing 1

Waxwings – we saw at least five at Kelling today

Up close, through the scope, we could make out all the details of the Waxwings wings – including the small red waxy tips to its secondaries, from which it gets its name, as well as the yellow tip to the tail and the rusty undertail.

Waxwing 2

Waxwing – showing the small red waxy tips to the secondaries

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from admiring the Waxwings. We were heading back to Cley for lunch, so we stopped at Salthouse on the way there. There had been no mention of the ‘Eastern’ Stonechat all morning, so after a clear night last night it seemed like it had most likely gone, continuing on its journey.

We had a quick look anyway, and there was no sign. Hopefully the Sparrowhawk which was in the bushes close to where it had been favouring, had not had a Stonechat shaped meal! There was a family of Mute Swans on duck pond and a flock of Canada Geese out on the grazing marshes. A Lapwing and a Curlew both flew past, and several Meadow Pipits came up ‘seep-seeping’ out of the grass.

We carried on to Cley for lunch. As we sat down at the picnic tables, a slightly ominous line of dark grey cloud blew in from the south. It hung over us for precisely as long as we sat out eating and then, as soon as we stood up, it cleared again and went back to sunshine!

While we were eating, we could see a couple of flocks of Black-tailed Godwits busy feeding on Pat’s Pool. There were obviously lots of ducks out on North Scrape, as we could see when they were flushed by a Marsh Harrier, and flew round, mainly Wigeon and Teal.

After lunch, we went for a quick walk up along the East Bank. We stopped to look at some Greylag Geese out on the grazing marsh, with their large orange carrot-bills, very different from the Pink-footed Geese we had looked at earlier. There were lots of ducks out on Pope’s Pool, mainly Wigeon and Teal again. There were some closer Shoveler and Gadwall on the Serpentine, as well as more Teal. As we stopped to admire them, a Common Snipe flew across the water but ran straight into the long grass on the other side.

Teal

Teal – feeding on the Serpentine

It had clouded over again now, and with the wind seemingly having picked up a touch, we headed for the shelter to scan Arnold’s Marsh. There were plenty of Dunlin on here, scattered about in the shallow water, as well as a Grey Plover walking along the near edge, just beyond the vegetation. There were also several Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits, three Shelduck asleep at the back, and a few Cormorants drying their wings on the island.

Continuing on out towards the beach, a Little Egret was feeding in the reeds on the brackish pools. It seems to like it here!

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding in the reeds on the brackish pools

Looking out to sea, we spotted two Common Eider just offshore. They were drifting quickly west, but through the scope we could see their wedge-shaped bills. A female Common Scoter was also close in on the sea, dark-capped and pale-cheeked. More Gannets circled out over the sea and a large bull Grey Seal swam past.

We had one last target for the day, so we turned to head back. Suddenly, all the ducks erupted from North Scrape again. We scanned over the marshes, but we couldn’t see a Marsh Harrier out there this time. Then we noticed a Peregrine come up from behind the reeds. We watched as it circled round a couple of times, then it powered down towards the other scrapes and we lost sight of it behind the reeds as it shot across in front of Dauke’s Hide.

On the way back, we had a quick scan of the main drain, which produced a couple of Little Grebes. Then we drove further east along the coast road to Sheringham. There has been a young drake King Eider lingering off here for the last week or so. There were only one or two people looking for it now, late in the day, and they had lost sight of it. We scanned up through the flags, marking the position of the crab pots, and quickly relocated it again.

The King Eider is not at its smartest at the moment. It is just in its second winter and is still moulting out of its duller eclipse plumage, but it was still a treat to be able to watch this high arctic species so well south of its normal range. It was busy diving, presumably looking for the very crabs for which this area is so famous!

The light was fading fast now. Lots of Black-headed Gulls were gathered down on the beach below the cliffs, for a quick bath before heading off to bed. It had been a very enjoyable day out, but it was time for us to head off too now.

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.

3rd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice dry and mild winter’s day, brighter in the morning though clouding over a little later on.

While we were loading up the car in Wells first thing this morning, we happened to scan the trees in a garden next to the road. A Coal Tit appeared in the top of an apple tree and, while we  were watching it, a Waxwing popped up next to it. There have been lots of Waxwings about so far this winter, but most of those which arrived on the coast here have moved on inland. So this was most a welcome surprise.

6o0a1185Waxwing – just one, in the centre of Wells briefly first thing

The tree was full of Blackbirds feeding on the apples still on the tree, and the Waxwing dropped down and joined in. It fed for a few seconds, then climbed up into the back of the tree. It was on its own and probably looking for other Waxwings – it called a couple of times. At that point, something spooked the Blackbirds and everything scattered. We waited a while for the Waxwing to come back down to the apples but we hadn’t seen where it had gone and there was no further sign of it. It had probably just dropped in to feed briefly, before carrying on its way.

While we were waiting, we did see a Brambling which flew down to the feeders in another tree in the same garden. Another nice surprise to start the day.

6o0a1199Brambling – coming down to the feeders in the same garden

Our first destination proper was Holkham. As we drove down Lady Anne’s Drive, there were a few flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields either side, so we pulled up for a closer look, admiring their pink legs and bill bands.

6o0a1203Pink-footed Geese – in the fields along Lady Anne’s Drive

At the north end, a little group of Redshank were feeding on the pools in the grazing marsh on one side of the road and a large flock of Wigeon was out on the grass on the other side. Nearby, we found a single Curlew and a lone Common Snipe in the grass too. There was a bit of a commotion further over and we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier chasing a Carrion Crow. The Crow had something in its bill and obviously didn’t want to give it up. The two birds went round and round in tight circles for a minute or so, until the Marsh Harrier eventually gave up.

Walking out towards the beach, we could see a small group of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh as we made our way down the boardwalk. One of the geese was subtly different from the others – darker bodied and with a more contrasting flank patch and a larger white collar. It was not dark enough for a pure Black Brant though. It was a Black Brant hybrid (the offspring of a Black Brant and a Dark-bellied Brent mixed pair), and it has been returning here for several years, presumably with the same group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese.

img_9082Black Brant hybrid – a returning bird with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

Right in the far corner of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks. We could see them from some distance away, flying round, flashing white underneath as they turned. They landed again and we were able to approach carefully, stopping ahead of them and waiting as they worked their way towards us.

6o0a1225Shore Larks – some of the 28 at Holkham first thing this morning

There were 28 Shore Larks in the flock today, while we were there at least. As they came closer, we had a great view of them in the scope. Their bright yellow faces shone in the morning sunshine, contrasting with the black masks. Very smart little birds!

6o0a1266Shore Larks – the flock gradually came closer to us

In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the Shore Larks and walked out towards the dunes to look at the sea. Just about the first bird we found out on the water was a Red-necked Grebe. It was a little distant at first – thankfully it would come much closer inshore later. While we were trying to get everyone in the group onto it through the scope, a different bird surfaced in front. It was a Great Northern Diver. We all had a quick look at it before it dived.

The more we scanned the sea, the more we found. Not everyone had seen the Red-necked Grebe yet, and while scanning to find it one of the group found two grebes together. They didn’t sound like the Red-necked and taking a look through the scope they turned out to be two Slavonian Grebes. Then we found another Slavonian Grebe and another two, further out. Then a careful scan revealed at least 6 Slavonian Grebes scattered across the sea in ones and twos. A great number to find together in one place here at this time of year! There were lots of Great Crested Grebes out on the sea too.

The sea duck were further out today, and it took us a while to find a raft of Common Scoter. Looking carefully through the flock, we started to find a few Velvet Scoters in with them. The Common Scoter were almost all females, with large pale cheeks. Next to them, the Velvet Scoters looked much darker headed, with two smaller pale spots visible on a good view. It was not easy to pick them out at first, given the distance and the swell, but they drifted a bit closer inshore and the sea flattened off to make it a bit easier. In the end, we could see there were at least 10 Velvet Scoters out there today. A single Eider was similarly distant.

While we were watching the sea, we heard Shore Larks calling and a small group of nine flew along the beach and landed down on the sand in front of us. We presumed they were part of the group we had seen earlier, back on the saltmarsh, which had probably been disturbed by the increasing number of dogs out for a Saturday morning walk.

Four Snow Buntings had earlier flown east along the edge of the dunes. After the Shore Larks had moved on, another group of five Snow Buntings dropped down onto the tide line, where we could get a great look at them. One of them appeared to be an adult male Scandinavian bird, with lots of white in the wing.

6o0a1309Snow Buntings – 3 of the 5 which landed on the tide line

By this stage, the Red-necked Grebe had come closer inshore, giving us much better views. We could even see the yellow base to its bill, glinting in the sunshine! It gave us a better chance to compare it to the Slavonian Grebes, and the Great Crested Grebes as well. The Great Northern Diver had reappeared, at least we assumed it was the same one we had seen earlier, and for a few minutes it stopped diving and allowed us to get a great look at it too.

On our way back over the saltmarsh, we had a quick scan and there was no sign of any Shore Larks where they had been first thing this morning. We eventually stumbled across a small group, closer to the dunes, as we walked back. There were nine of them, so they were possibly the same birds we had seen out on the beach earlier. It seemed likely that the large flock had been disturbed and had disbursed. There were a lot of people out today, walkers and dog-walkers.

When we got back through the pines, we turned and walked west along the track on the south side of the trees. There were lots of Jays calling and flying back and forth across the path. At Salts Hole, we found a couple of Little Grebes on the water among the ducks. A Mistle Thrush flew out of the trees and dropped down onto the grass beyond. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and a tit flock duly appeared on the edge of trees. As well as a variety of tits, we could see lots of tiny Goldcrests flitting around. We heard a Treecreeper calling, and shortly after it appeared, working its way up the trunk of a pine tree. A Green Woodpecker flew off through the tree tops.

6o0a1339Long-tailed Tit – we found a mixed tit flock on the edge of the pines

We stopped briefly on the boardwalk by Washington Hide to scan the grazing marshes. A rather dark Common Buzzard was perched in a bush behind the reeds. A distant Red Kite circled over the trees in Holkham Park beyond. Four Gadwall were upending on the pool in front of the hide.

Making our way quickly further west, we climbed up to Joe Jordan Hide. Our first target was achieved as soon as we looked out of the flaps. A large flock of White-fronted Geese were out on the grass just to the left of the hide. We could see the white band around the base of the pink bill and the black belly bars of the adults. There were quite a few duller juveniles  too. In all, we counted at least 96 White-fronted Geese here today.

6o0a1343White-fronted Geese – there were at least 96 at Holkham today

Before we had even had a chance to sit down, someone else in the hide pointed out a Great White Egret which had appeared on the edge of a reedy ditch. We got that in the scope next and had a great view of it, an enormous white bird, the size of a Grey Heron, with a long, pointed, yellow bill and black feet, distinguishing it from a Little Egret. The Great White Egret flew across and landed on an old bridge, where it stood preening for a while. Eventually it flew again and disappeared back behind the reeds.

img_9110Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes from Joe Jordan Hide

There were lots of Marsh Harriers out here too. At first, we could see a couple perched in the bushes, but then more appeared and the next thing we knew there were six Marsh Harriers circling together. One of them was carrying bright green coloured wing tags and when it landed we were able to read the code on them. It turned out the bird had been ringed several miles inland from here in the summer of 2015 and this was the first time it had been seen again!

It was time for lunch, so we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive and made good use of the picnic tables outside. After lunch, we drove west to Burnham Overy Staithe and made our way out along the seawall towards the dunes.

There were lots of Wigeon and Curlew out on the grazing marshes by the start of the seawall. Several Redshank and Grey Plover were feeding on the mud along the edges of the harbour channel and we counted at least 10 Little Grebes in the channel itself. As we turned the corner on the seawall, the larger area of open mud was covered in waders, predominantly Dunlin. On the grass the other side, lots of Brent Geese were busy feeding. A little further along, we stopped to look at a striking pale Common Buzzard perched on a post.

6o0a1362Brent Geese – lots were feeding on the grazing marshes by the seawall

Once we reached the dunes, we made our way straight over to the beach. It had clouded over more now and, with the shortness of the days at this time of year, we were already starting to lose the light. There was no sign of the Isabelline Wheatear in the dunes around the end of the boardwalk as we walked past. It has seemingly been hiding out on the beach for the last couple of weeks, so we thought we would look for it out there, although we knew we were probably a little late in the day.

We walked quickly west along the tideline. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, a huge number of Common Gulls in particular, with more large groups constantly flying in to join them. There were a few waders too – a Bar-tailed Godwit, a handful of Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers and a couple of Turnstones. What looked at first like a raft of scoter in the distance out on the sea turned out to be a large flock of Wigeon when we got them in the scope. Presumably they had been frightened off the saltmarsh, perhaps by a raptor, and had sought safety out here.

When we saw movement ahead of us on the beach, we looked to see six Shore Larks picking along the high tide line. We lost sight of them behind a ridge and walking on the next thing we knew they appeared right in front of us. They scurried ahead of us for a while, before flying up and doubling back, landing behind us back down on the tide line again.

6o0a1381Shore Lark – six more were feeding along the tide line out at Gun Hill

The bushes round Gun Hill were very quiet now and there was no sign of the wheatear in the dunes on the walk back to the boardwalk. From the seawall, we scanned either side on the way back to Burnham Overy Staithe. We picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier over the saltmarsh, quartering low over the bushes. It seemed to drop down into the bushes, but the next thing we knew we picked up a grey male even further back, towards Scolt Head. Perhaps it was a different bird? The next thing we knew, a ringtail Hen Harrier was flying round with it.

With lots of yelping, we watched as a large flock of Pink-footed Geese dropped down off the fields and onto the grazing marshes. Even in the growing gloom, we could see there were several Barnacle Geese with them, although as usual there is no way of telling whether they might be wild birds or just part of the feral flock from Holkham.

It was the time when the Pink-footed Geese come in to roost at Holkham, and we looked up into the sky in the distance beyond and saw thousands and thousands of geese in a vast skein smearing the horizon. They were flying across from us, heading towards the back of Holkham Park. When we got back to the car park, we heard more geese yelping and looked up to see several more skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in from the west. We loaded up the car as several more skeins passed overhead and then it was time to head for home ourselves.

11th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The middle of November traditionally marks the time when autumn starts to merge into winter, at least as far as the migration season is concerned. However, there are sill birds on the move, arriving here for the winter, and there is still the odd lingering migrant yet to move on. It was a gloriously sunny day today, even warm at times, a perfect day to get out and see some of those birds.

We started at Burnham Overy Staithe. As we climbed up onto the seawall,a small bird flew past us and into the bushes below. It was a Chiffchaff. Presumably a late migrant, it seemed to be in a hurry to be on its way and disappeared off down the line of bushes in a series of long flights. A Common Buzzard perched in a large bush out on the grazing meadows, enjoying the morning sunshine.

img_8390Fieldfare – in the bushes by the seawall at Burnham Overy Staithe

There were lots of Blackbirds in the hawthorns below the seawall, presumably winter migrants arrived from the continent and stopped to refuel on berries. As we walked along, we heard first the tchacking of a Fieldfare, which we found perched in the top in the sunshine, and then the teezing of several Redwings, most of which were less obliging. A Song Thrush completed the set.

6o0a8480Redwing – several were also feeding in the bushes below the seawall

Looking out over the other side, in the harbour, we stopped to look through the waders. The tide was out, so there was lots of exposed mud. First we picked up a Grey Plover with a lone Ringed Plover over on the far bank. Then several more Ringed Plovers appeared, and started to bathe in the shallow water, with a Redshank conveniently close by for size comparison. A little further along, at the bend in the seawall, we could see a good sized flock of Dunlin out on the larger mudflats, feeding feverishly.

As we walked past, we flushed a Little Egret from the near edge of the harbour channel, and it flew out to the mud, flashing its yellow feet as it went. In the channel, we found four Little Grebes together. They proceeded to haul themselves out onto the far bank – always off to see Little Grebes on dry land, they look so ungainly.

6o0a8448Little Egret – with bright yellow feet

Several Rock Pipits had flown around calling, but typically dropped down out of view. Finally one dropped down in front of us and perched nicely on a pile of rocks, appropriately enough! Through the scope, we could see its plain, oily brown upperparts and the dirty ground colour to its black-streaked underparts. We get a lot of Scandinavian Rock Pipits, of the subspecies littoralis, coming to Norfolk for the winter, but we don’t have any British petrosus breeding here.

img_8392Rock Pipit – eventually one perched up nicely for us on a pile of rocks

There were lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes. As we stopped to have a look at them in the scope, we could hear them whistling – a real sound of winter on the marshes here. There were plenty of geese too. We were looking straight into the sun on the walk about but we could still see lots of Brent Geese, Pink-footed Geese and Greylags. In with them were 12 Barnacle Geese, presumably feral birds from Holkham Park.

As we passed the reedbed, we could hear Bearded Tits calling but, despite the lack of wind, they were not to be seen. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us, but was similarly elusive. At least the Reed Buntings were slightly easier to see. A Marsh Harrier perched in one of the bushes at the back of the reeds and another one or two flew backwards and forwards across the channel to and from the saltmarsh beyond.

There were lots of Starlings on the move today, little flocks passing west overhead constantly on the walk out. Some were not flying so directly as they sometimes do, instead taking advantage of the warm conditions to try to catch flies on the way. A small flock of Golden Plover flew over calling and dropped down on the grass by the dunes. When we got there, we got them in the scope and found a little covey of six Grey Partridges with them!

When we got to the dunes, we turned left and walked out towards Gun Hill. The Isabelline Wheatear was still present earlier in the morning – it has been here for three weeks now – but had not been seen for over an hour when we arrived. Could it have taken advantage of the sunny weather finally to continue its journey? We decided to have a walk round the dunes to see if we could find it.

There was no sign of it where it had been feeding for the past couple of weeks. From the northern edge of the dunes, we stopped to look out towards the sea. We could see lines of wildfowl flying in, migrants arriving for the winter. There were several groups of Brent Geese and a larger flock of Wigeon coming in. A line of around twenty Eider flying west over the sea was a nice bonus, particularly as it included a couple of smart drakes.

There were lots of waders down on the beach. There were plenty of Oystercatcher and a few Sanderling out on the sand. Down around the tidal channel, we found a little mixed flock of Knot and Dunlin – a nice opportunity to compare their relative sizes. Several Turnstones had gathered for a bath.

Out at the point, looking out towards Scolt Head, we picked up two Red Kites circling out over the saltmarsh. They seemed too concerned with swooping at each other to worry about the Marsh Harrier which was trying to have a go at them. There were a few people standing on the top of Gun Hill looking for the Isabelline Wheatear, and as we turned to walk back one of the locals started waving to us. It had reappeared!

img_8405Isabelline Wheatear – looking very sandy in the sun

We stopped to scan in the direction they were all looking and there was the Isabelline Wheatear on the edge of the saltmarsh. It looked particularly pale and sandy in the sunshine. It flitted around the bushes for a few seconds and then disappeared off behind the Suaeda. It was proving very mobile because, by the time we got over to the others, it had flown again to the other side of Gun Hill. We had some nice views of it on the grass and back down to the edge of the saltmarsh again before suddenly it was off again. It flew  off up over Gun Hill and disappeared.

It was around this time that we heard trilling and looked up to see a Waxwing heading towards us.  It flew over our heads and carried on west, unfortunately without stopping.

Having had good views of the Isabelline Wheatear, we decided to walk round onto the beach and head back along the tideline to see what we could find. We didn’t find any Snow Buntings today, but we did come across the Isabelline Wheatear again. The reason we couldn’t find it earlier in the dunes was because it was now out on the beach! There were lots of flies buzzing around the high tide line, and it was busy catching them. Chasing up and down the beach, occasionally flying up after a fly.

img_8451Isabelline Wheatear – catching flies out on the beach today

We watched it for a while, but in the end had to tear ourselves away and head back, taking a detour via the base of the dunes to avoid disturbing it. We walked quickly back along the seawall, stopping briefly to watch a large flock of Linnets and Goldfinches whirling around over the saltmarsh. When they landed, we could see several Golden Plover out there too, surprisingly well camouflaged, despite the bright golden-spangled upperparts we could see through the scope.

The light was better on the walk back, so we stopped at the corner to look at the geese again. This time, we found four White-fronted Geese in with the Pinkfeet. One had its head up for a while, so we could see its pink bill surrounded at the base with white, but then they all went to sleep. Then it was back for lunch, led along the seawall by a pair of Stonechats which flew ahead of us. We ate our lunch sat on the benches looking out over the saltmarsh back towards Gun Hill – a stunning view!

6o0a8464Stonechat – a pair led us back along the seawall

After lunch, we drove back round to Holkham. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes east of Lady Anne’s Drive. While most were distant, a little group of about a dozen were right next to the road, so we stopped for a close look. We could see their pink legs and delicate dark bills with encircled with a pink band.

6o0a8494Pink-footed Goose – showing very well close to Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked through the pines, we could hear Goldcrests calling high up in the pines. A Jay flew across and started scolding from the trees the other side. Out on the saltmarsh, a large flock of Linnets was whirling round, reluctant to settle.

A little further along, we came across a small group of Brent Geese. Looking through them,  we quickly found the Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which is regular here. It is not as dark or contrasting as a pure Black Brant but is still subtly darker bodied, with a slightly bolder flank patch and more obvious though not complete collar. In with them too was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose. When it turned, we could see the bold wing stripes which meant it was a juvenile. Along with several or our regular Russian Dark-bellied Brents, that meant we had 2 1/2 subspecies of Brent Goose in one very small flock!

img_8457Black Brant hybrid – out on the saltmarsh at Holkham

At the eastern end of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks in their usual place. We could see several of them flying around before we got there, but when we got closer we noticed there were lots more still down on the ground. There was a mass of bright yellow faces, shining beautifully in the late afternoon sunshine. Shore Larks are always stunning birds, but it was fantastic to watch so many of them in such great light, a real treat.

6o0a8521

They were feeding in the slightly taller vegetation today, picking seeds from the dried seedheads of the saltmarsh flowers. Several of the Shore Larks were hidden from view, which made it harder to get an accurate count, but there were at least 65 today and very probably a few more that we missed. After years of declining numbers it is great to see so many back again this year. While we were watching the Shore Larks, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the pines beyond, a reminder that days are short now.

Out at the beach, the tide was in. There was a surprising amount of swell, given how little wind there was today, which meant we had to climb up into the dunes to get a higher vantage point. Even from there, the ducks kept disappearing in the waves. We did manage to find a couple of Long-tailed Ducks which were not too far out. The large flocks of Common Scoter were more distant but little groups kept flying around and a flash of white in the wing alerted us to two Velvet Scoters in with one of them. They landed on the sea and we could see them in the scope before they started diving and disappeared into the larger flock.

We could see several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too. A little flock of Cormorants flew overhead, heading in to roost. Then it started to get a little misty and, with the light fading, became increasingly difficult to pick out anything different. We decided to head back to the other side of the pines.

Lots of Pink-footed Geese could be heard calling as we walked back through the pines. There was a lovely view across the marshes, with low-lying mist enveloping the bases of the hedges and trees. We watched and waited for a while, with several smaller groups of geese flying in and whiffling down. Then we picked up some bigger skeins in the distance and several thousand flew in together, in a cacophony of yelping calls. Perhaps put off by the mist, several groups flew straight over, perhaps heading out to roost on the flats instead. Many of the others did drop down and disappear into the mist.

6o0a8536Pink-footed Geese – dropping down in the mist to roost

It is quite a sight and sound to watch the Pink-footed Geese coming in to roost on a winter’s evening. Then, with the light fading, we headed for home.

6th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today, our last day and the last Autumn Migration Tour for this season. The weather forecast for today was dreadful but thankfully, as usual, the Met Office had got it wrong. It was windy all day and we did have to dodge some squally showers in the afternoon, but in the morning we were presented with most unexpected blue skies and bright sunshine.

Our first stop for the day was at Snettisham.As we made our way down to the reserve, we saw a group of swans on the northern pit and a quick look confirmed they were Whooper Swans, presumably stopped off on there way down to the Fens. There appeared to be two families – a pair with six juveniles and another pair with three young and an extra adult tagging along. There was a bit of squabbling going on between the two groups – wing flapping and adults chasing after each other with necks outstretched.

6o0a7585Whooper Swans – one of two families on the northern pit at Snettisham

It was getting on for high tide already, but it was not a particularly big tide today which meant that the waders would not be pushed very high up the mud. Scanning from the seawall, we could see huge flocks of waders out over the mud, thousands of Knot and smaller numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits in particular. Closer to us, little groups of Dunlin were more spread out, feeding feverishly.

Many of the flocks were seeking whatever shelter from the wind they could find out on the exposed mud. We got a group of Knot in the scope which were crammed tight in a small depression. On the edge of the channel down in from of us, down at of the wind, was a little huddle of Dunlin, together with a Grey Plover and a Redshank, all trying to sleep.

We took shelter in Rotary Hide to scan the mud. Looking out to the edge of the Wash, we could see long lines of Gannets battling north. They had been blown into the Wash by the strong north wind and were now trying to work their way back out again along the eastern shore. A couple of juvenile Gannets tried flying in across the mud instead, flushing the flocks of Knot which were not sure exactly what was flying overhead.

6o0a7606Gannet – trying to make its way back north, out of the Wash

Over on the edge of the water we could see a couple of large flocks of sleeping Oystercatchers, looking like a black smear along the shore line in the distance. Three Sanderling were much closer, landing on the near edge of the channel and running along on the mud.

Looking out the other side of Rotary Hide, we found one of the two Black-necked Grebes which have been here for a few days now. It was hard viewing from here, as we were looking into the morning sun. The water was also very choppy. whipped up by the blustery wind. The Black-necked Grebe was diving continually, with a couple of Little Grebes too, a little further back.

img_8281Black-necked Grebe – one of two on the southern pit again today

Braving the elements again, we walked further down along the seawall. A lone drake Pintail was on one of the small pools on the near edge of the mud as we passed so we stopped for a closer look at it. It was a smart drake, largely out of eclipse but still without its long pin-shaped tail.

img_8289Pintail – on its own out on the mud on the edge of the Wash

Round at Shore Hide we got ourselves out of the wind again. We had a better view across the pit from here, with the sun away to our right. Almost immediately we found the Scaup, bobbing about on the water in front of the hide. It was a 1st winter drake, just starting to get some grey feathers on its back and white on the rear flanks, and with a dirty white face.

6o0a7639Scaup – the first winter drake on the pit

The second Black-necked Grebe was also diving continually, a little further out behind the Scaup. As were a smart pair of Goldeneye. At first, they were rather distant, down at the southern end of the pit, but after a while they reappeared over in front of the far bank, out from the hide. There was a nice selection of dabbling ducks too, mostly Wigeon in various stages of moult, plus a few Shoveler and a lone pair of Gadwall. We stopped to admire the drake Gadwall, a most under-appreciated bird!

There were comparatively few waders on the pits today. With the small tide, they were not going to be pushed off the Wash. However, there was a tight huddle of fifty or so Redshank on the edge of one of the islands. The vast majority of them were Common Redshank, but a closer look revealed a single Spotted Redshank in with them. They were all asleep at first, but still it was possible to pick the Spotted Redshank out at the back of the flock – it was a slightly paler shade of grey, more silvery-grey than the slaty coloured Common Redshanks, and through the scope we could see the much more marked white supercilium in front of the eye. Eventually something spooked them and they woke up, at which point it was possible to see the Spotted Redshank’s longer, needle fine bill.

It had been gloriously sunny for the most part at Snettisham, but as we drove back to the north coast we could see some rain clouds coming in off the sea and it started to rain as we turned the corner. We planned to spend the afternoon at Titchwell, but we made a quick detour down to Holme on the way there. There had been a large flock of Waxwings here for the last couple of days. As we drove down the reserve entrance track, we couldn’t see any, but on our way back with the windows open we heard them flying over and saw them land in the hedge behind us, down near Redwell Marsh.

A quick about turn and we managed to get good views of the Waxwings through the scope from the road, in the top of a hawthorn. We walked round and down the footpath to Redwell Marsh, hoping to get a little closer, but by the time we got there they had disappeared. As we made our way back to the road, we heard them calling and they flew over, 25-30 in total, and disappeared over in the direction of the village.

At least it had stopped raining, but it was still rather overcast while we were here. We did see a few other birds. There were lots of Blackbirds and a few Redwing in the hedges, and a couple of Fieldfares flew over as we walked along the road. A Kingfisher zipped over but disappeared down into the river channel out of view. With the Waxwings having disappeared, we didn’t hang around and moved quickly on to Titchwell. On the way there, we could see a huge flock of Fieldfare feeding in a winter wheat field by the main road, presumably recently arrived from the continent.

After lunch at Titchwell, we made our way out onto the reserve. It was very blustery out on the main path, but we stopped for a quick look over Thornham grazing marsh and the dried up pool. We found the Water Pipit which had been frequenting the puddles here recently, but it was right at the back and unfortunately disappeared into the vegetation before everyone could get onto it. A Marsh Harrier hung over the reedbed at the back.

Island Hide offered us some welcome shelter from the wind. The water level on the freshmarsh is going up fast now, as the warden tried to get the vegetation under control. Consequently, there are fewer waders on here at the moment. A single Ruff was picking around in the vegetation on the edge of the cut reeds beside the hide, and a few more Ruff were further out on the islands. While we were scanning, at least 30 more Ruff flew in, one of them with a noticeably very white head. Even in winter, they can be very variable, underlining why Ruff is probably the most often confused wader.

6o0a7676Ruff – in winter plumage, feeding in the vegetation close to Island Hide

There were lots of ducks on the freshmarsh. Large numbers of Wigeon and Teal in particular, with some of the drakes looking increasingly smart as they have now mostly emerged from their duller eclipse plumage. In with them, were smaller numbers of Gadwall and Shoveler.

Good numbers of gulls were seeking shelter from the wind and loafing around on the water or on the islands. The Great Black-backed Gulls had probably sought refuge from the brunt of the wind out on the beach, where they would normally be. A single Yellow-legged Gull was asleep on one of the islands at first, but eventually woke up and showed us its bright yellow legs. It was also noticeably darker mantled than the nearby Herring Gulls.

img_8311Yellow-legged Gull – one was amongst all the gulls on the freshmarsh today

Round to Parrinder Hide and we called in on the north side first. A Curlew feeding in front of the hide was the highlight. Otherwise, there were several Redshank and a distant Grey Plover out on Volunteer Marsh. The islands of vegetation can sometimes conceal a lot of birds on here and down below us we could see a mob of Wigeon and Teal attacking the plants.

6o0a7694Curlew – feeding in front of Parrinder Hide on the Volunteer Marsh

On the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the freshmarsh, there were two Common Snipe feeding just below the hide, although they quickly scurried away further along the bank. There are not so many places for them to hide here now, since the reeds on the bank have been cut down

img_8318Common Snipe – feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

The piles of cut vegetation proved to be a perfect perch for a couple of Stonechat. They had been feeding from the fence around the island further over, dropping down from the posts to the ground. They gradually worked their way along, closer to us, and switched to using the mounds of cut reed as vantage points instead.

A smart drake Shoveler was feeding out on the water in front of the hide. When they are feeding, Shoveler swim around with their enormous bills under the water, stirring up food and then filtering it out with their bills. They can do this for long periods without lifting their heads out – making them very tricky to photograph!

6o0a7734Shoveler – a smart drake feeding in front of Parrinder Hide

There have been some White-fronted Geese at Titchwell for a week or so now. They seem to move between the maize field along the entrance road and the freshmarsh. Today, they were feeding on the fenced off island with all the Greylags. It was hard to tell exactly how many there were. There was the usual family party, two adults and two juveniles, and at least one further adult today.

When the adult White-fronted Geese raised their heads, you could see the distinctive white band around the base of their bills. At one point, as they came out of the vegetation, you could also see the black bands on their bellies. The two juvenile White-fronted Geese lacked the white face and black belly bars, but were still smaller and darker than the Greylags, with a pink bill.

img_8323White-fronted Goose – one of the adults, raising its head

There didn’t seem to be any Avocets left here are first. Most of the birds which breed here or gather post-breeding, have long since left for warmer climes further south. Most years, a small number linger on through into the winter. Eventually we found them, six Avocets lurking right in the back corner of the freshmarsh.

It seems rude to visit Titchwell without at least seeing the sea. We did make a quick sortie out to the beach today, to finish the day. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a little group of Dunlin were feeding along the channel right by the main path. Out on the tidal pools, there were a couple of Black-tailed Godwit and a Grey Plover. However, we didn’t linger on the walk out today, given the wind, but headed straight on to the sea.

As we got to the beach, we could see a squally shower blowing in and the first spots of rain were blowing in to our faces. The sea was rough, which would make it tricky to see any birds out here anyway. Still, it is always amazing to see the fury of the sea on a stormy day. With the rain starting to come in, we beat a hasty retreat.

Walking back past the freshmarsh, there were lots of birds coming in to roost. Lines of Black-headed Gulls flew in from the fields and another flock of Ruff came in over the reedbed and grazing marshes. A Marsh Harrier drifted in from the Thornham direction and headed off over the reedbed. With the light fading, it was time for us to call it a day too. The weather hadn’t been anyway near as bad as forecast and we had still managed to see a great selection of birds, despite the windy conditions.

5th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. It was cloudy and increasingly blustery today, with winds gusting to 47mph this afternoon, so we spent the day dodging the showers. Still, it was surprising how much we saw despite the weather.

As we drove east along the coast road this morning, we flushed lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches from the sides of the road. Our first destination was Blakeney, for a quick walk out around the Freshes before the wind picked up later. A couple of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the harbour channel just across from the car park but we could immediately see that one was much paler than the other. A closer look confirmed, one was a Pale-bellied Brent and the other a Dark-bellied Brent Goose.

6o0a7350Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese – a nice comparison

Dark-bellied is the regular form of Brent Goose which winters in large numbers here. This subspecies breeds in arctic Russia. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard west across arctic Canada and winter mainly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland. We normally get a handful of Pale-bellied in with the flocks of Dark-bellied Brents here each winter and they occasionally form mixed pairs. Today was a great opportunity to see them side by side.

While we were watching the Brent Geese, we heard a Kingfisher call and looked across the channel to see two Kingfishers chasing each other low over the water. They flew over to our side of the channel and disappeared over the bank towards the Freshes. A little later we saw one of the zip back low across the reeds towards the wildfowl collection. A Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds a little further along.

Further along the seawall, as we got almost to the corner, we turned to look at the Freshes just in time to glimpse a dumpy bird dropping down into the grass on the edge of a flooded depression. We had a pretty good idea what it was, but we couldn’t see it from the seawall or from the path the other side. As we approached for a closer look, a Jack Snipe flew up and shot off towards the harbour – just what we had suspected. In flight, we could really see the small size and the shorter bill compared to a Common Snipe.

We continued on along the north side of the Freshes bank. There were lots of Skylarks down in the short weedy vegetation beyond the fence. A flock of Linnets flew in and dropped down there too briefly. A Rock Pipit flew over calling and landed on the fence, where we could get a good look at it through the scope. Reed Buntings occasionally flew up from the bushes but quickly disappeared back down again. A female Stonechat worked its way along the fence, dropping down onto the side of the bank periodically to look for food.

6o0a7371Stonechat – this lone female was working its way along the fence line

It is very exposed to the elements out on the seawall here. The wind was now starting to pick up and we could see dark clouds coming in towards us over the sea, so we decided to head back to the car. We had a quick look at the wildfowl in the Blakeney collection – none of which were allowed on the bird list for the day of course! We were just settled back in the warmth of the car when we saw two Peregrines over the edge of Friary Hills. A larger adult Peregrine, presumably a female, was chasing a smaller male juvenile – they swooped low over the grass before disappearing behind a hedge, coming out the other side and zooming off over the houses.

With the deterioration in the weather, we decided to head inland to get some respite. There have been some Waxwings in Holt for the last couple of days and as we turned into the road where they have most often been seen we could immediately see several photographers with long lenses pointed up into the trees. Even before we stopped, we could see Waxwings, and we could hear them calling as we got out of the car.

6o0a7387Waxwing – there were at least 20 in Holt today

There were at least 20 Waxwings, but they were hard to count as they were feeding in several different trees, and frequently flying round in small groups or singles. The bulk of the group seemed to keep returning to the top of a large chestnut tree, where they were hard to see among the leaves. From there, they would drop down into several smaller rowans, where they would proceed to wolf down the red berries, much to the annoyance of the local Blackbirds! There was also an apple tree in one of the front gardens by the road, and several of the Waxwings kept coming down to attack the apples, clinging on to them and biting away at the flesh where they had been half eaten already.

6o0a7454Waxwing – feeding on apples, as well as rowan berries

Having feasted ourselves, on such excellent views of such gorgeous looking birds, when the Waxwings flew off and disappeared round behind the buildings, we decided to move on. Our next stop was at Sheringham, where we went for a walk along the sea front.We thought we might pick up some seabirds on our way, but at first it seemed a little quiet, apart from hordes of Turnstones around the fishing boats which had been hauled up the slipway.

6o0a7525Turnstone – lots along the prom at Sheringham

There was no sign of any Purple Sandpipers on their usual favourite rocks below the pub, but when we got to the shelter at the east end of the prom, we could see first one and then two Purple Sandpipers distantly out on the sea defences.

We stopped to talk to another couple of local birders who told us that the movement of seabirds was just picking up, after the wind had strengthened. A line of Common Scoter flew past with a single Tufted Duck in amongst them. A steady stream of Gannets tacked across the wind, heading east offshore, both white adults and dark grey-brown juveniles. There were little groups of Guillemots zooming across and a couple of Red-throated Divers went past too.Then a few Great Skuas started to pass by – in the half hour we stood there sheltering from the wind, we saw about ten – but they were all rather distant and hard to get everyone onto. A single juvenile Pomarine Skua was even further offshore.

As a particularly fierce squall blew in off the sea, we took shelter until it passed. Perhaps prompted by a Sanderling which came in with them, the two Purple Sandpipers took off and flew towards us, passing by and heading back to the rocks below the pub. We waited until the rain had stopped and decided to walk back to look for them. Unfortunately, by that stage they had disappeared again. We did find a couple of Ringed Plovers which had probably stopped off with the Turnstones to sit out the wind.

6o0a7527Ringed Plover – stopped off with the Turnstones on the slipway

After lunch and a welcome hot drink back along the coast road at Cley, we drove round to Iron Road and headed down along Attenborough’s Way. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese out on the grazing meadows (all Dark-bellieds), and as well as the plain backed adults we could see quite a few stripe-backed juveniles. Hopefully, as the Brent Goose numbers increase over the coming weeks, it will prove to have been a good breeding season for them this year.

6o0a7537Brent Geese – adults & juveniles on the grazing marshes

Round at Babcock Hide, the wind was now whistling across the marshes. A little flock of Dunlin were feeding down at the front of the scrape below the hide, but they were very skittish and kept whirling round before dropping back down again. A pair of Redshank were defending their feeding territory in front of the hide, chasing off any others which tried to land there.

First one Black-tailed Godwit dropped in, then another five, stopping to feed for a few minutes before flying off again, flashing their boldly marked black and white wings. A couple of little groups of Lapwing flew in from the east and stopped to rest for a minute or two on the islands.

None of the waders would settle, in part because there were a couple of Marsh Harriers about. First, a dark juvenile flew across the reeds at the back of the pool, and drifted off towards Salthouse. Then a young male Marsh Harrier, with paler underwings and small patches of paler grey emerging on its upperwings, did the same. As they came over the grazing marshes, all the Wigeon shot out into the middle of the water from the banks. There were a few Teal and Mallard with them and three Shoveler appeared from behind the reeds too.

When a particularly dark cloud had passed over, we returned to the car and drove back round to the main part of the reserve. Just as we set out to walk to the hides, it started to rain so we hurried out along the boardwalk – thankfully it was only light rain and we got out there without getting wet.

There were several Shelduck out on Pat’s Pool and  huddle of gulls out beyond the first island. A few Teal were out on one of the further islands, but there were not many waders – three Dunlin at the back and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits roosting in with the gulls. Simmond’s Scrape held more wildfowl – a larger flock of Wigeon, a good number of Teal and a huddle of around 20 Pintail asleep behind one of the islands. Presumably the waders had gone elsewhere in search of food and shelter. A Common Snipe was feeding on the bank outside Dauke’s Hide but flew across and landed down behind the grass in front of Teal Hide where we couldn’t see it.

A couple more Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbed beyond the scrapes this side. The light was starting to fade already and they were presumably gathering before going to roost. Several Pied Wagtails flew past while we watched, some of them dropping in to the islands briefly, before continuing on their way heading off to roost.

6o0a7562Marsh Harrier – gathering over the reeds before going to roost

Turning our attention to the gulls, we could immediately see a good selection of different species – Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. One of the herring gull-types looked different – it was very white-headed, whereas Herring Gulls typically have lots of grey blotches around the head at this time of year. Against the white head, the beady black eye really stood out – the nearby Herring Gulls instead showing a very pale iris. It was  an adult Caspian Gull.

img_8262Caspian Gull – this adult was hunkered down against the wind on Pat’s Pool

The Caspian Gull was hunkered down against the wind and didn’t initially look as long-billed and long-faced as they usually do. It kept returning to a little patch of cut rushes, behind which it tried to crouch down and shelter. However, the mantle was noticeably half a shade darker than the nearby Herring Gulls. Eventually, the Caspian Gull walked up onto the island and started preening, and now finally we could see the distinctive long head and bill.

Cley in the late evening is normally a good place to see different gulls gathering before they go to roost, but the Caspian Gulls often come in very late, just as it is getting dark, so we were lucky this one had arrived nice and early today. When some of the gulls flew across to Simmond’s Scrape, we turned to look there and found an adult Yellow-legged Gull to add to the day’s gull list. It was with a Lesser and a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a good comparison in mantle tone – it was noticeably much darker grey than the Herring Gulls but paler and less slatey than the Lesser Black-backeds.

At first, the Yellow-legged Gull was up to its belly in the water but eventually it climbed out onto the mud and we could finally see its deep yellow legs. The light was starting to fade now, and consequently they might not have appeared as bright to the unitiated as they otherwise would have done. It was time to call it a day, but it had been a nice way to end with such a good selection of gulls gathering.

4th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The last of our scheduled Autumn Migration Tours, we were looking to catch up with some lingering migrants and also see the arrival of many of our winter visitors. It was mostly cloudy all day, but not too windy today, good birding conditions for the time of year.

Our first destination of the day was Burnham Overy Staithe. We climbed up onto the seawall and set off to walk towards the dunes. As we did so, we heard Waxwings calling and looked over to the hawthorns further along just in time to see six of them flying off across the path in front of us and heading off west. A nice way to start the day.

The Waxwings had moved on but the bushes were still alive with birds as we walked past. Lots of thrushes were feasting on the berries, probably fresh in from the continent and hungry after their long journey over the sea. There were plenty of Blackbirds and with them a few Redwings and Song Thrushes. Several Robins chasing around in the bushes were also probably winter migrants. Out on the grazing marsh, a flock of Starlings were down in the brambles and a steady stream of small groups of Starlings were passing west overhead.

It was high tide and small parties of Brent Geese were flying around over the harbour or heading out across the grazing marshes. We could see three grey geese half hidden behind a line of reeds out on the grass and looking more closely we could see that they were White-fronted Geese, the white around the base of their bills showing when they lifted their heads.

img_8064White-fronted Geese – three were on the grazing marshes this morning

Further along, at the corner of the seawall, we could see loads more geese out on the marshes. They were mostly Greylags, larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and Pink-footed Geese, smaller and darker grey with a more delicate and mostly dark bill. In with them we found four Barnacle Geese. Unfortunately it is hard to know whether they were wild birds which had arrived with the Pink-footed Geese for the winter, or perhaps more likely feral birds from the flock in Holkham Park!

The geese were mostly distant, but two Pink-footed Geese swam in from the harbour and started feeding on the grass at the bottom of the seawall, giving us a closer look at their pink legs and feet and the pink bank around the dark bill.

6o0a7088Pink-footed Goose – two were feeding at the base of the seawall

While we were watching the geese, we received a phone call to let us know that a Great White Egret was flying across the harbour behind us. We turned to see it drop down onto the saltmarsh the other side, over towards Scolt Head. Through the scope we could see its long neck and long yellow-orange dagger of a bill. Even at that range, it was clearly much bigger than the Little Egrets, several of which we could see dotted around the harbour.

We made our way swiftly out to the dunes and turned west towards Gun Hill. There were a few photographers with massive lenses lying prone on the grass ahead of us and we could immediately see their target. The Isabelline Wheatear has been here for almost two weeks now. They are a very rare visitor here – breeding from Turkey across through southern Russia, they winter mostly in Africa, so this one was well off course. It seems to be finding plenty of food in the short grass though.

img_8139Isabelline Wheatear – has been in the dunes for almost two weeks

The more typical Northern Wheatear is a regular passage migrant here, but Isabelline Wheatear is paler and sandier-coloured. In flight, it has a similar black and white tail pattern, but the black terminal band is much broader. A great bird to catch up with here.

After admiring the Isabelline Wheatear for a while, we set off past Gun Hill and out to the beach. The tide was starting to go out and we could see more waders on the emerging mud. A couple of Grey Plover were feeding in a muddy creek. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were in the water by a sandbank along with two Curlew. Further over, we could see a Ringed Plover and several Dunlin. Small groups of Wigeon had gathered on the banks of the harbour channel.

Walking round onto the other side of the point, we started to scan the sea beyond the spit at the eastern end of Scolt Head. A surprise find here was a late adult Arctic Tern, fishing just offshore. It kept flying up and down just beyond the sand and diving periodically into the water. A Red-throated Diver moulting out of summer plumage drifted east and a juvenile Gannet flew past further offshore.

We had been told that there were some Snow Buntings on the beach, so we walked round along the tide line and eventually spotted nine of them flying towards us. They landed out on the beach at first, but then returned to the high water mark where they proceeded to feed on the piles of saltmarsh vegetation which had been washed up, looking for seeds. We edged closer to them and were watching them through the scope when they flew again – and promptly landed right in front of us. Stunning views!

6o0a7206Snow Bunting – there were nine on the beach by Gun Hill today

We made our way back along the beach, stopping to scan through a nice selection of waders which had gathered around the channels out on the sand north of the boardwalk. The silvery grey and white Sanderling contrasting with the much darker and longer billed Dunlin. More Ringed Plover were walking around on the sandbanks. A Bar-tailed Godwit was wading deeper in the water.

Crossing back over the dunes towards the grazing marshes we could hear birds calling plaintively and looked up to see a small flock of Golden Plover whirling over the grass. They settled down again and we had a look at them through the scope. While we were standing there, a flock of about a dozen Blackbirds came in from the direction of the sea and headed inland. Then three Mistle Thrushes flew in calling too and made their way in over the seawall.

It was time lunch, so we made our way quickly back towards the car. Scanning the grazing marshes on the way, we spotted some birds flycatching from the bushes in the distance. They were Waxwings, possibly the ones we had seen earlier having returned or more likely another group. There are large numbers of Waxwings arriving along the coast at the moment. They are irruptive, coming here in very variable numbers each winter, moving out of Scandinavia in response to cold weather or a lack of berries. After a couple of fairly lean winters for them, this looks like being a good Waxwing year!

We hurried back along the seawall and positioned ourselves where we could see them. The Waxwings were perching in the tops of the bushes and making little sallies up into the air after insects. Others were perched in the hawthorns, preening or eating berries. We counted six out on the grazing marshes at first – then as we walked back along the seawall, four were perched in the bushes just below, and we could still see at least four further over. Waxwings are such stunning birds and full of character with their spiky hairstyles! Suddenly they started calling and flew off towards Burnham Overy Staithe.

6o0a7251Waxwings – at least 8 were in the bushes on our way back

After a late lunch at Holkham, delayed due to our time spent admiring the Waxwings, we drove down to the end of Lady Anne’s Drive and walked out through the pines towards the beach. The saltmarshes here used to be a regular site for wintering Shorelarks, but they haven’t been here for nearly five years now. The numbers along the whole Norfolk coast have dropped in recent years and it seemed that seeing large flocks of Shorelarks could be a thing of the past. However, just like with Waxwings it looks like this winter could be a year for Shorelarks. A large flock of Shorelarks has gathered at Holkham in the last couple of weeks.

As we walked down along the edge of the saltmarsh, we could see several people ahead of us. They were not here to see the larks but were walking their dogs – they were off the lead and one of them, a spaniel, was haring about over the whole of the saltmarsh, back and forth. Disturbance from dogs may be one reason why Holkham doesn’t get Shorelarks every year like it used to do. When we got to the place the birds have been favouring, we were pleased to see that some were still left. There were only ten of them though, as we proceeded to stop and admire them.

As we watched them, another flock of about 25 Shorelarks flew back in and joined them. Then another similar sized group returned to. It was hard to count them all, as they were moving all the time and some were hidden in the saltmarsh vegetation but there were at least 62 in total, an amazing number and the most we have seen for many years.

img_8217Shorelark – the Holkham flock numbered at least 62 today, an amazing number

While we were watching them, a covey of nine Grey Partridge strolled out of the dunes and across the path and proceeded to feed on the edge of the saltmarsh, next to the Shorelarks. A very odd combination!

Having enjoyed great views of the Shorelarks, we made our way out to the beach. The tide was out but we stopped by the dunes to look at the sea. We could see lots of Common Scoter scattered across the bay, numbering several hundred in total. Closer inshore, we picked up a group of five Long-tailed Duck just off the beach. Before we made our way down to the shore for a closer look, we had a quick scan of the sea.

We got a glimpse of a diver as it disappeared beneath the water and it looked very contrasting, black and white, and we felt sure we had seen a white flank patch. When it finally resurfaced, our suspicions were confirmed – it was a smart winter plumage Black-throated Diver, a nice find as it is the rarest of the three regular UK divers in Norfolk. It was diving all the time, but each time it reappeared we got it in the scope and eventually everyone got a look at it.

By this stage, the Long-tailed Ducks had unfortunately flown further out into the bay, but we still made our way down to the shore. We got a flock of Common Scoter in the scope for a closer look – they appeared to be almost entirely pale-cheeked females/1st winters. Then a more careful look through the various flocks revealed a couple of Velvet Scoters too, larger and darker faced, with two smaller white spots. They were loosely associating with one of the groups of Common Scoter but still keeping to themselves. Conveniently the Velvet Scoter were at the front of the flock which made them easier to pick out.

The sun was already setting and we were starting to lose the light already, so we made our way back across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks flying in again and landing right beside us as we did so. There was a little group of Brent Geese in the taller vegetation and we stopped briefly for a look through them. One stood out – it had a slightly white flank patch than the others and a somewhat better marked collar.

It was a Black Brant hybrid – not contrasting enough for a pure Black Brant. This bird is regular here every winter, the progeny many years ago of a wandering Black Brant which got in with the Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese which winter here and ended up pairing up with one of them. The parents are long gone, but the hybrid young still returns.

As we walked back towards the car park we could already hear the high-pitched yelping of Pink-footed Geese. We stopped on the south side of the pines to admire the stunning sunset away to the west, across the grazing marshes. At first, there were only a few small lines of geese which flew over and landed with some Pink-footed Geese which were still feeding on the grass the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive.

Then away in the distance, over Holkham Park, we saw them coming – skein after skein of geese, several thousand strong in total. As they got closer, they were accompanied by a  cacophony of yelping. The Pink-footed Geese circled round against the bright pinks and firey oranges of the sky, before whiffling down onto the grass to roost. It was a truly stunning spectacle – and a great way to end the day. One of the greatest sights and sounds of a North Norfolk winter.

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6o0a7306Pink-footed Geese – coming in to roost at Holkham at sunset