Tag Archives: White-fronted Geese

21st Feb 2017 – From Heath to Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The brief was to avoid the main nature reserves on the coast. The forecast was for it to be “rather cloudy with outbreaks of light rain at first” according to the Met Office. How wrong it was! Instead, when we met up in the morning it was wall to wall blue sky and crisp sunshine. With weather like that, there was only one place to start the day.

As soon was got out of the car up on the Heath, we heard a Woodlark calling as it flew away. A dog was running across the cleared area nearby and had probably just flushed it. Still, it seemed an auspicious start. A Yellowhammer flew in and landed in the top of one of the bushes by the car park. A smart male, we got it in the scope and its yellow head was positively glowing in the morning light. Stunning!

6o0a7787Yellowhammer – a smart male glowing yellow in the morning sun

A couple more Yellowhammers dropped in to join it, another male and a duller female. While we were watching them, we heard the Woodlark calling again as it flew back in. We saw where it landed in the long grass and walked a little closer to where we could see it. Thankfully, it was standing up on a slightly taller tussock and it started to sing softly as it stood there. We got it in the scope and all had a good look at it.

When the Woodlark took off again, it flew straight towards us and gained height. Then it started singing as it came right overhead, hovering above us for a minute or so. The Woodlark‘s song is not full of the joys like a Skylark but slightly more melancholy. It is still a beautiful sound, a real delight to stand and listen to it on such a sunny morning, one of the real sounds of early spring on the heaths. As it hung overhead, we could see the Woodlark‘s comparatively short tail and broad rounded wings.

6o0a7796Woodlark – hovering over our heads this morning, singing

After a while, the Woodlark flew down and landed again at the back of the clearing. We were planning to be greedy and go over for another look at it, but we were distracted by another smart male Yellowhammer hopping around on the ground in front of us. While we were watching it, the Woodlark took off again, calling. A second Woodlark got up from the ground and followed it – clearly the male had been singing while the female was feeding quietly over the back of the clearing all along.

Sunny mornings on the Heath at this time of the year are a great time to look for Adders. Having emerged from hibernation, they like to bask in the sunshine and warm themselves. We walked round to an area where we can often find them, a slope angled towards the morning sun. Very quickly we spotted one close to the path, but despite the early hour of the morning it was surprisingly lively already and quickly slithered off into the undergrowth. As we walked round this quiet corner, we heard a Bullfinch calling and looked across to see a smart pink male picking at the buds in the top of a dense blackthorn thicket.

After such a successful start to the morning, we decided to turn our attention to Dartford Warblers next. They are resident on the heaths all year round, but harder to find when it is cloudy and cold. At this time of year, on sunny days, they are starting to sing again. Walking round through the centre of one of their regular territories, all seemed rather quiet at first. Then we heard a distinctive rasping call and looked across to see a small dark long-tailed bird dart across a clearing between two gorse bushes. Our first Dartford Warbler.

Repositioning ourselves to where it had flown, we could soon see the Dartford Warbler flitting between the gorse bushes. As we followed it, it soon became clear there were actually at least three Dartford Warblers in the same area. They can be hard birds to track, as they are constantly on the move, disappearing into the dense vegetation for periods and then, just when you think you have lost them, flying out again. Occasionally one would perch out in the open for a couple of seconds – we could see there was a male, darker slate blue grey above and richer burgundy below, a duller female, and a young bird, much browner above and paler below, one of the juveniles from last year.

6o0a7835Dartford Warbler – the male singing from the top of a gorse bush

The male Dartford Warbler started singing. We could hear the bursts of scratchy song. At one point, we thought there might be two males, as we heard different bursts of song coming from different places in quick succession. After following them for a while, and having all enjoyed good views, we left them to it and continued our circuit of the Heath. As we walked round, were accompanied by the song of Woodlarks and Yellowhammers.

It was a perfect day for finding Adders today. We bumped into one of the local birders who is a regular on the Heath and he showed us three Adders basking round the base of a birch tree. A larger, darker female was stretched out on her own. Nearby, what looked like one snake turned out to be two curled up together as they moved – a large, dark female, and a smaller, slimmer, paler silvery male. A little further on, we found another two Adders, curled up in a couple of bare patches on a south facing bank. We had a great look at them.

6o0a7846Adder – we found at least six out basking this morning in a brief look

We had a quick look round another Dartford Warbler territory the other side of the Heath, but it was quieter here. There has been a pair of Stonechats here and the warblers have been following them round, but we couldn’t find any sign of either in their favourite area. Having enjoyed such a great session with the Dartford Warblers earlier, we weren’t overly concerned.

While we were walking round, another pair of Woodlarks flew over. The male landed on a post, where we could get him in the scope, while the female dropped down to the ground to feed. We were just watching them, when a third Woodlark started singing just behind us. These three were almostly certainly different to the pair we had seen earlier, which would mean potentially three pairs of Woodlark here this morning. It had been a great morning on the Heath and we could easily have stayed here all day, but we had other things we wanted to do today, so we made our way back to the car.

Our next destination was Holkham. As we drove down along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a large flock of geese on one of the grazing meadows nearby, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see they were mostly Brent Geese, smaller and darker, but nearby were a few grey-brown Pink-footed Geese too. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese which have spent the winter here have already departed on their way back north, so it was nice to be able to get a good look at some. We could see their delicate mostly dark bills with a pink band around and, when one stood up in the grass, its pink legs.

6o0a7850Pink-footed Geese – a few were still by Lady Anne’s Drive today

The vast majority of the Brent Geese here during the winter are Dark-bellied Brent Geese which breed up in arctic Russia. Occasionally, we get one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose in with the flocks, perhaps a Black Brant from NE Siberia or Alaska. In the past, some of these Black Brants have paired up and subsequently bred with one of the Dark-bellied Brents to produce hybrid young. One of these hybrids is a regular here at Holkham and a careful scan through the Brent flock revealed it. Subtly darker bodied than the others, it has a better marked white collar and more obvious whiter flank patch then the others.

img_0864Black Brant hybrid – a regular in with the Dark-bellied Brents at Holkham

While we were watching the geese, we could hear Lapwings starting to display on the fields behind us, giving their distinctive song. There were also still some big flocks of Wigeon grazing close to the road, whistling occasionally. Several Common Buzzards were enjoying the sunshine, circling up into the blue sky and even starting to display, swooping up and down. It was getting on for lunchtime already, so we decided to have an early lunch here before setting off to explore.

After lunch, we walked out onto the beach and made our way east alone the edge of the saltmarsh. At first there was no sign of the large flock of Shorelarks which has been feeding here for the last few weeks. We were told they had earlier been flushed by an errant dog running around there. We walked across for a look at the sea, in the hope that they might return. The tide was in and there was not so much activity here today – a few Great Crested Grebes and a single drake Goldeneye were all we could find riding out on the slightly choppy sea.

There were three birders eating their lunch in the dunes nearby, looking out through their scopes at the saltmarsh, so we walked back round to see if they had seen anything. Very helpfully, they got us on to six Shorelarks which were feeding half hidden in the taller vegetation out in the middle. We were looking into the sun from here, so we walked back round to the other side.

6o0a7902Shorelark – six were hiding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

The Shorelarks were hard to see with their heads down while feeding, but occasionally one would look up and a bright yellow face would catch the sun. Then we could get a great look at them through the scope, admiring their black bandit masks and even occasionally get a glimpse of the black horns on the side of their heads. A Skylark was feeding nearby and a second flew in to join it, perhaps a male as it raised its crest and drew itself up erect, looking like it might be about to display to the first, before the two of them resumed feeding. As the Shorelarks gradually worked their way back deeper into the vegetation, we left them to it.

Back at :Lady Anne’s Drive, we made our way west along the path on the inland side of the pines. At this point it started to cloud over from the west. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits feeding high in the poplars as we passed. At Salts Hole, we stopped to watch a Little Grebe diving on the edge of the reeds. A couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Curlew were feeding on the grassy field beyond.

We had a quick scan from the raised boardwalk by Washington Hide. A Marsh Harrier circled up from the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew past with something in its talons, trailing several long strands of grass with whatever prey it had grasped. Two Pintail flew in and landed on the pool, an adult drake with a long pin-shaped tail and a younger male without.

6o0a7917Spoonbills – 2 of the 4 circling round over the trees

As we approached Joe Jordan Hide, we got a glimpse through the trees of four white shapes taking off from the pool in front and through binoculars we could see they were Spoonbills. From up in the hide, we watched them circling round over the trees beyond, long white necks held outstretched in front. Eventually they landed again on the edge of the pool and started to preen before quickly going to sleep – which is what Spoonbills seem to like to do best! Two were adults and through the scope we could see their bushy nuchal crests flapping around in the breeze. When they did lift their heads we could see the yellow tips to their bills.

img_0889Spoonbills – the adults with bushy crests and yellow-tipped bills

There were lost of geese out on the grazing marshes all around, mostly White-fronted Geese. They were hard to count, as they kept flying round in small groups and landing in different places or dropping down out of view. Sitting in the hide, we could hear their yelping calls every time a party flew past, a constant backdrop to our visit. There were several hundreds here today, more than there seem to have been through much of the winter, perhaps boosted by other groups stopping off before departing back to their breeding grounds in Russia.

We got some of the White-fronted Geese in the scope, so we could see the white surround to the bill from which they get their name, and the black belly bars on the adults. At one point, a small group landed next to some Greylags and we could see the White-fronted Geese were notably smaller and darker overall, as well as having a smaller pink bill compared to the large orange carrot sported by the Greylags.

6o0a7924White-fronted Geese – their were large numbers at Holkham today

Scanning through the White-fronted Geese, we found a couple of smaller white-faced Barnacle Geese in with them. It would be nice to think that these also might be winter visitors from the arctic, but their status is complicated by feral populations, including in Holkham Park. There were also some Canada Geese here and several pairs of Egyptian Geese – a couple of more obviously feral geese species to round out the overall variety.

While we were looking through the geese, we noticed a large raptor flying low over the grassy ridge in the distance. It was clearly slimmer winged and tailed than the commoner Marsh Harriers and, as it turned, we could see a square white rump patch. It was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail. Unfortunately, it continued off away from us and it was not a great view, but a nice bird to see out hunting here nonetheless.

We had hoped we might see a Great White Egret here, but there was no sign at first. We were just thinking about leaving, when a large white shape walked out of some dense reeds on one side of the marshes. It was clearly huge, even with the naked eye, but through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. It was strutted across and went back into some deeper reeds, where it stood motionless fishing and it was surprisingly hard to see for such a large bird.

After a short while, the Great White Egret flew across and landed on the far side of one of the reedy ditches. Then a second Great White Egret flew out from nearby and chased after it, the two of them flying off together before eventually disappearing disappearing round behind the trees.

6o0a7954Great White Egret – a second flew in and chased off the first

Time was getting on now, so we decided to head back to the car. We still had time for one more stop on our journey back, so we turned off the coast road at Stiffkey Greenway on our way back east. Scanning the saltmarsh, we first picked up a Marsh Harrier working its way slowly along the grassy ridge at the back. It didn’t take us long to pick up our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, hanging over the saltmarsh away to the west. We got it in the scope and got a good view of it, much better than the one we had seen earlier at Holkham. Even better, it then drifted back east and started hunting the saltmarsh out in front of us.

6o0a7986Hen Harrier – a ringtail hunting over the saltmarsh

At one point, as it quartered the saltmarsh, the Hen Harrier flushed a Merlin from the bushes below. Small and dark, it flew off swiftly low over the vegetation. It looked like it would disappear into the distance, but thankfully it landed on a dead branch and started preening, so we could all get a look at it through the scope.

As we looked out over the marshes, another ringtail Hen Harrier made its way in purposefully from the east and across in front of us. We were really hoping to see a male Hen Harrier, but they kept us waiting a bit this evening. We did get an early glimpse of one, but it disappeared down into the vegetation very distantly to the west and didn’t reappear. Eventually one flew in from the west towards us, at the back of the saltmarsh. It flew past a male Marsh Harrier, giving a nice comparison of size and shape, the Hen Harrier a ghostly grey apparition. When it flew up against the grey sky, it almost disappeared.

After quartering the saltmarsh for a while, the male Hen Harrier dropped down into the vegetation at the back. We saw it fly up again briefly and we could just see its pale head in the grass occasionally, but it was clearly in no rush to fly again. It was a nice way to end the day, watching the harriers, so with the light fading we decided to head for home.

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18th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a7241Shorelarks – their bright yellow faces catching the morning sun

6o0a7181Shorelarks – around 30 were still at Holkham this morning

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

6o0a7266Shorelark – came to us as we waited patiently

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

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a7322Spoonbills – early returning birds checking out the colony

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

6o0a7339Marsh Harrier – a female, circling above the marshes

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

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

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

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

6o0a7360Bar-tailed Godwit – showed well at Brancaster Staithe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9th Oct 2016 – Arrivals from the East, Part 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of Autumn Migration Tours today. We had some sunny intervals today but isolated showers were coming in off the North Sea from time to time on the NE wind. Thankfully, they missed us in the morning and we managed to dodge them in the afternoon.

The morning was spent exploring Cley. We parked at the visitor centre and walked out towards the main hides. Looking out towards the sea, we could see a couple of lines of Brent Geese flying in, presumably migrants arriving from Russia for the winter. Along the Skirts path, a male Stonechat flew ahead of us, perching on the brambles and fence posts, before flying out into the field. A Meadow Pipit perched up in the morning sun on a dead thistle. A Kestrel circled up overhead, and was chased off by another couple of Meadow Pipits.

6o0a3628Kestrel – circled overhead, pursued by a Meadow Pipit

As we walked out along the boardwalk, we flushed a noisy flock of House Sparrows from the bushes in the reeds. A young Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds and seemed to delight in flushing all the birds from the scrapes as it flew over.

There were lots of small waders in front of Teal Hide visible from the visitor centre earlier, but by the time we got out there they seemed at first to have disappeared, presumably unnerved by the Marsh Harrier. We found them again as they emerged from behind the large island, 30 Dunlin. Then a Ruff appeared from the same place as the Dunlin. It was a juvenile, with buffy underparts. It was followed shortly after by a winter adult Ruff, whiter below and paler grey-brown above, and with orange legs. It was good to see the two Ruff next to the Dunlin for size comparison.

A Black-tailed Godwit was feeding just in front of the hide, but a larger flock were sleeping over towards Bishop Hide, all in a line, all on one leg with heads tucked in. They are mostly in winter plumage now, dull grey. A single Avocet stood at the end of the line. Further over, we picked up a couple of Swallows hawking for insects over the reeds. They eventually made their way past, followed by a few more – migrants, on their way south down to Africa for the winter, pausing briefly to refuel on their journey.

6o0a3648Black-tailed Godwit – this one was feeding in front of Teal Hide

Simmond’s Scrape has just been ‘reprofiled’. The digger has gone, but the scrape itself will presumably take a while to settle back down. Still, from Dauke’s Hide we could see lots of ducks, all still mostly in duller eclipse plumage – Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler. A single Grey Plover and a single Golden Plover were on the bare island over at the back – a nice opportunity to compare them side by side. Several Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails were still enjoying the bare muddy margins of the scrape.

Some of the flocks of Brent Geese we had seen arriving earlier had landed in Eye Field. Looking out from the hide in that direction, we could see more Brents landing with a large gaggle of Canada Geese. On the front edge of the flock, out on the grass, we could see some ‘grey’ geese and through the scope we confirmed our suspicions – they were White-fronted Geese. Small numbers come to Norfolk from Russia for the winter, normally to the Broads or Holkham, so these birds had probably stopped off briefly to get something to eat and have a rest after a long journey from the continent.

img_7497White-fronted Geese – we could see nine in with the Canadas and Brent Geese

Looking more carefully, we could count nine White-fronted Geese. Several had sat down in the grass to sleep. On the ones that were awake and feeding, we could see their pink bills with white band round the base, and the distinctive black belly bars.

After making our way back to the visitor centre, we drove on to the car park at the end of the East Bank. Up to four Jack Snipe had been reported just across the road on Snipe’s Marsh (for once, appropriately named!!), so we walked over to see if we could see them. Thankfully there were a couple of people there who told us where two of them were, because the Jack Snipe had gone to sleep in the edge of the reeds and were very well camouflaged.

img_7521Jack Snipe – with bright golden yellow mantle stripes and dark central crown

We watched the Jack Snipe for a few minutes and one of them then woke up and started feeding. As it did so, we could see the distinctive bobbing action, bouncing up and down as it walked slowly along, probing its bill into the mud. Nearby, we could see at least five Common Snipe too, larger and longer-billed, and through the scope we could see the diagnostic pale central crown stripe on one of them.

With some very dark clouds coming in from the direction of the beach, we made our way back to the car. Just in time, as it started to rain. We drove a little further east and parked at Iron Road. As it seemed like the rain might be slow to clear, we opted for an early lunch. By the time we had finished, the sun was out again.

The muddy pools by Iron Road have been quiet recently, and consequently we weren’t going to walk up there, but scanning from the path we could see a few waders, so we changed our minds. There was a little more water after the recent rain. When we got up there we could see a smart juvenile Curlew Sandpiper and two Ringed Plovers out on the mud, along with lots of Meadow Pipits. A Green Sandpiper appeared from over the back and flew past us. A Common Snipe flew round and landed in the reeds the other side of the track.

img_7540Curlew Sandpiper – with two Ringed Plovers

While we were standing there, we could hear a Bearded Tit calling. It seemed to be coming from back along the path, in the reeds along the ditch. Then the Bearded Tit flew over and landed just behind us, down in the reeds along the ditch the other side of the track. Even though it was out of view, we could hear it ‘pinging’, and occasionally see movement. We walked over to the edge of the ditch, peering over the top of the vegetation. Then more helpfully it climbed up into the tops of the reeds in full view just a few metres from us. It was a female – with no grey head, no black moustache. It perched up in full view for a minute or two, then the Bearded Tit flew off towards Salthouse. Great views!

6o0a3680Bearded Tit – perched up in the tops of the reeds right next to us

Walking back towards the road, we turned right onto Attenborough Walk and headed for Babcock Hide. On the way, we stopped to admire the Egyptian Geese on the grazing meadow. While we were standing there, a Wheatear appeared out on the grass, in amongst the cows.

The water levels at Babcock Hide have been rather static recently, which is not so good for waders, and the scrape looked fairly empty at first. There were a few ducks – Shelduck, Teal and Wigeon. There are cows grazing out here at the moment, and they kept walking back and forth in front of the hide. They mostly seemed to be very nervous of us, but it was quite a shock when one walked up and almost stuck its head through the flaps right in front of us, particularly as we were looking through binoculars at the time!

img_7556Cow – looking in on Babcock Hide

There were several Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails around the edges of the scrape. When a wagtail appeared right in front of the hide, we might have expected it to be another Pied, but it was very pale grey backed and also grey rumped. It was a White Wagtail, the continental race of Pied Wagtail, more commonly identified here in spring. Another migrant which had stopped off here on its way south.

6o0a3719White Wagtail – in front of Babcock Hide

As the cows walked round in front of the hide, two Common Snipe came up from the grass round to our left and flew off over the back. Then a smaller snipe flew up from the reeds – another Jack Snipe. It flew back over the water, circled round a couple of times, before eventually dropping down again out of view at the back of the scrape. There are obviously a lot of Jack Snipe arriving at the moment for the winter – the number we have seen in the past three days is unusual.

With more shower clouds out over the sea and heading our way, we decided to spend the latter part of the afternoon at Holkham, where we had some more hides for shelter if necessary. We walked west from Lady Anne’s Drive, on the inland side of the pines. There were lots of Goldcrests in the trees and we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling. We had a quick look for it, but we were looking into the sun, and it seemed to move through very quickly. It stopped calling, and we couldn’t see any movement.

6o0a3750Goldcrest – showing very well at Holkham

A quick scan of Salts Hole produced three Little Grebes. We stopped again at the gate before Washington Hide. There were four Curlews in the field – hard to see until they put their heads up – and several Jays kept dropping down into the grass. A couple of Coal Tits chased each other round the pine above us. Then we saw black clouds coming and made a quick dash for the hide.

We got to Washington Hide just in time, and took shelter from the rain. Thankfully it passed through very quickly. We just had time to admire a few Gadwall in with the Mallard on the pool. There were several Song Thrushes and Redwings in the bushes. A Common Buzzard perched up in a tree. We had hoped we might be able to find a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. Although we saw a lot, they were flying up from behind the trees and heading off east.

When the rain stopped, we had a quick walk out onto the boardwalk, to pay homage to the sea. On the way, an exhausted Chiffchaff was flitting around on the ground below us.

6o0a3791Chiffchaff – exhausted and feeding on the ground behind Washington Hide

Carrying on west, we made our way along to Joe Jordan Hide. There were several Marsh Harriers flying in and out of the trees and hedges here. A Common Buzzard perched on a post in front of us. Scanning the grass, we found a single Pink-footed Geese on its own. Through the scope we could see that it was an injured bird, with one wing hanging down. That probably explains why it was here, rather than out on the saltmarsh.

Then it was time to walk back. We were almost back to Lady Anne’s Drive, when a Pied Flycatcher flew up from a puddle on the edge of the path. Unfortunately it disappeared into the trees before we could get a good look and wasn’t going to show itself again. Another Yellow-browed calling was some consolation. Then it was time to head for home. We rain clouds all around us, there were some stunning rainbows to admire.

6o0a3797Rainbow – Holkham

7th February 2016 – Owl Time

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today and it was time to look for Owls. The weather gods were shining on us today – it was a gloriously sunny start to the day, if a little breezy.

After rain overnight and strong winds yesterday, there should normally be some hungry Owls out hunting in the morning. We drove round through some favoured areas first thing, scanning the fields and gate posts, but there was surprisingly no sign of any. We parked up in an area where we know there is a very active pair, but we couldn’t find either of them at first. The favoured fields, the gate posts, all empty.

We decided to take a walk down along the footpath which runs beside the wet grazing meadows. A Little Egret flew up from some wet pools in the trees, causing some momentary excitement in the group – they can sometimes look rather like a Barn Owl in flight from a distance. A Green Woodpecker disappeared away through the trees the way we had come, and a little further along a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew along the hedge the other side towards the woods. A Grey Wagtail came up from the wet ground in front of us.

Then we spotted the Barn Owl. It had flown over to the meadows in the lee of the woods, where it was out of the wind. It flew round briefly and dropped down out of sight. We walked a little further along and it came up again, working its way back and forth over the meadows, before turning back towards us. It flew straight past us on the other side of the meadows, and perched up in a tree in the sun for a few minutes. Then it disappeared back into the ivy to roost, presumably having had some success hunting already.

That was a great way to start, so we made our way back to the car and headed back the way we had come. We hadn’t driven very far when another Barn Owl appeared, over some more meadows just beside the road. We pulled up in a convenient layby and got out, expecting the Barn Owl to continue hunting further over from us. It did at first, but then came towards us and proceeded to fly up and down right in front of us, not 20 metres away. Stunning views in the morning sunshine.

IMG_6606Barn Owl – out hunting in the  morning sun

The Barn Owl dropped down into the grass and seemed to be pulling at something – we couldn’t see if it had actually caught anything. It kept looking round nervously and we could see its face looking at us through the vegetation. Then it resumed hunting again. It came round a couple of times, again coming right in front us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, dropping down into the grass again but coming up empty taloned.

IMG_6623Barn Owl – our second of the morning

We stood transfixed, watching it for about 15 minutes, a real treat. Eventually, it moved off and disappeared away through the trees. Two Barn Owls already, and such great views.

It seemed like our luck might be in, so we drove on inland to look for Little Owls next. It was cold in the wind, but at least the sun was out. We came to a complex of farm buildings where we now there is a pair of Little Owls and a quick scan revealed one sitting on the roof of an old shed. It was far enough away that we wouldn’t distub it, so we got out and had a good look at it through the scopes. The Little Owl had found a spot mostly out of the wind and facing the sun. It was quite active, looking round, occasionally hopping back into a more sheltered position, before coming out again onto the roof. Great stuff.

IMG_6661Little Owl – sunbathing on the roof of some old farm buildings

There were other things to look at here as well. A small group of Rooks were hanging around the farm buildings, as well as a couple of Red-legged Partridges. The latter flew up onto the roof as well, but the Little Owl seemed disinterested. A Goldfinch perched up on a dead burdock seedhead on the verge, looking stunning in the morning sunshine. In the field behind us, were several Lapwings and a few Common Gulls. A couple of suspicious looking clods of earth turned out to be Brown Hares, tucked down in the wind.

We drove on inland, round via a couple of other Little Owl sites, but it was perhaps a little windy for them today, with less shelter in the more exposed places. The morning was now getting on, so we decided to drive on towards Titchwell for a couple of hours until the owling could resume. We dropped down via Choseley and had a quick look for the Rough-legged Buzzards, but there was no sign in their favoured trees – they were probably sitting somewhere out of the wind. The Common Buzzards were up enjoying the wind though. From the road below Choseley barns we could see at least five in the air, but despite the best attempts at the others gathered there to turn them into something more interesting, there were just Common Buzzards out today.

The car park at Titchwell was very busy. We only had limited time today, as Owls were the main focus of the day, but we wanted to have a quick look round the reserve. The feeders in front of the visitor centre were packed with finches – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches – but as usual the ones round the other side held more variety.

IMG_6668Brambling – a female around the feeders by the visitor centre

A female Brambling was perched up in the tree behind and dropped down onto the feeders briefly, grabbing a seed before disappearing back into the vegetation. A Siskin then appeared on the feeders as well – there are usually more in the alders, but it was windy in the tops of the trees today.

IMG_6688Siskin – one appeared on the feeders with the other finches

Then two male Bramblings dropped in. Much brighter orange below and on the shoulders than the female, and with increasingly black heads as the pale feather edges wear off to reveal the birds’ summer plumage.

IMG_6702Brambling – two males dropped in to the feeders as well

There was no sign of the Water Rail in the ditch on the way out, but lots of people were walking up and down, so we decided to have a better look on the way back. The grazing meadow ‘pool’ was rather windswept and deserted today apart from a couple of Lapwings. We headed for the shelter of Island Hide.

The freshmarsh is currently being drained to undergo management work and was very dry today. Consequently there are relatively few ducks on here now. There is a little bit of water still in the deeper parts towards the back, and the Teal were mostly around here or clustered on the far bank. Otherwise, there was just one pair of Shoveler. The Brent Geese which flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster dropped down in the remaining pool at the back as well.

There are still a few waders on here, but the mud nearer the main path is starting to dry out, so they are also concentrated round the edges of the remaining water. There was a good sized flock of Dunlin on here, and still at least twenty Avocet. A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were a little closer and two Ringed Plovers were on one of the drier islands.

IMG_6721Titchwell freshmarsh – being drained currently for management work

We had a quick look here and, with time pressing, quickly moved on. The Volunteer Marsh was a bit more productive. There are generally lots of Shelduck, Redshank and Curlew on here. We stopped in the shelter of the bank and had a scan. There were a few waders down in the near corner. The first we looked at were a couple of Knot, grey and dumpy with shortish bills, picking around the edge of one of the muddy channels.

IMG_6726Knot – good views on the Volunteer Marsh

Just behind the Knot was a single Grey Plover, looking very smart in the winter sunshine. We watched it feeding – taking a couple of quick steps, stopping and looking down at the mud, occasionally picking at something it could see on the surface.

IMG_6733Grey Plover – also on the Volunteer Marsh

A couple of Ringed Plovers flew in and landed on the mud close by. Much smaller than the Grey Plover and very different looking, they share similarities in the way they feed. One of the two was attempting to display to the other, fanning its tail, but being blown along by the wind as it tried to do so.

IMG_6761Ringed Plover – two flew in to the mud close to the main path

We had already seen a few Black-tailed Godwits more distantly on the freshmarsh, but there were two more feeding right by the main path at the far end of the Volunteer Marsh. This is regularly a great place to see them up close, so we stopped for a few minutes to admire them and watch them feeding.

IMG_6750Black-tailed Godwit – feeding right next to the main path

Out on the Tidal Pools, we could see a couple of female Goldeneye diving amongst the other ducks on the water. We had a look at the Wigeon grazing out on the edge of the saltmarsh behind. A Little Grebe surfaced right in front of us, before seeing us and diving again quickly. There were a few more Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks and Grey Plovers on here but no other waders today.

A little further along, we stopped to admire the Pintail out on the water – there were several here upending, including some smart drakes. Another male further over out on one of the islands was asleep, but we could see his long pin-shaped tail.

IMG_6771Pintail – one of several smart drakes on the Tidal Pools

Out on the beach, the tide was out. The waders were rather distant, as we tucked oursleves into the shelter of the dunes rather than walk out across the sand. We could see lots of Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Turnstone and a few Bar-tailed Godwits. Close inshore, we could see a few Red-breasted Mergansers, including some smart drakes.

There were also 2-3 Common Scoter just offshore, so we had a good look at them too, a couple of females with their pale cheeks and a dowdy young male. Way off towards the Lincolnshire coast, out in the middle of the wash, we could just pick up the bulk of the wintering Common Scoter, like a dark smear across the sea. There are several thousand out here at the moment, but they are always a long way out these days. Eventually we found a slightly larger group on the sea off the beach, but they were also rather distant and hard to get a good look at as they rode in and out of the troughs on the swell. We could just make out at least one Velvet Scoter in with them, which flapped its wings briefly revealing the white flash in the secondaries, but it was all but impossible to get the rest of the group onto it unfortunately.

It was already later than planned, so we made our way quickly back. We had seen a single Bar-tailed Godwit on the Tidal Pools on our way out, but on our way back it was right next to the path. Even better, there was a Black-tailed Godwit with it. We had to stop to have a close look at the two side by side, the Bar-tailed Godwit noticeably smaller by comparison, shorter legged, with a very slightly upturned bill, paler and more buffy-coloured with more obvious streaking on the upperparts.

IMG_6782Bar-tailed Godwit – right by the path on the Tidal Pools

When we got back almost to the visitor centre there were only two people on the main path and they were watching the Water Rail in its usual place. It was tucked down in the vegetation at first, but then came out onto the mud on the far side of the ditch in full view, giving us a great look as it probed its long red bill into the rotting leaves.

P1160118Water Rail – showed very well on the way back

After a late lunch, we started to work our way back along the coast. We swung inland at Choseley, but once again there was no sign of any Rough-legged Buzzards in the blustery wind, just several Common Buzzards still. A quick stop at Brancaster Staithe was more productive. The Red-necked Grebe was immediately on show, tucked in along the muddy edge of the channel just beyond the car park.

IMG_6798Red-necked Grebe – showing well at Brancaster Staithe again

There were also a few waders here as usual – Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and several Turnstones running around between the cars in the car park. It was a bit exposed here in the wind and it was now owl time again, so we didn’t hang around too long.

There are lots of good places to look for Barn Owls along the coast road, particularly if you know where to look. The first site we went past was deserted, but we pulled into a layby at the second. In the process of saying “This is normally a good spot for Barn…” we turned to see one huddled down out of the wind on a gate in the hedge behind us, not 10 metres from the car. It was startled by our arrival and looked at us for a few seconds before disappearing behind the hedge. Our first Barn Owl of the afternoon and they were out and about.

We stopped at Holkham next to scan the grazing marshes. This is always a good place to look for Barn Owls and it had the added benefit of being sheltered from the wind by the Park behind us. A scan of the geese revealed a large flock of White-fronted Geese still, though a little distant again today over on the old fort.

IMG_6804White-fronted Geese – still a good number at Holkham

There were plenty of raptors up too, in the late afternoon. A Peregrine circled up over the trees, before stooping down towards one of the pools. A Common Buzzard landed in the top of a tree in front of us. There were lots of Marsh Harriers flying back and forth over the grazing marshes and three closer to us kept landing down on the grass. One of them, a female, was wing-tagged and near enough so we could read the tags ‘KX’. Ringed here in the nest in 2014, this bird has apparently not been seen since being sighted in Lincs in December 2014 – so a good resighting!

IMG_6807Marsh Harrier – with green wing tags ‘KX’

We could see a Barn Owl out hunting, distantly over the marshes. While we stood scanning, a second flew over along the bottom of the field in front of us, before flying over the reeds beyond and out onto the marshes too. We hadn’t seen the third Barn Owl before it appeared in front of us! It was working its way along the front grassy edge of the field and saw us standing in the gateway at the last minute, veering out over the field away from us. Yet more great views, we watched it flying round and even making another flypast along the same route – though this time we were ready for it, as it flew straight towards us.

We got back in the car and continued east, and suddenly yet another Barn Owl appeared from the trees and across the road in front of us. It seemed to be flying towards Lady Anne’s Drive, so we pulled in there for a scan. On the edge of the first field was a Barn Owl perched on the post. We got out of the car and it stayed put, allowing us stunning views of it through the scopes.

IMG_6809Barn Owl – perched on a post at Holkham

It looked noticeably darker than the one we had seen fly across the road and sure enough, that Barn Owl appeared on a post further along a few minutes later. It was hunting from the posts, flying between them, scanning the ground below. The first was also scanning the ground, but fluffed itself up and appeared to be going to sleep.

IMG_6819Barn Owl – fluffed itself up and appeared to doze

We turned round to see yet another Barn Owl hunting over the fields behind us – three in view at once, our seventh of the afternoon and ninth of the day! When we turned back, the dozing Barn Owl had mysteriously disappeared and the paler one, presumably the male, flew off over the road into the trees, so we decided to move on.

We had a quick look at some other sites on the way, to see if we could find any more, but time was getting on and we had a date with a Tawny Owl. We drove into some woods and walked along a footpath through the trees. We could hear hooting even before we got to where we needed to be, much earlier than normal tonight. We hurried along to get into position and the Tawny Owl hooted again, from its roost deep in the ivy in a tree ahead of us. It was very windy in the treetops.

We waited patiently and caught a glimpse of the Tawny Owl as it dropped down out of its roost tree and landed on a branch over the path, back the way where we had come. Unfortunately it didn’t stay there very long and flew off into the wood the other side. We walked back and could hear it hooting. Then suddenly it flew back towards us and right over our heads – broad-rounded wings beating silently – disappearing back into the trees. It continued hooting but further over out of view. We decided to call it a night.

We were getting back into the car, when a Tawny Owl started hooting very close to us. Then a second started hooting back where we had come from, presumably the one we had seen earlier. Unfortunately, it was now getting too dark to see them. Still, it was a great way to end the day – with Tawny Owls hooting all round us.

6th February 2016 – Back to the Broads

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours and today it was off down to the Broads. The weather forecast throughout the last week had foretold heavy rain all day today. Thankfully the Met Office can be relied upon for one thing… to get it wrong! We barely saw a drop of rain – it was cloudy and rather windy, but mercifully dry.

We started with a drive along the coast road from Sea Palling. We hadn’t gone very far when we spotted our first Cranes of the day. They were in a field some distance from the road, but unfortunately we had nowhere to stop. We pulled into a convenient layby and walked back with the scopes to the spot from where we could see them, but even though we were several fields away they started to look nervous. We just had time to get a look at them in the scope before they took off and dropped down a little further over, out of view.

P1160371Pink-footed Geese – one of several small groups this morning

We carried on along the road, scanning the fields. We came across a couple of small groups of Pink-footed Geese in the grazing meadows. Further along, south of Horsey Mill, we pulled over and got out for a good look round. There was an even bigger flock of Pink-footed Geese here – at least until the farmer arrived. He seemed to object to the Mute Swans in the fields across the road, and shot into the air scaring everything off apart from one stubborn Mute Swan.

P1160379Pink-footed Geese – scared off by one of the local farmers

Before the farmer arrived, there was actually quite a nice selection of birds to look at. There were large numbers of Lapwing out on the grass and a smaller flock of Golden Plover. On the flooded field the other side of the road, we were rather surprised to see a small group of five Knot. Several Marsh Harriers were circling over the reeds behind, and two of them started diving at each other. But we couldn’t find any more Cranes here.

We decided to move on and drove round to Ludham Airfield. Once again, we could see the swans before we left the main road, a white smear across the fields from a distance. We drove round and positioned ourselves where we wouldn’t disturb them as we got out of the car to look at them through the scopes.

IMG_6486Bewick’s Swan – there were at least 85 today

The swans were in two groups today, with most of the Bewick’s Swans sat down in the middle of the winter wheat, whereas most of the Whooper Swans were over on the edge of the field. It was as if they had fallen out with each other and were now not speaking! On closer examination, we did find a small group of four Bewick’s Swans closer to the Whoopers and three Whooper Swans sleeping in with the Bewick’s, so there were obviously a few swans which couldn’t pick sides.

IMG_6496Whooper Swans – over 40 today, mostly on the edge of the field

Despite their attempt at separating by species, we could still get a good comparison between the two – the Whooper Swans noticeably larger, longer necked and longer billed, and with the yellow coming down the bill into a point, unlike the more squared off yellow on the Bewick’s Swans’ bills. There were at least 85 Bewick’s Swans here today, a little down on recent counts, but over 40 Whooper Swans still.

We decided to head down to Great Yarmouth next to look for some gulls. We stopped briefly on the way to see if there was anything on Rollesby or Ormesby Broads. It was pretty rough out in the middle – there were just a few Coots and Tufted Ducks. A Great Crested Grebe swam out from close in to the bank as we pulled up and a very white-headed Cormorant dropped down from a post into the water and swam past. A Grey Heron crept out of the reeds to the water’s edge.

We had wanted to see the Glaucous Gull at Great Yarmouth, but there was not a sign of it today around any of its usual haunts. It seems to have a nasty habit of going missing at times. We had to content ourselves with going to see the Mediterranean Gulls on the beach instead.

IMG_6502Mediterranean Gull – a colour-ringed adult in winter plumage

There were only three Mediterranean Gulls on the beach when we arrived and they promptly flew off. Someone else was obviously feeding them elsewhere. Quickly deploying some choice sliced white bread, they soon came back and brought a few of their friends with them. They were mostly winter adults, but a couple of 2nd winters arrived too. After squabbling over the bread, they all settled on the beach so we could get a good look at them. A crafty Starling came along and ran around our feet after the crumbs.

P1160407Starling – came round our feet for the crumbs

We had a quick look out to sea. There is a large sandbank offshore called Scroby Sands and we could see a large number of seals pulled out of the water. At one end, a black mass on the sand was a big flock of Cormorants – there can be a huge number of them out here. A few Kittiwakes were struggling past into the wind.

From there, we drove inland and down to Strumpshaw Fen. As we got out of the car, we could hear the twittering of Siskins and looked up to see lots of them in the alders. A noisy flock of Long-tailed Tits came through the car park. The reserve itself seemed to be very quiet again, so we just ate our lunch and moved on.

The grazing marshes at Buckenham seemed to be strangely deserted today. There were very few geese – just a few Canada Geese and an odd-looking Canada x Greylag Goose hybrid – but that is not necessarily unusual. However, there were also very few ducks and a distinct shortage of Lapwings and Golden Plover. Presumably, something had disturbed everything off here today. A Chinese Water Deer provided a brief distraction.

IMG_6541Chinese Water Deer – on the grazing marshes at Buckenham

Given the lack of birds, we decided not to walk out at Buckenham, but went round to Cantley instead. At least we found the geese here. There was a big flock of Pink-footed Geese over towards the river. We got the scopes on them and, scanning carefully, we started to find a few White-fronted Geese in with them. There were probably quite a few there, because the more we scanned, the more we found.

As we were looking through the geese, we found something different on the ground in the middle of them – a Peregrine. The geese seemed particularly unconcerned, and more flew in and landed all around it. The Peregrine was hopping about in the grass and perching up on tussocks. Eventually it took off and swept round over the marshes a couple of times, flushing the Lapwings and Golden Plover, before flying straight towards us and then turning off towards Cantley Beet Factory.

P1160458Peregrine – flew past us after standing in with the geese

The afternoon was getting on, and we wanted to get to Stubb Mill in good time for the roost, so we started to make our way back north. We tried various more sites where Cranes are regularly to be found, but there was no sign of any anywhere today. Perhaps they were put off by the wind, which had become very gusty by this stage.

Our timing was right today though. As we walked out towards the Stubb Mill watchpoint from the car park at Hickling Broad, first two Cranes flew over the marshes, and dropped down towards Heigham Holmes. We could see their long necks and long trailing feet. Then we turned to see a ringtail Hen Harrier coming low across the grass in front of the reeds, right in front of us – a great view. It flushed a few Snipe and a big flock of Teal as it went, before turning and working its way back over the reeds. Even better, the sky just brightened a little as we arrived.

There were not so many Marsh Harriers over the reeds and bushes this evening. It was hard to tell how many were already in, or whether they were planning to arrive late due to the wind. There were around 6-8 flying around over the trees at any one time, and a few more trickled in while we were waiting. However, we were treated to a good display from the Hen Harriers. First, another ringtail flew south past the assembled crowd, low over the grazing marshes just in front. Later on, another ringtail flew in from the east.

There was no sign of any Cranes from the watchpoint when we arrived there. Then suddenly the resident pair, which is usually always around, flew in from the reeds at the back and dropped down onto the grass where they should have been. They had obviously been hiding – possibly due to the wind. Where they landed they were out of view at first, but eventually walked out to where we could see them and a little later flew across and landed in the open. Much better!

IMG_6585Cranes – the resident pair finally came out of hiding

There was another Chinese Water Deer out on the marshes, but suddenly we spotted two larger deer further back. A couple of Red Deer were grazing on the grass. At one point, the two Cranes walked out in front of the two Red Deer – not a combination you see every day.

While we were watching them, someone shouted and three more Cranes flew over from the north. They came in slowly over the trees, up in the sky at first – helpfully where we could see them well – before dropping down below treetop level and disappearing from view towards Horsey Mere. That took us to a total of nine Cranes for the day!

IMG_6579-001Cranes – these three flew across, in front of the watchpoint

The light was starting to fade and we had enjoyed a very productive session at Stubb Mill, so we decided to head back. As we turned to go, we could hear the Cranes bugling out across the marshes, a fitting way to end the day.

P1160474Stubb Mill Watchpoint – the view across the marshes to the ruined mill

18th February 2015 – The Broads at their Best

A Private Tour to the Norfolk Broads today. We were blessed with a glorious, bright and sunny day and we made the most of it, enjoying the sights, and sounds, that the Broads has to offer.

We started with a drive through the area where the Cranes sometimes like to feed. For such large birds, they can be remarkably difficult to pick up, they seem to blend into the landscape at times. Today, we had no such difficulty – two tall, grey shapes appeared in a marshy field close to the road, actually very close to the road! A pair of Common Cranes. We pulled up quietly and sat in the car watching them. They were clearly aware of our presence, but seemingly unconcerned, walking back and forth, mostly with heads down, looking for food, picking at the ground. The slightly larger male occasionally raised his head to look around, checking on our presence, and the small spot of red on his crown caught the light. We had absolutely stunning views.

P1110770P1110779P1110781Common Cranes – this pair were feeding next to the road this morning

Our presence attracted the attention of another car and the Cranes started to work their way further back, clearly now a little more nervous of the increased activity. As they did so, they stopped a few times, heads raised, and broke into bouts of calling, the male starting and the female joining in. The bugling of Cranes is such an amazing sound – the video below shows them feeding and calling.

There were plenty of other things to see on our drive. We pulled up by a short-cropped grassy field which was alive with birds. A huge flock of Golden Plover, some feeding, others sleeping, was interspersed with lots of Lapwing, Fieldfares and Starlings. There are fewer geese along the coast now – a large number of the wintering Pinkfeet appear to have departed already in the last couple of weeks, on their way back north. However, we managed to find a small group of Pink-footed Geese feeding along the edge of a drainage ditch. We stopped to admire them, their pink legs and small pink-banded bills. As the heads were raised occasionally from the long grass, we could see some different birds amongst them, a few of the geese flashing a very bright white blaze around the base of the bill. A small group of White-fronted Geese were mixed in with them and we could even see the distinctive black belly bars of a couple of them.

IMG_2720White-fronted Geese – a few were mixed in with a small group of Pinkfeet

Our next stop was further inland. The herd of wintering wild swans has been rather more mobile in recent weeks, and it is getting to the time when they too may start to depart. We had a quick look at the fields where they have been in recent weeks, but there was no sign, so we headed down to the levels, another favoured area. A tightly packed line of large white shapes quickly revealed itself to be a group of about 35 Bewick’s Swans, the small yellow patch at the base of their bills catching the sun and their distinctive calls carrying to us on the breeze. A little further on, we found another little group of Bewick’s Swans. One in particular was right next to a Mute Swan giving us a great side-by-side comparison, the Bewick’s looking almost goose-like in comparison, much smaller and with a much shorter neck. Whether the flock was just scattered today, or whether some have left, we couldn’t tell. However, we couldn’t find any Whoopers amongst the swans we did manage to locate today.

There is a magical spot just a short drive away and on such a beautiful day, and with the time our own to do with as we pleased today, we decided to divert for a bit of local history. All that remains of St Benet’s Abbey are a few ruins, but it was once one of the richest abbeys in England and was unique in that it was the only abbey not closed down by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The view from the high ground, amongst the ruins of the great church, looking to the levels all around, is particularly spectacular.

P1110810St Benet’s Abbey – the remains of the gatehouse and the levels beyond

From there, we headed over to the Yare Valley and a break for lunch. We had not even got out of the car at Strumpshaw Fen when we were greeted by a pair of Marsh Tits calling in the hedge in front of us. We stopped to admire one of them, feeding on something, possibly a seed grabbed from the feeders by the Reception Hide. It looked very smart, in buff and pale brown, with black cap and bright white cheeks. After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve for a quick look at Fen Hide. There were lots of visitors today, presumably with it being half term, and it was rather noisy. Consequently, there was not so much non-human activity on the reserve. A single Marsh Harrier quartered the reedbed, pursued by a crow. We didn’t linger too long.

P1110816Robin – enjoying the sunshine at Strumpshaw Fen

It is only a short hop from there to Buckenham Marshes. As usual this winter, there were few geese here, other than several large groups of Canada Geese and a few Greylags. A helicopter flying up the valley even managed to flush those. We saw it coming from some distance, as it put up all the geese from Cantley first – seemingly a nice little flock of Pink-footed Geese still there, though they circled round and appeared to drop down again the other side of the river. As a small group of the Canada Geese flew back later they held a much smaller goose amongst them. A single White-fronted Goose dropped down onto the grass with them, presumably it had been separated from the rest of its kind.

There were still plenty of ducks at Buckenham – still lots of Wigeon feeding on the grass, at least until they were spooked and made for the water in a scramble. Amongst them, we could pick out a pair of Shoveler and several Teal. There were flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing out on the marshes, but another couple of waders flying in were a couple of Ruff, one a classic winter male and the other a strikingly white-headed bird. Unfortunately, the only Water Pipit we could find flew over our heads calling, and disappeared straight over the river, dropping down over the other side out of view before we could properly get everyone onto it. Otherwise, there were several Meadow Pipits out in the grass. A lone Great Crested Grebe on the river was looking particularly smart in its spring finery.

P1110822Wigeon – still good numbers at Buckenham today

Halvergate has been a favourite destination this winter, and we headed over there next for an afternoon coffee break. A quick scan as we got out of the car immediately revealed the resident (for the winter) Rough-legged Buzzard perched on one of its favourite posts. We had a good look at it through the scope, – we could see its blackish belly patch and just about even the feathered legs from which it gets its name – but it wasn’t doing much, only lazily flying from one post to the next. We really wanted to see it fly properly. Thankfully, after a short wait, just enough to whet the appetite, it obliged. It flew straight towards us and proceeded to hover several times, holding its position long enough to allow us to get great views of it through the scope, flashing its white tail base as it went. After showing off for a few minutes, it obviously figured it had given us what we were waiting for and went straight back to its post again!

IMG_2732Rough-legged Buzzard – on one of its usual posts

A little further along was another small group of 44 Bewick’s Swans. Several of these were really close to the road, so we stopped and got out to admire them. They were totally unconcerned with our presence and we were able to study them closely through the scope.

IMG_2762IMG_2749Bewick’s Swans – our second group of the day

A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes and one smart male came alongside us as we stopped by the road. A pair of Kestrels perched in the hawthorns as we turned round in a gateway. A Chinese Water Deer was trying to hide in a ditch. However, it was possibly still too bright for the Short-eared Owls to come out and we faced a difficult choice – whether to hang on here for them or head back for the harrier roost. In the end, reluctantly, we chose the latter.

The sky was just starting to turn a delicate pink hue as we arrived at Stubb Mill. There were only a couple of Marsh Harriers already out over the reeds, with the others presumably taking advantage of the weather to stay out hunting for as long as possible. They started to drift in, in ones and twos, as we watched. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared low over the marsh in front of us, flashing its white uppertail patch, as it swept past towards the roost. It was followed shortly after by a second ringtail Hen Harrier, this one quite a pale bird, possibly a young (2cy) male. As the light started to fade, the ghostly grey shape of a male Hen Harrier appeared, but unfortunately he was much more distant, trying to slip in through the trees unnoticed. A small shape perched up in one of the trees was surely a Merlin, but it was getting late by that stage.

P1110844The view from the Stubb Mill watchpoint

There were other things to see here as well, as well as the raptors. A pale shape out in the bushes turned out to be a Barn Owl on closer inspection. It sat for some time preening, before eventually setting off for an evening’s hunting. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. As the dark descended, the Woodcock started to emerge. Flying fast, they swept out of the trees in ones and twos, swerving low round the bushes before dropping out towards the marshes.

Earlier, a couple of long necks had appeared above the reeds, their black and white faces revealing another pair of Cranes feeding out across the marshes. However, it was almost dark before the other Cranes flew in to roost, some distant bugling alerting us to their setting off – perhaps they were also taking advantage of the lovely bright evening to feed as long as possible. A line of about 20 shapes appeared through the gloom, but most of them appeared to drop down before they got to us, only 5 of them flew on and across past the trees in front. We had been rather spoilt by our views of the Cranes this morning, but as we walked back to the car with the last of the sun’s orange glow on the horizon, we were serenaded by the sound of bugling from across the landscape. An unforgettable end to a glorious day in the Broads.

3rd January 2015 – Inaugural Owl Tour

The first tour of the New Year and the first Owl Tour of the winter today. It did not feel like a promising start with rain from the off – never ideal weather for owls. However, the forecast suggested the rain might pass through by late afternoon and, not to be put off, we set off to have a go.

Little Owls tend to like sunny days or warmth in the air, and will often sit out in the sun even in the depths of winter. Cold and rain did not seem like a likely combination to tempt one out. Arriving at the first Little Owl site and a quick scan revealed no sign. Still, we set up the scope and set about looking for other birds. Several flocks of geese were flighting from the coast, heading inland to feed; a large flock of Curlew was feeding in a stubble field; a Fieldfare flew up into the trees and a Great Spotted Woodpecker passed overhead.

P1100721Brent Geese – flying inland to feed this morning

Keeping one eye on the farm buildings in front of us, suddenly a shape appeared within the roof – a Little Owl! Unfortunately it was very brief and only one member of the group managed to see it before it disappeared back inside. However, we now felt a lot more confident and after a short wait (spent watching a Stoat running around among the buildings!), the Little Owl appeared again and this time sat still long enough for everyone to see it. A great start, with one species of owl under our belt already.

From there we meandered through the countryside inland from the coast, trying a number of different sites for owls, with no more success – it was just a bit too cold and wet. However, we did come across a beautiful pair of Red Kites, which flew out from a tree by the road as we passed. We stopped to watch them as they circled over the field and landed in another tree a safe distance away, from where we could get great views of them through the ‘scope. While we were standing there, several lines of Golden Plover flew overhead and inland and a Mistle Thrush perched up the hedge. We also came across a very good number of Kestrels on our travels – a good sign, possibly reflecting a productive breeding season last year.

IMG_2117Red Kite – we got great views of a pair of these majestic birds today

With the rain now redoubling its efforts to put us off, we headed down to Titchwell to seek shelter in the hides (and a hot drink in the cafe!), during the quieter owl time in the middle of the day.The water levels on the freshmarsh have been raised for management purposes, which means that most of the islands are now under water. The Brent Geese were enjoying it, as well as a large number of Pochard and a few Tufted Duck. A few ducks and small group of Avocets were clustered onto the few remaining small islands. A Water Rail and several Bearded Tits called from the reedbed, but did not feel like showing themselves.

Despite the high water levels, we still managed to see a very healthy selection of wildfowl and waders. Ducks included Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and Shelduck. The Volunteer Marsh was alive with waders, including more Avocets, Grey PloverLapwing, Knot, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Turnstone. Out on the beach we added Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher to that list. The sea was fairly quiet, though a nice raft of Red-breasted Mergansers was out on the water. However the highlight came on the way out, when a commotion at the tidal pools saw ducks and waders scatter in all directions as a young Peregrine appeared and proceeded to stoop repeatedly and distinctly ineffectually into the melee! It also flushed the mixed flock of Twite, Linnet and Goldfinch which had been on the beach and which flew overhead.

P1100731Black-tailed Godwit – there was a good selection of waders at Titchwell today

After lunch, a hot drink and an attempt at drying ourselves out, it appeared that the rain might be easing – as had been forecast earlier on. The aim of the day was to find owls, so we set off in search of them again, in the hope that an end to the wet weather might tempt them out. A short drive back to Burnham Overy and we set off across the grazing marshes.

On the way out, we stopped to look at a couple of male Bullfinches which flew ahead of us along the hedgerow – such stunning birds, and well worthy of a proper look as they eventually perched up and allowed us to get the scope on them. We also disturbed a little covey of four Grey Partridges which stayed long enough for us to get great views, as they moved quietly away from us through the grass.

P1100741White-fronted Goose – three were by the track at Burnham Overy

The fields either side of the track held an excellent selection of geese. As well as the large flocks of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, a small flock of Greylag right by the path contained an additional small number of Pinkfeet which gave us a chance to see their pink legs and bill detail up close. In the same field, slightly further out, were three European White-fronted Geese, the white forehead blaze of the two adults being much more obvious than that on their accompanying youngster. A small group of Brent Geese and a few Canada Geese made up the numbers. There were also lots of waders – several hundred Golden Plover, plus a good selection of Lapwing, Curlew, Dunlin and Snipe.

With the rain stopping and the sky brightening to the west, we hurried on to the seawall. No sooner had we got there than the Short-eared Owls were up. Out across the grazing marshes, first two birds circled up into the sky, chasing each other round and round. Then a third bird appeared below them – it seemed to be swooping down repeatedly and a closer look revealed it was actually mobbing a Common Buzzard sat on a gate. The first two Short-eared Owls circled up ever higher, until one eventually peeled off and  flew over the seawall ahead of us and out onto the saltmarsh. It turned and flew back towards us and landed in the grass giving us stunning views in the scope, even of its striking yellow eyes (irides!). It sat for some time, preening, looking round, flying a short distance before landing back again.

IMG_2125Short-eared Owl – we saw three today but this one sat out for some time

We also stopped to look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, sat on one of its usual posts, and a very pale Common Buzzard which does a good impression of a Rough-legged for the unwary. However, they were slightly overshadowed by the performance from the owls.

Next it was time for the Barn Owls to start appearing. First a glimpse of one in the distance by the pines, then a second way off over the marshes, until finally one appeared closer to us. We watched it for some time, hunting over the grass and perched up on a post. With the afternoon getting on and the light starting to go we walked back towards the car. The Barn Owl was still hunting over one of its favoured fields and we stopped to watch it flying back and forth and pausing to hover, much closer now. It eventually flew off over the hedge at the back just as yet another Barn Owl appeared over the track right in front of us, almost overhead, and headed out around the field which the other bird had only just vacated, flying along the field margin close to where we were standing. Such amazing birds. We thought that was probably the best of it – four Barn Owls at Burnham Overy alone!

P1100748Pink-footed Goose – several thousand came in overhead to roost at dusk

As we walked back to the car,we could hear them first, yelping and cackling, before the skeins of Pinkfeet started to appear from the west. Several thousand came in overhead, circling down to land on the grazing marshes or flying on further to Holkham. This is truly one of the great sights of an evening on the marshes and of a winter’s day in Norfolk.

However, the day was still not done and we drove on round to Holkham to have a last look over the marshes there. A short walk down the track and yet another Barn Owl appeared, quartering the field in front of us. It flew round and round before turning and heading straight towards us, landing on a post just into the edge of the field. It sat there for several minutes with the moon up in the sky behind it, as if it was showing off just for us. Wow!

P1100755Barn Owl – this one gave us stunning views at dusk

We walked round to Salts Hole, with the sound of the Pinkfeet out on the grazing marshes, and watched the last of the sunset to end the day. Despite the rain and cold – what a great first Owl Tour of the season.

P1100765Sunset at Salts Hole