Tag Archives: Whooper Swan

9th June 2017 – East Anglian Round-up, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Private Tour today, our last day. We were planning to head down to the Brecks for the day. It was a nice day today, mostly cloudy but brighter later, lighter winds than of late, and we managed to dodge a couple of quick showers in the afternoon.

As we got down into the northern part of the Brecks, we started to see more pig fields. We stopped by one of them where we could see there was a large mob of gulls. The pig nuts had just been spread out in amongst one group of pigs and the gulls were squabbling in between them trying to help themselves. Then there was a loud ‘Bang!’ as a bird scarer went off and all the gulls took to the air.

When they landed again, down in a dip in the middle of the field, we scanned through the gulls we could see. We had hoped we might find a Caspian Gull, but they were mostly Lesser Black-backed Gulls here today, of various ages, plus a couple of Herring Gulls. We had thought we might come back and have another look here later, but our day ended up taking us off in a different direction.

Stone Curlew was our next target and we quickly found a pair in a field by the road. The vegetation is growing up now and they are getting harder to see, particularly when they sit down. It took a careful scan to find them, but we could just see two heads peeping out. We got them in the scope and could see their staring yellow irises. A nice start to the day.

Stone CurlewStone Curlew – one of a pair hiding in the field

When originally discussing possible targets for these three days, Wood Warbler was one species which came up. Unfortunately the bird which had been singing near Brandon last week had not been reported for several days, but we wondered whether this might be just because of the windy weather. We went for a quick look just in case, but all was quiet in the trees where it had been, so we didn’t linger here.

Our next stop was more successful. We parked by a ride in the forest and walked along the track until we got to a large clearing. We could hear Goldcrests and a Treecreeper calling in the pines as we passed. As we approached the clearing we could hear a Stonechat calling and we looked over and saw a smart male perched on the top of an old stump row. A female was perched nearby with food in her bill. They clearly had young in the nest nearby.

StonechatStonechat – the pair in the clearing appear to have young

We were looking for Tree Pipit here and it didn’t take too long to find one. It was perched in the top of an elder tree just along from the Stonechats. We got a good look at it through the scope, swaying about in the wind, before it flew off and up into the pines trees beyond.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – perched in an elder tree briefly

Continuing on round the clearing, we caught a snatch of song, quite sweet and melodic but more rolling than a Blackcap. It seemed an odd place for a Garden Warbler and the first bird we saw come out of the young pine trees was a Whitethroat which led to a brief bout of head scratching – could we have imagined it? Thankfully, a couple of seconds later the Garden Warbler flicked up into the top of some brambles in the stump row behind, a nice bonus to see here and not one we had expected.

Back to the car and we drove round to another part of the forest. There has been a Redstart singing here recently, but we couldn’t hear it today. Whether it was just busy feeding somewhere out of view or has failed to find a mate and moved on was not clear. A smart male Yellowhammer flew in calling and landed on the fence in front of us.

We had a walk round and flushed a Cuckoo from the grass. It landed on a fencepost briefly, before flying off along the fence line. A second Cuckoo appeared and flew out to a small bush nearby, where we got a great view of it in the scope. Then we heard what we assume was the first Cuckoo singing in the distance, so there were two males here. A little later the second Cuckoo flew over and attempted to chase off the first, before flying back to its favoured bush.

CuckooCuckoo – one of two males here today

Another Tree Pipit flew in and dropped down into the long grass. We walked over to try to get a better look at it, but it had managed to sneak away. As we scanned the spot where it had dropped in, the next thing we knew it took off again from further along and flew off towards the trees.

As we turned to walk back, we could hear a Woodlark calling. Suddenly a male Woodlark flew up from a short distance ahead of us and started to sing, fluttering up over our heads, before drifting away over the clearing. We took a few more steps and heard another Woodlark calling. It sounded to be a long way away, but they are masters at throwing their voice and looking at the grass just ahead of us, we spotted it perched on a tussock, presumably the female.

WoodlarkWoodlark – perched on a tussock close to the path

We stopped immediately and had a good look at it through binoculars, but when we tried to get the scope on it, the Woodlark took off and landed in the grass further back, out of view. We headed back to the car and drove on. Having seen Stone Curlew earlier this morning, we were not to worried to see another, but we stopped briefly at Weeting on the way past anyway. We couldn’t find the Stone Curlews here today, but we did find three regular Eurasian Curlews out in the grass, a reminder they still breed in the Brecks in small numbers.

We stopped for lunch at Lakenheath Fen. While we were eating at one of the picnic tables, a Hobby drifted overhead. We had intended to explore the reserve after lunch, but with most of the possible species we might see here already on our list for the three days, another idea sprang to mind. There has been a Red-necked Phalarope at Welney for the last couple of days, which would be a new bird for one of us. It seemed like it would be a great way to round off the trip.

While Welney is not far away as the crow flies, it was a circuitous journey round from Lakenheath, through the Fens. When we arrived at the Welney WWT visitor centre, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling from the bushes outside, but couldn’t see them. We decided to look for them later, and with other things taking priority headed straight out to look for the phalarope. The staff at the visitor centre confirmed it had still been present just a short time ago, so we set off to walk the almost 1km down to Friends Hide.

When we got to the hide, The Red-necked Phalarope was out of view. There were several pairs of Avocets on here and quite a few chicks. A pair of Little Ringed Plovers had a couple of small fluffy juveniles with them too. We had been lucky with the weather today – it was warm and bright as we walked out to the hide – but we had been promised showers in the afternoon and a brief heavy rain shower came through. The adult Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers called to their respective young and sheltered the juveniles under their wings while the rain passed over.

AvocetAvocet – sheltering their chicks under their wings during the rain shower

It quickly brightened up again and the juvenile Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers were let out. The Avocets were being very aggressive. Their idea of childcare is to let the young fend for themselves and chase off potential predators. But they have got their definition of what might be a threat to their young awry – they were busy chasing off anything and everything!

A couple of adult Avocets kept having a go at the poor Little Ringed Plovers, chasing after them while they were trying to protect their young. The adult Little Ringed Plovers tried to lead them away with a distraction display, walking away with wings dangled, trying to look injured. It didn’t really work. The Avocets would follow them at first, then when the Little Ringed Plover felt it had got far enough away, it ran back to its chick but the Avocet simply chased back after it.

Avocet and Little Ringed Plover 1Avocet & Little Ringed Plover – the latter giving a distraction display, feigning injury

The Avocets kept chasing the Red-necked Phalarope too, which was probably why it spent so much time hiding in the reeds at the front of the pool. Every time the Red-necked Phalarope swam out, it was promptly chased off. We had a couple of quick views of it. At one point, when chased, it flew across the front of the scrape and landed on a small patch of mud, but the Avocet was still after it and once again it disappeared back into the reeds.

Eventually, the juvenile Avocets moved away from the Red-necked Phalarope’s favoured corner and it managed to swim about for a while feeding out in the open where we could get a good look at it. It was a male, which in phalarope’s means it is the duller plumaged of the sexes, with the females being brighter. The females do all the displaying and leave the males to incubate and rear the young. This male Red-necked Phalarope was still a smart bird, swimming round non-stop, in and out of the reeds, picking at the waters surface for insects of ducking its head under.

Red-necked PhalaropeRed-necked Phalarope – swimming around in front of the hide

We watched the Red-necked Phalarope for a while, swimming once it finally came out into the open for a while. They are rare visitors here and this bird was probably heading up to Scandinavia or Iceland for the breeding season, though where it had spent the winter is anyone’s guess with Scandinavian birds wintering out in the Arabian Sea but recent studies showing that some of the small number of birds breeding in the Shetland Islands migrating to join the North American population in the South Pacific Ocean! When it finally swam back into the reeds again, we decided to start walking back.

On the way back, we stopped for a quick look in the other hides. There did not seem to be too much on view from Lyle Hide, apart from more Avocets – good to see that they appear to be doing so well at Welney. We heard a song that sounded vaguely reminiscent of jangling keys and looked out of the front of the hide to see a Corn Bunting perched on the top of the vegetation. We got a great look at it as it stayed there for a couple of minutes singing, before being spooked by a big flock of Rooks and dropping back down out of view.

Corn BuntingCorn Bunting – singing in front of Lyle Hide

There were several Black-tailed Godwits out to one side of the hide, but the light was bad here as we were looking into the sun. We got better views from the Nelson-Lyle Hide further back. This confirmed our suspicions that they appeared to be a mix of two different races. Nominate limosa or Continental Black-tailed Godwit breeds across Europe east from the Netherlands. Only about 50-60 pairs breed in the UK on the Ouse and Nene Washes, including a couple of pairs at Welney. First summer islandica or Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits often remain in UK in rather than migrate up to Iceland to breed. There appeared to be a mixture of the two here, including a couple of nice limosa, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them.

Continental Black-tailed GodwitContinental Black-tailed Godwit – of the nominate race, limosa

Back at the Observatory, we could see a pair of Whooper Swans in front of the hide. This is a pair of injured birds which are not capable of flying back up to Iceland to breed, so have instead nested for the last six years at Welney, where they normally spend the winter. We could only see two of the four cygnets they were meant to have this year, but  presumed the others were hiding in the vegetation. Further back across the washes we could see another six or so Whooper Swans, presumably also all injured birds.

Whooper SwanWhooper Swan – with two cygnets

Back at the visitor centre, there were three more Black-tailed Godwits on Lady Fen. A quick look at the feeders as we were leaving finally got us views of the Tree Sparrows, with at least a couple coming and going, including one with only a half-grown tail.

Tree SparrowTree Sparrow – coming to the feeders in front of the visitor centre

It was a lovely way to end three exciting action-packed days of East Anglian summer birding, watching the Red-necked Phalarope and all the other birds at Welney. It rounded off the list nicely – we had managed to see a nice set of rarer birds despite it being early June, as well as a great selection of our resident and scarcer breeding species. A job well done, we set off back for home.

 

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21st Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, and we headed down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was frosty overnight and cloudy today, although it did brighten up a bit later on and there was no sign of any of the forecast patchy fog.

Our first stop was at Ludham. The field which had held all the swans last time we were down was looking comparatively empty today. There were six Bewick’s Swans here – we got them in the scope and could see the squared off yellow on the adults’ bills – but no sign of the rest of the big herd. The large flock of Egyptian Geese were still here though – about 30 today.

6o0a4076Egyptian Goose – part of the large flock still at Ludham

This is a good vantage point from which to scan the rest of the old airfield and we could see some more white shapes distantly away to the north. So we set off round to the other side for a closer look. Sure enough, we found the rest of the swans, though they were separated into two groups. We stopped by the first group which were feeding in a winter wheat field. There were 73 swans in total in this field – 13 Whooper Swans and 60 Bewick’s Swans. Another two pairs of Bewick’s Swans flew in calling and dropped down to join them.

6o0a4089Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – part of the herd between Ludham & Catfield

It is always nice to see the two species side by side. Next to the Bewick’s Swans, the Whooper Swans are much larger and longer necked. Their bills are also proportionately longer, and the yellow on the bill extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge. In contrast, the Bewick’s Swans’ yellow is more restricted and squared off. There was also a lone Pink-footed Goose in the field with them.

6o0a4086Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – nicely showing the size & bill differences

Having had a good look at this group of swans, we drove a little further up the road and found a much larger herd. There was no easy place to stop here, but we managed a quick count – there were at least 108 birds in total, again a mixture of Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans, and predominantly the latter.

Our next target was to find some Cranes. We drove further into the Broads and stopped at a convenient vantage point from where we can see across an area where we know they like to feed. A quick scan of the marshes and we could see a single Crane some distance away, so we got out of the car and set up the scopes. Now there was no sign of it! For a bird which stands over a metre tall, they can be very hard to see and it had walked some distance along behind some reeds. As it walked back out, we could see there were two Cranes and then they took to the air and we could see there were actually four of them.

6o0a4099Cranes – a family party, two adults and two juveniles

The Cranes flew off behind some trees but a minute or so later they reappeared again. At the same time, another pair of Cranes appeared and flew over past them and disappeared from view. When the part of four landed back down on the marshes, we looked across to see yet another pair still down in the field beyond, making eight birds in total. Not a bad start to our Crane viewing!

We got the scopes on the party of four Cranes and could see there were two brighter adults and two duller grey juveniles, with less well-marked head patterns. We watched them walking around on the grass feeding.

img_0001Cranes – the family of four were feeding out on the marshes

After a helpful tip off from some locals that the Taiga Bean Geese were showing at Buckenham, we made our way straight over there next. After walking over the railway line, we stopped on the track and scanned the grazing marshes. Sure enough, we could see the six Taiga Bean Geese out in the grass towards their favoured corner. We had a look at them from here, through the scope, then quickly scanned the rest of the marshes.

There were a couple of Chinese Water Deer feeding out on the grass in front, so we stopped to have a good look at those. While we did so, we heard a Redpoll calling and watched it drop into a large bush overhanging one of the ditches. It had presumably come in to bathe or drink, because it quickly dropped down out of view. We walked round to the other side of the bush but couldn’t see it, then as we made our way back, three Redpolls flew off calling. Next, a single Siskin dropped in to the same bush but, more helpfully, it perched in the top for a few seconds so we could get a look at it. There were also two Redwings which flew in and landed in the tops of the trees the other side of the railway line.

We decided to walk down along the platform to try to get a closer look at the Taiga Bean Geese. Unfortunately, by this stage they had walked back further across the marshes, so were still not especially close. Still, when they put their heads up we could see the more extensive orange on their bills, compared to the Tundra Beans we had seen yesterday.

img_0009Taiga Bean Goose – 1 of the 6 still at Buckenham, helpfully with its head up

Back to the track, and we walked on down towards the river. There were not many Wigeon beside the track today – they were all much further out, across the back of the marshes. A smart adult Peregrine was perched out on a tussock, so had possibly flushed all the wildfowl from this side. The Common Snipe were also very nervous – at least thirty of them flew up from the marshes and circled round before dropping back down onto the edge of one of the channels in a tight flock.

There were lots more geese further over, towards the river, the majority being Pink-footed Geese. As we walked along, we periodically stopped to scan through them. In the first group nearest to us we found two White-fronted Geese. When they put their heads up we could see the white surround to their bills and their black belly bars. There were lots more White-fronted Geese scattered through the flocks of Pinkfeet further back too.

img_0046White-fronted Geese – two were with the nearest group of Pinkfeet

Out by the river, the pools were partly frozen and devoid of ducks. We had a quick look at the river itself from up on the bank, but all we could see were a few ducks, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon. In the field by the hide, a pair of Stonechats were feeding, perching on the taller dead seedheads. It was cold out on the marshes, exposed to the chill of the light wind, so we decided to head back. The Stonechats lead the way, and we met them again half way back.

6o0a4115Stonechat – a pair were feeding on the marshes at Buckenham

Strumpshaw Fen provided a sheltered picnic table for lunch, and the option of a hot drink from the visitor centre. The pool by Reception Hide was still largely frozen and most of the ducks were feeding in the small patch of open water by the reeds, or standing around on the ice. There were quite a few Gadwall, plus a handful of Teal and Shoveler, and the ubiquitous Mallards. The Black Swan had found somewhere quieter, a little further back.

6o0a4140Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler & Mallard – around the small area of open water

While we were eating lunch, we kept one eye on the feeders nearby. There was a steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming and going. Periodically a Marsh Tit would dart in, grab a sunflower heart, and dart back out to the bushes behind. A single Coal Tit popped in briefly too. Nearby, in the trees, a Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops briefly. Some mournful piping calls alerted us to a smart male Bullfinch, which flew in and landed in a tree briefly, before flying off over towards the railway.

After lunch, we drove round via Halvergate. The four Cattle Egrets which were here at the start of January have now been reduced to one and even that only seems to visit here very occasionally. We had a quick look but couldn’t see it. Just a single Little Egret flew up from the grass and dropped down behind some reeds further over.

Haddiscoe Island is a great place for raptors and owls, so we wanted to have a look there next. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard here this winter, but at first all we could find were a few Common Buzzards, including a stunningly pale one with very white underparts.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling so we stopped by the reeds and managed to find four feeding in the tops. Two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and two browner females, we had a great view of them.

img_0054Bearded Tit – one of the males feeding in the reeds

There were lots of other raptors too. A Merlin had a dogfight with a pipit, climbing high into the air, the two birds jinking and swooping in unison, before the Merlin eventually lost interest. A little later, we found another, a smart male Merlin perched on a gatepost, with a Sparrowhawk on another gate nearby. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier worked its way backwards and forwards over the grass. A Barn Owl flew up and down along the river banks.Time was running out, and we were about to leave when we finally found the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on a post out on Haddiscoe Island.

Our final destination for the day was Stubb Mill. Given the time we spent at Haddiscoe, we were later than we had hoped for getting back round there. On the way, we passed the area where we had seen the Cranes earlier just as the family of four took off to fly to roost. We could see them from the car as they flew over the trees parallel with us. We left them behind, but were stopped by some roadworks further along. Once we eventually got through the lights, we found the four Cranes had overtaken us and nearly flew over the car. On the walk out to the watchpoint, we were treated to the evocative sound of Cranes bugling beyond the trees. We were a bit late this evening, but thankfully, when we got there, it didn’t sound like we had missed anything yet.

There were already a few Marsh Harriers in to roost, perched out in the bushes in the reeds. A steady stream of more Marsh Harriers flew in to join them, coming in from all different directions. It didn’t take long for the first Hen Harrier to appear, another grey male, flying in through the bushes at the back, over the reeds. A short while later, a ringtail Hen Harrier flew in too, a little closer, along the front edge of the reeds. It was hotting up!

There were other birds here too. A flock of Fieldfares were hiding down in the grass behind the reeds until they flew up and all landed in a low hawthorn bush, where we could get them in the scope. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. A Barn Owl flew in across the marshes and round behind the mill.

The two resident Cranes were hiding behind the reeds – we could just see the occasional head pop up for a second. Then we spotted another pair coming in to roost, flying in distantly to the east, over beyond Horsey Mill, before dropping down behind the bushes. It seemed like that might be it, until just when most people had started to leave, we heard Cranes calling away to the north. We scanned over in that direction and picked up a large flock flying in, twenty Cranes, all in the air together. It was quite a spectacle!

The Cranes were in two groups. Eleven of them appeared to drop down into the reeds, and three more peeled off from the other nine, which had been slightly ahead of them. These three turned back and seemed to go down towards where the eleven had gone. The final six Cranes carried on, flying steadily south and right past in front of the watchpoint. A great sight! As they flew over calling, the resident pair bugled back to them and finally emerged from where they had been hiding. That was a perfect way to end the day – 24 Cranes in total this evening, taking our total for the day to a whopping 32.

We walked back with flocks of White-fronted Geese and Pink-footed Geese heading off to roost and with the sound of more Cranes bugling still across the marshes.

7th Jan 2017 – Broads in the Mist

The first tour of 2017, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a misty start and, contrary to the forecast, the mist never really lifted completely all day. But it was clear enough, pretty much dry throughout, not too cold – not a bad day to be out and about.

Our first stop was at Ludham. As we pulled up alongside the field which the swans have been favouring, the first thing we saw was a load of Egyptian Geese right beside the road, about 60 of them. Quite a sight!

6o0a3302Egyptian Geese – a few of the 60 that were in the fields at Ludham today

Through the mist, we could make out lots and lots of white shapes and through binoculars we could see they were the swans. Out of the car, we got them in the scope, fortuitously straight onto a view with a Bewick’s Swan and a Whooper Swan side by side in the foreground! One of the nice things about this herd of swans is that it is generally mixed, giving a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. We could see the Whooper was noticeably larger and longer necked that the Bewick’s Swan and yellow on the bill of the Whooper Swan extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge.

6o0a3299Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – in the mist this morning

A quick count revealed there were 123 swans of which 23 were Whooper Swans and 100 Bewick’s Swans. Numbers of Whoopers have been pretty static since the turn of the year, but the number of Bewick’s here has increased, perhaps with birds moving in from the continent in response to colder weather over there.

Across the other side of the road, a field of sugar beet had recently been harvested and loaded onto lorries to be taken away – although several large beet and a significant quantity of accompanying mud had been deposited into the road! A single Egyptian Goose was feeding on the beet tops which had been left behind out in the field and, after a quick scan, we found two more geese in the field over at the back. Through the scope, we could just make out their orange legs and orange-banded dark bill – they were Tundra Bean Geese. There are two subspecies of Bean Goose which regularly winter in the UK – Tundra and Taiga Bean Goose. A variable number of Tundra Bean Geese come over each winter and are more often found in with the large flocks of Pink-footed Geese.

Having taken our fill of the swans, we set off again and made our way south. On the way, we came across a huge flock of geese in another large recently cut sugar beet field by the side of the road. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to stop and lots of traffic but we marveled at them as we drove past. Most of the flock was comprised of thousands of Pink-footed Geese. We could also make out three swans with them, more Whooper Swans. Quite a sight!

We had hoped to pick up a few Cranes in the fields on our travels, but it was still too misty to see far from the roads. We decided to head for Halvergate. There have been four Cattle Egrets here since before Christmas, which we hoped to catch up with. There was no sign of them at first. We could see several cows out on the grazing marshes, so we walked along the road to where we could get a better view to see if anything was with them.

One of the group noticed something swimming in the ditch next to the road, but it disappeared into the near bank. Then something else appeared on the far bank, a Weasel. We walked up to where it had been and there was no sign of it at first. But then suddenly it appeared again out of the grass and ran out across a wooden cattle bridge. We had great views of it as it ran in and out of the wooden sleepers on the bridge, then ran back along the far bank of the ditch, looking for something to eat.

6o0a3306Weasel – ran up and down the river bank in front of us

A white shape appeared out of the rushes on the bank of one of the ditches further back and flew out to join the cows, landing in among their feet. It was one of the Cattle Egret. It was darting in and out of the cows’ legs, and the cattle helpfully then walked out of the rushes and onto the shorter grass, bringing the Cattle Egret with them. We got a great look at it through the scope.

img_9704Cattle Egret – 1 of the 4 birds at Halvergate showed very well

Cattle Egret is a species which has been spreading north out of its historic core range in Spain and Portugal. It has yet to properly colonise the UK, like the Little Egret has done, although it did breed in Somerset in 2008. It is prone to irruptions and this winter a large number have arrived into the UK again. Hopefully, some might stay to breed again in this country again in 2017!

While we were watching the Cattle Egret, there were a few other birds around the marshes here. A Grey Heron was showing well in the same field as the cows, and a pair of Stonechats was feeding in among the cattle too, perching up on the taller dead thistles between dropping down to the ground after insects churned up in the mud.

Visibility improved while we were at Halvergate and, driving round to Cantley next, the sun appeared finally to be breaking through. Could it burn off the mist? Unfortunately it was short-lived, and by the time we got to Cantley Marshes the mist had descended again. There were no geese immediately visible directly in front of the gate, where they have been feeding recently. However, we could see quite a number of Marsh Harriers all standing out in the grass. There were at least five of them and they kept flying round from time to time before landing again. When one of them landed closer, we could see it was carrying green wing tags and through the scope we could see it had the code ‘VC’. Checking later, we found that it had been tagged as a nestling at Hardley in the Norfolk Broads in July 2016, so she hadn’t ventured too far afield.

Scanning further round, we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese out to the left of us. We could see their dark heads and necks and small, dark bills with a variable pink band. One of them was carrying a grey neck collar with the code ‘N29’. Checking online later, we could see that this goose was ringed in Denmark in March 2009. It was seen in Denmark again in September-December 2009, before moving over to Buckenham Marshes in Norfolk in January 2010.In subsequent winters, it has been seen in Lancashire, Scotland and even the Netherlands, but has also regularly been seen in Norfolk and particularly at Buckenham and Cantley. Interesting stuff, showing the benefit of colour marking birds in tracking their subsequent movements.

Eventually we found the White-fronted Geese too, out to the right, along the railway line. There was still quite a bit of mist and they were rather distant, which made them harder to see. We could just see their white fronts when they lifted their heads – the white surround to the base of the adults’ bills. There were also two Ruff out in the grass, one of which was sporting a rather striking pure white head which made it easier to see (the males are rather variable in winter, much as they are in breeding plumage). However, we couldn’t see any sign of any Taiga Bean Geese here today.

When several birds started alarm calling behind us, we turned to see a young Peregrine disappearing off over the houses. A couple of seconds later, it flew back towards us and off along the railway towards Buckenham. The next time we herd the birds getting upset, we turned to see an adult Peregrine flying low across the grazing marshes. It flushed a Common Snipe and chased it half-heartedly. Then a second adult Peregrine flew in behind it, and had a quick go at a passing Lapwing. Both adult Peregrines then flew across the grass and landed on a gate, where we could see them perched distantly, clearly the resident local pair.

We made our way round to Buckenham Marshes next, just a short distance as the Peregrine or Pink-footed Goose flies, but a rather more circuitous drive. We walked out over the railway again and down the rough track across the marshes. There is a particular area of the marshes which is favoured by the Taiga Bean Geese when they are here, and a quick glance across revealed a small party of geese in the distance. Through the scope and through the mist we could just make out that they were indeed the Taiga Bean Geese, but they didn’t help matters by disappearing into some taller vegetation.

Thinking we would have another look for them on the way back, we carried on down the track. There were some nice groups of Wigeon feeding on the grass close to the path, giving us a great opportunity to get a close look at them. The drakes are looking especially smart now, with their rusty brown heads and creamy yellow foreheads, looking like someone has attacked them with a paintbrush.

6o0a3326Wigeon – a drake showing the creamy yellow stripe up its forehead

A smart Common Snipe posed nicely for us next to one of the small wet pools out in the grass. Several Meadow Pipits flew back and forth across the track and one settled briefly on the mud for us to look at it. A couple of Little Egrets chased each other up and down one of the ditches. A single adult Peregrine was preening on one of the many wooden gates out on the marshes, and this one was much closer than the pair we had seen earlier at Cantley, giving us a great view of it through the scope.

img_9710Peregrine – this adult posed nicely for us at Buckenham

Up towards the river bank, the pools held a few more ducks. Among the many Teal, we managed to find a few Shoveler. On one of the small islands, two small waders were running around in among the Teal, a couple of Dunlin. There were lots of Lapwing around the marshes too.

Walking back towards the railway crossing, we could not see any sign of the Taiga Bean Geese. However, we could get rather closer to where we had earlier seen them by walking down the railway platform. When we got to the end, there they were out on the grazing marsh, around 20 Taiga Bean Geese. We had a much better view of them from here, despite the lingering mist. We could see the more extensive orange on their bills compared to the Tundra Bean Geese we had seen earlier this morning. A very small number of Taiga Bean Geese winter regularly in the UK, from the declining breeding population in Sweden, but they are very faithful to only two sites, one group here in Norfolk and one at Slamannan in Scotland.

img_9721Taiga Bean Geese – about 20 were at Buckenham today

It was getting on for lunchtime, so we headed round to Strumpshaw Fen. We ate our lunch overlooking the pool in front of reception hide. There was a good number of Gadwall and Coot out on the water, plus a few Shoveler and a single Cormorant drying its wings on a post. More Cormorants were standing in the dead trees in the distance, over towards the river, and four or five Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds.

The resident escaped Black Swan was also standing on the edge of the pool, a reminder of home for the Australian contingent in the group today! A Cetti’s Warbler sang briefly and was then to be heard calling in the reeds. More obliging was the very smart Kingfisher which perched on a curved reed stem out in full view in front of us.

img_9728Kingfisher – posed very nicely for us at Strumpshaw Fen over lunch

Once we had finished eating, we turned our attention to the feeders behind us. There were  lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming in and out all the time. It didn’t take long before our attention was rewarded with a single Marsh Tit. Several times it darted in, grabbed a seed and disappeared back into the trees behind to eat it, before flying across to the woods beyond.

We drove round via Ranworth next, and had a quick look at Malthouse Broad. On a tour to the Broads, it is always nice to see a proper broad! On the lawn on the edge of the moorings, a tame Pink-footed Goose was feeding with three Greylag Geese. It was an odd place to see one, but great to see it up front and in close comparison with the Greylags. The Pink-footed Goose appeared to have an injured wing, which would probably explain why it was here.

6o0a3352Pink-footed Goose – this apparently injured bird was feeding with the local Greylags

There were lots of Tufted Ducks and Coot out on the water. A single Little Grebe was hiding at the back of the broad, under the overhanging trees. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck which had been here for a couple of days, though by all accounts it was very tame so was best described as of ‘uncertain origin’!!

At this point the mist appeared to start rolling in again, so we decided to head back to look for Cranes in case visibility deteriorated much further again. At our first stop, we could only see a lone Grey Heron initially. Then we noticed two large, pale grey shapes in the distance. Through scope, we could just see they were two Cranes, walking about half obscured behind the reeds. It was hard for everyone to get onto them, given the combination of vegetation and mist. We figured we might be able to see them better from further along road.

img_9742Crane – one of a pair we found in the fields today

After a short drive, we managed to pull off the road and got out. The Cranes were much easier to see from here and the whole group got good views of them through the scope. Such huge and majestic birds, it is great to see them wild in the Norfolk countryside. After watching them feeding happily for some time, they suddenly took off and circled round, their long necks held out in front and long trailing legs behind, before dropping back down behind some trees out of view. Great stuff!

It was then time to head back to Hickling for the last of the afternoon’s activities. As we walked out past Stubb Mill, a single Goldcrest was flicking around in the bushes.

From the watchpoint, one of the resident pair of Cranes was visible on arrival, standing behind the reeds. We watched it walking up and down, before it disappeared from view behind the vegetation. Sometime later, it appeared again with its partner in tow.

There were lots of finches around the mill bushes – Chaffinches, Linnets, a Greenfinch. While we were standing watching the comings and goings over the marshes a small flock of Bramblings flew in. Most of them dropped down to the path below, presumably to drink, but one perched up nicely for us in the top of one of the bushes. Through the scope, we could see its bright orange shoulders. A flock of Fieldfares also perched up in the trees just behind. An extended family of Long-tailed Tits appeared in the trees from our left and made their way back and forth through the bushes right in front of the watchpoint.

A steady trickle of harriers flew in to roost. Most of them were Marsh Harriers, at least 30 today. They flew in from all directions, and several of them perched up in the bushes in the reeds. We also saw two male Hen Harriers, both smart grey males, though they were a little distant this evening. They both came in from the south and flew steadily in over the reeds towards the gathering of Marsh Harriers. A Merlin was more obliging, and perched up in the bushes on the near edge of the reeds so we could get it in the scope. We had hoped for more Cranes to fly in at dusk, but the mist descended and visibility deteriorated again.

We had seen all we wanted to see, so we decided to call it a night. A Tawny Owl hooted briefly from the bushes by the mill and, on the walk back, we could hear a second Tawny Owl calling and a third hooting back in the car park. A nice way to end a very enjoyable – and successful – winter’s day in the Broads.

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.

12th February 2016 – Cranes, Swans & Owls

Day 1 of a three-day long weekend of tour today. We started with a trip down to the Norfolk Broads.

It was a gloriously crisp, frosty, sunny winter’s morning – perfect weather for owls to be out hunting. As we meandered along the coast road, a shape on a post caused us to stop and a quick look confirmed it was a Short-eared Owl. We had a good look at it from the shelter of the car, but when we tried to get the scope out it flew. Thankfully, it was just to start hunting, and it worked its way back and forth across the field.

P1160749Short-eared Owl – hunting by the coast road

It looked stunning in the morning light as it flew round on stiff wings, focused intently on the ground below. Then it flew back over and landed on one of the posts again.

IMG_6948Short-eared Owl – landed back on one of the posts

While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, another owl appeared over the same field, this time a Barn Owl. It was also hunting intently round and round over the rough grass. We didn’t know where to look. Across the other side of the road, a second Barn Owl appeared as well, a couple of fields over. It really was a good morning for owls! We could hear the distant sound of Cranes calling beyond.

P1160752Barn Owl – over the same field as the Short-eared Owl

Continuing along the coast road, we came across several groups of Pink-footed Geese in the roadside fields. We stopped to scan through them, in the hope that we might find something else in amongst them, but there was nothing with them today. Another field of winter wheat was full of Fieldfares instead, with a single Mistle Thrush in with them.

P1160701Pink-footed Geese – there were several flocks by the road today

We eventually stopped in a convenient layby to scan the fields. We immediately latched on to a pair of Cranes, but they were very distant. We could see them well enough through the scope, although they kept disappearing out of view behind some reeds. A good start, our first Cranes of the morning, but we would hope for some a bit nearer.

There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the reedbed and a Buzzard perched up in a bush catching the morning sun. There were lots of Lapwing out on the grazing meadows and a Turnstone in with them was a bit of a surprise. A flock of Golden Plover were in one of the fields across the road. A good number of Snipe were out in the fields as well this morning, presumably encouraged out to the damper patches in the short grass by the frost.

While we were scanning through all the waders, we were surprised to see two Red Deer stags walk out into the middle of one of the fields. They stood there for a while, steam coming from their nostrils. They seemed to be stranded on the wrong side of one of the ditches, and walked along beside it before finally running off back across the field.

IMG_6979Red Deer – 2 stags appeared in the fields

Our next stop was at Winterton. We parked by the beach and walked out onto the sand. There were lots of dog walkers out this morning, presumably taking advantage of the sunny start to the day. As we walked north along the beach, a couple of Ringed Plovers flew past going the other way. A Skylark was singing over the dunes.

The beach itself seemed very quiet today, apart from all the dogs, and there was no sign at first of the Snow Buntings. We got as far as their favourite area and just as we were wondering where they might be, they flew in, about 40 of them, flashing the white in their wings and twittering. They settled just long enough for us to get the scope on them and then they were flushed again. We saw where they had landed and this time we waited for all the dog walkers to go past before we approached. The Snow Buntings were picking around on the edge of the dunes, and we got a much better look at them, until they flew again, back the way they had come.

IMG_7004

IMG_7011Snow Buntings – very mobile today, with lots of disturbance on the beach

We made our way back along the beach and stopped to scan the sea. A small party of Gannets were circling offshore. There were also lots of Cormorants, flying past both ways or circling over the sea. As we looked through them, we started to see Red-throated Divers, first a single one, then a couple more, then some small groups. They were all flying north – we must have seen 40-50 go past in the short time we were looking out to sea. A smaller number of Guillemots went past us as well. Seabirds were clearly on the move today.

While we were looking out to sea, we could see some dark clouds in the sky heading our way. We were almost back when it started to rain, but thankfully it was only light. As we drove back inland, we passed through the middle of it and were much happier to be in the car!

We weaved our way inland looking for Cranes. It was hard scanning some of the more distant fields in the rain, but that didn’t matter when we finally got lucky and found a pair of Cranes not too far from the road. We parked in a layby and walked back to where we could see them. The rain had stopped now and they were busy preening at first, presumably having just got wet! Then the smaller female started preening and the male stood with his neck up, giving us a great view of his head pattern.

IMG_7046Crane – we finally found a pair not too far from the road

We made our way over to Strumpshaw Fen next, in the hope that the frosty weather might have tempted something out of the reeds. The pool by Reception Hide was still half frozen, and all the ducks were out in the middle – Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler – plus a lot of Coots and the resident Black Swan, asleep.

P1160784Stumpshaw Fen – the Reception Hide pool was half frozen still

The walk out through the trees was rather quiet, although we did come across a flock of rather flightly Siskin in the alders. There was not much life from Fen Hide either, apart from a single Coot and a rather noisy Carrion Crow. We heard some Bearded Tits calling and a male flew across and landed in the top of the reeds briefly, before dropping down out of sight. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds in front of us, but did not show itself. There was no sign of the hoped-for Bittern, so we decided to move on.

The walk back was a little more productive. Three Bullfinches flew out of the brambles as we approached, flashing their white rumps as they went. A Marsh Tit was picking about in the bushes. A Treecreeper or two were climbing up the trees and a Goldcrest was in the conifers. A couple of Song Thrushes were feasting on ivy berries.

We had enough time for one more site before we needed to be making our way back north, and it was a choice between Buckenham or Cantley. As the former was distinctly quiet and all the geese were at the latter during the week, we headed for Cantley. Unfortunately, the geese were not there today – apart from a few Canada Geese – so we moved swiftly on.

Our next stop was back up at Ludham. The swans were in their usual place, or at least some of them were. Numbers were well down on earlier in the week, particularly of Bewick’s Swans. We could only see 8 Bewick’s Swans today (compared with c65 on Tuesday) with less than 40 Whooper Swans. Bewick’s Swans have been on the move across the county this week, with small groups seen flying towards the coast, so it is possible that a number of them have gone back to the continent already.

IMG_7062Bewick’s Swans – only 8 today, in with the Whoopers

Still it was nice to see them side by side, the Bewick’s Swans noticeably smaller in direct comparison. We also admired their bill patterns, with the yellow squared off on Bewick’s Swan compared to the longer, pointed extension of yellow down the bill on Whooper Swan.

IMG_7065Whooper Swan – still up to 40 today

Our final stop of the day was at Hickling Broad, where we parked and walked out to Stubb Mill. The walk itself was quiet at first, until we got almost to the mill, when a Short-eared Owl appeared from round the trees. We thought it would do its usual and disappear back round in front of the mill, but today it flew straight towards us and started hunting backwards and forwards over the wet grassland in front of us. Cracking stuff!

P1160837Short-eared Owl – hunting around the back of Stubb Mill

Round at the watchpoint, there was no sign of the two regular Cranes when we arrived. We contented ourselves with watching the Marsh Harriers out in the trees in the reedbed. A ringtail Hen Harrier came in through the trees at the back, but it was a little distant. Two Red Deer, hinds this time, were feeding out on the grass and a third appeared through the reeds further over. A couple of Chinese Water Deer came out of the ditches to graze.

The Short-eared Owl appeared again, this time out in front of the watchpoint. It was hunting at the back of the grazing meadows at first, until suddenly it appeared in the top of one of the bushes quite close to us. We got it in the scope and got some stunning views of it as it looked around. We could really see its bright yellow iris. It stayed in the same place for an age – every time we looked back, it was still perched in the bush. A Barn Owl was also out hunting, at the back of the fields.

IMG_7091Short-eared Owl – perched in one of the bushes in front of the watchpoint

While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, three Cranes appeared overhead, flying past. We didn’t know which way to look! They called as they flew. Then another pair of Cranes flew in from the back and dropped down into the reeds.

P1160865Cranes – flew past the watchpoint calling

While we were watching the pair of Cranes, another ringtail Hen Harrier flew across the scope view in the foreground. This one was much closer than the one we had seen earlier and we got a much better look at it, flashing its square white rump patch as it went. Finally the normally resident pair of Cranes flew in from the left (taking the total to 11 Cranes for the day) and across in front of us, as the light started to fade. They were calling all the way, as they dropped down onto the ground, a beautiful sound and a fitting way to end the day.

9th February 2016 – Calling Cranes

A Private Tour for the day down to the Broads today. It was a glorious day to be out – the wind was light and after high cloud in the morning, we were treated to a wonderfully clear, sunny winter’s afternoon.

Our first target was Cranes. We set off along the coast road, checking out various of their regular spots. At first, all seemed quiet, but little did we know what was around the next corner. Scanning the sky, two large birds appeared way off in the distance but heading straight towards us, a pair of Cranes. We pulled off into a convenient layby and watched them as they flew in, turning north across in front of us before circling low over the trees.

P1160478Cranes – we watched our first of the morning fly in

They were clearly trying to land, but took a couple of attempts to do so, circling up again in between. Eventually the two Cranes dropped down out of view behind the trees. A great start to the morning. Over the other side of the road, small groups of Pink-footed Geese were flying in and landing on the meadows. Ahead of us on the wires, a Fieldfare perched precariously.

P1160491Fieldfare – perched on the wires above the road

We drove on a little further and pulled in again off the road. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed behind and a Barn Owl was perched on a distant fence post. The grazing meadows looked rather quiet at first, apart from a liberal scattering of Lapwings, but a careful scan revealed more Cranes. This time, a pair were standing out on the grass, busy preening. We got them in the scope this time and had a really good look at them – noting the red crown patch particularly on the larger of the two birds, the male.

IMG_6865Cranes – our second pair of the day, preening in a field

A helicopter flew overhead and the Cranes seemed to take little notice as it did so. It did spook all the Pink-footed Geese which then took flight from the fields beyond. The Cranes seemed to be more concerned with the actions of the geese, and now raised their heads and looked round to see what was happening.

P1160492Pink-footed Geese – spooked by a passing helicopter

Out at the back of the meadows, we picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier out hunting. It was flying round and repeatedly dropping down onto the ground. We managed to get it in the scope, before it flew off strongly and over behind a hedge, pursued by a couple of Crows.

While we were watching the Hen Harrier, another pair of Cranes appeared over the meadows flying straight towards us. We had to check at first, but the other pair were still standing on the grass. They flew steadily in our direction, across the road a short distance back the way we had just come, and dropped down out of view behind the trees. An amazing start to the day – three pairs of Cranes in such a small area.

P1160500Cranes – our third pair of the morning, flew across the road

By this time, we figured that we deserved a coffee break, so we drove back to where we could park. We were within earshot of where we had seen the two pairs of Cranes land earlier and we could hear them bugling to each other – quite a way to spend your morning break, listening to the sound of calling Cranes!

After such a successful start to the morning, and being so spoilt with Cranes (or so we thought!), we decided to head off and do something different. We made our way along to Winterton and parked by the beach. Snow Bunting had been mentioned as a bird on the wish list to see, so a walk along the beach here made sense. It was nice to get out for a bracing stroll along the sand.

There were lots of dog walkers out on the beach and we had to get past them before we found the Snow Buntings. Eleven flew down the beach towards us and landed on the shingle behind us, where we had just walked. We made our way back and got the scope on them, but just as the dogs caught us up and they flew again. Thankfully the Snow Buntings landed up on the ridge further out on the beach and watched from there as the dogs passed. Once the danger was gone, we got much better views as they picked about for seeds on the stones.

IMG_6881Snow Bunting – looking for seeds out on the beach

Several of the Snow Buntings settled down for a rest, tucking themselves down in little depressions in the shingle so that only their heads were showing. At this point they were remarkably well camouflaged, shades of brown, russet, grey and off white matching the colours of the stones. It was only because we knew where they were that we could see them.

IMG_6878Snow Bunting – very well camouflaged among the stones

A couple of Skylarks were picking about on the beach as well, among the sandier places on the edge of the dunes. Two Sanderlings appeared on the ridge and a Ringed Plover flew along ahead of us. There were lots of Cormorants flying past offshore, presumably commuting between their fishing grounds and the favoured roosting place on Scroby Sands further south. A distant Gannet flew past casually, overtaken by the Cormorants. A Red-throated Diver in winter plumage was on the sea just offshore, drifting with the tide.

IMG_6903Ringed Plover – on the beach at Winterton

We meandered our way inland through Crane country from here. Scanning some favoured meadows revealed another three Cranes, but they were rather distant. It was a challenge to pick them out, as they were working their way through a deep bed of rushes. The road was busy and there was nowhere convenient to stop. Having done so well for Cranes already this morning, we had a quick look through binoculars from the car and moved on.

Little did we realise what might be around the next corner. It is always worth keeping your eyes peeled on the fields around here and a shout from the eagle-eyed spotter on the passenger side went up as we almost drove past another pair of Cranes. They were tucked down in the corner of a field right next to the road, behind a hedge! A quick u-turn in a convenient gateway and we drove back slowly past on the other side of the road. We carried on a little further past them, where we thought we wouldn’t disturb them and stayed in the car.

P1160526Crane – we surprised a pair in a field right next to the road

The two Cranes were clearly a little nervous and walked slowly out into the middle of the field, treating us to fantastic close-up views as they did so. Unfortunately, there was a lot of traffic on the road and a large lorry went past at that moment which spooked them. They took off – necks down, walking at first, then running with huge wings beating to get them airborne – and dropped down again a little further over. Wow! What a treat to see Cranes like that. And that took us to a total of 11 for the day!

We made our way over to Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. We had a couple of different options for the early afternoon, but the choice was made to walk out onto the reserve here. There were lots of ducks on the area of open water in front of Reception Hide – Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler. And a good number of Coots. A Marsh Harrier circled over the trees out in the middle of the reedbed.

P1160545Shoveler – catching the winter sun at Strumpshaw Fen

As we walked through the trees, we could hear a Song Thrush singing ahead of us. Such a beautiful song and so sad that it is a species in decline, but we are still blessed with a number here. A little party of Siskins were feeding in the alders above our heads, hanging upside down to pick at the cones for the seeds.

P1160554Siskin – feeding in the alders above the path

As we walked out along Sandy Wall, we could hear a Marsh Tit calling and just caught a couple of glimpses of it as it disappeared away through the trees. It was really beautiful in the crisp afternoon sun, with the light catching the reeds as they rustled in the light winds. We sat in Fen Hide for a short while, but it was rather quiet here again today, so we didn’t linger too long. We didn’t have time to explore the whole of the reserve, so we made our way slowly back. The Song Thrush was still singing from the trees and this time the Marsh Tits gave themselves up properly – a pair picking about in the oak trees above the path.

Our next appointment was with the swans, so we made our way back north through the Broads to Ludham. Thankfully, they are still in their usual fields at the moment. Most of the Whooper Swans were in a separate group, picking at the remains of the sugar beet tops in the field which was harvested some time ago and very close to the road. There are still around 40 here at the moment. A tractor was in the process of ploughing the field, pursued by a throng of Black-headed Gulls, so the Whooper Swans were probably making the most of the sugar beet remains while they still can. We had a good look at them from the car as we drove past towards our usual parking spot.

P1160604Whooper Swans – feeding on the remains of the sugar beet tops

The Bewick’s Swans were out in the winter wheat next door, and a lot of them asleep again this afternoon. Six of them were very close, so we pulled up and got out very slowly and quietly, giving them a chance to walk away slowly to a safe distance, back towards the main herd. They settled down again and we got a really good look at them through the scope.

IMG_6911Bewick’s Swan – two white adults and a greyer juvenile

There were two Whooper Swans feeding in with the Bewick’s Swans, which gave us a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. The Whooper Swans were noticeably bigger and with more yellow on the longer bill, extending further down in a wedge shape.

Our final stop of the day was at Hickling Broad. We parked in the car park and set off towards Stubb Mill for the harrier roost. A Barn Owl was hunting around the meadow behind the visitor centre, perching on the fence posts in the late afternoon sunshine.

IMG_6926Barn Owl – hunting around the meadows at Hickling Broad

A large flock of Fieldfares were feeding further along the path ahead of us. Some of them were looking particularly bright yellow-orange breasted as they caught the light. Something spooked them and they all flew up into the trees, ‘tchacking’ as they went. As we turned the corner at Stubb Mill, another Barn Owl flew across right in front of us and disappeared out towards the grazing meadows.

There were only about 5-6 Marsh Harriers around the trees when we arrived, but a steady trickle continued to arrive while we were there. There were probably close to 20 by the time we left, with more still arriving, but numbers have started to drop now as the birds start to head off back to their breeding territories. A ringtail Hen Harrier came through low over the meadows in front of us, flashing the white square at the base of its tail as it did so.

A Short-eared Owl flew in from the back and landed on a woodpile in the low sunshine. It perched there preening for the rest of the time we were there – it had obviously enjoyed a successful afternoon’s hunting already. A second Short-eared Owl circled up very distantly over the back of the trees. There were more Barn Owls too – it was hard to know how many we saw altogether here this evening. One was hunting along the field edge behind us and another far off over the reeds in front.

A Chinese Water Deer appeared out in the grass and we got it in the scope. Then it ran across in front of us, before dropping down into one of the ditches, flashing its tusks as it went past. A couple of Red Deer were grazing further over again, and at one point we could see them in the same view as the Short-eared Owl!

A Wildlife Trust van had driven across the marshes as we walked out and there were several people walking around behind Stubb Mill by the time we got there. The two resident Cranes had flown off before we arrived – presumably flushed by all the people and activity. We weren’t too concerned today, as we had enjoyed so many and such good views of Cranes this morning. However, we could hear a number of Cranes bugling from away behind the wood while we stood scanning the marshes – there is a lot of vocal activity from all the Cranes now. It was a lovely evocative way to end the day, listening to Cranes calling as we admired the traditional Broadland landscape.

P1160630The view from Stubb Mill in the afternoon sun

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