Tag Archives: Yellow-browed Warbler

14th Oct 2020 – Private Autumn Day Tour

A Private Autumn single day tour in North Norfolk today. It was mostly cloudy today but mostly dry – we managed to largely dodge the showers, particularly in the afternoon. A brisk NE wind held lots of promise for migrants coming in from the continent.

Our first destination for the morning was Wells. Walking in towards the woods from the beach car park, we could see several Little Grebes on the Boating Lake as usual and a few Coot and Mallard to get the day’s list started.

Little Grebe – there were several on the boating lake as usual this morning

As soon as we got into the birches, we found our first tit flock. There were lots of birds flitting around in the trees overhead – Long-tailed Tits, Blue and Coal Tit, Goldcrests and a Treecreeper. Small groups of Redwings flew back and forth overhead and we could hear their teezing calls.

Walking round the north side of the Dell, we flushed more Redwings and several Blackbirds from the bottom, under the trees. We cut across the middle, over the main track and out into the more open area the other side. There were loads of Redwings here too, feeding on berries in the bushes and out on the grass on the grazing marshes beyond. Looking through them, we managed to find one or two Song Thrushes as well. There had clearly been a big arrival of thrushes here in the last 24 hours, mainly Redwings, coming here from Scandinavia for the winter.

Redwing – there had been a big arrival in the last 24 hours

A couple of Marsh Harriers were flying round over the grazing marshes beyond, a juvenile with bright red wing tags (unfortunately too far away to read the identifying code), and an adult female with much more pale creamy colouring on the leading edge of the wings. Two Red Kites were hanging in the air over the trees in the Park at the back.

The Marsh Harriers kept flushing all the ducks from the grazing marshes, the flocks Wigeon and Teal flying round before settling again around the pools. There were a few Curlew and Lapwing, and several Pied Wagtails out on the wet grass too.

Small groups of Redpolls kept flying back and forth overhead calling while we were scanning the grazing marshes and as we walked on a little further a few flew in and landed in the top of a large birch tree in front of us. We had a much better view of them now, and got one or two in the scope, admiring the red ‘polls’ on their foreheads and black chin patches. These birds looked rather small and brown, Lesser Redpolls. More dropped in to join them and others flew out – there was lots of coming and going.

Lesser Redpoll – several landed in the birches

Continuing round, two Sparrowhawks were up over the pines in the distance, chased by two Carrion Crows, swooping in and out of the treetops. Two male Blackcaps popped up in the top of a large clump of Hawthorn and briar.

Back out on the main track, there were lots of Goldcrests in the birches, as we caught the tail end of another tit flock as it disappeared into the pines. There was nothing of note in the bushes round the Drinking Pool but a couple of Bramblings were calling in the pines and we had a fleeting view high in the trees and then saw one of them flying off.

Goldcrest – there were lots of exhausted migrants in today

Continuing west on the main track, we stopped to watch some more Goldcrests feeding in some sycamores right by the path. We had some great views of them, down at eye level. While they do breed here, numbers are swollen in autumn by arrivals from the continent. We marvelled at how these tiny birds weighing no more than a 20p coin, can manage to fly all the way across the North Sea. When they arrive they are not surprisingly exhausted and hungry and therefore very confiding.

We were just in the process of discussing how you might tell a Firecrest from a Goldcrest when we had a shout from a friend deeper in the trees in front of us that he had just found one! It was very active, flitting around in the oaks, and hard to see. We had a few quick glimpses and then lost track of it. While we were looking round in the trees for the Firecrest, a Yellow-browed Warbler appeared too, but again we only managed frustratingly brief views of it before we lost track of it.

The Goldcrests seemed to be working their way slowly east through the trees, so we walked back out onto the track and followed them. We could hear more wheezy calls from Bramblings a little further along and walked back where a smart male finally gave itself up nicely in some birches, turning round and showing off its bright orange breast and shoulders.

Brambling – this male gave itself up in the birches by the track

There were no Goldcrests this far down – we seemed to have overshot the flock – so we walked back a few metres until we found them again. Suddenly out popped a boldly marked head low in an oak tree right in front of us, like a rather like Goldcrest but with additional stripes, black through the eye and a striking white supercilium above. It was the Firecrest and we had great views of it now as it performed in front of our eyes.

Firecrest – reappeared low in an oak tree right in front of us

We continued to follow the Goldcrests and we were rewarded again when the Yellow-browed Warbler reappeared in a small sycamore beside the track. It fed here for a couple of minutes now, giving us the chance to get a better look at its stripes, a striking yellowish supercilium and double wing bars.

Having enjoyed great views of Firecrest and Yellow-browed Warbler, we decided to start walking back. There was a report of some other birds in the open area by the Dell now, so we cut back in and walked slowly in through the grass and round the brambles and hawthorns.

A Lesser Whitethroat flicked out ahead of us, and we watched it feeding in the brambles. At this time of year, they are mainly ‘Eastern’ Lesser Whitethroats passing through, birds of the race blythi, also known as Siberian Lesser Whitethroats and coming to us from much further east. Sure enough, this was an Eastern Lesser Whitethroat, with the brown of the mantle continuing as a shawl up over the back of the head. We could hear its quiet tacking calls as it worked its way round.

Eastern Lesser Whitethroat – of the race blythi

We found a smart male Bullfinch in the brambles too, and still lots of Redwings and Redpolls, but no sign of the Redstart now which was seen here earlier. As we made our way back to the main track, a couple of Redpolls flew in and landed briefly in the hawthorns ahead of us. A flash of a streaky but pale rump on one indicated it was a Mealy Redpoll, the flammea race of Common Redpoll which comes here from Scandinavia in the autumn.

Cutting back in round the east side of the Dell, we had another look in the birches on our way back to the car park. Several Blackcaps flitted ahead of us and a couple of Bullfinches were in the brambles. There was a tit flock in the trees here again, the light was better this time. We spent some time looking through them – lots of Goldcrests but nothing more unusual.

Back out to the car park, we picked up lunch and walked over to the harbour. Up on the seawall, we ate our lunch while we scanned the channel and the mud and sands opposite. There were a few Cormorants diving in the channel itself and a couple of closer Brent Geese on the far side. We could see lots more Brent Geese further out on the sands and they started to fly back in past us and back into the harbour, presumably to feed.

Brent Geese – flying in past us along the harbour channel

The waders were rather distant at first here today, right up on the back of the mud towards East Hills. Through the scope, we could see lots of Knot, together with several Dunlin and Turnstones. A couple of Ringed Plover were well camouflaged on one of the patches of shingle. There was a scattering of Curlew and a good number of Oystercatchers here too.

A dark shape hunched right out on the middle of the sands, as we thought it might, resolved itself into a Peregrine through the scope, loafing out on a sand bar. Presumably it had been hunting the waders and had stopped for a rest.

So when something flushed all the Knot, we thought at first the Peregrine might be the culprit, but it was still on the sand in the same place. We watched as the Knot whirled round in a tight flock, back and forth, twisting and turning, flashing grey and white. Four larger birds with them were Bar-tailed Godwits. All of them landed together on the edge of the channel, giving us a much better view, the godwits squabbling in the shallow water.

We stopped at the beach cafe for a welcome hot drink. We had a few possible options for the afternoon, but there had been a small number of Pallas’s Warblers appearing along the coast this morning and we thought we would try for the one which had been reported already several times, out at Burnham Overy Dunes. We parked in the car park at the staithe, and walked out along the seawall, hoping to pick up a few waders en route.

Curlew – feeding on the edge of the harbour channel

A close Curlew was feeding down on the near edge of the harbour channel as we set off and more were out on the grazing meadows the other side. Our attention was caught by three Moorhen just beyond the ditch. Two seemed to be fighting, one pinned down by the other, while the third looked on. When the fighting birds separated, one tried to run off but was chased all the way along the bank by the other, pecking at its heels. The third ran along too a few seconds later, not wanting to be left behind.

There were a couple of Grey Plovers down beside the harbour channel further along and two Ringed Plovers out on the sandbank in the middle, along with a few Brent Geese and Wigeon. Looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, we could see a few white shapes, which were all Little Egrets.

Grey Plover – on the edge of the harbour channel

Past the corner on the seawall, there were lots of Dunlin on the open muddy inlet, along with a couple more Ringed Plover, and lots of Redshanks too. A Stonechat perched up briefly on the brambles.

The cattle were rather distant today, out in the middle of the grazing marshes looking over towards Holkham. We did see a few white birds flying round amongst them, at least three Cattle Egrets, but they kept landing out of view behind a line of reeds. The large flock of Golden Plover out on the saltmarsh was very well camouflaged against the other burnt colours of autumn vegetation.

When we got out to the boardwalk, we turned west to walk out to Gun Hill. We had already been told that the Pallas’s Warbler had not been seen again, for at least the last couple of hours, but we thought we should try our luck anyway. We flushed yet more Redwings from the bushes on the way and there were more Goldcrests in the low privet and bramble out in the dunes. The Goldcrests were unbelievably tame – just arrived over the North Sea, exhausted, they simply have to feed and have no time to worry about people. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find any sign of the Pallas’s Warbler here.

We climbed up onto the higher dunes to look out over the beach. There were lots of Cormorants drying their wings on the sandbank at the entrance to the channel, and a single Sanderling running along the shoreline nearby.

After a sit down, it was time to start walking back. We had a better view of the Cattle Egrets on the return journey. We got a couple in the scope, feeding in between the legs of the cows, and managed to count at least seven out there now. They were still rather distant though, out on the grazing marshes.

As we drove back east, we stopped briefly at Holkham. There were lots of Cormorants loafing in the trees, presumably getting ready to roost. The first Great White Egret was out on a small pool on the grazing marsh. Then we found a second in with the Belted Galloway cows along with a Grey Heron (they probably had an identity crisis and thought they were Cattle Egrets too!). A third Great White Egret appeared further back, and with a bit of careful scanning we found a fourth away in the distance.

Great White Egret – in with the cows along with a Grey Heron

That would have been more than enough, but what may have been a fifth Great White Egret flew in just as we were packing up. This is another species which has colonised in a remarkably short space of time, and gone from being rare to not uncommon now. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the near edge of the marshes, presumably getting ready to go to roost. Unfortunately it was time for us to call it a day too.

9th Oct 2020 – Four Autumn Days, Day 2

Day 2 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk. In contrast to yesterday, it was a bright sunny start, although it did cloud over again late morning and there were then one or two sharp showers in the afternoon. There was a rather brisk SW wind too.

Our destination for the morning was Holkham. As we parked at Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see hundreds of Pink-footed Geese coming up over the pines to the east, presumably coming in from the mudflats beyond Wells. They came over calling as we were getting ready, we could hear their distinctive yelping calls.

A couple of Grey Herons on the edge of the reeds out on the grazing marsh to the west were new birds for the trip list. As we walked up towards the pines, a Song Thrush was catching the sunshine in one of the hawthorns on the edge of the grass, possibly a migrant from the continent warming up.

Song Thrush – enjoying the morning sunshine

As we walked west along the track on the south side of the pines, we could hear a Chiffchaff calling. One or two Jays flew back and forth across the track between the pines and the poplars.

We stopped to watch several Goldcrests feeding low down in the bushes beside the path. We would see quite a few of them along here this morning. Although they breed here, numbers are swelled in autumn by migrants arriving from the continent. Amazing to think that such tiny birds, which weigh about as much as a 20p coin, can make it all the way here across the North Sea.

Goldcrest – we saw good numbers here today

Just before we got to Salts Hole, we noticed some movement in the leaves in a small oak tree by the track. It was a Redwing, another fresh arrival from the continent, coming here from Scandinavia for the winter. Unfortunately it disappeared deeper into the trees before we could all get a look at it – but we would see several more over the coming days.

At Salts Hole, there were at least six Little Grebes around the pool, along with plenty of Mallards. Out of the shelter of the trees, it was now much breezier than we had expected – it had seemed much calmer when we had got out of the minibus at Lady Anne’s Drive earlier, so perhaps the wind had picked up since.

As we walked up onto the boardwalk by Washington Hide, we could hear Long-tailed Tits in the sycamores beyond. We carried on past the hide to see if we could find anything with them. There were Blue Tits and Great Tits, a Coal Tit calling, and several more Goldcrests, but there was nothing rarer with them today.

We carried on to the end of the boardwalk and had a quick look out at the beach. It was a great view, looking out over the dunes in the sunshine. It was more sheltered this side of the pines, but quiet.

Back to the hide, it is still nailed shut, so we stood on the boardwalk to look out over the marshes. There was a small flock of geese on the grass, mainly Pink-footed Geese but we could see a couple of Greylags in with them. We got them in the scopes, a nice comparison of the two species side by side.

At Meals House, we had a quick look in the garden but it was all quiet, apart from a Pied Wagtail calling from the house. A Common Buzzard was hanging in the air above our heads over the pines just beyond. It was a good morning for raptors, sunny with a fresh breeze, and the Buzzard was enjoying the updraft of the wind hitting the trees.

We thought there might some more activity in the trees either side of the crosstracks, particularly given some shelter from the wind here, but it was quiet here too as we walked past. A Chiffchaff was calling from the bushes before the crosstracks. We could hear tits as we walked through the pines but they were deep in the trees where there is currently no access due to forestry work.

Contintuing west, a small group of Siskins flew over calling and another Chiffchaff flicked out of the sallows and across the path. When we got to the gate at the west end of the pines, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes. A Blackcap was calling in the brambles.

Looking towards the dunes, we noticed a Red Kite coming straight towards us along the end of the pines. It hung in the air overhead circling, then drifted back behind the trees. When it came back out again, it was joined by three more Red Kites. We watched the four of them circling together, in the updraft on the edge of the trees, before they drifted back and we lost sight of them again.

Red Kite – one of four which circled together over the end of the pines

A minute or so later, the Red Kites flew out over the west end of the pines further back and we watched as they headed off over the dunes. As they disappeared off west, it seemed like some of them might be on the move today.

Continuing round through the trees, we made our way out into the edge of the dunes, into one of the bramble-lined hollows. There had been a Barred Warbler here a couple of days ago, but there was no report of it yesterday. We thought there had to be a good chance it might still be here, but the bushes in the first hollow were quiet, not even any sign of any Blackcaps.

Back out onto the path, we walked up onto the higher dunes to scan the grazing marshes. A couple of Stonechats appeared on the brambles down by the fence below us and a Blackcap popped up in the top of the bushes further back.

Red Kite – circled over the highest point in the dunes

One of the Red Kites drifted back over the dunes towards us, and started circling over the highest point. It kept swooping down at something on the ground. It was a smart adult and its red tail shone in the morning sun as it twisted and turned. A Magpie appeared and started harrying it, swooping down at it.

Red Kite – harried by a Magpie for a while

It was warming up now, and three Common Buzzards circled up over the middle of the grazing marshes. We could see a large herd of cows in the top corner of the fields and several white shapes in the grass in amongst them. Through the scopes, we could see they were the Cattle Egrets. We could only see two at first, but gradually more appeared from behind the cows and we got up to at least seven by the end. Looking the other way, towards Decoy Wood, we found at least three Great White Egrets too.

There were more Blackcaps calling from the bushes behind us now, so we walked round the back to look in the dune slacks. As we walked round through the bushes, we heard Bullfinches calling quietly, and three flew out and disappeared into the brambles the other side.

As we climbed over the top of the dunes, we flushed two Blackcaps out from the brambles below the ridge. They were immediately followed by a larger, greyer warbler – the Barred Warbler! All three birds flew across the hollow and into the bushes on the far side. We stopped on the top and looked across and after a minute the Barred Warbler reappeared.

Barred Warbler – showed well in the dune hollow at the west end of the pines

We watched the Barred Warbler for some time. It kept disappearing into the brambles, before re-emerging again a little further round. We got it in the scope and had a great view, as it fed on blackberries. It was a juvenile – lacking the heavy barring underneath shown by adult males (and to a lesser extent by females), but still with a ghosting of crescents on its flanks and undertail.

Barred Warblers are scarce autumn visitors here, on their way from their breeding grounds in Eastern Europe to Africa for the winter, so a great bird to see. When it disappeared, we walked round to the path on the other side of the hollow, and as we came out from behind some trees, the Barred Warbler flicked out ahead of us again. We had seen another group emerge from the end of the pines, so we called them over and pointed out the bushes where it had gone in.

With our main target achieved, we set off to walk back. We were almost back to the crosstracks, when a tit flock came out of the sallows and across the track ahead of us. The Long-tailed Tits were followed by loads of Goldcrests, but they didn’t linger and disappeared quickly back up into the pines.

We heard a Yellow-browed Warbler call from somewhere a little further along the track. It didn’t seem to be with the tits, so we walked round on the path behind the sallows, hoping to relocate. Unfortunately, it had gone quiet now and the trees are very thick here, lots of places to hide. Another Redwing came in high over the pines.

On the other side of the crosstracks, we had to pick our way through the mud where the path had been churned up by the forestry work. Just as we arrived where they were working, we thought we heard another Yellow-browed Warbler call, but their was lots of noise coming from a huge vehicle driving through the edge of the trees. We had to wait for the vehicle to come out of the trees, and the driver to turn it off to go for lunch.

We heard the Yellow-browed Warbler call again a couple of times, but it was now further back the way we had just come, towards the crosstracks. We had to pick our way back through all the mud. We got out into the open area beyond just in time to catch the back end of a tit flock coming out of the trees. They were moving fast now, but we tried to follow them along one of the paths through the reeds.

The trail seemed to have gone cold, but as just as the flock disappeared back towards Bones Drift, the Yellow-browed Warbler started calling again. It was calling much more persistently this time, but we couldn’t follow it as there was a forestry work barrier across the path and we couldn’t see it in the trees in the distance.

It was quiet on the rest of the walk back, and when we got back to the top of Lady Anne’s Drive, we headed into the Lookout to get a hot drink and stop for lunch. After lunch, we drove round to Wells beach car park, to spend the afternoon there in the woods.

As we walked in past the boating lake, there were lots of Little Grebes and several Coot out on the water, along with four Tufted Ducks, a new bird for the trip list. We made our way in through the birches and it seemed rather quiet in the trees until we got round to the north side of the Dell and found a tit flock. Unfortunately, it was on the move already and everything came quickly straight out of the Dell and disappeared high into the pines before we could get a chance to look through.

We headed back out and cross the main track, into the open area to the south. Over on the far side, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes as the sun came out. There were several Pied Wagtails flitting around out in the wet grass, and a scattering of Curlews and Lapwing around the pools.

Four Red Kites came up together in the sunshine, joined by a Marsh Harrier which drifted off west. Some people told us there had been a large falcon around earlier too and something still seemed to be spooking all the ducks, Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits over on the marshes further back beyond the reeds. We couldn’t see anything now, so perhaps it was just that they were still nervous after its earlier visit.

Continuing on round through the bushes, we found several Redwings in the hawthorns in the reeds over in the far corner, and finally got better views of one or two here. We flushed two or three Blackcaps from the brambles along with a grey continental Robin. A small flock of Goldfinches flew over with a couple of Lesser Redpoll, calling.

Redwing – we finally got better views of one or two in the bushes

Back out on the main track, we continued on west. We cut in round via the Drinking Pool but despite having refilled with water after the recent rains it was very quiet here now. We hadn’t got much further along the track when it started to rain. We made our way in to the trees where it was more sheltered, and thankfully it eased quickly and then stopped.

We made our way back and decided to go to look for the Red-backed Shrike which was apparently still feeding around the fields to the south. As we started down the track beside the caravan site, we found another tit flock in the trees on the corner. We followed it down the line of the shelter belt, beside the track, but we couldn’t find anything different with the tits here either, despite getting a better look through the flock this time. There were lots of ducks out on Quarles Marsh opposite, Wigeon, Teal and a few Mallard.

We could see more dark clouds approaching and it started to rain again now, more heavily. We got to where the shrike had been, but were told it had disappeared earlier when the rain started. We scanned along the line of bushes on the edge of the ditch where it was last seen, but there was nothing moving in there now. We could see lots of Pied Wagtails in the field in front of us and a big flock of Skylarks and Linnets came up from the next field over.

It was very exposed out here, in the rain. We could see brighter skies approaching and figured the sun would be back out in about half an hour, so we decided to head back to the Dell, and the shelter of trees, and have another look here afterwards.

When we got back up to the main track, we turned right to head to the east side of the Dell and were just walking along beside the back of the boating lake when we heard Long-tailed Tits. We stopped and turned to see a tit flock coming out of the caravan park into the trees by the track.

The Long-tailed Tits started to fly across the track one by one and then a small bird flew across behind them. It flew up into a nearby sallow and a quick look confirmed it was a Yellow-browed Warbler. Finally we had a good prolonged view of it, as it flicked around in the bush.

Yellow-browed Warbler – this one taken in Wells a few days earlier

Then the Long-tailed Tits set off through the trees around the east side of the Dell, and everything else followed. We set off after them too, and managed to keep up with them for a while. There were a few Goldcrests with them as well and a Chiffchaff. We had a couple more brief views of the Yellow-browed Warbler before we lost the flock in the trees.

It had stopped raining now, and with our other main target here now in the bag, we made our way back round the edge of the Dell through the trees. We heard Brambling and Lesser Redpoll calling overhead as we made our way back to the main track, before heading back down to have another look for shrike. Several people were now leaving, but despite one claim, there didn’t really appear to have been any further sign of it.

The weather was now much improved, so we walked down the track beside the ditch where it had been earlier to look in the bushes at the far end. There were lots of Linnets and Reed Buntings along the sides of the ditches but at the far end all we found was a Sparrowhawk which flew fast and low over the fields and disappeared towards Wells.

Back at the junction, we stopped to look at some Grey Partridges out on one of the cut grass fields. There were still a couple of people here looking for the shrike, but there was still no further sign of it. Perhaps it had gone in to roost early when the rain came? The forecast for the morning looked good, so we decided to have another go early tomorrow. Time to call it a day today.

8th Oct 2020 – Four Autumn Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk. It was mostly a rather grey, damp and breezy day, but the showers were well spaced and no more than very light drizzle and we managed to avoid the worst of them. And it didn’t stop us kicking the four days off in style with some good birds.

It was raining first thing, but it was expected to clear from the west. We decided to head over to Snettisham. It was not a big tide today, but perhaps it would be enough to push some waders in. As we made our way west, we saw several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying inland from the grazing marshes where they had spent the night to feed. Flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws came up from the fields as we passed.

As we made our way out at Snettisham, we stopped for a quick scan of the sailing club pit. Two Little Grebes and two Great Crested Grebes were out on the water.

When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was still coming in. We could see a large roost of Oystercatchers gathered on the mud up by the sailing club. Several small groups of Golden Plover flew past us, out to the mud in the middle.

Knot – a Peregrine was stirring up the huge flocks

While we stood and scanned the Wash, the huge flocks of thousands of Knot came up from the mud further out and started swirling round over the water, twisting and turning, making different shapes. There had to be something spooking them and there was a young Peregrine chasing after them.

We watched as the Peregrine flew round through the flocks and it quickly managed to get one Knot separate from the rest. It chased after it, up and down, back and forth, for some time. The Peregrine looked like a juvenile, inexperienced, and did not seem to know how to catch its quarry at first. Eventually the Knot started to tire, flew down closer to the water and stopped changing direction so quickly. The Peregrine took its chance and grabbed it, then started to fly in towards the shore with the Knot in its talons.

The Peregrine had just got to the shore when we noticed a second one appeared, flying very low over the mud. It headed straight for the first and when it got close it swooped up. A Peregrine dogfight ensued, the new bird chased after the first for a minute, diving at it repeatedly.

Finally the first Peregrine dropped the dead Knot, which seemed to fall into the grass at the top of the beach, but strangely neither of them went down after it. Both seemed to lose interest and drifted off. One flew towards us along the shore, flushing all the Oystercatchers.

Oystercatchers – flushed by one of the Peregrines

We turned our attention back to the mud in front of us. The Golden Plover had flown off, presumably spooked by all the excitement, but the others slowly started to drift back in. Some of the Dunlin returned to the edge of the channel. We looked through but couldn’t find anything with them today, apart from one or two Sanderling. There were several Grey Plover scattered on the mud, and we got a Bar-tailed Godwit in the scopes.

The bulk of the Knot, the large flocks, settled back down again off in the distance, but a couple flew in and landed on the mud at the bottom of the bank just below us, giving us a closer view. A small group of Ringed Plovers were roosting among the rocks at the bottom of the bank.

There were quite a few Shelduck on the water, presumably lingering birds which had gathered here to moult. Groups of Teal and a few Mallard were scattered around on the mud. A small group of ducks in the shallows on the edge included several Pintail, much larger than the Teal they were with, the drakes still in their drab eclipse plumage.

Despite the weather, there were a few birds on the move today. Several small flocks of Starlings flew over the pits, heading south. A few Meadow Pipits flew past over the beach, one stopping briefly to feed around the rocks. A Rock Pipit flew past calling too.

It was high tide now and there didn’t seem to be much more movement of waders. The rain seemed to have cleared through, so we decided to move on. We headed round to Titchwell next today – given the weather, we had no problem parking today!

Through the new ‘Welcome Hub’, we headed straight out onto the main path. A quick scan through the trees out over the Thornham grazing marshes produced a couple of distant Common Buzzards on the bushes at the back.

Almost up to the junction with Meadow Trail, we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler call ahead of us. We hurried up after it, just as a tit flock came out of the sallows and across the path. We followed it up through the trees by the path, looking to see what was with. We found several Goldcrests and one or two Chiffchaff, but there was no further sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler, before the flock came back over the track and disappeared out into the bushes in the middle of the reedbed.

As we came out of the trees, a wisp of about a dozen Common Snipe flew overhead and out over the saltmarsh. We could see lines of Black-tailed Godwits flying up from the Freshmarsh and over the reedbed, heading inland to feed in the fields.

There was nothing on the Reedbed Pool today, but the channel just beyond did provide a Coot, a pair of Gadwall and a pair of Mute Swans. It started to drizzle now, so we hurried on to Island Hide and donned our face masks to find some welcome shelter.

There was still a sizeable flock of godwits out in the middle of the Freshmarsh, and through the scopes we could see they were a mixture of Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. Even though they were asleep, we could see the Bar-tailed Godwits were smaller, shorter, with paler upperparts contrastingly streaked with dark.

Four Avocets were sheltering behind the small brick island, the hardiest individuals who will try to stay here for the winter rather than heading off south like most of the others have already done. A large group of Ruff were in the shallow water over towards the reeds. Several Golden Plover were on the grassy island in front of Parrinder Hide, along with a single Dunlin.

Avocets – just four on the Freshmarsh today

There were lots of Teal, the drakes still mostly in drab eclipse plumage though one or two are starting to smarten up again new. One of the drake Shoveler was also more advanced in its moult back to breeding plumage, but the drake Gadwall and Mallard are already mostly moulted back out again. We couldn’t see any Wigeon on here today.

It had stopped raining now, so we headed back out to the main path and continued on towards the beach. The tide was in and the Volunteer Marsh was still covered with water. There were several Curlew and Redshank on the wet mud in the middle and we found a few Wigeon swimming on the channel at the far side.

Over the bank, we stopped to scan the Tidal Pool. It was rather grey and gloomy, but we managed to find two Spotted Redshanks today, asleep at the back, noticeably paler white below than the Common Redshanks. There were several Black-tailed Godwits and one or two Dunlin too. With more Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwits and Turnstones roosting on the spit.

Spotted Redshanks – two were asleep on the back of the Tidal Pool

Out on the beach, the Wheatear was still feeding along the tideline. It worked its way off away to the east as we arrived, but a couple of minutes later then reappeared right in front of us. A great view – still very tame and obliging, it fed completely unconcerned at all the people here. A couple of Skylarks flew in and landed on the tideline further down too.

Wheatear – the very tame bird, still feeding on the high tide line

The tide was just starting to go out here, and there were not many waders on the shore. Looking out to sea, we could see a few Great Crested Grebe on the water. Several Gannets were flying past, white adults and dark juveniles, mostly distant but a couple came through a little closer. We ould see small groups of Common Scoter flying around right out on the horizon, in front of the wind turbines.

As we passed the Thornham grazing marsh reedbed, we heard Bearded Tits pinging. We looked across to see two fly up, skimming over the tops of the reeds before dropping straight back in. That would probably be the best we could hope for today, in the wind.

Back to the Visitor Centre, we turned out along Fen Trail. Along the boardwalk out towards Fen Hide, we stopped to watch a Goldcrest in the sallows. It was busy feeding right by the path, within a few feet of us and totally unconcerned by our presence, too close to focus optics on!

We had a quick look at the pool at Patsy’s Reedbed. There were just a few commoner ducks on here today, plus a few Coot and a Little Grebe, nothing else of any note. As we turned to walk back, several thousand Pink-footed Geese came up from the fields inland, before dropping back down again.

We made our way back round via Meadow Trail, but there was no sign of the tit flock or any warblers now. So we carried on back to the Visitor Centre for a hot drink and a break for lunch. A Brambling called from somewhere back in the trees while we ate.

After lunch, we headed back east. We drove into the drizzle again, and it was very misty looking out over the marshes as we passed Holkham. We turned inland at Wells and then down a minor road through the fields towards Wighton. Despite the weather, there were still a few cars already parked here.

We joined the small group of people on the edge of the field watching the Hoopoe down on the track just beyond the hedge. It was very close today, and we had great views as it fed, periodically pulling a tasty morsel out of the wet ground and throwing its head back to swallow it.

Hoopoe – still lingering in fields at Wighton

Widely distributed across the warmer parts of the continent in the summer, Hoopoes are migrants which mostly spend the winter in Africa, so this bird looked particularly out of place in a cold and damp October day in North Norfolk! They turn up fairly regularly in the UK, mostly as overshooting migrants in spring. There has been some debate about how long this Hoopoe has been here – there were a few records along the coast in spring and one was reported from Wighton back at the start of August.

We carried on east inland, along some narrow country lanes – the only sighting of note being a speeding white van coming the other way, which smashed into the wing mirror of the bus as it raced past. Very annoying! It didn’t stop, so we continued on our way.

We cut back down to the coast road at Salthouse and parked by the duckpond. It had stopped raining now, so we got out and looked across to a small pool in the middle of the grazing marshes. There had been a Red-necked Phalarope here for several days but there was no sign of it now at first. It can be hard to see if it gets tucked in around the edges, so we stood and watched. A Stock Dove flew over.

Four Shoveler swam back out into the middle and started to feed, heads down. The Red-necked Phalarope has often been feeding in amongst them, but it didn’t reappear straight away. We decided to walk out along the footpath across the marshes to try a different angle, but we hadn’t got far along the side of the main road when we looked back and saw a small white bird swimming along in front of the reeds, tucked in the corner.

We stopped and set up the scopes and there was the Red-necked Phalarope. It swam round in circles in front of the reeds, picking at the surface of the water for small invertebrates it stirred up. It gradually worked its way along the back edge of the pool and then swam out to join the Shoveler in the middles. The ducks are obviously doing a good job of stirring up the water themselves, and the Red-necked Phalarope is taking advantage to help it find food.

Red-necked Phalarope – feeding with the ducks at Salthouse

A juvenile, the Red-necked Phalarope has possibly come from Scandinavia. They normally spend the winter out at sea, the birds from there flying all the way down to the Arabian Sea, so it has a long journey ahead of it.

There was nothing of note with the gulls on the duckpond, nor with those loafing on the fields off Beach Road. A large group of Canada Geese were on the grass towards Gramborough Hill. So we headed back west and stopped again just before Wells.

As we got out of the minibus, a couple of Brown Hares were in the far corner of the field in front of the parking area. A Marsh Harrier flew over the field west of the track. We turned our attention to the pool the other side, where a large white bird by the bank at the back was a Great White Egret. Through the scopes, we could see its long, dagger-like yellow bill.

Great White Egret – at the back of one of the pools at Wells

There were lots of gulls flying back and forth over the recently harvested potato field beyond. Most were Black-headed Gulls but two noticeably smaller gulls were in with them. We could see their more rounded pale upperwings and contrasting blackish underwings, two Little Gulls.

There were lots of ducks but not many waders on the pool today and we couldn’t see the Little Stint at first. After a while scanning it appeared from behind the Wigeon, Teal, Lapwings and Black-headed Gulls on one of the grassy islands. It was so small it was easily hidden. It was rather distant, but we had a good view of it through the scope, short-billed with rather clean white underparts, we could see its ‘braces’, the distinctive pale mantle stripes shown by juvenile Little Stints.

It started to drizzle again now, so as time was already getting on we decided to call it a day. We had enjoyed a good start today, and there would be more to see tomorrow.

6th Oct 2020 – A Relaxed Autumn Day

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today, a relaxed-paced tour with some gentle walking. It was mostly cloudy, with a few light showers which were thankfully all very brief, and the sun did even make a couple of appearances in the afternoon, although the breeze picked up too.

We started the day at Titchwell – you need to get here early these days to be sure of a place in the Covid-reduced car park, which is still filling up by mid-morning. We had no problem today, and there was still just one car in the overflow area, so we had a quick walk round to see if we could find anything in the bushes. It was rather quiet here today, although a small group of Greenfinches came out of the bushes.

A large flock of Pink-footed Geese came up from the fields inland of the village – we could hear their yelping calls, although they never gained enough height to enable us to get a clear view above the hedge. A small gaggle of Greylags came in from the same direction, flying overhead and heading for the reserve. Their honking was much deeper, but a couple of higher pitched yelps in their midst alerted us to a single Pink-footed Goose which had obviously hooked onto the wrong flock and was coming in with them.

There were some tits in the sallows along the path to the Visitor Centre. A Goldcrest disappeared in deeper before anyone could get onto it, and all we could see were Blue Tits. We could hear Siskins calling overhead, but couldn’t see them through the trees. Once we had negotiated the new ‘Welcome Hub’ (although the ‘welcome’ could perhaps have been a little warmer after we were asked for the third time if we were members!), we were finally able to get onto the reserve.

We stopped to scan the grazing marsh, looking over towards Thornham, a couple of times. Once we were out of the trees, we spotted a pair of Stonechats sitting on the leeward side of one of the bramble clumps preening. A third Stonechat appeared, hovering over the reeds nearby. A small group of Linnets flew over and a party of Meadow Pipits dropped down into the long grass in the meadow back towards the road.

We heard more Siskins calling and turned to see one fly out of the alders by the path back behind us. It circled out over the trees beyond the Visitor Centre and picked up another two Siskins, with all three of them then settling back down in the alder from where the first had appeared. We could see a smart green and yellow male in the top of the tree. A small group of Chaffinches flew over the trees too, and continued on west out over the grazing marsh, presumably migrants just arrived from the Continent for the winter.

The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ is mostly dry and very overgrown now. A single Little Egret was feeding in the channel on the far side. We could hear Bearded Tits calling but it was rather windy today, and the most we got were a couple of glimpses of birds as they flew up briefly.

We were just about to walk away when a Bearded Tit called again, and we looked over the top of the bank to see a male on the top of a reed stem just below. Unfortunately the long grass on the top of the bank meant it was impossible to see unless you were tall enough and it flew down again almost immediately, before everyone could see it.

Bearded Tit – unfortunately only perched up briefly

Another small group of Pink-footed Geese came in over the reedbed behind us, calling, and we watched as they headed on west towards Thornham. There would be quite a bit of wildfowl on the move today – migration in action.

As we walked away, we heard lots of Bearded Tits calling behind us now, and turned round to see a flock of eight fly over the reeds and drop down below the bank. We decided not to have another go at seeing one in the tops, and carried on out along the path.

We stopped by the Reedbed Pool and looked out over the reedbed. There were several House Martins over the back of the reeds and in with them we found a single Common Swift. Most of the latter have already long since left us to head to Africa for the winter, but one or two often linger later. We watched as they made their way west, pausing briefly to hawk for insects over the trees by the Visitor Centre.

Red Kite – flew west over the reedbed and on towards Thornham

A Red Kite was hanging in the air too, in the distance over Willow Wood, and made its way slowly west over the back of the reedbed and then across the main path and out towards Thornham. Hard to tell if it was on the move today too, but a little later we picked up a second Red Kite way off to the east, being mobbed by two Jackdaws out over Brancaster Marsh.

As we walked up towards Island Hide, a moth flew up out of the grass below the bank and landed again up by the path to the hide. When we got there, someone was already photographing it. We stopped to look – it was a Mallow moth, a not uncommon species to find at this time of year. A Common Frog on the path this morning added to the general wildlife list.

Mallow moth – landed in the grass by the path to Island Hide

As it was nice and bright, we stopped on the main path to look out across the Freshmarsh. There was a large group of godwits out in the middle, and through the scope we could see they were a mixture of Black-tailed Godwits and a smaller number of Bar-tailed Godwits. The latter were clearly smaller, and despite the fact that they were asleep we could see their dark-streaked paler upperparts.

Most of the Avocets have gone south for the winter now, but we counted eleven still out on one of the small islands today. There were a couple of Ruff and a single Dunlin on the mud on the edge of the next island over, in with the gulls, and a small group of Golden Plover higher up on the grass. We got the plovers in the scope and admired their gold-spangled upperparts.

There were quite a few ducks on the Freshmarsh again, though perhaps not as many Wigeon as recently. The drake Teal are still mostly in drab eclipse plumage, though we got the scope on one which had started to moult out and showing patches of grey-looking finely vermiculated flank feathers. One of the drake Shovelers was already more advanced, with just some dark scalloped feathers left in its white breast and flanks. In contrast, the resident drake Mallard and Gadwall are already mostly back in their smart breeding plumage. A couple of Brent Geese dropped in briefly, before heading back out towards the beach.

Another group of Bearded Tits were in the reeds just below the bank here too, but were similarly elusive in the breezy conditions. We had more glimpses of them as they flew up from time to time, but dropped straight back in out of view.

The tide was just going out and the channel on the Volunteer Marsh was still largely full of water, but we stopped to admire a Common Redshank feeding on the recently exposed mud, its orange legs shining in the sunlight, which had poked out from behind the clouds. There were a few Common Redshanks further back and several Curlews, but nothing else on here today.

Common Redshank – its day-glo legs catching the sun

There was just one wader in the corner of the Tidal Pool, right at the back just over the bank. It immediately looked promising – white below and rather pale silvery grey above. Through the scope, we could see it was indeed a Spotted Redshank in non-breeding plumage. We could see its long, needle-fine bill, noticeably longer than the Common Redshank we had just been watching, and the well-marked white supercilium over the bill.

Spotted Redshank – the only bird in the corner of the Tidal Pool

There were a few more waders on the spit a little further up, a tight group of grey Knot, and several Grey Plovers tucked in the samphire higher up along with a single Oystercatcher. One of the Grey Plovers took off and flew past us, flashing its black armpits. About twenty Turnstones were roosting on one of the small muddy islands further up towards the dunes.

Looking out over the saltmarsh behind, we could see a young Marsh Harrier circling, dark chocolate brown with a contrasting pale head which caught the light as it turned. There were a couple of Kestrels too. A little Wren appeared on the concrete bunker just before the dunes.

Wheatear – this very tame bird was feeding on the high tide line

As we got out onto the beach, a Wheatear was feeding on the debris on the high tide line, running about after insects. It was very tame, and came across to within just a few metres of us, standing pumping its tail totally unconcerned by everyone standing there. When it flew a little bit further along, we could see the distinctive white base to its tail.

Our target bird here was Sanderling, but there were not many waders along the shore here at the moment, possibly with too much disturbance from walkers and dog walkers. We could see more birds on the beach up towards Thornham Point – a long line of Cormorants standing with their wings out to dry, lots of gulls, and a scattering of waders in with them. We found a single silvery grey Sanderling, but it was very distant. A large flock of Oystercatchers was still roosting on the sand towards Brancaster. We decided to stop here a while, to see if more waders would come back in as the tide dropped further.

Looking out to sea, there were several Great Crested Grebes on the water. But the highlight here today was the number of birds coming in over the sea. We picked up a large flock of Pink-footed Geese, way out to sea at first. They gradually made their way in towards and past us, until we watched them flying in over Scolt Head island away to the east. Several groups of Wigeon flew in, possibly fresh in from their Russian breeding grounds for the winter. Then we spotted four Skylarks coming in over the sea and watched as they came in, up the beach and over the dunes past us.

As the tide receded, more waders started to fly back in to the shore. First a small group of Knot appeared with several Bar-tailed Godwits just to the left of us. Then more birds arrived down on the edge of the water right in front of us, several Grey Plover and finally a much closer view of several Sanderling, running up and down the shoreline like clockwork toys.

Sanderling – several were on the beach, this one taken the other day

As we started to make our way back, we stopped to admire a couple of Turnstones on the shore of the Tidal Pool just by the concrete bunker now. All the waders were getting restless, seemingly knowing it was time now to head back out to the beach to feed. First the Turnstones flew out over the dunes, followed closely by the Knot which had still been roosting on the spit.

At the far side of the Tidal Pool, we stopped to watch a close Little Egret feeding just below the bank. We could see its yellow feet when it lifted them high of the water, and we watched it shaking one in the mud to try to disturb something to eat. It seemed to find several things around the edge, chasing repeatedly after them.

Little Egret – fishing on the Tidal Pool

A Bloody-nosed Beetle was crossing the path and as we picked it up to move it to safety we had a closer look. It didn’t perform though today, and wouldn’t exude the red liquid from its mouthparts from which its gets its name.

There was a brief shower as we walked back, but it was only light and had thankfully stopped by the time we got back to the Visitor Centre. It remained dry while we had lunch in the picnic area before another quick shower just after we had packed up.

Our destination for the rest of the afternoon was Holkham, and we had no problem parking on Lady Anne’s Drive today. There were a few geese and a family of Mute Swans out on the grazing marsh to the east. The geese were mostly Greylags but a small group of Pink-footed Geese had dropped in for a wash and brush up – we could see them bathing on a small pool. When they came out onto the grass to preen, we got them in the scope for a closer look.

There were lots more Pink-footed Geese on the marshes to the west, mostly hidden beyond the first hedge line. There was a lot of military jet aircraft today – a Eurofighter Typhoon was pulling sharp turns overhead, making a lot of noise and repeatedly flushing the birds. Large flocks of Pink-footed Geese flew around calling noisily and we watched a Great White Egret flying away over the reeds in the distance.

As we set off west along the track on the inland side of the pines, it was quiet at first. We stopped to watch a Jay which kept flying back into an oak tree overhanging the track, harvesting acorns.

We were most of the way to Salts Hole when we came across a tit flock, but they were mostly in the pines and wouldn’t come out into the open. We had a nice view of a couple of Long-tailed Tits but just had glimpses of Goldcrests and heard a Treecreeper calling in the pines. They were moving fast too, and disappeared back the way we had just come, so we decided to try again on our way back.

Long-tailed Tit – we found our first flock on the walk to Salts Hole

There were several Little Grebes on Salts Hole, along with lots of Mallard. One of the grebes laughed maniacally at us as we stood and scanned the edges of the pool. A Treecreeper flew across and disappeared into the holm oaks the other side. A little further on, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling from the dead branches at the top of an old pine.

Just before Washington Hide, a small bird was bathing in a puddle in the track ahead of us. We stopped and could see it was a Redstart, but unfortunately just at that moment a particularly noisy group of walkers with trekking poles walked up behind us, talking, and the Redstart flew up into the trees and then disappeared further back out of view.

From the gate overlooking the grazing marsh, we stopped to see if there was anything with the cows – just a Grey Heron feeding in amongst them today. It started to spit with rain again, so we decided to head for Washington Hide, only to find it has been nailed shut! Once again, thankfully the rain stopped quickly and we stood and scanned the grazing marshes from the boardwalk.

A Great White Egret flew up from the pool and dropped down again behind the reeds out of view. A little later, when we saw one flying further back, we assumed at first that it was the same bird, and this time we could see it in the open when it landed on the edge of a small pool in the distance. But then the first Great White Egret flew up again and landed in a ditch just beyond the reeds, where we could get a good view of its snake like neck and long yellow dagger-like bill as it stood looking for food in the water below.

A Redwing dropped out of the pines and disappeared into one of the hawthorns on the edge of the reeds. A Greenshank called but we couldn’t see it behind the trees. A Common Buzzard flew across the gap behind us, over towards the beach. There were lots of small groups of Pink-footed Geese flying past, calling. As the shower clouds cleared north the sun came out again and the view across the marshes looked amazing, striking colours and the light reflecting off the wet reeds and the wings of the Pink-footed Geese.

Pink-footed Geese – catching the afternoon sunshine

We continued on slowly west, but the trees were rather quiet with the increasing breeze now catching them. We wouldn’t be able to go too far today, but we got past Meals House and almost to the crosstracks, before we decided to turn back. We could hear more tits in the pines and holm oaks, but despite it being more sheltered here they wouldn’t come out into the more open deciduous trees by the track today.

We found another tit flock in the holm oaks just before Salts Hole. A Treecreeper appeared briefly a couple of times on the trunks of a couple of trees but typically disappeared round the back. A Goldcrest appeared in a holm oak above the path briefly. But apart from a couple of Long-tailed Tits the birds were hard to see in the dense foliage and quickly disappeared deeper in.

Almost back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we found another tit flock, probably the one we had seen along here earlier. Suddenly we were surrounded by birds, and didn’t know which way to look. There were lots of Goldcrests feeding in an oak tree right above us, one or two Chiffchaffs and a selection of tits. When they started to move again, we realised there were lots more birds deeper in the pines.

The flock started to cross the path, but they were moving fast now. A small warbler flicked across and landed in an oak briefly – a Yellow-browed Warbler. Unfortunately it didn’t stop. We managed to follow the flock for a bit, and found the Yellow-browed Warbler again, but it was immediately chased by a second one and disappeared. A little further along, we heard it call and saw it fly across, but this time everything disappeared further back into the trees.

Everyone was tired after the walk, so after a quick sit down, we continued back to Lady Anne’s Drive. It was time to call it a day now and we headed for home and a chance to put our feet up properly and remember a very enjoyable day out.

19th Sept 2020 – Autumn & Wader Spectacular, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Autumn Tour & Wader Spectacular. It was another sunny day, more blue skies, and although it was breezy again it wasn’t quite as windy as yesterday.

We made our way down to Stiffkey Greens to start the day. The wind seemed to have dropped a bit overnight, so we thought we might stand a chance of finding a few migrants in the coastal bushes. The tide was in, and it was a big tide today backed by the ENE wind, so the saltmarsh was completely covered. A small group of people were out in the water in wetsuits and bathing caps, trying to rescue a sailing boat which had come adrift from somewhere and was floating out in the middle of where the saltmarsh would be later.

The coastal path to the west is often a bit quieter, but the track to the east was flooded by the tide today, so there were more people than usual along here – blackberry pickers, dog walkers, holidaying families with young children out for a walk. Consequently, we didn’t find much in the bushes on the way down to the whirligig.

We kept stopping to scan the flooded saltmarsh, where lots of birds had been displaced by the height of the water today. Little groups of Redshanks were trying to roost around the small islands of vegetation and bushes which were still exposed, with others flying round in lines low over the water looking for somewhere to land. We heard a Greenshank calling, and looked out to see it flying across.

A Spoonbill flew past, heading off east, presumably to roost on Stiffkey Fen. Several Little Egrets were also standing out in the clumps of vegetation, with others flying past. Everything was looking for somewhere to roost over the high tide. Flocks of ducks were flying round too, mainly Wigeon, the males flashing their white wing coverts. A couple of Brent Geese flew past.

Little Egret – looking for somewhere to roost over high tide

Lots of small birds had been pushed off the saltmarsh by the tide today too. A small flock of Skylarks came up over the stubble field just inland. Several Reed Buntings were calling in the brambles and suaeda bushes. Four small birds flew low across over the water in the distance. We only caught them as they disappeared off east – they looked like Lapland Buntings, but they were too far out to be sure and we lost sight of them behind the bushes.

A couple of Marsh Harriers were out hunting, patrolling up and down the lines of higher ground. Continuing on to the whirligig, it was still a bit too windy, despite lighter winds than yesterday, and the brambles here were quiet. There was more activity in the bushes just beyond, several Blackcaps flitting around in the brambles and elders, two or three Blackbirds and a Song Thrush, the latter possibly a continental migrant in for the winter. A Brown Hare sunning itself under the brambles had possibly also been pushed in off the saltmarsh.

A Wheatear flew up off the field beyond the hedge and landed on the top of a hawthorn. It was swaying around, struggling to perch in the wind, before it dropped back down out of view.

Wheatear – struggled to perch on the top of the hedge in the wind

We decided to head back and find somewhere more sheltered. When we got back to the car park, we turned to look out over the saltmarsh and noticed a distinctive large gull flying past. It looked very white-headed, pale grey-mantled and contrastingly dark-winged with dark greater coverts, with a very white tail base and black terminal band. We managed to just grab a couple of photos before it headed away. It was a young Caspian Gull, in its 1st calendar year, 1st winter – not a place we usually expect to see one, a welcome bonus.

Caspian Gull – flew past over the saltmarsh as we reached the car park

We headed for Wells and down beach road where we parked in the beach car park. As we walked in past the boating lake towards the trees, we could see several Little Grebes out on the water.

Cutting in through the birches towards the Dell, we found a couple of birders watching a Redstart. We stopped, and a Pied Flycatcher was flicking about in the trees above too. A good start, and a sign that things had possibly arrived overnight. The birds appeared to be following a tit flock – warblers and flycatchers will often do that here and finding the tits is often the best way to find everything else.

Long-tailed Tit – there were several flycatchers and warblers with the tits

They started to move away rapidly through the birches and we didn’t want to lose them. We could hear the Pied Flycatcher calling much further ahead now, so we followed as quickly as we could. We managed to get ahead of them, and were suddenly surrounded by birds – lots of tits, Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits; tiny Goldcrests; one or two Treecreepers working their way up the trunks; a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

A Pied Flycatcher appeared and perched up nicely on a small birch in front of us, making occasional sallies out after insects. Hard to tell if it was the same one we saw earlier, but probably not – there were several in here today.

Pied Flycatcher – perched up in one of the small birches

Following the flock round through the trees on the north side of the Dell, we saw a small shape come up out of the bracken on the top of the bank. It was a Yellow-browed Warbler, and we watched it flicking around in the birches. It disappeared further into the trees and we lost sight of it in all the foliage. We walked round to the other side, and eventually the flock worked its way towards us. The Yellow-browed Warbler appeared in the birches again here briefly.

The tit flock headed on through the trees and we had to take a path away from them to get round to where they appeared to be going. It only took a few seconds, but when we got to the other side they had completely disappeared – as they have a habit of doing!

We decided to walk across to the more open area to the south, to see if we could find anything in the bushes. There is a gap at the back where you can see out across the grazing marshes, and as we rounded the hawthorns a bird flew up onto the barbed wire fence right in front of us – a Red-backed Shrike!

Red-backed Shrike – appeared on the barbed wire fence in front of us

The Red-backed Shrike dropped down to the ground and flew back up to the fence a little further along. We had a longer view of it through our binoculars now – we could see it was very similar to the Brown Shrike we had seen yesterday, also a 1st winter. It was more heavily marked with dark crescents on its upperparts, greyer on the head and nape, and longer-winged too. We were looking into the light from here, and we didn’t notice until we looked at the photos later this it was actually missing its left eye.

It dropped down again, and then shot off across the field to the fence on the other side. We got it in the scope now, and had some more prolonged views. Red-backed Shrikes used to be common breeding birds in the UK, but after a long decline died out as regular breeders in the 1980s, a victim of loss of habitat and intensification of agriculture. They are now mainly scarce passage migrants here, dropping in on their way between their breeding grounds on the continent and their wintering areas in West Africa, although the odd pair sometimes still stays to breed. A nice find for the group!

There were lots of Curlews out on the grazing marshes, and a flock of Pink-footed Geese loafing in the grass in the field beyond. We had a look at them in the scopes too. Two Red Kites were hanging in the air further back towards the main road.

Back on the main path, we made our way on west. There were a couple of Chiffchaffs in the birches by the track and we heard Long-tailed Tits in here too, but they disappeared out the back and along the far edge of the field beyond before we could get a look through them.

There was nothing at the drinking pool – it is very dry now – and not much activity in the deciduous trees further west. As we turned to come back, one of the group spotted some movement under the bushes, a Redstart. We stopped to watch it, sitting motionless for several minutes before flitting across and landing again. As we started to to walk on, we noticed a second Redstart under the trees a little further along.

Redstart – one of two, feeding quietly under the trees

We planned to head back to the Dell to try to find one of the tit flocks again. On our way, we met someone who said that there had been a Red-breasted Flycatcher earlier by the main path, with the tits. There was no sign of them there, so we continued round into the Dell meadow. We found a tit flock in the birches on the north side and had just stopped to look through them when we received a message to say the Red-breasted Flycatcher was across the other side.

The tits moved deeper into the trees, so we went across to look for the Red-breasted Flycatcher. Unfortunately it had moved off again and disappeared – it wasn’t clear whether it was with the tits now or on its own. It had been a long morning, and it would be getting late for lunch if we spent too long chasing round now, so we decided to head back to the car park to get something to eat.

After lunch back in the car park in the sunshine, and a sit down, we headed back in to the woods to look for the Red-breasted Flycatcher again. We walked round the east side of the Dell first, where it had been earlier. We quickly found a tit flock in the trees here, but it was moving fast. We managed to follow it, but it disappeared over the main track and off towards the caravan site before we could tell if there was anything interesting with it.

Back round to the north side of Dell, a Yellow-browed Warbler had just been seen in here again. We couldn’t find it now, but we did see three Pied Flycatchers, and two or three Chiffchaffs in the birches. We seemed to be chasing our tails, so we walked back out to the main path, planning to look in the birches the other side and regroup, and immediately found a tit flock. We had only just stopped to look through them when we got a call from a friend to say that the Red-breasted Flycatcher was back in the trees in the south-east corner of the Dell.

We hurried round and the Red-breasted Flycatcher was now showing well, flitting around down low in the tangles of branches beneath the birches. It was another young bird, a 1st winter – with a dull pale buffy-orange wash across its breast (the adult males had a more obvious orange-red breast). When it perched it would occasionally cock its tail up, and it was possible to see the white sides to the base of the black tail. It seemed to be settled here now, on its own, doing a small circuit up and down in the trees.

Red-breasted Flycatcher – eventually showed well low down under the birches

We spent some time sitting on the bank watching it quietly feeding under the trees. Red-breasted Flycatcher is another scarce visitor here, more in autumn than spring. They breed in Eastern Europe, up through southern Scandinavia and migrate to West Asia for the winter. Another great autumn migrant for us to catch up with.

It had been very productive in the Woods today, but we had spent enough time in the trees now, so we made our way back out to the car park. There was still a bit of time, so we walked over to loon in the harbour. The beach was busy, but there were lots of waders out on the mud the other side of the harbour channel, so we set up the scopes to look through them.

There were lots of Oystercatchers, Grey Plovers and Knot. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were on the wet sand opposite, and we had a good look at them through the scopes. A few Turnstones were feeding along the far edge of the channel and further back, we found a couple of Ringed Plovers. A small group of Brent Geese was on the mud too.

There would be plenty of time for more waders tomorrow. It had been a great day, with some really good birds. For now, it was time to call it a day – we had an early start planned for tomorrow.

18th Sept 2020 – Autumn & Wader Spectacular, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Autumn Tour & Wader Spectacular. It was a gloriously sunny day with wall-to-wall blue skies, pleasantly warm out of the blustery ENE wind.

On our way over to Holkham, two Red Kites hung in the air over the trees just west of Wells. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a small group of Egyptian Geese out on the grass, and as we got out of the minibus a couple of Marsh Harriers were enjoying the wind over the bank off to the east.

We set off west on the inland side of the pines, where we thought it would be more sheltered from the wind. A Brambling was calling its wheezy call and we had just found it perched high in a poplar near the path when we had to get out of the way for a Land Rover coming down the track. When we looked back it was gone. A fresh arrival, come here from Scandinavia for the winter.

There would be rather too many Land Rovers going back and forth along the first part of the track today, often the same vehicle five, six, or more times. Apparently they are filming a Land Rover corporate video here at the moment, racing up and down the beach in vehicles and careering over various other parts of the estate. They were certainly getting their carbon budget soaring this morning, with all the toing and froing. A Chiffchaff was singing in the bushes. And, as we walked on west, a very pale Common Buzzard came over the tops of the trees above our heads.

We hadn’t gone too much further when we encoutered our first tit flock. We could hear the Long-tailed Tits calling at first, before finding them in the trees, along with Coal, Blue and Great Tits, one or two Treecreepers, several Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs. When a small warbler flew up into the top of a young oak, we caught a flash of a bold yellowish-white supercilium and a couple of pale wing bars. A Yellow-browed Warbler!

The Long-tailed Tits were on the move and the Yellow-browed Warbler quickly dropped back out of view, deeper into the trees. We could see the flock still moving through parallel with the path and a little further on, it came back out to the trees on the side of the track. The Yellow-browed Warbler flew across and landed in the top of an oak the other side, above the track. We were standing underneath, and could see it flitting around in the leaves towards the top, directly above our heads.

As the flock moved on again, the Yellow-browed Warbler flew back across the track and disappeared into the trees once more. We continued to follow but just before we got to Salts Hole, it crossed back and disappeared deeper into some thick holm oaks on the edge of the pines, where we lost sight of them.

Yellow-browed Warblers used to be very scarce visitors here, wandering off course on their way between their breeding range east of the Urals to wintering sites in SE Asia. But over the last 30 or so years, they have become increasingly common here and are now expected from mid-September. As their breeding range has expanded westwards, birds are now routinely wintering in western Europe.

Scanning across Salts Hole, we could see several Little Grebes out on the water. A Kingfisher popped up on a post at the back, then flew across to the reeds the other side. It didn’t seem to know what it wanted to do, as it flew backwards and forwards in front of the reeds several times, before flying up into a holm oak where it landed. Then it was quickly off again and disappeared round the reeds.

Kingfisher – spent several minutes zooming around Salts Hole

A little further on, there is a muddy pool in the reeds by the track, and as we passed by the Kingfisher flew in and landed in a tangle right next to us, just a few feet away. Unfortunately it didn’t stay long – presumably it saw us, because it quickly flew off again and we watched it disappeared away over the track ahead of us, in a flash of electric blue.

When we got to the gate just before Washington Hide, we stopped to scan across the grazing marshes. There had apparently been a Redstart on the fence here earlier but it had flown up over the bushes and there was no sign of it now. Further back, over the reeds, we picked up a distant group of Pink-footed Geese flying in, which dropped down out of view beyond.

When we got to Washington Hide, we walked up onto the boardwalk for a better view. We could now see the Pinkfeet out on the grass in the distance, and got them in the scope for a closer look. A Great White Egret flew in over the reeds, and dropped in at the back of the pool out of view. A few moments later, a second Great White Egret flew in and attempted to land on the pool too, but was quickly chased off by the first.

Several Common Darters were basking on the handrail of the boardwalk, as we set off west again. Just before Meals House, we stopped to watch several Goldcrests feeding in the holm oaks. We had a great view of them, the adults with their golden crown stripes and a juvenile still with an all grey head, at least until another fleet of Land Rovers appeared, and we had to get out of the way again.

Goldcrest – we stopped to watch several in the holm oaks before Meals House

There was too much disturbance around Meals House, which is where the Land Rover crew is basing themselves, lots of vehicles and people. We had a quick look in the sycamores, but there was nothing in there today. The only good news was that once we got beyond Meals House, we would not be bothered by the Land Rovers any more.

Before the crosstracks, we came across another tit flock – we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and see birds flitting around in the holm oaks. but the trees here were just catching the wind and the birds stayed in the thicker trees and didn’t come out to the more open ones by the path.

Just beyond the crosstracks, we heard a Pied Flycatcher calling. At first, we could just see it flicking around deep in an oak tree, but it remained frustratingly out of view. It moved into a thicker tangle behind, then across to a small hawthorn next to the oak. Suddenly it flew out, making a sally after an insect, which it caught. This time it landed right on the front of the hawthorn and we finally got a good look at it. A migrant, on its way south probably from Scandinavia, stopping off here to feed before continuing on its way to West Africa.

Pied Flycatcher – finally landed in the open, on the front of the hawthorn

There was a good selection of butterflies, enjoying the sunshine in the more sheltered spots today. A smart Red Admiral basking on the path, a Small Copper feeding on ivy flowers, a Speckled Wood resting on a branch. There were a few dragonflies too – as well as the ever-present Common Darters, we saw a few Migrant Hawkers and one apple-green Southern Hawker hawking around the edges of the trees. A Willow Emerald damselfly was hanging on a branch over the path by a small group of sallows, a recent colonist, it is amazing how quickly it has spread.

Willow Emerald damselfly – on a branch overhanging the path

Out of the trees, we walked up into the edge of the dunes. Someone we passed told us there was a Redstart in the next valley, so we walked round to where we could get a clear view. The Redstart flicked round out of view behind some bushes, a flash of an orange-red tail. We stationed ourselves at the end of the valley and waited for it to reappear.

There were several Stonechats here, flitting from the bushes down to the ground and back up again. Eventually the Redstart reappeared and gave itself up properly. Several times it perched nicely on the top of one of the small bushes, where we could get it in the scopes. Another nice migrant on its way from Scandinavia to Africa.

Looking out across the grazing marshes, we could see the herd of cattle distantly in the top corner. From time to time, a white shape would appear in the long grass in between them, the Cattle Egrets. We counted at least four, the maximum we could see simultaneously, but there could have been more. Another Great White Egret was stalking along the edge of the reeds out on the pool on the edge of the grazing marsh, looking the other way towards Decoy Wood. Through the scopes, we could see its long dagger-like yellow bill.

A Green Woodpecker yaffled from behind the natterjack pools and we looked across to see it fly up and across past us, heading for the pines. A small group of Siskins came out of the trees and flew over, heading off west – we saw, and particularly heard, quite a few small parties today. An orange Wall butterfly posed nicely in the short grass on the dunes.

On the walk back, another Brambling flew over calling and dropped down into the bushes by the ditch beyond the reeds. Presumably the same Pied Flycatcher flitted across the path and landed briefly in the cherry trees just before the crosstracks. A Bullfinch called and perched briefly in the bushes by the path in front of Washington Hide, where three late Sand Martins were hawking over the reeds. The Kingfisher was still flying around Salts Hole as we passed.

There is nowhere to sit in The Lookout now, as all the tables have been removed, so we drove over the road and up to the car park by the Park for lunch. It was better here, out of the wind. A perfect place for a post-lunch nap on the grass in the sunshine, but we didn’t have time for dozing this afternoon.

A Brown Shrike had been found earlier this morning at Warham Greens, a short drive along the coast, so we decided to head over there to try to see it. We managed to find a parking space on Garden Drove and walked down the track towards the saltmarsh. Permission had been granted to go into the edge of the field, so we walked along the mown weedy margin to where several people were already gathered. The large open field meant we could maintain social distancing and avoid ‘mingling’ between bubbles, while all enjoying the bird.

We were quickly looking at the Brown Shrike, perched low down, in the dead umbellifers at the bottom of the hedge. It kept dropping down to the ground on the margin after insects, before flying back up to another perch. We had great views of it in the scopes. Brown above, with a more chestnut crown in the sunshine, and a distinct blackish mask.

Brown Shrike – feeding from the umbellifers on the edge of the field

It was a young Brown Shrike, a 1st winter, with dark scallop markings on its scapulars but otherwise a rather plain brown mantle, not as strongly-marked as a similar-looking young Red-backed Shrike would be above.We could see the rather short primary projection too, another good distinguishing feature.

Brown Shrikes breed across Russia and spend the winter in India and east into SE Asia, so this young bird was a long way off course. They are rare visitors to the UK, and this was only the second one to be identified in Norfolk. An interesting bird for us to catch up with.

Another Redstart was flicking in and out of the umbellifers close to the shrike, flashing its orange red tail. A Whimbrel flew in off the saltmarsh calling, across in front of us, and disappeared off over the field inland.

Back to the minibus, we drove further east to Stiffkey. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was up in the trees in the small copse by the permissive path as we walked down beside the road, but we couldn’t see anything in with them today.

It was quiet along the riverbank, a bit windy out here today. When we got to one of the places where we could get a view over the reeds, we could see the Spoonbills gathered on the island. Some were asleep, but others were awake and preening, so we could see their distinctive bills. We counted at least 18 today, a good number considering the tide was out, although some were sitting down and there might have been a few more. Two took off and flew over past us, before turning and heading out towards the harbour.

Spoonbills – we counted at least 18 roosting on the island

When we got up onto the seawall, we couldn’t see the Spoonbills. Where they are roosting at the moment is hidden behind the reeds from here. There were lots of Greylags, plus a few Canada Geese loafing on the grass. A liberal scattering of moulting ducks too, included Wigeon, Teal and Mallard. A Pintail was swimming out on the water – though now in dull eclipse plumage, the size and shape still sets it apart from the others.

A few Ruff and Black-tailed Godwits were scattered round among all the wildfowl. We walked further up and looked back to see a single Green Sandpiper, tucked in on the edge of the reeds, working its way along the this strip of mud beyond the water. A Common Buzzard perched up on the edge of the poplars at the back was busy eating something.

The tide was still out in the Harbour. We could see all the seals hauled out on the sandbars beyond Blakeney Point, in the distance. A Greenshank flew past down the creek, and landed on the shore of the channel a bit further up, by the boats. Another three Spoonbills flew out past us, heading from the Fen out into the Harbour to feed in the muddy creeks.

Spoonbills – flying out from the Fen to feed in the Harbour

Looking out into the pit, we could see a couple of Brent Geese. They are just starting to return here for the winter now, back from their breeding grounds in Siberia. There was a good selection of waders too, if a little distant – Knot, Grey Plover, Oystercatchers, Curlew, a single Bar-tailed Godwit. There were lots of gulls loafing on the mud too.

We continued round and down to the edge of the harbour, where we stood admiring the view in the later afternoon sunshine. The Greenshank was now feeding on the edge of the channel opposite, giving us lovely views.

Greenshank – feeding in the harbour channel

It is a magical spot here, and we could have sat for hours, but it was time to head back. It had been an exciting first day – two more days to look forward to.

Late Oct 2019 – Scilly Season

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

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

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

Blue Rock Thrush

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

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

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

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake – absurdly close views at Lower Moors

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

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

Red-breasted Flycatcher

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

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

Yellow-browed Warbler 1

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

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

Isabelline Wheatear

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

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

Waxwing

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

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

Citrine Wagtail

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

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

Ring-necked Duck

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

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

Yellow-browed Warbler 2

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

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

Siberian Chiffchaff

Siberian Chiffchaff – one of three at Rowesfield crossroads

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

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

Rustic Bunting

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

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

Rustic Bunting 2

Rustic Bunting – still present the following morning

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

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

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

Borough Farm

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

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

Sunset

Tresco – sunset, looking over the channel towards Bryher

 

13th Oct 2019 – Mid-Autumn Birding, Day 4

Day 4 of a four day Autumn Migration tour, our last day. It was a damp and misty morning with drizzle on and off, but we managed to make the best of it, and it dried out in the afternoon, even if it remained rather breezy.

We started the day at Holkham. It was grey and drizzling as we got out of the minibus on Lady Anne’s Drive, to the sound of small parties of Pink-footed Geese flying over in the mist.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Goose – small groups flew over calling in the mist

A Common Gull was feeding on the short grass opposite and conveniently walked over to a Black-headed Gull for a nice side-by-side comparison. Further back, we spotted a covey of Grey Partridges. They were hard to see in the dull conditions, in amongst the lumps of mud where the channels on the grazing marsh have just been excavated, so we walked over to The Lookout cafe where we could get a bit of elevation and get a better look at them. Several Jays came out of the trees, and headed off up Lady Anne’s Drive.

Walking west on the track on the inland side of the pines, we could hear tits in the trees and then a Yellow-browed Warbler called further up. We walked on to see if we could locate it, but by the time we got to where it had been it had gone quiet again and there was no movement in the trees by the track.

We stopped briefly at Salts Hole. A lone Tufted Duck flew off with the Mallards as we walked up. There are several Little Grebes on here now, where they spend the winter, and they seemed to be laughing at us, out in the drizzle.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – there are several on Salts Hole for the winter

We stopped again to scan the grazing marshes just before Washington Hide, but got distracted by a tit flock calling from the trees the other side. One of the group went over to look at the grazing marsh, and a Great White Egret and a Grey Heron feeding over the grass on the edge of a shallow reedy channel. It was a good size comparison – the Great White Egret at least the size of the heron. A second Great White Egret was more hidden, in a ditch a little further back.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding in one of the ditches on the grazing marsh

The sycamores behind Washington Hide were all quiet, although we could still hear the tits just to the east, in the pines and holm oaks. We decided to go into the hide for a sit down and a chance to dry off a little.

Looking away to the left, we could see that the second Great White Egret had now come over to the reedy channel with the first, along with a second Grey Heron. They were then joined by a third Great White Egret which flew in. Quite an impressive assemblage of herons and quite unthinkable just a few years ago, when Great White Egret was a rarity here. They have bred here this year for the second year in a row.

Great White Egrets

Great White Egrets – from Washington Hide, we could see three now (and two Grey Herons)

There were not many geese out on the grazing marshes today. Presumably most of the Pink-footed Geese had flown inland to feed on the stubble fields, which they do at this time of year. We did manage to find a distant collection of geese – a small group of five Pinkfeet with Greylags and a couple of Canada Geese.

There was quite a bit of activity down in the bushes in the reeds in front of the hide. There were several Song Thrushes flying in and out, presumably migrants dropping in fresh from the continent. A Ring Ouzel had been seen here earlier, and at one point it flew up into the top of a hawthorn bush. It was tricky to see, hidden in amongst the leaves, but through the scope we could make out it was a male, with a white crescent on its breast. It dropped down out of view.

As the drizzle eased off, more thrushes appeared in the bushes, coming up to preen and dry themselves out. There were several Redwings now, with bold pale superciliums and rusty patches on their flanks. A couple of Common Buzzards appeared in the tops of the bushes and then a Marsh Harrier came up out of the reeds too, as the rain stopped.

We walked back down to the gate and looked out at the bushes on the edge of the reeds. There were several Song Thrushes, grey-backed continental birds, clearly migrants coming here for the winter, but no further sign of the Ring Ouzel. While the weather was better we decided to carry on west. A closer Pink-footed Goose was on its own with a small gaggle of Greylags on the grazing marshes just beyond the trees.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – on the grazing marsh with a few Greylags

Just before the crosstracks, a Red Kite drifted out from the pines and over the bushes. It probably flushed another Ring Ouzel, as we could hear it as it flew off chacking.

There had been several Yellow-browed Warblers in the last couple of days in the sallows just beyond the crosstracks, so we walked on to see if we could find one. There were already a few people looking and we had only just walked up when we heard one calling. Triangulating the various calls there were at least two, possibly three, but they played cat and mouse with us for a while. We heard them calling and caught brief glimpses as they flew out of the bushes or perched briefly when they landed, before disappearing in.

A large oak tree provided some shelter from the wind and there was a bit of activity in the bushes in front of it. First a Chiffchaff flitted around in the ivy. Then one of the Yellow-browed Warblers flew up into a large hawthorn right in front of the oak. Now we finally had a good chance to get a proper look at one, although even here it was so active, flicking in and out of the leaves, that it was never easy to latch onto without a bit of patience. It seemed to like this tree, as it came back into it a couple of times while we watched.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – we eventually got good views of one in the trees

We had already heard a few Siskins over the pines on our walk out to here, but now a succession of flocks started coming overhead, calling. At first, we wondered whether it was the same flock coming round and round, but the number of birds changed each time and they were all heading quickly west. Then a message came through to say that large numbers of Siskins were on the move along the coast. We must have seen over 500 here in about 30 minutes, but even that underestimated the scale of the Siskin migration underway.

There were other birds moving too today. Two Bramblings flew in over the pines calling and circled overhead, and a few Song Thrushes were still coming in too, flying in over the trees and dropping down into the bushes.

We decided to continue on to the west end, to see if we could find anything else fresh in. As we got to the gate overlooking the grazing marshes at the end of the pines, we could see lots of white shapes feeding in with the cattle away to the south. We had a better view from higher up, just in the start of the dunes. They were a long way off, but through the scope we counted eight Cattle Egrets and three Great White Egrets, another amazing collection of birds which would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, such is the pace of colonisation of these species.

Out in the open in the dunes, the weather was not particularly pleasant – the wind had picked up, and it was still drizzling on and off. We had a quick walk round the start of the bushes, flushing a couple of Song Thrushes out, but with it getting towards lunchtime now too we didn’t have time to venture any further.

However, now we could really appreciate the true scale of the Siskin movement. Birds had been moving over the pines, which we couldn’t see on the south side of the trees. From out in the open, we could see flocks pouring through, 60-250 birds at a time, 2-3 flocks per minute. Amazing to watch! Real migration in action. There were a few Chaffinches on the move too now, and a small flock dropped into the pines around us as we walked back into the trees, a harbinger of what was to come in the afteroon.

After the walk back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch in The Lookout cafe and a welcome hot drink to warm up. By the time we had finished lunch, the rain had stopped again. We drove east along the coast road to Blakeney, where a pair of Stonechats were perched on the bushes on the grazing marsh as we parked.

We thought we would have a quick walk around Friary Hills, which would be comparatively sheltered from the weather and a good place from which to observe the birds passing by overhead. There were lots of Blackbirds in the hawthorn hedge, which flushed out as we walked along and flew up into the trees the other side. Several Song Thrushes came out too, and a single Fieldfare, our first of the autumn. Four Blackcaps were feeding on the berries in here too, probably all migrants stopping off to refuel.

Blackbird

Blackbird – there were lots feeding in the hedge at Friary Hills

The Siskins appeared to have largely dried up now, but they were replaced by Chaffinches. Small flocks were passing over constantly, not on quite the scale of the Siskins earlier but on any other day they would be very impressive numbers moving. Amazing to think that these are all birds arriving here for the winter, mostly from the continent.

Down at the end of the track, a tit flock was moving quickly through the trees. A quick scan and we found a Yellow-browed Warbler in with them. It showed well, if briefly again, up in the sycamores, before the flock moved on. We tried to follow them back along the top path but they seemed to disappear back into the gardens beyond.

We stopped for a few minutes at the top, partly just to admire the view but also to see if any of the tits were still working their way in our direction through the bushes. There were several Marsh Harriers up now, quartering over the Freshes, and a couple of Grey Herons down with the cows, although there were no egrets with them here. As we walked back down the hill, a young Peregrine came in from the Freshes and disappeared inland over our heads.

Peregrine

Peregrine – flew over as we walked back down the path

To get round to the seawall, we had to walk past the duck pond with its motley collection of wildfowl. A colour-ringed Lesser Black-backed Gull was feeding on the food put out for the ducks on one of the platforms. After emailing the scheme co-ordinator, we discovered it was ringed as a youngster in Suffolk in 2010. Although it was seen all the way down in Morocco at one point (in 2014), in recent years it seems to have found Cley and Blakeney more to its liking. It was good to see the Hooded Merganser was still present in the collection here too and hadn’t escaped!

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull – ringed as a chick in Suffolk in 2010

Walking out along the seawall to the harbour, a smart male Marsh Harrier quartered the grazing marshes on the other side of the bank.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – we watched this smart male out over the Freshes

From the corner of the seawall, we stopped to scan the harbour. There were a few waders out on the mud – mostly Curlews and Redshanks. A small group of Knot, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Turnstone dropped in and started feeding busily. Further out, a couple of distant Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding in one of the deeper channels and there were plenty of Brent Geese out on the sandbars.

There seemed to be several small flocks of waders flying in. When a flock of Turnstone came in over the Glaven channel in front of us, we could see a couple of Dunlin in with them but also a much smaller wader at the back. It was clearly a stint, probably a Little Stint. Unfortunately, despite our best hopes, it didn’t land on the mud in front of us, but carried on out into the harbour and seemed to drop down out of view.

A Scandinavian Rock Pipit flew over the saltmarsh calling and dropped down into the vegetation out of view. Even out here, there were more Chaffinches still coming in or flying west in small groups, with the odd Siskin mixed in with them. It had been an amazing day for visible migration today, with all the finches moving and the thrushes in the bushes. Now it was unfortunately time to head back and wrap up an exciting four days of Autumn Migration.

12th Oct 2019 – Mid-Autumn Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a four day Autumn Migration tour. It was another cloudy, grey and dull day, but the winds were lighter today and it stayed dry. Much better conditions to be out birding on the coast again.

We started the day at Sheringham Cemetery. As we arrived, we met two other local birders just leaving who told us that one of the Ring Ouzels which had been seen here yesterday had been present earlier but had since flown off. There had been a Yellow-browed Warbler here yesterday too, so we decided to go and have a look for that first, then check the bushes where the Ring Ouzels had been feeding in case any had come back.

As we walked round towards the far corner, a Green Woodpecker flew up from the short grass and landed round the back of a pine tree over by the fence. We could just see its head looking round the side of the trunk from time to time. Then it dropped down into the grass nearby and started feeding again, where we could get a better look at it through the scope.

Green Woodpecker

Green Woodpecker – feeding on the grass in the cemetery

There was no sign initially of the Yellow-browed Warbler in the corner where it had been yesterday but while we were looking for it, we noticed a tit flock coming across the cemetery. We decided to follow that across to the allotments to see if it was with them. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits and a couple of Goldcrests, but no sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler.

Having left the bushes in peace for a while, we walked over to see if anything had come back. There were lots of Blackbirds now – we counted eight which flew out and there were still two or three in the hawthorns, plus a couple of Song Thrushes, but still no further sign of any Ring Ouzels.

While we were checking out the bushes, one of the group was looking over behind us and spotted a warbler in the trees in the corner. The Yellow-browed Warbler was back! We hurried over and found it flitting in and out of a large oak. It was also very vocal now, calling regularly, a distinctive sharp ‘tsooeet’. Almost all of the group eventually got a good look at it when it came out on the front of the tree a couple of times, although it was hard to get onto at times in the leaves. We could see its creamy yellow supercilium and double wing bars.

We were a bit later than hoped now, but we headed down to the prom anyway. The tide was quite well out already and there was no sign of any Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences, but there were lots of Turnstones feeding on some food put out on the prom or loafing around on the rocks.

Turnstone

Turnstone – there were lots feeding on the prom

We had thought, with the improvement in weather conditions, that there might be some birds moving today, so we wanted to have a look out to sea. We did find a couple of small groups of Razorbills and a lone Guillemot on the sea. A handful of Gannets flew through west, and a single Red-throated Diver flew east. But there was no sign of anything else moving today, no ducks, waders or small birds coming in.

Heading back west, we stopped again at Walsey Hills. The warden there quickly pointed us to the Jack Snipe which was asleep on an island of mud against the reeds at the back of Snipe’s Marsh. It was well camouflaged amongst the stumps of cut reed, bu we could see its golden yellow mantle and crown stripes. From time to time it would give a quick burst of it’s distinctive bouncing action and once or twice it woke up and flashed its bill, shorter than a Common Snipe.

Jack Snipe

Jack Snipe – mostly asleep on Snipe’s Marsh, but did wake up at one point

After watching the Jack Snipe for a bit, we headed in along the footpath through the trees. There were lots of tits around the feeders and we heard several Chiffchaffs as we made our way through to the willows at the back. There had been a Siberian Chiffchaff in here for the last couple of days, but we couldn’t find it. We saw one rather pale Chiffchaff, but it was rather too green in the upperparts to fully fit the bill and seemed to be calling like a regular Chiffchaff to boot.

We did see another Yellow-browed Warbler which called a couple of times before eventually flicking up higher into one of the trees where we could see it. There was a Blackcap in here too.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – eventually flicked up into the top of one of the trees

We went round to Cley for lunch and the weather was nice enough now to make use of the picnic tables outside. A small flock of Ruff came up off the scrapes and flew off inland. A Marsh Harrier circled over the reserve, flushing everything. A Yellowhammer flew over high west calling, presumably a migrant. And a small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over – our first of the day today.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – smaller numbers arriving today

There had been a Hooded Merganser found at Titchwell earlier this morning, and we learnt that it was still present this afternoon, so we decided to head over there to try to see it. As we made our way west along the coast road past Holkham, a small line of five Jays flew high over the fields beside the road, more birds on the move.

The car park at Titchwell was already very full, with lots of people interested to see the Hooded Merganser. We managed to find somewhere to park and headed straight round to Patsy’s Reedbed. The Hooded Merganser was asleep at first over by the reeds at the back but then woke up and swam round a couple of times so we could get a good look at it.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser – a smart drake, on Patsy’s Reedbed

Hooded Merganser is a rare visitor from North America, with only 12 accepted records, although no occurrences before 2000 were accepted. The situation is complicated by the fact that Hooded Merganser is very common in captivity and escapes are frequent. The Titchwell bird showed no signs of having been in captivity – we couldn’t see any rings on its legs and it was fully winged. In fact when shooting started in the distance, from the fields across the main road, all the ducks took off and the Hooded Merganser flew round strongly before eventually dropping back down towards the reedbed pool.

Interestingly, a male Hooded Merganser had been photographed flying past Titchwell back on 18th September. What was thought possibly to be the same bird the turned up in Worcestershire the following day. Was this the same bird back again or had it not gone to Worcestershire after all? Where had it been in the interim?

The Pintail was also on the pool here again, at least until the shooting started. A female Stonechat perched up on the top of the hedge behind us. A male Marsh Harrier circled up over the reedbed and drifted over towards us.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled out from the reedbed

The Autumn Trail is still open, so we walked round to the far corner of the Freshmarsh. We were hoping to find Water Rail and Bearded Tits and although we heard the former squealing and the latter pinging from the reeds, neither showed themselves for the group.

We got the scope on some Bar-tailed Godwits and then some Black-tailed Godwits and one of the latter helpfully walked into the middle of a group of the former to give us a good side-by-side comparison. There were plenty of Avocets and the regular selection of ducks too.

Walking back round along Meadow Trail, we heard a Marsh Harrier calling and looked up to see a young male displaying high in the sky overhead. Not a common sight at this time of year, and the tumbling was a little bit half-hearted. Out on the main West Bank, the Water Shrew was feeding on the side of the path again.

A small crowd had gathered by the reedbed pool, where the Hooded Merganser was now asleep out in the middle of the water. We continued on towards Island Hide, where a Water Rail was showing well on the edge of the reeds. We had a great view of it in the scope.

Some Bearded Tits had been showing along the edge of the reeds too, but had now apparently disappeared round the corner. We were told that some Bearded Tits had also been showing well earlier in the reeds by the main path just beyond the hide and thankfully they were still there. We had fantastic views of a pair, which kept working their way up into the tops of the reeds before flying a short distance further along, the male Bearded Tit with powder blue/grey head and black moustache.

Bearded Tit

Bearded Tit – showing very well in the reeds right by the main path

Interestingly, the pair of Bearded Tits appeared to be followed by a Cetti’s Warbler. After the Bearded Tits flew a short way further down, then the Cetti’s Warbler would flick up out of the reeds too and land again a little further along. It did this several times – not something we have ever seen before. It is normally hard enough just to see a Cetti’s Warbler!

It was a great way to end the day, watching the Bearded Tits. As we walked back towards the Visitor Centre, a flock of about thirty Siskins buzzed around the trees above the path. A small taster of what we were to see tomorrow!

11th Oct 2019 – Mid-Autumn Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a four day Autumn Migration tour. A grey and windy day, there were spits of rain at times while we were out but with some careful manoeuvring round the county we were able to avoid the worst of the rain this afternoon. Despite the inauspicious weather, we had a very successful day out.

Our destination for the first part of the day was Titchwell. There weren’t many cars yet when we arrived, so we had a quick walk round the overflow car park first, but it was very quiet, no sign of any hungry migrants stopping off to feed here today. There was nothing on the new squirrel-proof feeders by the Visitor Centre either, so we headed straight out towards the reserve.

Long-tailed Tit

Long-tailed Tit – we found a tit flock in the trees by the main path

We hadn’t gone far along the main path when we ran into a tit flock in the trees. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits flying back and forth across the path, along with a few Blue Tits and Great Tits. We managed to find a Chiffchaff and a Goldcrest in with them too. We heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling from deeper in the sallows but it did not come out.

As we walked out past the reedbed, a male Marsh Harrier flew over the Thornham grazing marsh and chased a couple of crows out over the saltmarsh. We arrived at the reedbed pool just as a Pintail disappeared into reeds, but everyone managed to get on a Tufted Duck, and a Common Pochard with a couple of Coot at the front, all additions to our trip list.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – chasing crows over Thornham Marsh

Out at the Freshmarsh, the water level is currently low, as reserve staff are strimming the islands and margins, coupled with the strong SW wind which tends to push the water away from the bank anyway. Consequently, there were not so many birds on here today and what was here was all gathered right at the back. Several Avocets were also additions to the tour list.

We decided to carry on out towards the beach, but as we walked on we noticed everything spook. We looked up to see a juvenile Peregrine flying over. It didn’t really have a go at anything on the Freshmarsh, but carried on west and disappeared off towards Thornham.

Out at the Volunteer Marsh, there were several Redshanks and Curlews feeding in the muddy channel at the far end.

Redshank

Redshank – one of several on Volunteer Marsh

The Tidal Pools are now tidal again, after storms reopened the channel which allows the water to drain. As the tide was already well out, the water level was down, and there were more waders on here today. We could see several Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, a Grey Plover, and a couple of little groups of Dunlin at the back.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding on the Tidal Pools

There were more waders out on the beach, down on the mussel beds. We had a nice comparison of Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits in the same scope view and careful scanning revealed a single Knot. The sea looked rather quiet by comparison, although we did find a Great Crested Grebe on the water. A dark juvenile Gannet and a Razorbill both flew past.

Our main target here today was to try to see the Grey Phalarope which had turned up yesterday out at Thornham Point. It was still present this morning, but as we walked west along the beach we got a message to say it had flown off, flushed by a Hobby. It had flown off and come back previously, so we decided to press on anyway. By the time we got out to the Point, it was back on its favoured pool.

A couple of Scandinavian Rock Pipits flushed from the saltmarsh as we positioned ourselves on one side of the pool. The Grey Phalarope was over at the back at first, picking around in the samphire. Then it waded into the water and started swimming around, eventually coming right down to the near edge, in front of us.

Grey Phalarope

Grey Phalarope – on one of the saltmarsh pools at Thornham Point

The Grey Phalarope was a young bird, a first winter, with some new grey feathers on its back but still with retained darker juvenile feathers on the back of its neck and wings. We could even make out the remains of the creamy orange wash on the front of its neck. Grey Phalaropes breed in the high Arctic and spend the rest of the year out at sea, migrating down to the coast of South Africa for the winter. They are very prone to be being blown inshore on autumn storms, when they are scarce visitors here. A great bird to see.

Having spent some time watching the Grey Phalarope feeding, we set off to walk back. We went into Parrinder Hide this time, to see if there was anything over the back of the Freshmarsh. There were several Ruff out on the mud and we could now see there were more Avocets in the deeper water over towards the back, along with a nice selection of the commoner dabbling ducks.

It was already getting on for lunchtime, so we set off back along the main path. We hadn’t gone far when we found a couple of people looking at a small mammal on the edge of the path. It was a Water Shrew, feeding on the remains of snails which had been crushed underfoot on the path. They are normally quite secretive, so it was amazing to see one out in the open like this, seemingly completely unconcerned by all the people passing by.

Water Shrew

Water Shrew – feeding on the main path on the way back

We ate our lunch by the Visitor Centre. There were a few Goldfinches and Chaffinches on the feeders and a large Brown Rat underneath! A couple of Siskins flew over calling.

Afterwards, we walked out along Fen Trail. We found a tit flock again, but it moved too quickly back through the trees to see if there was anything interesting with it. There were more more tits in the trees by the Tank Road, and a Goldcrest which was busy preening deep in the elders.

Out at Patsy’s Reedbed, there were more ducks, including a moulting drake Pintail at the back, to make up for the one which had disappeared into the reeds earlier. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls bathing out in the middle and a Mediterranean Gull dropped in with them briefly. A first winter, its heavier dark bill and black bandit mask gave it away, but it didn’t linger and flew off again west past us.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – dropped in on Patsy’s Reedbed pool briefly

We had got away with the weather so far today, but now it started to spit with rain. A quick look at the forecast suggested some rain was approaching, so we made our way back to the car park. It looked like it would remain dry further south until later this afternoon, so we decided to head inland. A covey of Grey Partridges ran across the road in front of us. Then as we got out onto the A148, it started to rain.

As we got to the Brecks, we drove out of the rain again, so it was dry when we got to our destination, even if it was grey and rather windy still. We had come to look for the Stone Curlews which gather here in the autumn. They were hard to find at first, but we managed to locate one then two, hiding behind the ridges of soil and clumps of nettles, trying to shelter from the wind. Gradually they became more active, and we counted up to eight Stone Curlews from here. We had nice views of them through the scope.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – we counted 27 still in the fields today

There were lots of gulls in the fields too, mainly Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Scanning through them, we found an adult Yellow-legged Gull first. It was colour-ringed, with a red ring, but it was too far away to read the lettering. We found a Caspian Gull next, an immature in its 2nd winter/2nd calendar year, but it flew off back to the next field, out of view, before everyone could get onto it. Then we picked out a second Yellow-legged Gull, this time also a 2nd winter. There were probably a lot more other gulls there too, but most were out of view from here.

Given we were upwind from them and the Stone Curlews were sheltering from the wind from this direction, we drove round to the other side of the field to try to see if there were more there that we couldn’t see. We were much further away, but scanning with the scope we could now see where the other Stone Curlews were hiding. The light was fading and they were very well camouflaged against the bare stony ground, but we counted at least 28 Stone Curlews from here. Numbers are gradually dropping now, as birds head off south for the winter, but that was still an impressive total.

As we drove back, we quickly ran into heavy rain. We had been very lucky, managing to avoid the worst of the weather today.