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BIRDING DIARY
Trip reports and latest news from Oriole Birding tours
Date: 2019-02-06

 
 
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ORIOLE BIRDING - BIRDING INSIGHTS VLOG - EPISODE 3 - EASTERN PANAMA 2019

 


 

NORFOLK WINTER TOUR 2ND - 7TH FEBRUARY 2020 (AJS)

 

FRIDAY 7TH FEBRUARY - NORTH NORFOLK

Fine and dry in freshening southerly winds

 

Today would be some thing of a ‘mopping up’ day as we headed out towards Holkham again, calling first at the big flock of Pink-feet which we’d had a go at two days previously. Unfortunately there was a bit of mist in the air, creating loads of glare with the low sun, and so viewing wasn’t easy. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the spectacle and managed to pick out a lovely adult Russian White-fronted Goose among them. Moving on, we headed to Lady Anne’s Drive next as we wanted to follow up on a report yesterday of two Spoonbills, which would be very early birds returning to the colony – hardly surprising, given the fine weather. We walked out to Washington Hide, but the light here was really tricky. We scanned west, and Ashley saw the Spoonbills in flight briefly over decoy wood, but they quickly dropped out of sight behind the hedge. This prompted us to walk on down to Joe Jordan hide, a bit of a stretch, but hopefully worth it. From the hide, we had superb views of 180 White-fronted Geese, and enjoyed studying the close family parties and listening to their yapping calls. Four Great White Egrets were on view together looking west, but sadly no sign of the Spoonbills. Raptors were very much in evidence – a young Peregrine was trying its luck at flushing up the Wigeon and then trying to single one out. It struck one, knocking it into the water, but the duck struggled back into the air and sped off, pursued by a Marsh Harrier at full tilt! Another Wigeon got isolated by the Peregrine but chose to dive under water. Again a Marsh Harrier stepped in and repeatedly forced it under, but the female bird escaped and rejoined the rest of the flock. All very exciting!

 

Back at the drive, we had a coffee before heading off towards Titchwell. We checked the area around Choseley, hoping to catch up with Corn Bunting, but without success. The reserve therefore would be our focus for the rest of the day, and we searched hard for the Woodcock which has been all over social media of late, but failed to find it in two attempts. A Water Rail showed typically well though, and along the West Bank path we had superb views of a male Bearded Tit swinging on the reeds. Down at the tidal pool, we had better views of a Spotted Redshank among hordes of roosting Bar-tailed Godwits and our first Knots of the week. The sea was disappointing though – a handful of Red-breasted Merganser and Great Crested Grebes, plus a drake Goldeneye. The light was superb on the freshmarsh as we headed back – Avocets were now up to 40 (spring is coming!) and the Golden Plover flock looked stunning. Not the most successful of final days, but still decent and we ended on an excellent total of species for the tour.

 

THURSDAY 6TH FEBRUARY - BRECKS

Fine and sunny, 9C

 

A beautiful fine sunny day awaited us for our trip down into the Brecks today and we enjoyed good views of the target species. First we headed into Swaffham Forest, where a tiny population of Willow Tits still survive in some of the conifer forestry and a local birder has set up a feeding station by one of the forest rides, giving people a chance to connect with this scarce bird. We took sunflower seed with us to top up the table, but some other birders were just leaving as we arrived and had already put seed out which was very handy. We set our scopes up watching over the feeder and began to sift through the tits piling in and out – mainly Coal Tits but with lots of Marsh Tits too. The birds would only pause on the table for about two seconds at best, so noting all the salient features of every black-capped tit was not easy! Soon though, we heard a Willow Tit call from the trees behind us and this intensified our stare at the feeding table! Sure enough, a striking bird popped in – bull necked and with black cap extending back like a bicycle helmet, and white cheeks contrasting with apricot underparts. It was a lovely Willow Tit, and with a glimpse of a messy bib as it exited the table, that was it. We had two or three other probables but either they were just too fast, or they were at the back obscured by other birds and we couldn’t be sure. One was enough though, and after notching two Redpoll flying over, we headed back to the van.

 

Moving to another track nearby, we wanted to check for Woodlark as it was such a fine sunny morning, we hoped they might be singing. A male Brambling was a nice bonus by our parking spot, and then a Woodlark burst into song over the clearing behind us. We watched the bird fluttering above us in song flight, before it descended onto a nearby bare tree having seen off a second signing male. Shortly after a female came up from the ground an joined the male, and both gave great views perched together in the trees. Onwards and upwards, to try for raptors next as the day was warming up. We didn’t have to wait long for our first sighting of a Goshawk, as an adult male came low across the treetops, flushing out a second bird which it chased up into the sky in front of us. The original bird then continued to show on and off, powering around with deep, slow wing beats and giving some really good views.

 

With some time in the bank, we decided to fly down to Thetford next and check the gulls at Burrell Way – we did get chance to have a quick sweep through them but unfortunately they all go flushed by a Buzzard and headed off in the direction of Nunnery Lakes. We cut our losses, and headed back into the forest, lunching at Santon Downham in the sunshine, and picking up a pair of Nuthatch in the process. The rest of our afternoon would be spent at Lynford, where we hoped to connect with Hawfinch among other things. Under the feeders, we had great views of thirteen Yellowhammers feeding with a handful of Brambling – a lovely colour palette combination! The paddocks were really quiet, and the Hawfinches obviously weren’t feeding there. We popped along to check on the Tawny Owl roost, and had excellent views of two birds roosting side by side on the same branch, before heading back to the paddocks to watch the trees for roosting birds arriving. Bizarrely, given the recent high counts, only one Hawfinch was seen – albeit we did have good prolonged views of it perched on the treetops in the sunshine. We hung on until the sun sipped well below the trees, but no more birds arrived this evening. Back to the car park then, and home to Ryburgh after another pleasant day.

 

WEDNESDAY 5TH FEBRUARY - NORTH NORFOLK

Fine and calm day, 8C

 

We headed back to the North Norfolk coast today in an absolutely stunning day of weather, which for the most part was dominated by blue skies and barely a breath of wind. We had heard of a ‘giga-flock’ of Pink-feet yesterday in an area not far from Wells, and so decided to swing by there first to see if birds were assembling from their night-time roost. As we drove along the lane, we could see a big 100-acre beet field in the distance, absolutely peppered in birds from one end to the other. Not only that, but the field behind it was full too. This was the biggest concentration of birds we had seen all winter, and we estimated numbers around the 20,000 mark – it really was quite something and we could hear the amazing low rumble created by all these birds chatting to each other at once. The birds were right up to the edge of the road though, so we parked nervously and stayed in the van for five minutes to let them get used to us. They were alert at first, but then began feeding and relaxed. This allowed us to slowly get out and set up scopes, and we were pleased to be in a good position with the flock relaxed and could start working through them – surely the Lesser White-front had to be here. No sooner had we found the first neck-collar than there were some banging sounds from the nearby farm buildings and the birds at that corner of the field lifted in a wave – we knew what was coming. In a cacophonous roar, the whole lot went up and the sky was blackened by wave after wave of geese, swirling round in a big loop before splitting in two and dropping in two different fields. Frustrating, but a spectacle to see all the same.

 

Leaving the geese behind, we dropped down to Wells and pulled up at the ‘Rough-leg lay-by’. The wintering Rough-legged Buzzard wasn’t initially on view, but a Barn Owl quartered in front of us and caught a vole, before retiring to an old lean-to shed to roost for the morning. Two Marsh Harriers flew along the bank and flushed the Rough-legged Buzzard up, and we had superb flight views as it came right across in front of us and back to its favoured bushes. With this in the bag, we continued along to Holkham, and enjoyed the spectacle of waterbirds on the marshy fields either side of Lady Anne’s Drive. This included several Ruff, Snipe and Black-tailed Godwits, plus a flock of around 500 Brent Geese which whirled in and dropped behind The Lookout. We scanned through them as best we could given the light and distance, but couldn’t see anything with them. Out to the beach next, and what a fantastic day to be out in the bay. We went straight out to the gap first, to scan the shore. After yesterdays strong winds, a wreck of razor clams on the beach had concentrated around 5000 gulls in a feeding frenzy – mainly Herring and Common Gulls, but be grilling them carefully we picked at least four adult Mediterranean Gulls out, all gaining their black summer hoods. Further east, the second ‘giga-flock’ of the day was comprised of 6000+ Common Scoter, and while they weren’t easy to work in the swell lingering from yesterdays wind, we did have decent views of three Velvet Scoter, a drake Goldeneye and two drake Common Eider. Back to the saltmarsh, and the five Shorelarks were feeding furtively in the low vegetation, keeping pretty well concealed out in the cordoned area. Forty Snow Buntings were also present, a lower number than normal, but still great to see.

 

After a well-earned brew back at the van, we headed out to the south end of the drive and parked for a short while as the other Brent flock (which we’d seen flying off west earlier) was now back albeit distantly in the second field. Through the scopes, we were pleased to pick out the adult Pale-bellied Brent Goose and also one of the regular, well marked Brant hybrids. Two Grey Partridge were also really close, and yet another Barn Owl was perched in the open on a fencepost in the sunshine. More surprising was a Marsh Tit in full song – the first of spring – and we managed to glimpse it too. Next we called at the west end of the marsh, and had a quick look at the Russian White-fronted Geese feeding there – they were distant, but the light was so good that it didn’t really matter.

 

Burnham Overy Staithe was our stop for lunch, parking by the A149 at the top of Whincover. We could see three Cattle Egrets from here – two feeding on the marsh with another which flew off west over the seawall. After lunch we walked down the muddy track, and watched a Red Kite flushing everything before cruising over us. After we passed through the gate, a big surprise was in store – a dog Otter came running along the edge of the dyke! It passed so close to us we could hear it huffing and snorting as it lolloped by! We continued onto the seawall, and from here we could see big mixed flocks of Pink-footed, Brent and Barnacle Geese, the latter numbering around 80 birds. A Peregrine flew west, and there was plenty of other birdlife to see such as big flocks of Wigeon, Teal, Pintail and Shoveler. Two Barn Owls were hunting, and a Cetti’s Warbler sang, then showed briefly by the sluice.

 

 

Our plan was to end the day at Warham Greens, but we had a small diversion en route. As we passed North Point, we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese feeding in winter wheat up on the hill behind the pools. We turned down the track, losing height but still able to see most of the flock on top of the ridge. Almost right away we could see a striking bird – black as tar on the back and belly, but with a bold, chalky white flank patch and huge collar. It was a Black Brant, a striking adult which had been seen a couple of times at the end of January at Holkham but very hard to pin down. It was the first time we’d seen it since December 2018 and we were able to study it well for twenty minutes or so. The light was good so despite the distance, we could see the brown tones in the mantle and get good views of the collar pattern to show it to be the same bird as last year. An excellent moment! We were running out of daylight, but Stiffkey Greenway came up with the goods for us as dusk fell with two Hen Harriers (1 male) and a Merlin which perched on the bushes out on the binks before shooting off west. Three more Barn Owls took our three day total to 14 birds – like the good old days!

 

TUESDAY 4TH FEBRUARYStrong westerly winds and squalls, 6C (plus windchill!)

 

Our plan for today was to try and make the most of the very windy conditions forecast by completing our longest days travelling out to East Norfolk and make it a fairly whistle stop itinerary taking in a number of good birds without long spells out in the freezing wind. The success of this would require a degree of luck, and we started at Salthouse where a single Waxwing had been present several days. This species is notorious for either being ‘there or not there’ as they tend to disappear off for long periods. On arrival, it looked like it would be the latter as a wander around the gardens near the church failed to produce the bird. We were just leaving, when we met a local homeowner who gave us some gen and encouraged us to re-check a spot we had already viewed. Sure enough, the Waxwing was sat there as bold as brass and feeding on the few remaining shrivelled berries! We had some nice views, then left as a squall set in and we needed to move on to our next mission! This would be along the coast at Sheringham, to check the loafing gulls for a regular first-winter Caspian Gull which is often present. Despite the tide being at its lowest ebb, there was so much wind behind it that it had barely gone out and the breakers were smashing the shore leaving only a small bit of beach exposed below the Three Lifeboats pub. Among the handful of large gulls though was the strikingly white-headed Caspian Gull, and we had great close up views of it. A little further along the promenade, two Purple Sandpipers obliged with close views, so it was three out of three so far!

 

On to the Broads then, and after a fifty minute drive we arrived at Ludham Airfield. The wind was whipping across here, but that didn’t bother the wintering herd of wild swans which were in a good position for us to get excellent views and get a count on them. 48 Whooper and 29 Bewick’s Swans were present, but while there were plenty of Whooper cygnets, we didn’t see a single young Bewick’s. After a welcome hot coffee, we continued on, to try for Cranes in the Acle area. Luck was definitely on our side today, as we saw four Common Cranes flying into the maize fields as we drove along the Billockby road. Parking by the barn, we enjoyed brilliant views of 11 birds, including a youngster. It was only just noon, so we were well on schedule, and decided to detour to Halvergate to check for the Short-eared Owls which have been present recently. This proved our only ‘dip’ of the day, as we couldn’t find them, though it was extremely windy here now!

 

 

Heading back towards the coast, we stopped to check a flock of around 300 Pink-footed Geese near Martham, before heading down onto the coastal plain and parking on the Horsey straight for lunch. 430 Golden Plover were in the fields here, making for quite a sight, and a Green Sandpiper flew over calling but was not seen. Marsh Harriers became very much in evidence, and big flocks of Lapwing and Starling were great to see. Passing Horsey windpump, we reached Waxham and a decent sized flock of Pink-feet behind Poplar Farm which we knew was hosting several Tundra Bean Geese. However, the birds were nervous and we couldn’t views them sensibly without walking up the track into the open and we felt they would all flush at this point, so we decided to leave them be. Waxham beach produced fly-bys of Guillemot, Razorbill, Gannet, Fulmar and Red-throated Diver, so all was not lost here.

 

Hickling Stubbs Mill roost is the typical way we normally end our days out in East Norfolk during winter, and we enjoyed a really productive session here this evening. A total of 17 Common Cranes included a wonderful fly-past of them bugling as they turned into the wind and dropped on the marsh in front of us. The Marsh Harrier roost was around 50 birds (32 in the air together!) and two Hen Harriers also roosted, including a grey male. A Barn Owl was also out hunting, right in front of the watchpoint and there were some small birds to be seen too – a Chiffchaff showing well and calling in the hedge behind us, and three Brambling which wheezed overhead. An excellent way to round off a productive if blustery day.

 

MONDAY 3RD FEBRUARY - North-west Norfolk

Sunny spells in fresh W winds, 7C

 

A superb and varied days birding in North-west Norfolk today in bright and breezy conditions, saw us start out at Burnham Market where Nick and Ashley had relocated the elusive wintering Lesser White-fronted Goose the day before. With goose numbers now dwindling and suitable feeding fields at a premium, this area is concentrating what birds are left into the final chapter of the wild goose winter. Taking a footpath up behind the allotments, we were able to scan the beet field with the sun behind us, and watch a throng of around 3000 Pink-footed Geese squabbling over the remaining tops. We could really enjoy scanning through the flock as the birds were quite close and also really tolerant of our presence, due to the proximity to the houses and a path used regularly by dog walkers. Soon we latched onto two fine adult Tundra Bean Geese, always an absolute joy to watch among the flocks. We remarked on their tar coloured tertials with crisp white fringes, long legs and lolloping gait. Almost next to them, and orange-legged Pink-foot walked into view and provided a very instructive comparison. There were about half the number of birds here as yesterday though, and no sign of the Lesser White-front, so we decided to move on.

 

Heading west to Docking and on to Sedgeford, we made the pilgrimage to the most famous pile of turkey muck in Norfolk, the chosen winter home of the lovely Eastern Yellow Wagtail which has been around since December. Initially the bird was not visible, so we walked down the track to try the second muck pile. Not finding it there, we retraced to the road and as we approached, could hear it giving its Citrine-like call two or three times. It then appeared on the top of the heap with Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits before eventually heading down to the front edge. Here the sun was picking out lovely bright fresh green tones in the scapulars, and its ashy-dark lores and dark-tipped bill were striking. A really smart bird and a lifer for three of the group. Next up we checked an area for farmland passerines but the Corn Buntings we were hoping for weren’t in residence. We saw Yellowhammer, Fieldfare and a nice flock of Golden Plovers in the area though, plus several Common Buzzards and Marsh Harriers.

 

 

Eastern Yellow Wagtail and a near full summer adult Med Gull, 3rd February 2020

 

Thornham Harbour would be our lunch stop, so we could park up and keep watch for the Twite while we ate. We didn’t see them, so took a walk along the bank in the now cold, freshening wind. Thankfully the Twite obliged, ‘wheezing’ over us and dropping into the spartina grass and sea lavender by the creek. We had really superb views of them, as once again we had the sun behind. Some Linnets even flew in for comparison, before the Twite flew up to drink from the puddles on the path. In the harbour mouth, a fine drake Red-breasted Merganser was seen and a good selection of distant waders.

 

Titchwell next, and after an unsuccessful search for the Woodcock, we settled for good views of the Water Rail in the usual ditch and then headed out towards the shore. A Water Pipit showed really well along the reedy edge of the freshmarsh and a Peregrine nailed something over the back and appeared to struggle over the seawall with it onto tidal marsh. We wandered down there but couldn’t see the Peregrine, though we did see a Spotted Redshank, a close female Red-breasted Merganser and some really nice Pintail. Back at the freshmarsh, around 500 Golden Plover had dropped in and an adult Mediterranean Gull was in the pre-roost, almost in full breeding plumage already. Nine Avocets, several hundred Teal and the Peregrine again, flying off west over the saltmarsh, rounded off a nice session here.

 

We wanted to end the day with the chance of a roost flight of Pink-feet and so headed back east along the coast to Burnham Overy Staithe. There was a lovely mixed flock of Pinks and Brent Geese right by the seawall, and the flooded fields were thronged with Wigeon and Lapwing. Over the harbour side, around 100 Black-tailed Godwits were resting and more Brent Geese wheeled in off the saltmarsh. As dusk fell, the first Barn Owl appeared, and then another. Eventually we had four visible at once, and some superb close views as they flew right past us along the bank. A Short-eared Owl then appeared over the saltmarsh towards Scolt Head Island, ghosting back and forth on effortless flat-winged glides and occasionally doubling back to pounce into the suaeda. A second one then appeared out towards the dunes and we had both Barn and Short-eared in the same view. Behind us, the sky blackened with Pink-footed Geese as the Burnham Market flock took flight and headed to Holkham to roost, passing us in a raucous gaggle before ‘whiffling’ down onto the grazing marsh for the night. A fabulous sight as always! A Great White Egret lumbering off to roost and the calls of Bearded Tits, Cetti’s Warblers and Water Rails ended the day, and we made our way back along to the staithe.

 


 

NORFOLK WINTER WILDFOWL SPECTACULAR 17TH - 22ND JANUARY 2020 [JWM]

 

Wednesday 22nd January – North Coast

Overcast and misty, light rain by late afternoon, very light NW winds, mild, 8C

 

Our final day of this winter wildfowl tour was spent visiting a few key North Norfolk sites we have yet to visit, and also trying to mop up on a few species we had yet to see this week. Leaving the Blue Boar, we made an impromptu stop at the visitor centre at Sculthorpe Moor, the previous afternoon there had been a Waxwing reported there. We pulled in and we could see some pretty tasty looking berry bushes, but no sign of the bird. However whilst having a nice chat with the reserve staff, one of the group saw the bird drop in and called everyone over; the Waxwing was right above our heads! What a stroke of luck. It never quite settled, much because of a Sparrowhawk which swept through the area, while a Red Kite was also floating about over the area. After handing over a few donations in kind thanks for the reserve teams warm reception, we headed north, making our way to Burnham Overy Marsh. Parking at the top of Whincover, we could see that there were about 400 Pink-footed Geese in a nearby potato field; we have been here before! A scan through the flock revealed a fine adult and juvenile Barnacle Goose, and also a pair of ringed Pink-feet at the front of the flock; silver neck collar XDL and orange darvic ringed CAL. These birds will have been ringed by Hull University in the last couple of years locally, and the orange ringed bird will likely have once held a satellite tag, but appears to have lost it. After carefully scanning through this flock and enjoying their antics, we walked down Whincover, getting good views of a Green Woodpecker, and seeing good numbers of Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Brent Geese. A Great Egret was seen from the top of the track by some of the group, but 2 Cattle Egret were particularly pleasing, being a species we have missed a few times this week. One was biblically distant, but the other was closer and gave nice views. Finishing up, we made our way back up the rather muddy track, back to the van. From here we dropped in on Lady Anne’s Drive for a hot drink and to use the facilities, and enjoyed a nice sighting of a large flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese, the flock hosting an educational Black Brant hybrid; one of our long-standing birds which shows a fine chalky flank patch and pretty impressive neck collar, but also a greyish ‘bloom’ to the mantle; so indicative of a non-pure Black Brant. The marshes also held impressive numbers of Snipe and Lapwing, as well as superb Wigeon and Teal flocks; these Holkham marshes are really hosting some superb wetland bird numbers. A covey of 12 Grey Partridge were particularly appreciated here near the Lookout, before we headed away. From here, we continued east through a few of Norfolk’s iconic coastal villagers, before pausing in Morston Harbour for a quick look along the channel. At low tide, there was no sign of the regular wintering Greenshank, but a Kingfisher provided ample compensation, showing its impressive hovering abilities. A small party of Brent Geese were also in the channel along with Teal, and a few Rock Pipits were vocal here, before we made our way onwards to Cley.

 

At this famous reserve, we parked up at the beach and had our lunch there, overlooking the sea where a trio of Red-throated Divers offered instructive close views, and a single Turnstone kept us company, while behind us a fine adult Peregrine was perched out in the marsh and a busy flock of Dark-bellied Brents were a joy to watch. Even more so as the flock hosted a really interesting family group; a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose paired with a Dark-bellied Brent, and with 3 apparently hybrid offspring! A really interesting group, and thanks go to Mark Golley who kindly pointed them out to us. A Stonechat was noted standing sentinel on fence-lines as we departed this site, before we headed on towards Sheringham where we would finish our day. However a stop was required near Weybourne, as a flock of around 1000 Pink-footed Geese demanded scrutiny! Always a pleasure to work through these wonderful flocks, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to pull our a Bean Goose for love nor money this week, and this occasion was no different! After working the flock through the ‘scope 3 times, it was time to move on. Arriving in Sheringham, we walked down onto the promenade as a light rain set in, and actually this seemed sort of apt, as an absence of our target species here’ Purple Sandpiper, meant that we finished today with a bit of a whimper! No matter, as the day had been superb, and the week even more so, with the group all agreeing that they had had a superb time on Norfolk this week; the birding and weather has been superb! Finishing up with a hot drink, an feeding the local Turnstones (a highlight for some!), we made our way back to Great Ryburgh, where we said farewell to most of the group, before dropping Ann off at King’s Lynn train station.

 

 

The Sculthorpe Waxwing (it did come closer than this!) and the Black Brant Hybrid at Holkham

 

Tuesday 21st January – Broads

Fog all morning, clearing by early afternoon to clear skies, very light NW winds, cold, 1C

 

Today dawned in pretty uninspiring fashion; thick freezing fog! The weather forecast wasn’t particularly instructive, and with weather like this, sometimes you just have to get out there and see how it pans out, and this is what we did, heading east into the Norfolk Broads. The drive across past Norwich took us through to Ranworth Broad, which we arrived to in still very poor visibility. We wanted to have a punt at the long-staying Ferruginous Duck which, if it did show, at leash had the potential to show close by in its favoured areas; at least in theory! In practice, there was no sign of the duck, either at Malthouse or Ranworth Broad, and the mist was so thick we weren’t able to check out the rest of the open water areas. The Alder woodland did produce some nice bits though, including several Bullfinches, a flyover flock of 20 Siskins, a Redwing and a couple of Marsh Tits, livening up an otherwise quiet visit. Back at the van we had a cuppa to warm our freezing fingers, and contemplated our next move. This took us towards Acle, and on along the Marsh Lane towards Halvergate village. The open grazing marshes here have recently hosted a Cattle Egret which we saw last week, but unfortunately it seemed to have moved on. However the area provided ample compensation, in the form of a superb Short-eared Owl perched on a bridge railing, which we were able to stop the van beside, getting brilliant views in the now briefly sunny conditions! A Barn Owl beside the road was also well appreciated, before we headed back towards Acle and north. Our brief interlude of clearing fog didn’t last, as north of Acle we were back in pea-soup! A regular spot for Common Crane this year appeared to be devoid of birds, despite walking out into the area a bit to check thoroughly. Perhaps they couldn’t find their favourite field in the fog! We moved on from here, to Ludham Airfield where, even if the fog was thick, we surely couldn’t miss a field full of swans! To start with it looked like we could, with bad visibility leaving us worrying that perhaps the swans weren’t here either. However a run round to the final corner of their favoured area revealed that they were present and correct; a flock of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans numbering 88 in total. We stopped to admire the flock, with the Whooper Swans being particularly vocal and lively at times, before heading for a spot to have some lunch and where, hopefully, we could wait on the fog lifting a bit!

 

 

Two star owls; Short-eared and Barn Owl

 

Our lunchtime destination was the banks of the river Thurne, at the end of Cold Harbour  road near Ludham. As we ate our sandwiches, the mist began to lift, and unveiled a trio of Whooper Swans amongst the many Mutes, while from up on the bank, we could see a good number of Pink-footed Geese and, with them, about 15 Russian White-fronted Geese; great! A Sparrowhawk was also noted, while Golden Plover and many Lapwings were also seen in the area. A good stop, and the beginnings of a superb afternoon of fine weather. Departing here, we had time to backtrack a bit, and revisit where we had previously missed the Common Cranes. With much better visibility, this proved worthwhile, as three Common Cranes could be seen at the back of the maize fields. We were able to scope the trio of adult birds and admire them at leisure, pleased with our good fortune. Such elegant birds! From here, we headed around to West Somerton and Horsey straight, stopping to scan several Pink-footed Goose flocks as we went, and also seeing some nice flocks of Golden Plovers, before making our way round to our last stop of the day; Stubb Mill. We arrived at the Hickling Broad visitor centre in good time, togged up for the cold, and set off up the lane, reaching the viewpoint at about 15:15. The conditions were beautiful; a really still crisp evening, and the roost was superb. A Short-eared Owl was one of the first birds seen, out hunting over the reed beds, while a couple of Barn Owls were also active. Marsh Harriers were coming in really good numbers, with a total of 62 carefully counted as they came into the main roost area; a good number, and perhaps a sign of numbers building this winter. A distant Merlin was really at the limits of our identification capabilities off towards Brograve Mill also. However arguably the main highlight were the cranes, with two on the deck to start with, followed by 8 further birds, including some wonderful bugling calls to see out the evening. A Common Chiffchaff behind the watchpoint was also of note, here, as was Kingfisher, Stonechat and 2 Brambling. All in all, a superb session, and we walked back to the van more than happy with our days efforts in sometimes challenging conditions.

 

 

Cranes and Wild Swans

 

Monday 20th January – North Coast

Blue sky and sunshine throughout, very light NW winds, cold, 4C

 

Well it was another cracker in weather that, if it wasn’t so chilly, wouldn’t be out of place in May! Out day ventured us out to the north coast again, where we would visit some haunts which demanded a second effort, and also many new spots for the week. Our morning began by heading out beyond Docking, with a superb Pink-footed Goose flock found towards Brancaster. Around 3000 strong, we were able to watch the birds from the van on the roadside, and really enjoyed the comings and goings of the flock. A single silver neck collar and an orange-legged pink’ were of interest, but we couldn’t unveil any other species amongst the flock, so we continued our way north, returning back to Sedgeford, where we hoped to make acquaintance with the EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL. With more fortune than a couple of days ago, the bird was present on the roadside dung heap, and put on a fabulous show for everyone; what a smart bird! It was vocal all the time this morning, allowing everyone to hear its distinctive calls so important for its identification. The area also hosted Fieldfare and a couple of fine Grey Partridges along the hedgerow, before we took our leave and headed towards Thornham. On the way we enjoyed a fantastic encounter with a Barn Owl along the roadside. At Thornham Harbour, we had a cuppa by the van before setting out in search for the regular flock of Twite which can be found here. We walked up onto the sea wall and strolled around all of the Twite’s favoured haunts, but there was no sign of them. Whilst overlooking the saltmarsh towards Holme some eagle-eyed scanning by Jeremy did reveal a flock of 35 Snow Bunting on the dunes at the end of Holme, while good views of Rock Pipits and various commoner waders were enjoyed here. After giving it about an hour, we had to accept defeat on the Twite front, moving on from here to our next destination; Holkham. On route, we paused at Burnham Overy to check the Pink-footed Goose flock there. Again it only numbered about 200 birds, so didn’t offer much in the form of variety. However the stop was well worthwhile as, whilst standing here, a flock of perhaps 5000 Pink-footed Geese came overhead in the most amazing formations; jagged waved lines, all dropping onto Burnham Overy Marshes; simply stunning, and totally iconic of a Norfolk winter! One of the Great Egrets were also visible from our parking stop. Moving on, we arrived at Holkham, parking on Lady Anne’s Drive and making our way out into Holkham bay.

 

 

Some of the Pinks from today, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail at Sedgeford

 

We decided to walk our to the gap first, before following the line of the dunes back round to the cordon. The weather was beautiful, and the site was typically stunning as we walked the golden sands, noting 2 Long-tailed Duck on the sea as we went. Reaching the cordon, we were soon watching the beautiful parties of 5 Shorelark and around 40 Snow Buntings amongst the old sea lavender heads; a real highlight of the trip for manty of the group! On the sea from here, an impressive flock of maybe 3000 Common Scoter were offshore, and held at least 3 Velvet Scoter amongst them, which were a challenge to get onto in the swell, but some of the group managed, along with 2 Pintail. A steady stream of over 100 Sanderling passed along the foreshore while we watched, before we walked back along the bay edge and to the van. The marshes beside the van hosted an impressive 50 Common Snipe along with various commoner wildfowl and waders, all enjoyed before we headed around to Wells. The long-staying ROUGH LEGGED BUZZARD was in it’s usual spot, and was a delight as always to see, but potentially more exciting was a hunting Short-eared Owl working along the marsh bank! It gave several flight views before pouncing onto some unseen prey, and sitting in full view on the bank for the rest of our watch; always great to see! The area also hosted a couple of Common Buzzards, helping to illustrate the key identification difference between these and the Rough-leg. From here, we were nearing the evening, so we wanted to continue to our final bit of birding for the day; the raptor roost at Warham. We parked up half-way along Garden Drove with a Barn Owl in full view on the old barn for company, before we headed down the rather muddy track to the saltmarsh edge, and began our watch. The roost was superb tonight, offering us at least 2 ringtail Hen Harriers and 2 absolutely beautiful male Hen Harriers; one of the latter giving a real nice prolonged and close fly-past. Also here were a single rather distant Merlin on a small post out in the marsh, a fly-over Peregrine, a fine flock of Golden Plover catching the sun and, most spectacularly, what we estimated to be at least 10,000 Pink-footed Geese coming into roost either side of us in two flocks, onto the Holkham marshes and Blakeney sandbanks; what a sight. A Chiffchaff was calling lots behind us as we packed up our telescopes and made our way back to the van after a really superb day.

 

However, it wasn’t over yet! After last nights lucky Long-eared Owl encounter, we revisited the site we had seen it on the off chance we could repeat the experience. Parking in an open spot, we stood in the low evening twilight, looking and listening intently. A couple of Woodcock were seen leaving their daytime roosts, and then suddenly a distant but clear ‘whoo’ call; a calling Long-eared Owl! It was hard to believe, but we heard the call 5 more times, always the same deep, slow call; it could only be a Long-eared Owl! What an amazing thing to finish the day off.  

 

  

The Wells Rough-legged Buzzard and one of the Holkham Shorelarks

 

Sunday 19th January – The Brecks

Blue sky and sunshine throughout, very light NW winds, cold, 4C

 

A really beautiful, crisp cold day to be out, and it was a cracker, with some great birds and  a few (very) early signs of spring! We began our day with a quick nip round the corner to the Ryburgh scrape. The frosty marsh landscape hosted a number of Teal and Lapwing, plus a single Oystercatcher, while Little Egret was also seen. The field behind us hosted a fantastic flock of about 500 Linnets, and this in turn attracted the attentions of a female Sparrowhawk which crossed the field, putting everything else on high alert! Perche dup in the far trees were at least 5 Brambling, and also 10 Yellowhammers, while Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and Chaffinches were also common in the weed-rich field. Finishing up here once we had lost feeling in our toes, we loaded into the van and made our way south into the brecks.  We started our exploration of the region with a  stop close to Swaffham. Exiting the van besides a large forestry clearing, we were greeted by a pair of Bullfinches at close range, and Mistle Thrush nearby. Overlooking a clearing bathed in sunshine, the sound of a Woodlark in subsong caught the wind, coming from somewhere at the far corner. Whilst waiting, a Redpoll called, and we were soon watching 3 Lesser Redpolls feeding with Goldfinches on weeds amongst a sugar beet crop. Whilst watching, the Woodlark burst into full song, but by the time we dragged ourselves away from the showy Redpolls, the Woodlark stopped singing, and went quiet for the next 30 minutes! Wandering the clearing, we noted Stonechat, Great Spotted and calling Green Woodpeckers, and also several vocal Nuthatches. We had a cuppa by the van and waited for more activity, which duly came, with 3 Woodlarks seen, consisting two singing males and a presumed chasing female; result! Happy with our sightings, we made our way out and along to our next site, where we would try for Goshawk in rapidly warming conditions. Pulling up to our intended watchpoint, we met a couple of other observers, and they instantly pointed out a Goshawk which was steadily powering across the treeline! What a jammy bunch we are! The bird ploughed across the horizon, illustrating heavy deep wingbeats, broad hips with flared white undertail coverts, and the flat wing profile so distinctive of the species, before it disappeared behind trees. About 5 minutes later this or another bird appeared from the same trees, gave a repeat performance and dropped out of view. Our luck was undoubted, as with a 40 minute vigil to follow, we saw no more Goshawk activity as, though the day was fine, there was barely a breath of wind, so little to get any birds up. In fact, we failed to see a soaring Buzzard in the whole watch! We did see one perched individual, and a couple of Sparrowhawks, while the soundtrack was provided here by singing Skylarks. As lunch approached, we packed up a happy bunch, and headed deeper into the forest.

 

 Our next port of call today was the forest area around Santon Downham. The area proved fairly quiet, with no flock of Siskins or Brambling so typical of recent years. However we did pick up a few bits, including Great Spotted Woodpecker, singing Marsh Tit, a single Siskin, Song Thrush and, nearby, Goldcrest. After having lunch in the sun, we wandered through forest ride 21 on spec, hoping for perhaps another Woodlark, but it proved incredibly quiet, with only Coal Tits to show for our efforts. To make up for this, we headed for our last stop of today; the fantastic Lynford Arboretum. In 15 minutes we were there, and the car park was absolutely rammed! A coach and many cars had delivered the Essex Birdwatching Club, who were having a great time at the site (and even included Bill and Rosie; two of our longest-standing clients), though it was a shock to see 40 folk at the paddocks! Our visit here was superb, with 23 Brambling under the beech-ride feeders, two Tawny Owls roosting in their favoured tree (the first time we have seen two here!), large numbers of Siskins, feeders thronging with birds including Marsh Tit and Nuthatch, and best of all, at least 8 Hawfinch moving around the Hornbeams and conifers at the back. A group of 5 at the back included 2 in treetops preparing to roost, which were joined by 3 others in flight, while the activities of at least 3 in the paddocks including a male chasing a female vocally, and other birds chasing Greenfinches; it seemed they were getting territorial despite the fact it was January! This was certainly one of the best displays we have seen In a fair while, and a joy to observe. Once we had had our fill, we walked back to the car park. We still had some daylight, so we walked to the gravel pits for a look, producing about 50 Tufted Ducks, 3 Great Crested Grebes and a few Gadwall, Mallards, Coots and a Grey Heron, while a Green Woodpecker was also heard at the back. Finishing here, we loaded back up into the van and made our way home, pretty pleased with how the day had panned out. However the excitement wasn’t over, as driving along a quiet lane close to Fakenham, we caught an owl in the headlights of the van, perched prominently on a roadside hedge. Tall, slim, dark with a pale facial disc; it was a Long-eared Owl! What a shock! Unfortunately we saw it too late to stop, and as we slowed, it flew across the front of the van and away into the dark; short but sweet. Continuing, we were soon back at base, after a brilliant day in the brecks.     

 

Saturday 18th January – North-west Norfolk

 

Blue sky and sunshine throughout, light NW winds, cold, 6C 

 

Bouncing from one great Norfolk Tour to another, we commenced this week of birding with a visit to the North-west of the county, where we would combine farmland and coast to provide a nice intro to winter birding in Norfolk. We began with a pause at a couple of local sites on the hunt for Little Owl. Unfortunately the main target wasn’t forthcoming, but a couple of sightings of Bullfinch, Goldcrest and other common bits were appreciated and got us started. From here, we made our way north-west, noting a good number of Common Buzzards on a day which would prove to be very good for these and other soaring raptors. A Red Kite was also picked up, and as we crossed the high road, we began to search for Pink-footed Geese. Our search was somewhat frustrating, with birds noted in various areas in the air, but we weren’t able to pin down any settled despite trying really hard and covering a fair bit of ground. During our explorations we did pause close to Choseley, where a ringtail Hen Harrier was certainly a highlight, seen on two occasions hunting along hedgerows and cover crops. Marsh Harrier was also picked up as well as several Common Buzzards, and no end of Red-legged Partridges. A little way on, our next stop was near Coartyard Farm, where 6 Corn Buntings were a highlight and were noted perched up in an ample hedgerow. In addition to these, it was a pleasure to see goon numbers of Skylarks singing, Linnets, Yellowhammers and a flock of 15 Fieldfares which also contained a Mistle Thrush and Redwing; a fine selection in really nice light. From here, we moved onto Sedgeford, where we would pay the long-staying Eastern Yellow Wagtail a visit. Unfortunately the bird didn’t visit us, as although it had been seen earlier in the day, ourselves and perhaps 20 hopeful twitchers couldn’t relocate it despite thorough searching. A real shame, but undoubtedly a bird we will come back for another go at later in the week. The site did host a good number of Fieldfare and a few yellowhammer were seen whilst we had our lunch and a cuppa. After finishing up, we hit the road and headed for the coast, taking the coast road along to Burnham Overy Marshes.

 

On the road along to Burnham Overy, we could see that the sky was full of Pink-footed Geese, with 3000 or so in chaotic formation. As we arrived at the top of Whincover, a field beside the parking area hosted about 150 Pink-footed Geese; it looked like it was the source of the big flocks, but they had all just flown! A bit of a shame, but the few that were left offered nice views in beautiful light through the hedgerow. Out on Overy Marsh, the reserve was thronging with birds. A Great Egret was working along a distant reedbed, while the floods hosted Golden Plovers, 5 Ruff, about 30 Dunlin, many Lapwing, Curlew and Redshank, and a flock of about 40 Barnacle Geese, similar numbers of Brent Geese and a few Pink-footed Geese; a very fine selection! Some Pink-footed Geese gave nice low fly-overs off the marsh in perfect light, and were enjoyed by all, before we loaded back up into the van and made our way back west, to Titchwell, where we would finish the day. The visit here was absolutely superb, with many highlights. A wintering Woodcock showed beautifully in the wet willow woodland, if you could spot it! A real highlight, and for everyone in the group, the best views of Woodcock they had ever had. Moving through to the main marshes, a drake Goldeneye was on  the Reedbed Pool and a Chiffchaff was noted crossing between willows out in the reeds, while the Freshmarsh hosted a good selection. Pochard and Tufted Duck were amongst the more usual Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal and Wigeon. From the Parrinder Hide a Water Pipit offered really good instructive views on the predator fence island, while Avocet was also noted. Grey Plover were in good number on Volunteer Marsh, along with a few Bar-tailed Godwits, while the Tidal Marsh hosted 2 Spotted Redshank, Ringed Plover, Knot, both Black and Bar-tailed Godwits offering good comparisons, and 7 Pintail, as well as about 10 Avocet in the back corner. We made it to the see just as the sun was sitting on the horizon behind us, and in the low evening light we saw 2 Red-breasted Mergansers, Sanderling and a good number of the usual waders, while a flock of 30 Knot flying low overhead at great speed was superb; hearing their wings rushing through the air so close surprised us all! As the light was fading, we looked forward to returning to the reedbed, where we watched the nightly harrier roost in beautifully calm conditions. The watch was really superb, not just for the swirling Marsh Harriers, but also for a single ringtail Hen Harrier which came in and flew around the reedbed on a couple of occasions, and best of all, a Bittern which flew past the Hen Harrier, giving a prolonged flight view before dropping in; what a thrilling couple of minutes that was! A Barn Owl hunting over Thornham Marsh was as atmospheric as it gets, while a chattering Cetti’s Warbler and Squealing Water Rail finished off a superb visit to Titchwell, and a good day in Norfolk in general.  

 

 

Woodcock and Wildfowl from a glorious Titchwell this evening


 

NORFOLK WINTER WILDFOWL SPECTACULAR 12TH - 16TH JANUARY 2020 [JWM and NP]

 

 

Thursday 16th January – North Coast

Light winds and bright am, windier and overcast pm, SW winds, 8C

 

Our last day of this week’s tour, and its come around fast! Today we focussed on visiting some sites we had yet to get to on the north coast. We began by nipping along to a local site, where we took a look at a Little Owl site. With grey skies and a bit of a breeze, the owls were clearly hunkered down out of sight, with no sign. However a hunting Barn Owl nearby was fine compensation, while Treecreeper and Mistle Thrush were also seen. Once the owl had moved on, we did the same, making our way up to Sheringham, where a walk along the promenade below The Offshore cafe provided us with superb views of a pair of Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences, dodging the waves as the tide came in. Turnstones were in good numbers, while offshore we noted 3 Fulmars, a couple of passing Guillemots and several Red-throated Divers. A nice little stop, we had a cuppa before moving west, following a circuit inland to take in some potential goose sites. A recently harvested beet field near Saxlingham unfortunately held no geese, despite them having been there early on, with just a few small flocks of Pink-footed Geese drifting around further west. Aside from these, a set of pig fields hosted a flock of 40 Ruff amongst the pigs; a nice sighting this far inland, before we headed coastward, to Cley. We made our way along to the beach car park, where a small flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese was building in number, as birds came to bathe having been out in Blakeney harbour. A delight to hear their soft ‘brret’ calls on a cool winters day, and a real icon of our county. A walk along the shingle towards the north screen, the biting wind made birding a bit challenging, but we did note a couple of Stonechat on wires along with Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and Goldfinches, all keeping low and feeding on the weed seeds. A pair of Pintail on North Scrape were also a delight. Back towards the van, a small number of Golden Plover were dropping onto the Eye field, offering nice views, before we headed on. After lunch at the visitor centre, we collected our permits and made our way out onto the reserve proper, walking out to Dauke’s Hide. A Cetti’s Warbler greeted us as we approached with a loud sequence of calls. Out on the scrapes, water levels were unsurprisingly high, and hosted a reasonable number of Teal and Wigeon, along with Shoveler and Gadwall, while a small number of waders included 10 Avocets, a single visible Ruff and one Black-tailed Godwit. Marsh Harrier was also noted, but the highlight came after a short wait, with a small number of Great Black-backed Gulls dropping in to bathe, bringing with them a couple of Herring Gulls and a single Caspian Gull! Even more interesting was the Caspian Gull was ringed and, with a bit of patience, it eventually revealed its plastic darvic ring to be yellow X38C. It became apparent that yellow ‘X’ ringed birds are from East Germany, which is famously an area where birds of mixed genetic make-up originate from. A closer look at our bird does show some slightly out-of-character features, including a rather mucky underwing (we would prefer it to be cleaner on an ‘ideal’ bird), and an apparently heavy-ish bill. Picking apart what may be the result of hybridization, and what is just natural variation is always a difficult job! Later in the evening, we received a response from the ringer, who let us know that the bird was ringed as a Caspian Gull chick in a colony in the Saxony region of East Germany on the 1st June 2019, and this was the first time it had been re-sighted anywhere else; really interesting! Leaving the hide, we headed back to the visitor centre, and with only 30 minutes to play with, we headed back to the beach for a brew, and to enjoy the antics of the Brent Geese, which now numbered about 250 birds; a great way to end a good final day of our tour.

 

 

Purple Sandpiper and Caspian Gull, from Sheringham and Cley

 

Wednesday 15th January – Brecks

Overcast am with drizzle, brightening up to a fine afternoon, light winds, 7C

 

After yesterdays rather taxing weather, we hoped that today would offer something kinder! The Brecks were our destination, and the forecast showed that the first couple of hours of the day would be the least favourable, so we planned our movements as best as possible to fit this, making our way to start with to a firebreak near Cockley Cley, where some woodland birding would be on the agenda. Arriving at the forest, we walked along the ride until we reached a feeding station which has been in place for a couple of years, particularly focused on the very elusive Willow Tit. An incredibly difficult species to see, we weren’t fortunate with a sighting today (though one did call as we arrived). However the feeder was alive with tits, including impressive numbers of Marsh Tits and Coal Tits, while Goldcrest was noted along with Great Spotted Woodpecker and Yellowhammer. Moving on from here, we decided to head around the corner to a site in Swaffham forest, where a 40 minute wander revealed a few bits, including Mistle Thrush in song, 5 Brambling with a flock of Goldfinches, vocal Nuthatches and a single Common Buzzard up in the air. The latter bird was an encouraging sign for what was our next intended target; one of the forests most special raptors. Heading round to our favourite watchpoint, low dark cloud and a cool breeze didn’t encourage optimism for seeing our target, so we intended to put in a bit of time here. However no time was needed, for as soon as we left the van, we picked up an amazing pair of GOSHAWKS over the distant trees! Incredible they were up in this weather; this pair of adult birds gave us a brief show, the male in partial display flight while the female powered over the trees, before both dropped down and weren’t seen again in 30 minutes of watching. Our luck was in! Also here were a couple of Yellowhammers and several Meadow Pipits, but little else in still grey conditions. We were hopeful things would brighten up though, so we headed deeper into the forest, to Santon Downham.

 

At Santon, we had lunch in the car park, before walking to the riverbank. Marsh Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatch were noted as we went, along with a couple of Song Thrushes which have been elusive this week, but there was an obvious lack of both Siskins and Brambling here, at a site usually good for both. Moving around the corner, a walk along one of the more open firebreaks was enjoyed in now lovely winter sunshine. However it cant really be thought of as much more than a nice stroll, as it was rather birdless! We needed to find somewhere with more activity, so we headed to our last site of the day; Lynford Arbouretum. This site is always a treat, and today proved to be no exception, with some brilliant sightings. A female Brambling was feeding in the beech ride with a few Chaffinches, while down at the bridge, the feeders were attracting a mass of tits, a few Chaffinches and another Brambling. However we were keen to continue to the paddocks, where we would search for Hawfinches. We didn’t have to search hard, as a male Hawfinch was feeding on the ground between the two largest Hornbeam trees, keeping company with a flock of around 80 Redwings; a great looking bird! It remained on show for almost the whole time, except on a couple of occasions when a Common Buzzard spooked the feeding flocks and the headed up into the trees. A second bird was heard calling and seen to fly towards zigzag covert, and then a third bird after that, while Siskins flew overhead from feeding to roosting areas, numbering perhaps 100 birds. Walking back to the bridge, a quick look at the distant treetops in zigzag covert revealed a few silhouettes of some bulky looking finches; more Hawfinches gathering at their traditional roost. This warranted a further watch, in-between watching Brambling and Siskins in the nearby alders, and left us with sightings of 6 individual Hawfinches going into roost. Whether these included our original 3 feeding birds is hard to say, but it was a good total all the same. The bridge hosted a Treecreeper along with the feeding frenzy of other birds, while a final surprise came in the form of a roosting Tawny Owl in a traditional treetop; a great way to finish off a super day, and much appreciated by everyone in the group; most people came back for 3rd or 4th looks through the scope! We arrived back at the van as the light faded, and made our way back to Ryburgh, content that, while the day posed challenges in the way of quiet sites and non-ideal weather, we had probably punched our weight as far as quality was concerned.  

 

 

Hawfinch and Tawny Owl from a superb Lynford Arboretum.

 

Tuesday 14th January – East Norfolk

Grey and breezy all day, with showers and strong SW winds pm, 8C

 

With a rather severe weather front sweeping across the country, it was clear that, although Norfolk would be one of the last counties it would reach, we would be seeing some windy and pretty wet conditions today. However logic dictated that, as it was coming from the west, we should head east! This worked well, with the worsening weather didn’t affect us until later on, by which time we were well on our way to a great days birding. We started by heading towards Great Yarmouth, where Breydon Water just before high tide would provide our entertainment. Crossing the county, we arrived at about 09:40, and parked up at the glamorous location of Asda carpark! Any uncertain looks of concern by our group were soon allayed as we walked up onto the bank and walked around to be greeted by a real wildfowl and wader spectacle. The water was awash with perhaps 6000 Wigeon, over 1000 Teal and smaller numbers of Shoveler and Mallard, plus 9 Pintail to add to the variety. As for the mud, most impressive were over 1000 Black-tailed Godwits, 1000 Golden Plover, 200 Dunlin and lesser numbers of Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Grey Plover. The spectacle was ensured by the presence of a Peregrine which, while it never came close, made sure the flocks were nervy and, when spooked, took flight in spectacular formation. These numbers are difficult to convey in words and, while ‘our counts’ were quick and certainly not very accurate, we know that some of these species are present here in nationally or internationally important densities; such an important place in the UK. Marsh Harrier was also noted, while Rock Pipits were in the Saltmarsh, before we headed back to the van. From here, we drove out to the Acle straight, heading towards Cantley via Haddiscoe. An interesting pause was provided by a single long-staying CATTLE EGRET along in a roadside field which offered really good views from the van. Moving on, we drove the short distance to Cantley Marshes. Famous as the stronghold of Norfolk’s Taiga Bean Goose population, these marshes had reportedly not produced any positive sightings of this elusive goose in two days, and with numbers being extremely low, we knew our chances weren’t high, but we gave it a punt all the same. After having a scan of likely parts of the marsh from high ground, we moved down onto the main track through the habitat, and enjoyed close views of 4 Russian White-fronted Geese and 3 Pink-footed Geese, amongst the Canadas. Also here were a superb female Peregrine on a gate post, with a pale morph Common Buzzard nearby, but little else of note, and a remarkable absence of wild geese, which seemed unusual for the time of year! Cutting our losses, our next move was to head north, driving up to Ranworth, where a Ferruginous Duck had taken up residence. Parking opposite Malthouse Broad, we had a good scan of the water, noting 2 male Goldeneye along with Tufted Ducks, before walking around towards Ranworth Broad visitor centre. The walk out produced Marsh Tits and a Brambling in the Alder Carr woodland, plus a calling Siskin, while the water hosted a nice flock of several 100 Wigeon and numerous Tufted Ducks. However despite watching the Ferruginous Ducks known favoured channels, there was no sign of it, and after a patient watch, we had to turn round, with the weather looking like it might turn for the worse. The walk back to the van provided better views of Marsh Tit, and while eating sandwiches, a male Goosander appeared around the bend of the broad, though sadly swam out of view before everyone could see it; luck wasn’t on our side so far! The weather forecast wasn’t good for the rest of the day, but we were keen to make as much of it as possible! So we packed up into the van and head on in search of some of our most-wanted targets.

 

Our first mission was to check some of the farmland around Billockby and Clippesby; traditional haunts for cranes in the winter. A flock had been present north of the Acle Bridge, and was our first port of call, and proved to be the only one we need ed to make! A fabulous flock of 20 Common Cranes were feeding in a harvested maize field, and by viewing in the shelter of a tin barn, we were able to watch these majestic birds at unusually close range; a real treat. Including a couple of family groups, these birds allowed us to fill our boots, before we left them to it and headed on. Our next hope was to find ourselves some wild swans; an important feature of any visit to east Norfolk. Our first port of call again proved productive, with Ludham Airfield producing the goods. A flock of mixed swans presented themselves and allowed close viewing from the van; a mix of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans totalling 95 birds. From this close position, the birds were too nervous for us to exit the van, so we moved around to a more distant location, and managed to count at least 45 Bewick’s Swans within the flock, but it wasn’t possible to count the rest due to an undulation in the ground. Either way, impressive numbers, and good to see plenty of young individual. Time had caught up with us by now, with very little light left to play with. The weather were poor now, and we had decided already that Stubb Mill wouldn’t be pleasant this evening in now gale-force gusting winds, so we drove up to Horsey, had a cuppa overlooking the darkening, windswept marshes, and then made our ways homeward.

 

 

Common Cranes and Whooper Swans from a wet and windy East Norfolk day

 

Monday 13th January – North Coast

Calm and sunny am, light winds. PM weather front brought overcast skies and strong SW winds, 8C

 

A superb day spent on the north coast, taking in the best of the broad expanse of habitat between  Burnham Overy Marsh, Holkham, Wells and through to Stiffkey; one of our greatest stretches of unbroken freshmarsh in the UK, and also part of our superb saltmarsh habitat. The quality of the area was clear to see with some of the brilliant species we encountered through the day a real indication of how important our coastline is to some of the UKs scarcest wintering birds. We began the day leaving the Blue Boar and stopping around the corner at the Great Ryburgh scrape, where a scan revealed a group of 14 overwintering Russian White-fronted Geese; a group which has been present since Christmas, and offers nice views. Interest was also provided by the field behind us, planted this summer by the farmer with a variety of seeding crops, which in turn had attracted impressive number of birds. A flock of Linnets here was several hundred string, and also hosted dozens of Yellowhammers, a single male Brambling and plenty of Reed Buntings, Chaffinches and Goldfinches; a real treat, and in fantastic sunshine. From here, we drove to the coast, noting a couple of Red Kites on route to Wells town, where we paused to overlook the freshmarsh just to the west of the town itself. A juvenile ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD has made this location its winter home, and on our arrival the bird was on show, on the ground in short grass, feasting on some unknown large prey item. Stood tall, the bird showed its superb blonde head and neck, marked coarsely by heavy chocolate brown ‘droplet-like’ streaks down the front. The dark mantle was marked by heavy pale spotting, and the dark belly made this bird, in combination, a real classic. The location also yielded a single fly-over Peregrine Falcon, Kestrel and Common Buzzard, and a nice roost of Lapwing, Curlew and commoner gulls, plus a bonus Red Fox which crossed the fields. A single Grey Partridge was also seen near the buzzard, before we moved along closer towards town, stopping for more, closer views of the Rough-legged Buzzard from Freeman’s Street Carpark; what a cracker! A Grey Wagtail on the car park was an added bonus, before we made our way west to Holkham, where we made our way along Lady Anne’s Drive, pausing to enjoy a few close Brent and Pink-footed Geese, before parking at the end. A cuppa was well appreciated here, while we enjoyed watching over the expansive freshmarsh, which was alive with flights of 100’s of Wigeon and 1000’s of Pink-footed Geese, frequently disturbed by Marsh Harriers and Red Kites. Finishing up, we headed out onto Holkham Gap, where we would be on the look-out for Shorelark and Snow Buntings. We headed east to start with, noting Skylarks and Meadow Pipits as we went, along with some mobile Linnets. Reaching the cordon at the west end, a delicate ‘eehp’ call caught our attention, and five sandy brown larks flew up from the cordon and flew low across the marsh; the SHORELARKS! Unfortunately they weren’t showing any sign of stopping, and laded somewhere near the gap. We weren’t in a position to go directly towards them, so we headed for the dunes, where a look at the sea proved productive, with a flock of perhaps 2000 Common Scoter hosting 3 Velvet Scoters amongst them, including a splendid adult male, while 3 Long-tailed Ducks were also close in, and a real added bonus. Also present were 2 passing Red-throated Divers, a small number of Great-crested Grebes, a good flock of Wigeon and a drake Pintail which came to join them. Whilst here a flock of 40 Snow Buntings flew over but didn’t land nearby, so we walked west, fortunately picking up the 5 SHORELARKS at the end of the dunes! Great but brief views on the deck here were enjoyed, before some of the group crossed the channel (which was a bit deeper than anticipated) and the rest of us turned back, due to inadequate footwear! This proved to be good for both parties, as we each enjoyed superb views of the 40 Snow Buntings on the deck, 2 Peregrine Falcons over the pines and also struck lucky with a fantastic hunting SHORT-EARED OWL hunting at the far end of the dunes; always a real treat! A party of Rock Pipits showed nicely in the saltmarsh vegetation before we headed back to the van, ready for lunch.

 

After vanishing our sandwiches and making use of the facilities at the lookout, we then made our next move, heading to Burnham Overy marsh. The predicted afternoon weather-front had moved in, leaving us with a stiff wind and overcast skies, making our viewpoint overlooking Burnham Overy Dunes feel rather exposed! However is was nonetheless productive, providing us with a sighting of 8 CATTLE EGRETS and a single reedbed-patrolling Great Egret out on the marshes. In addition, a spectacular flock of many hundreds of Golden Plover wheeling with Lapwing and Dunlin, flushed by a Marsh Harrier, were superb to watch. A small group of distant Barnacle Geese were mobbed by 2 Red Kites and a Marsh Harrier, while Pink-footed Geese were rarely not on view; such a feature of the coast at this time of the year. The weather moved us along a bit sooner than we would have like, but it did mean we had time to visit Holkham Park, where a look at the lake proved us with some more top quality birds. Parking near the hall, we walked down, noting some beautiful, but undoubtedly feral Barnacle Geese on the lawn, as well as enjoying the Fallow Deer herd. On the lake itself, a fine assortment of wildfowl included several Pochard, many Tufted Ducks, Gadwall and Shoveler. However the star of the show was a confiding, long-staying BLACK-NECKED GREBE which, having initially been along the far shore, made its way towards us and ended up fishing right below the near bank! An uncommon winter bird in Norfolk, so a real brucie bonus. On filling our boots with this superb bird, we made our move for our last location of the day; Stiffkey marshes. We drove east and parked in the Stiffkey Campsite carpark, and soon made our way along the track a short way, as the blustery wind was making viewing somewhat uncomfortable from the carpark. On finding shelter, we enjoyed a trickle of Marsh Harrier, numbering around 10 birds, moving to roost, while a ringtail Marsh Harrier proved a bit too distant to get onto well for most. A male Hen Harrier then showed in front of East Hills, but soon hit the deck, and a male Merlin dashed through like lightning, but sharply landed with prey near the Binks and mostly out of view; we weren’t getting much luck with good sightings! However Colin saved us at the death, picking up 2 ringtail Hen Harriers floating around the eastern end of East Hills, coming closer and staying in the air for an extended time, allowing everyone nice scope views. Combined with a huge skein of possibly 6000 Pink-footed Geese headed for the far sandbanks to roost in classic ragged lines, and we enjoyed a decent, if decidedly cold watch! We finished up with a cuppa, before headed back to base.

 

 

Some of todays highlights; Black-necked Grebe and Shorelark

 

Sunday 12th January – North-west Norfolk

Overcast am, improving to blue skies by evening, dry, moderate SW winds, 12C

 

Day one of our first Norfolk tour of the new decade, and we would say that it was a pretty decent day to bring in a new year of Norfolk tours! Our day was spent up west, and the morning was spent enjoying some fantastic flocks of Pink-footed Geese; exactly what we enjoy doing most! Our first port of call were the lanes close to Fring, where we found our first large flock of Pink-footed Geese. Close to the road, we were able to observe them from the van, and quickly picked up a single Tundra Bean Goose; a great start! Everyone managed to see it, but we were keen to try to observe outside the vehicle, so we moved down the road to the field corner, where we  were able to watch without disturbing the birds. After a short while enjoying the antics of the pinks, Diana picked up a Tundra Bean Goose right at the front of the flock! Great views were had of this juvenile bird, which differed from the first bird which was an adult. Not far away from here, a couple of impressive coveys of Grey Partridges featured a total of 27 birds; good numbers on all accounts! Moving on, we took the Sedgeford to Ringstead road, where we paid a visit to Norfolk’s biggest rarity-in-residence at the moment; the long-staying EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL. And what a performer it proved, showing in a field corner for prolonged spells, and allowing very good views! A male bird, possibly in an advanced 1st winter plumage, it was an absolute cracker. Superficially resembling a ‘Blue-headed’ Yellow Wagtail, it differed by possessing distinctly dark lores and eye-surround, and also a diagnostic sweet but buzzy call, one we were fortunate to hear. The field also hosted a good flock of Fieldfare, while a Pink-footed Flock in a neighbouring field hosted 3 more Tundra Bean Geese at the front edge, providing fantastic views again, and a pair of Barnacle Geese at the back; today was proving to be very productive! From here, we made our way along the Ringstead-Burnham Market road, pausing along some traditionally productive sites for farmland bird, and noting a mobile flock of 12 Corn buntings which unfortunately only offered themselves up in flight, and a decent number of Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings. From here we passed Choseley Farm, and stopped to scan another Pink-footed Goose flock; we just cant resist! This one hosted a couple of Greylag Geese but little else, so we continued on our way, heading to Thornham, where we would have lunch.

 

Arriving at Thornham Quay, we had our sandwiches overlooking the beautiful marshes, host to Curlews, Lapwings, a Marsh Harrier and distant Grey Plovers towards Holme. Finishing our food, we wandered over the sluice, and soon found our main target; a flock of 10 Twite. Typically flighty, they crossed the creek, and in strong winds, viewing was a bit tricky, so we rounded the bank to view them with our backs to the wind. This provided us with some really nice views of the settled flock, taking the subtleties of their peachy-washed faces, earthy tones and pink rumps. After a while they flew over to the coal barn, so we walked back towards the van. A check of the main channel revealed Redshank and Teal, before we loaded up into the van and headed for our last destination of the day; Titchwell RSPB. Parking up, we walked out around the visitor centre, enjoying a showy Water Rail in the usual channel as we went. Out on the freshmarsh, a very high water level meant that wildfowl were the main interest, with a range of the usual commoner species present. The tidal marshes hosted a nice pair of Spotted Redshank in their crisp winter plumage, while Avocet, Grey Plover, a roosting flock of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot were all gathered in preparation for the high tide, while 3 Pintail were on the water. A quick look at the sea revealed a pair of Goldeneye and a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers, but not very much else, and with the sun nearly ready to set, we were keen to walk back towards the Freshmarsh, where the nightly raptor roost will be underway. A Barn Owl was hunting by Thornham Marsh, making it 3 birds today, while over the back of the reedbed, a 30 minute watch produced a steady arrival of Marsh Harriers, with at least 30 noted at one time, and probably considerably more actually making it into roost; an enjoyable sight! At least 20 Little Egrets were also seen entering their roost, and Cetti’s Warbler gave a loud burst of song, seeing out the last of the light and signalling our time to head back to the van, and then onwards to Ryburgh.

 

 

A superb day in North Norfolk, with Tundra Bean Goose and Eastern Yellow Wagtail two of the top highlights

 


NORFOLK CUSTOM TOUR 16TH-17TH DECEMBER 2019 (AJS)

 

TUESDAY 17TH DECEMBER - Fog and rain clearing later, 7C

 

A miserable days weather which did gradually improve later on, meant pretty tough conditions for birding compared to yesterday. We headed out in rain and fog, which isn’t a great combination, and this persisted as we drove some of the back lanes around Burnham Market and Docking looking for geese. We saw a few bedraggled Pinks in potato fields around Beacon Hill, but conditions didn’t really permit viewing! We continued instead to Thornham, for a quick check of the harbour (unsuccessfully) for Twite, before reaching Titchwell. After a soggy walk round the Meadow Trail, things finally began to perk up and we started to actually see some birds! A Water Pipit flew up calling from the reeds as we approached Island Hide, and actually landed on top of the hide long enough for a good scope view before it dropped in. The freshmarsh was full of water, but also thronged with wildfowl, especially Teal, but we would return here later on. First we wanted to head to the beach and catch the ebbing tide, though we enjoyed perhaps our best birding of the day at tidal pool. Two Spotted Redshanks were here, among a scattering of Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and two roosting Greenshanks. A superb drake Goldeneye surfaced while we were watching the waders, and we were able to get Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits in the same view for a great comparison. With the tide still quite high, lots of shorebirds had come off the beach to roost here too and there were several hundred Knot and a few Turnstone huddled on the main spit. Among the ducks on the water, were several fine drake Pintails and a lovely female Red-breasted Merganser, which came in really close to the west bank path. The beach itself was quieter, as the fog was lingering over the sea and preventing us seeing far enough out to pick much up. A few Great Crested Grebes were about the best of it here.

 

Heading back to Parrinder Hide, we had some more great views of Knot on the brackish marsh, and then from the hide were able to count a whopping 850 Teal on the freshmarsh. They were making the most of the calm conditions, with the drakes in full display to the seemingly uninterested females, their tooting whistles ringing out through the mist giving a classic winter scene. There were a few Gadwall and Shoveler too, but the only waders were a few Golden Plover overhead, trying to pick out somewhere to land. A Water Pipit showed really well along the edge of the pool left of the hide, and was then joined by a vocal second bird. Back along the west bank path, we finished off here with close views of two Water Rails, feeding in the overgrown ditch by the path near the feeders. After lunch, we headed back to Thornham again to try again for the Twite which we’d missed earlier. We found them immediately this time, feeding quietly in the sea lavender by the main channel near the coal barn. We watched them fly up and drink from the guttering on the barn, before dropping back in to feed again right in front of us. We could count ten today, several of which were colour-ringed.

 

 

Now the afternoon was wearing on, and with such a dreary day, we knew the light would go early. We scooted back along the coast road to Holkham, to try and catch a glimpse of the White-fronted Geese out on the grazing marsh from the road. We couldn’t make them out in the gloom though, so continued on to the edge of Wells to check if the Rough-legged Buzzard was showing a bit better today. We could actually see it perched on a bush as we pulled up! The scope views were superb, and we could see all the lovely tear drop dark markings on its blonde neck and breast, its dinky bill and then as it flew across the field for us, its pale tail base and primary patches. We had two excellent flight views of the bird, so a big improvement on yesterday. We ended our day down on Stiffkey saltmarsh, again to try and improve on views of a species we’d not seen that well yesterday. To do this, we took a walk out part way across the saltmarsh from the campsite car park in the hope with connecting with a Hen Harrier or Merlin. The visibility was poor, so we knew this would give us the best possible chance. It was gloomy out here, but there was hardly a breath of wind so it wasn’t cold. Sure enough, a ringtail Hen Harrier did appear over the dunes and we had some decent scope views as it headed off towards East Hills. The sight and sound of around 2000 Pink-footed Geese ‘whiffling’ down onto the sand bars off the binks to roost as dusk approached was a welcome one indeed, and rounded off a productive two days winter birding.

 

MONDAY 16TH DECEMBER - Calm and mild with hazy sunshine, 7C

 

The first of two custom day tours in Norfolk today saw a calm and fairly mild day under a watery winter sun and some really excellent birding. We started with a bang as we headed north along the B1105 towards Wells, as after several Common Buzzard and Red Kite sightings, another large raptor loomed into view to our right and was clearly making its way to cross the road in front of us on slow, powerful wingbeats. As it crossed our path, we could see it was in fact a Goshawk – still a rare sighting in this part of Norfolk, despite the population increase in the Brecks. This was in fact our first ever ‘coastal’ Goshawk on a tour, and we were pleased that despite not being able to stop on this dangerous stretch of road, we could see the bird pretty well as it glided steadily off to the right across the fields. Reaching Wells, we took a quick look down at North Point, where there was a small selection of wildfowl and a couple of Water Pipits flying about calling, though they wouldn’t settle. Just west of the town, the regular juv Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on a bush and sat still for the whole half hour we were watching – a lovely bird with dark tar-brown belly patch and blonde head and breast. There were several Common Buzzards in the same fields for comparison, a superb male Marsh Harrier and a small flight of Golden Plover which dropped in to join a throng of Lapwing on the flooded fields. Leaving the ‘Rough-leg’, we reached Lady Anne’s Drive, where Pink-footed Geese were the order of the day. A good sized flock was grazing west of the drive, and so we stopped to scope through them just in case. There were impressive numbers of Wigeon here too, with seemingly the entire Holkham flock strewn across the grass feeding busily. During our tea break, two swans were picked up heading west towards us over the grazing marsh – they looked quite compact with a relatively short, thick neck, so we were anticipating Bewick’s Swans. Thankfully they flew right over and we got some nice profile views, showing their mainly black bills and restricted circular yellow patch at the base – always a bonus to see this species away from East or South-west corners of the county.

 

 

Heading out into the bay, our next quest would be the small wintering flock of Shorelark. We decided to head east to their favoured area, despite recent reports from the west side. A superb flock of around 70 Snow Buntings were in the cordoned section of the saltmarsh, and we had really good views of them dancing around and feeding in a tightly packed, buzzing flock. We then noticed the Shorelarks, actually closer to us but much more hidden in among the Sea Lavendar. We manoeuvred closer, getting some really lovely scope views with the sun behind us – always a real winter warmer! On to the shore next, and even as we were setting up our scopes we could see the huge raft of Common Scoter were unsettled and flying around. There must be at least 2000 birds here currently, and we managed to pick a few Velvet Scoter out during their regular flights. Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested Grebe and Red-throated Diver were also seen, plus two fine Long-tailed Ducks close inshore. A sleeping grebe caught our attention, looking ‘dusky’ and pretty compact. We though it must be a Red-necked Grebe, and sure enough it awoke to reveal and short, stocky neck with dusky breastband, broad dark stripe up the hindneck and thick, yellow-based bill. After this good haul from the sea, we returned in a circular route back around the sand dunes, stumbling on the five Shorelark again which flew in calling and landing on the beach in front of us. Lovely!

 

After lunch back at Lady Anne’s, we drove round to Burnham Overy Staithe and parked at the harbour. The walk out along the seawall was superb, with a vast quantity of birds to be seen on the newly created wetland habitats on the Holkham NNR. It was literally thronged with wildfowl – huge flocks of Pink-footed and Brent Geese, and waders – Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit and Golden Plover in particular. We saw Grey Plover in the harbour too, and a single Cattle Egret was in the bull field by Whincover. Scoping over the grazing marsh, we just marvelled at the swirling flocks of birds. A Great White Egret lumbered along through a skein of Pink-feet, with another standing sentinel along a channel. Bearded Tits also put in a surprise appearance, with great views of a small party feeding by the main pool in the reeds. We don’t often see them during this mid-winter period, as they are so much more unobtrusive and often feeding low down out of sight in the reeds. Finally, a stunning Short-eared Owl floated right past in front of us over the reedbed, and off along the seawall. We eventually saw it again walking back, heading across the harbour and back out to the dunes. Two Hen Harriers, a ringtail and grey male, distantly from Wells Harbour at dusk rounded off a really excellent winter’s day.

 

 


 

THE GAMBIA - BIRDING ON THE SMILING COAST 15th - 22nd November 2019 [Jason Moss and Ebrima Njie]

 

Friday 22nd November – Senegambia Hotel Checkout, flight home

Sunny all day, light winds, 30C

 

Today was one of the most chilled-out travel days we have experienced on an Oriole Birding holiday! It was spent in the grounds of the Senegambia Hotel on the most part, as our transfer bus to the airport would collect us at 14:00, giving time for breakfast, a bit of hotel birding, a walk up the strip for souvenir shopping, lunch by the pool (in the company of pool-side Cattle Egrets!) and packing. Birding the grounds produced some great birds, including the usual Green Wood-hoopoes, White-crowned Robin Chats, Red-billed Hornbills, Broad-billed Rollers, Piapiaks, Bronze Manakins, Red-billed Firefinches, Beautiful Sunbirds, various glossy starlings and particularly good sightings of Oriole Warbler, Bearded Barbet, 2 adult Levaillant’s Cuckoos, Senegal Parrots, Grey Kestrel, Yellow-crowned Gonoleks, an African Grey Woodpecker and an adult Shikra. A great haul, showing why we love this place! Once the transfer bus arrived, we loaded up, made our way to Banjul International and headed through check-in and security, before boarding our on-time flight, arriving in London Gatwick at just before midnight, and saying farewell to our great tour participants. We look forward to returning here in 2020 with 2 tours of the region.

 

Thursday 21st November – Kartong Bird Observatory and Stala Lodge

Sunny all day, hot and humid, light winds, 31C

 

An early start and packed breakfast got us underway for our final full day here in The Gambia (where has this week gone?!), setting off at 6am in the dark, to arrive in Kartong for sunrise. The weary journey was well worth it as we were greeted by Colin Cross at the Kartong Bird Observatory. We were welcomed with coffee and tea, taking it up to the observation tower to overlook the nearby marshes, where some good birds were enjoyed over breakfast. A family of Black Crakes were a highlight, featuring 3 juveniles with 2 adults, while a showy African Swamphen, Woodland Kingfisher, Bearded Barbet, a close flyby by a Grey Kestrel, juvenile African Harrier Hawk, several Striated Herons, good numbers of White-faced Whistling Ducks, a flock of about 15 African Spoonbills, Sacred Ibis, Western Reef and Black-headed Heron and various other wetland species were seen. Finishing up, we drove up to the mound and walked from there, covering a mixture of routes past lagoons, through grassland and into thorny scrub, starting a bit slowly but ending up picking up some really nice species. The lagoons revealed a few Common Snipe (but no hoped-fore Painted Snipe sadly, despite having a scoot round some suitable sites in search for them), and more Striated Herons, while the scrub was steady with commoner estrildid finches. Things livened up at a small watering hole, where the water and surrounding area was attracting some good birds. A family group of Pin-tailed Whydahs were here, the male in great nick with its long tail streamers and pied plumage. Also visiting the pool was a single female Bush Petronia (now called Sahel Bush Sparrow), coming to drink; a subtle little species. Close by produced a good view of Grey-headed Kingfisher and also a juvenile Levaillant’s Cuckoo, plus several Subalpine Warblers and a Reed Warbler, and one of several flyby Namaqua Doves which we would encounter today. A little further on, we came across the Karton BO ringing team, staying here for a few of weeks to conduct the observatories important fieldwork. They had a Grey-backed Camaroptera to show us, and as we waited chatting about their fascinating research projects into the migration of Common Nightingale, more came. These included a treat in the form of a Quailfinch; not an easy bird to find here so a real bonus! They also showed us a lovely Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird in the hand before release, before we continued on our way, walking through to the coast. A Eurasian Griffon Vulture circling with Hooded Vultures was a highlight, while a singing Black-crowned Tchagra showed well, though Yellow-crowned Gonoleks in similarly good voice failed to oblige as well! Senegal Thick-knees were common in the mangrove-lined creeks and a Ruff was also noted. Reaching the beach, waders included several Eurasian Oystercatchers as well as Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits, Turnstones, Grey Plover, Whimbrel and many Sanderling. However, the main attraction was a small mixed party of both White-fronted Plovers and Kentish Plovers; the former being a real treat, and both groups hosting at least one fine male amongst them (the female-types are pretty tricky to identify at the best of times, even without heat haze and 30-degree heat!). By now it was getting pretty hot, so we made our way back to the van (stopping to enjoy the antics of a Hooded Vulture hunting West African Fiddler Crabs on the mud!), and setting off to our lunch stop at Stala.

 

 

Quailfinch and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird

 

Reaching Stala Lodge, this quiet wooded location bordering the Alahen River (The Gambia’s southern border with Sengal) and surrounded by mangroves, this was an idyllic spot to have lunch. Striated Herons were noted along the far shore and a single Mouse-brown Sunbird was noted in the trees nearby. After lunch we enjoyed a boat trip, boarding a traditional West African Pirogue (a carved-out wooden boat traditionally used for fishing) and setting off south towards the river mouth, with hope of locating a couple of main target species; African Fish Eagle and Goliath Heron. Sadly our luck wasn’t in for the latter species, perhaps due to a high tide covering most muddy areas lining the mangrove creeks. However, we did strike gold with a superb African Fish Eagle; a regal adult with beautiful black, white and rusty plumage, sitting majestically beside the river and giving a brief flight (crossing to Senegal) before perching again. This wasn’t the only good bird noted on the trip though, with a White-throated Bee Eater being the highlight for some of us; its peppermint facial pattern being really distinctive and a new species for those of us who had previously visited Africa. A couple of high-flying Mosque Swallows were also new for the trip, while Blue-cheeked Bee Eaters, Giant Kingfisher, about 10 Ospreys (making 16 total across Kartong; an outrageous figure!) and a male Marsh Harrier also noted during the cruise. This is not forgetting the fantastic roost of gulls and terns on the small sand bars as we left Stala, giving us beautiful water-level views of many Caspian, Royal, Sandwich and Common Terns and Grey-hooded and Slender-billed Gulls, plus a flock of Pink-backed Pelicans ad a single Great White Pelican in flight (our first of the tour). Finishing the trip, we returned to the Stala Lodge, disembarked and, before heading for home, enjoyed great views of a family of 5 Mouse-brown Sunbirds and a Little Weaver feeding young, as well as a couple of Beautiful Sunbirds and a Splendid Sunbird buzzing around. The drive home included a couple of Greenshank and a Wood Sandpiper on mudflats, and a Senegal Coucal on the roadside, before we took our last evening at the Senegambia Hotel, saying farewell to our fantastic guide and driver, Ebrima and Abdul, before meeting for dinner and retiring to bed. 

 

 

Royal Tern and African FIsh Eagle

 

Wednesday 20th November – Marakissa region and Koto Bridge

Sunny with scattered cloud,  humid, light winds, 31C

 

Another scorching day (same as everyday really!) but another good one, with several new top-quality species for our trip, though perhaps quieter than the previous day, if only by a small margin. We started as usual by meeting Ebrima and Abdul outside the hotel, setting off today for the mixed grasslands and wetlands of Marakissa, about 40-minutes drive from base. We stopped on the way in a couple of locations close to Manduar and Dimbaya, with scrubby grassland producing our fist Collared Sunbird and 2 Northern Black Flycatcher of the tour, the latter being particularly showy. A Pallid Swift was also new, sharing airspace with 2 Little Swifts, 2 Mottled Spinetails and a number of Palm Swifts. A Black-crowned Tchagra was good to see well after a difficult-to-see bird earlier in the week, while Black-winged Bishop, Variable Sunbird, Double-spurred Francolin and a singing but not showing Red-winged Warbler were also noted. Moving on, we reached the large pools at the edge of Marakissa Eco-lodge. Disembarking the vehicle, the wetlands produced a stunning adult African Darter, an elusive Black Crake which only a couple of the group saw, a fly-over Tawny Eagle, Intermediate Egret, several Hamerkop, Intermediate Egret,  several Striated Herons, a family party of White-faced Whistling Ducks, African Jacanas and an immature Dark-chanting Goshawk; a great haul! From here we walked the short distance to the Marakissa lodge, where we spent the hot middle part of the day wandering the river-side lodges grounds and keeping an eye on the drinking pools. These were quiet with only Long-tailed Glossy Starlings, Western Grey Plantain-eaters, Piapiacs and some Purple Glossy Starlings visiting. The riverside was great value however, with a pair of Giant Kingfishers, Malachite Kingfisher, a Bedouin’s Snake Eagle sitting in the wind (a great addition to the trip list!), a distant Grey Kestrel and Western Crocodiles and Yellow-billed Kites fighting for scraps from the kitchen being thrown into the river! Before lunch we took a walk upriver, which produced what would have been the highlight of the visit if everyone had seen them, and those that had had seen them better, but a sighting of the near-mythical Shining Blue Kingfisher is better than no sighting! The two birds flew into low mangrove, entering in typical fashion (low and entering the vegetation deep), completely out of view. About 10 minutes later the two kingfishers shot down-river like lightning, lost from view and only giving this briefest of encounters. The riverbank was alive with Senegal Thick-knees as we walked back, ready for lunch.

 

 

African Darter and Northern Black Flycatcher

 

After eating a nice home-cooked traditional lunch, we watched the Giant Kingfishers for a short while more, enjoying their sunbathing and ‘anting’ antics on the ground, before loading up the vehicle and heading up the road. A stop by the lagoons produced the Black Crake again, and also a flyover Wahlberg’s Eagle, before we continued on to a large are of wetland habitat. Here provided us with a few raptors, Lanner Falcon, a single Western Banded Snake Eagle (another new raptor of a great day for this group) and 2 African Harrier Hawks. Additionally, we saw a Palm Nut Vulture, Giant Kingfisher and, best of all, 3 Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on cattle by the van! Brilliant birds which we enjoyed scope views of before they flew. From here we headed homewards, dropping off at the Senagambia Beach Hotel for a few who fancied a bit of chill-time, while the rest of us spent the last bit of the evening at the Kotu Bridge, enjoying Giant Kingfisher (a good day for this species), 2 Malachite Kingfishers, a brief Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Western Reef Heron, many Senegal Thick-knees, Wood Sandpiper, Grey Plover, a number of Broad-billed Rollers high overhead, a Splendid Sunbird and a single elusive Reed Warbler. With light fading, it was time to head back to the hotel, after yet another superb day’s birding in The Gambia. 

 

 

Giant Kingfisher and Beautiful Sunbird

 

Tuesday 19th November – Brufut and Kotu Cycle Track

Sunny with scattered cloud,  humid, light winds, 31C

 

Another scorcher in The Gambia, but yet again another day filled with brilliant birds. We started by heading to Brufut Forest, but actually began the productive day by walking some mixed areas of rough ground, grassland and scattered mature trees including Baobab; an area in the process of being developed sadly, but still a very productive mixed habitat. The highlight was probably a couple of very showy Yellow-throated Leaf-loves which after initially playing hard-to-get, showed beautifully. Another highlight was a pair of stonking Bearded Barbets which gave themselves up fabulously. Shikra and Lizard Buzzard were noted soaring, as was a Grey Kestrel and several Little Swifts. A Blue-breasted Kingfisher was a great bird but difficult to get onto properly, unlike a Pygmy Kingfisher which was oddly feeding amongst a crop field! Our first Little Weaver of the trip was picked up here also, while Purple, Bronze-tailed and Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starlings were all watched in the same tree; a handy comparison of these sometimes tricky to identify birds. Senegal Parrots were common with at least 15 seen and 2 Black-shouldered Kites were perched in a distant tree, while a flock of 20 Wattled Plover were also noted in a weedy field, along with 2 Double-spurred Francolins. Leaving this area, we headed over to Brufut Forest reserve, noting Melodious Warbler and Western Olivaceous Warbler on the way.

 

At the entrance to the reserve, a nice setup involved a combination of drinking pool for avian bathing and refreshments, and also benches and a small kiosk selling birdwatcher refreshments also! A cold drink much appreciated by all. The drinking pools were action-filled, with both a Green Turaco and Violet Turaco showing up above the station, but sadly not coming in to drink. Other brilliant birds noted in a couple of sessions here included a male Greater Honeyguide which had a drink, a Grey-headed Kingfisher expertly picked out by Chris while he was pointing out a Fanti Sawwing in the same tree, a Pygmy Kingfisher, both Black-necked and Vitelline Masked Weavers and a female Splendid Sunbird. All this amongst a great array of various estrildid finches, Village Weavers, both species of Babbler and much more. Dragging ourselves away, one of the park staff had something special to show us; a pair of day-roosting Long-tailed Nightjars which had been found in thick cover, and allowed us all a look; fantastic birds! On the walk there we enjoyed sightings of Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and Yellow-breasted Apalis, all this taking us well on towards lunchtime! However another short stop was in store, for a Pearl-spotted Owlet which was found by another group roosting in an acacia tree, and was a real treat to see! From here we headed to the nearby Tanji Forest Reserve, where we had lunch again at the superb Haddie’s.

 

 

Bearded Barbets and Long-tailed Nightjar

 

Driving along the track to Haddie’s, we stopped to watch a party of 5 Stone Partridges walking down the track ahead of us; a species not often seen this well! Parking up and walking to the dining area, the bird drinking pools here were again alive with weavers and finches. Before we tucked into our delicious lunch, we enjoyed another skulking Green Turaco working its was through the vegetation but again sadly not coming to drink (they really are shy), and a single Garden Warbler which was new for the trip, as well as an Oriole Warbler, African Thrushes and various other more typical species. Nearby, a Green-backed Camaroptera was found skulking amongst the ornamental vegetation, and showed nicely eventually. Also, a couple of Common Wattle-eyes were visiting another small pool nearby; all great birds to see, and a superb accompaniment to a superb lunch! Leaving here, we made to spend the rest of the afternoon Back at Kotu, walking the famous Cycle Track. The track passes through a nice area of marshland with small-scale rice paddies, and large stands of rhum and oil palm trees, and produced a good diversity of birds. Purple Heron was noted along with the usual Western Reef Herons and Cattle Egrets. A huge highlight here was a Palm-nut Vulture which put on an outrageous show, coming down presumably to drink and then flying up into the palms, at one point flying within 30 meters of us! Truly spectacular, as it was mobbed by the many Yellow-billed Kites. The cycle track pool yielded a single Hadada Ibis sat up in a eucalyptus tree, as well as a roost of around 40 Cattle Egrets and a single Common Moorhen. Back onto the track, a Woodland Kingfisher was picked up out in the marshy scrub, and another Pearl-spotted Owlet was also found and kindly shown to us by other birders in the area. The trail here finished at the Kotu Bridge, where 30 minutes of watching gave one of the days highlights; a Black Egret in full fishing swing, performing its wonderful umbrella-fishing strategy at full pelt; much to the delight of many of us who had hoped to see this in the flesh. A real trip highlight. Also here were Malachite Kingfisher, a single Blue-breasted Kingfisher and many Pied Kingfishers, 2 Little Ringed Plovers, Greenshank, Grey Plover, plenty of Spur-winged Lapwings and a couple of Wattled Lapwings and, as we went back to the van, a male Northern Puffback, giving our best views yet. A great way to end the day, heading back to the Senegambia Hotel after a quality-packed days birding.

 

  

 

 

 

Monday  18th November – Pirang shrimp-farm, Farasuto Forest

Sunny with a layer of cloud,  humid, light winds, 31C

 

An absolutely cracking day today, with a great array of highlights, both by way of quality and variety, mixing both wetland and woodland birding to great effect. We began the day by heading to the Pirang shrimp farms, though the journey there was interrupted twice, and in spectacular style! The first stop was due to Ebrima calling ’stop’ as we passed some wooded savannah, with an eagle in a distant tree. Unloading, the bird transpired to not be an African Hawk-eagle as we first suspected, but the much rarer AYRES’S HAWK EAGLE! A real turn-up, and a spectacular bird to boot. Back in the vehicle, it wasn’t long before we were stopped again by Ebrima’s hawk-eyes, as a dark shape in another distant acacia tree proved to be a superb LONG-CRESTED EAGLE; what a beast! This pause also yielded a Northern Puffback in nearby trees; a tricky bird to catch up with, and also a Fork-tailed Drongo and an array of commoner finches. Pressing on, we arrived at the impressive Pirang shrimp farms, where a great array of species were enjoyed on the shallow lagoons. Crested Lark was vocal here, while a Sacred Ibis distant in a palm then gave a fly-past. Three Gull-billed Terns were floating around giving their raucous calls and a single Little Tern was interesting to see in its winter plumage. We noted our first Red-rumped Swallows (known as the distinct race West African Swallow) along with plenty of Red-chested and Wire-tailed Swallows. A Malachite Kingfisher was fishing in the lagoon, and our first Yellow-backed Weavers were noted at their nest sites; some of which were being raided by an African Harrier Hawk. Roosting along a bank were about 10 Senegal Thick-knees and our first African Darter; a bizarre snake-necked heron so classic of the region, and a single Namaqua Dove dashed past. A small number of Pink-backed Pelicans were seen in flight, as were a flock of about 15 African Spoonbills, though we unfortunately didn’t see these closer. The lagoons were littered with waders in pretty good number, with the highlight certainly being a single adult AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER, still in some summer plumage and illustrating its long-winged profile and slim build, long legs, bold super and black mottling across the belly even reaching the under-tail coverts. In addition to this, we saw Wood and Common Sandpipers, around 50 Curlew Sandpipers, 100 Little Stints, 10 Marsh Sandpipers, 70 Black-tailed Godwits, 40 Common Ringed Plovers, 2 Sanderling, 15 Ruff, 15 Avocets and a single Curlew; its incredibly long bill and pallid plumage making it likely of the eastern race orientalis. Much of the above was new for the trip, adding to our burgeoning trip list! Greater Flamingos were also present on the pools, while a small number of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were floating around above. A number of palearctic migrants were noted in the track-side bushes, including a couple of Subalpine Warblers, Northern Wheatear and both Willow and Chiffchaff. Osprey, Marsh Harrier and Striated Heron were also noted; all in all, a brilliant session of birding, and taking us nicely into lunchtime!

 

Lunch was enjoyed at Bonto, in a wonderfully authentic setting, sat outside under the shade of the most enormous kapok tree we had ever seen! We were fed and watered wonderfully by a local family, in the company of African Palm Swifts and a Violet Turaco, and also a pair of Levaillant’s Cuckoos, though sadly these were only seen briefly by the guides. Finishing up here our afternoon involved some outrageous quality birding, being shown some of the best that Bonto Forest and Farasuto had to offer. First to Bonto Forest, we met with the local rangers here who led us around the winding forest trails, amongst vines and huge trees, noting some great stuff as we went including 2 African Pied Hornbills, 3 Grey Hooded Parrots taking fruit in the canopy and singing Common Wattle-eyes. However, the stars of the show here were certainly the owls, with a beast of a Vereaux’s Eagle Owl glowering down on us through its bright pink eyelids, and a pair of cruel-looking White-faced Scops Owls looking down upon us in similarly nonchalant fashion. Great work by the local guides, and some memorable sightings. We weren’t done yet though, as we then headed around to Farasuto, noting Dark-chanting Goshawk along the drive. Arriving and meeting our new guide, we walked into the forest and enjoyed views of an array of good birds, including a fly-past Palm-nut vulture over open grass and wetland, around 25 Senegal Thick-knees, Pied-winged Swallows amongst the Red-breasted and Wire-tailed Swallows, two Senegal Coucals and a Violet Turaco, while the crème de la crème here was a wonderful African Wood Owl which was shown to us in its regular roost; a really rare bird here! We weren’t done by any means, driving along to a final spot, which was punctuated by an immature Red-necked Falcon at the back of open fields, before strolling through thinner forest to be shown our fourth owl species of a crazy day; a pair of Greyish Eagle Owls again in their usual roost; just bonkers! Walking quietly away from here, we headed to the van to begin our journey home. We were stopped pretty early by a flock of at leas 40 African Green Pigeons which showed superbly in a fruit tree, and also our first Abyssinian Roller of the trip, eating a locust in the low evening sun. A beautiful finale, and following a drive through town at the busiest time of the evening, we eventually arrived back at base, tired but very happy, and ready for dinner.

 

 

Verreaux's Eagle Owl and White-faced Scops

 

Sunday  17th November – Tujerang savannah and Sanyang

Sunny most of the day, humid, light winds, 31C

 

Our second day in The Gambia saw us visit the open savannah habitat at Tujerang; a site about 30 minutes-drive from the Senegambia Hotel, but in reality it took us more like an hour and a half to reach it, as we kept stopping for great birds! Blue-bellied Rollers posed on overhead wires and allowed us great views, while a Double-spurred Francolin posed on the top of a wall and allowed views from the vehicle. A Black-winged Red Bishop was vocal in long grasses, as were Zitting Cisticola and Tawny-flanked Prinia. Our first African Harrier-hawk was seen well overhead, while a brilliant spot from Ebrima got us all out of the bus for a couple of African Green Pigeons in mango trees, giving decent unobscured views; now that’s a colourful pigeon! The birds continued to come thick and fast, with good views of Violet Turacos emerging from the large mature trees, a single Fork-tailed Drongo, 2 Senegal Parrots feeding on red flowers, a very showy Variable Sunbird, both Red-billed and African Grey Hornbills, Lizard Buzzard, Shikra, a couple of Yellow-billed Shrikes and a party of Greater Blue-eared Starlings all keeping us very entertained. We soon entered the savannah at Tujerang, where a walk around the sandy tracks and long grasses yielded a number of great birds. Another Tawny-flanked Prinia greeted us at the entrance, while Whistling Cisticolas were vocal, and eventually gave themselves up nicely in the long grasses. Yellow-fronted Canaries were common and Little Bee-eater were seen really well as we walked the first trail, which opened up into a field of ground-nut plantation; of which the surrounding savannah produced some brilliant birds. Time spent observing this area, with Ebrima whistling birds out of the undergrowth, proved really productive, with a Klaas’s Cuckoo sitting up for us and flycatching from exposed perches, a Brubru sharing the same trees, two brilliant White-fronted Black Chats (not a species we see every year here), Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Vitelline Masked Weaver visiting its nest, two fly-by Namaqua Doves (one of which showed well in nearby trees) and a few more familiar migrants, including 3 Whinchat, Yellow Wagtail, Chiffchaff and 3 Willow Warblers. We walked back onto the sandy track from here, and picked up some more good birds, including both Vieillot’s Barbet and Bearded Barbet in the same trees, a Black-crowned Tchagra giving its surprisingly beautiful song, Singing Cisticola and a rather elusive Red-winged Warbler. A dramatic highlight came in the form of a really close fly-by Black-shouldered Kite which came overhead, before perching up in an acacia, disturbing a second bird and proceeding to display, pumping its tail up and down whilst standing hunched over on the tree-top; a brilliant bird. A cracking Rufous-crowned Roller gave a fine ending to the great birding here, as the sun beat down and the day started to get rather warm! We walked back to the awaiting minibus from here, with Mottled Spinetails flying overhead, and made our way to our lunch-stop, in Sanyang.

 

 

Blue-bellied Rollers and Black-shouldered Kite from today

 

A delicious buffet lunch of fresh butterfish and meat with veg and rice was much enjoyed in the shade, overlooking the sea, where Pink-backed Pelicans and Caspian Terns could be seen. Of course, after eating we went over to investigate! The sea hosted a number of pelicans and large numbers of fishing Caspian Terns, as well as several Royal Terns and a few Sandwich Terns, while Grey-headed Gull was common. Ospreys were floating around and fishing offshore, and a party of Turnstones were busy on the shoreline. Finishing up, we headed back along the sand track leading to the restaurant, which was lined by a few interesting areas of marsh and estuary. An impressive roost of 1000’s of Grey-headed Gulls, hundreds of Caspian Terns and 10’s of Royal Terns were enjoyed, while Osprey, another Dark-chanting Goshawk and 2 African Harrier-hawks were seen really well, along with Beautiful and Variable Sunbirds, 2 Greenshank and a good number of Spur-winged Plovers. Western Reef Heron was fishing in the last pools as we made to depart. From here we made our way along to the Tanji fish market, where another Black-shouldered Kite was enjoyed, along with Osprey, a party of Bar-tailed Godwits, Caspian and Royal Terns, Common Sandpiper and Long-tailed Cormorant, while the next lagoon hosted a Whimbrel but relatively little else. It had been a pretty hot day in full sun and little shade offered by the habitat we had visited, so we headed back to  the Senegambia Hotel, where while some opted to enjoy some chill time by the pool with a beer, others of us enjoyed the birding here, noting Green Wood-Hoopoes, plenty of Broad-billed Rollers, Long-tailed Glossy Starlings, Hornbills, White-crowned Robin Chats and African Palm Swifts; an idyllic end to another good day.

 

Saturday 16th November – Lamin Ricefields, Abuko Woods, Tanji and Kotu

Sunny spells with a light cloud cover, humid, light winds, 31C

 

Well what a day that was! It’s always a full day on the first day in The Gambia, with so many birds to take in at the different habitats on offer. We began with a walk through the hotel grounds before breakfast, noting an adult Shikra perched up, while Broad-billed Rollers, White-crowned Robin Chats, Brown Babbler, Red-billed Hornbills and a few other bits were enjoyed, along with the constant presence of low-flying Hooded Vultures and Yellow-billed Kites! At breakfast the antics of Cattle Egrets were enjoyed; don’t leave your bacon unattended! Also, from the breakfast table were Speckled Pigeons, Spur-winged Plover and Western Grey Plantain-eaters keeping us company, before we met at 08:30 with Ebrima our guide, and Abdul our driver for the week. Setting out, the drive produced Red-billed Firefinch and Village Indigobird on the deck whilst in slow traffic, 5 Blue-bellied Rollers, 3 Yellow-billed Shrikes and a number of White-billed Buffalo Weavers attending their nests. Our drive was to take us to the Lamin rice fields; a wet area of rice paddies and scrub, which proved impressively productive, giving us a mega introduction to Gambian birding, with many moments where we just didn’t know where to look next! More Buffalo Weavers were seen well along with many Village Weavers. Herons were represented well by Black Heron, Black-headed Heron, Great and Intermediate Egrets, Squacco Herons, Striated Heron, in-flight Little Bittern and, later in the walk, a superb Hamerkop; an iconic African species. African Jacana was seen as well as a very brief Black Crake; not an easy bird to catch up with, as it proved, as unfortunately no one within the group saw it except the guides. Senegal Thick-knees were common and obliging amongst the mangroves at the wetter end of the area, while Wattled Lapwing, Whimbrel and Common Sandpiper were also noted A Lizard buzzard showed extremely well in trees along the entrance track, and we also saw our first of many Piapiacs; a peculiar crow-like gregarious species. A Senegal Coucal showed really well and Pied Kingfishers even more so, but the Little Bee-eaters were arguably the real star; what a bird they are! Woodland Kingfishers were also seen well, with 3 in the area, and good numbers of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were vocal and mobile, but never seen perched. African Grey and Red-billed Hornbill were seen well, and a male Northern Red Bishop sat up in reeds, blowing a few peoples minds with its ridiculously bright plumage; really extravagant!  Several Bronze Manakins were noted, and Beautiful Sunbird offered itself up to scope views for some, before we came full circle and reached the minibus; what a birding session that was! Boarding the van, we headed round to our next site; the Abuko forest reserve, still absorbing what we had just seen at the previous site!

 

Setting out into Abuko, the high canopy and dense understory of this remnant piece of gallery forest meant we had to work hard for our sightings, and with sultry and humid heat, it was certainly a challenge to keep up the energy levels. Fortunately, the birding was similarly good here, with some great species, which kept is going! From the hide overlooking the pools, the star of the show was by far and away the Pygmy Kingfisher which was fishing below the hide, offering superb views of this delightful tiny kingfisher. Fanti Saw-wings were darting over the water, along with a single Wire-tailed Swallow, while around 10 Black-headed Herons were also here roosting in the treetops. African Paradise Flycatcher and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers were frequently seen together here, though were surprisingly elusive amongst the foliage. Some great local species were noted here including the Common Wattle-eye, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Western Bluebill (a smart male feeding along the track), 3 Senegal Eremomelas, and the elusive and plain Little Greenbul skulking amongst the understory. We saw our first African Thrush of the trip here, as well as a single brief Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, while Lavender Waxbills and Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu were also noted. Sunbirds were represented by a single Collared and Splendid Sunbird, as well as plenty of Beautiful Sunbirds, plus a fantastic party of Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, while some of the group managed to lay eyes on a couple of Violet Turacos before they disappeared into cover. Other wildlife was represented by a West African Crocodile in the pool overlooked by the tower hide, and both Red Colobus and Vervet Monkeys; the latter in a small troop including youngsters; always nice to see. A cracking site, which felt like it was filled with promise, and took us through to lunchtime easily. This was spent at the fantastic Tanji Bird Reserve and Eco-lodge, where we enjoyed an outside lunch at Haddies; overlooking the well-known drinking pool! The food was wonderful, but was inevitably interrupted frequently by birds coming to drink constantly! Highlights of the watch were a brilliant Oriole Warbler which came down several times; usually a really difficult species to see well. Both Black-billed and Blue-spotted Wood Doves, a single Pygmy Kingfisher dashing in to bathe, several Little Bee-eaters, Bronze Manakin, Orange-cheeked Waxbills, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Little Greenbul and Black-necked Weavers also visited, to name a few! Also here were tonnes of Village Weavers, Common Bulbuls, Long-tailed Glossy Starling and African Thrush; a real hive of activity and a superb spot to spend time. We did hear a Yellow-crowned Gonolek but didn’t see it, before we took a look at the coastal dunes and beach. A Sand Partridge was flushed from the track but only see by a few, while a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird was a delightful bird that showed really well. A female Variable Sunbird was also observed here as well as a female Cardinal Woodpecker, while a couple of Ospreys, Grey-hooded Gulls, Royal, Caspian, Sandwich and Common Terns were seen along the shore, plus a single Whimbrel; another very rich area!

 

 

Western Bluebill and Hamerkop with Cattle Egret

 

Leaving our long lunch-stop, we headed now to the Kotu bridge; one of The Gambia’s most famous birdwatching sites. Again, the birding was action packed, with lots to mention! A pair of Giant Kingfishers were utterly stunning, sharing wires with 6 Pied Kingfishers, while a single Malachite Kingfisher also shared the water course. Waders were represented by Wattled and Spur-winged Lapwings, Black-winged Stilts, a single Greenshank, 2 Redshank, Common Sandpipers, A single Grey Plover and a flock of fly-over Wood Sandpipers. A Striated Heron was noted as well as Grey Herons, Great Egret and a Western Reef Heron, while Long-tailed Cormorants were also seen well. The wires hosted a flock of Red-chested Swallows and a single Wire-tailed Swallow amongst them, while the dense greenery surrounding the watercourse provided us with our first proper view of a bird we had heard a lot of today; a Yellow-crowned Gonolek. And what a bird, well worth the wait!  

 

 

Some of today more colourful characters: Yellow-crowned Gonolek and Little Bee-eater

 

From here we walked to the Kotu ponds; a quartet of old sewage settling pools and a route walking through mangrove forest and grassland; again a great birding walk! Many Ring-necked Parakeets were seen, as were a small party of Green Wood-hoopoes in the trees. A Grey-headed Sparrow was seen at the entrance track, while many of the commoner doves (Mourning, Laughing, Vinaceous and Red-eyed Doves), Village Weavers and a sky full of Hooded Vultures and Yellow-billed Kites and African Palm Swifts meant there were always birds to be seen. However, reaching the pools, a real surprise was in store, which easily made it bird of the day, if not the trip; a stunning EGYPTIAN PLOVER! An outrageous bird to see here in the west of The Gambia, this bird had been discovered 3 weeks ago here; possibly a first for the river mouth area of Kotu ever! We weren’t sure it was still present, so what a treat to have it here, showing incredibly well amongst Black-winged Stilts and Common Sandpipers. Also here were a single Blue-breasted Kingfisher (making it 6 species of kingfisher today; outrageous!), another Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, 2 elusive Fine-spotted Woodpeckers in the mangroves, 2 Bronze-tailed Starlings, Senegal Coucal and a single elusive Western Olivaceous Warbler, as we reached the bridge again, greeted by a surprise adult Palm-nut Vulture as it floated overhead, to wrap up the days fantastic birding. The Egyptian Plover was a hell of a way to finish up, it has to be said, but the general volume and variety of birds has been truly superb today, with more to come tomorrow; we can’t wait!  

 

 

Egyptian Plover - what a stunner!

 

Friday 15th November – Travel day, Senegambia Beach Hotel

Sunny throughout, light winds, 31C

 

A travel day, making our way out to The Gambia beginning at Gatwick Airport, where we met 8 eager tour participants at the Titan Airways check-in desk in South Terminal. Making our way through bag-drop and security, we had breakfast before heading for the gate and boarding our flight. Departing at 10:10, we arrived in Banjul International Airport 30 minutes earlier than anticipated, landing at 16:10. Even from the aircraft we noted our first Cattle Egrets, Pied Crows and Hooded Vultures, with plenty of Speckled Pigeons flying around outside the terminal building. Going through security and bag-reclaim was pretty smooth, and we were soon on our transfer bus, bound for the Senegambia Hotel. There was plenty to see even from the bus, with many Yellow-billed Kites and Hooded Vultures soaring on the warm humid air, as well as a couple of hovering Common Kestrels, while Laughing and Mourning Doves were frequent. Also picked up were a couple of Blue-bellied Rollers, Red-billed Hornbills and a small group of Long-tailed Glossy Starlings; all rather exotic. After about 25 minutes we reached the Senegambia Hotel, where we unloaded and were shown to our rooms in the extensive and verdant grounds; what a place! After dropping our bags, we were all eager to get out and have a look around; we still had 30 minutes of daylight to play with! The birding was excellent from the off, with a group of about 10 Green Wood-hoopoes showing at point blank range outside the lodges! Western Grey Plantain-eaters were noisy and obvious above the pool, and several Broad-billed Rollers were prominent and obvious around the place, as was a single African Grey Woodpecker in high trees. Common Bulbuls were noisy and easily seen, as were a pair of beautiful White-crowned Robin-chats which perched above the paths with a newly fledged youngster in tow. High above us were a constant wheeling procession of African Palm Swifts, and we managed to pick out a couple of Mottled Spinetails amongst them (initially assuming they were Little Swifts, but soon noting the white waistband distinctive of the former), before light faded and we called time on our first piece of Gambian birding. We enjoyed a superb buffet dinner after doing our checklist with a cold bottle of very much appreciated local beer! We can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

 

 

White-crowned Robin-chat and Shikra in the Senegambia Hotel gardens


 

Canary Islands - Birding on the Edge of Europe 4th - 10th November 2019 [Javi Elorriaga and Jason Moss]

 

Sunday 10th November – Fuerteventura

Sunny with scattered cloud, breezy, 23C

 

Our last day on Fuerteventura, and therefore the last day of the tour. With a flight departing around 12:30 back to London, we didn’t have a huge amount of time to play with, so we made the most of our lovely hotel surroundings, taking a walk around the grounds before breakfast. The endemic subspecies of Great Grey Shrike was the best performer of the morning, singing its heart out from the surrounding bushes and giving brilliant views; a very confiding bird. Up to 20 Egyptian Vultures were sitting and soaring over the hillside towards the large Majorero goat farm, along with several Common Buzzards, while a few Ruddy Shelduck were also noted in that direction. A brief Laughing Dove was seen in flight as it shot from the garden palm trees, but was too quick for most of us, while the ubiquitous BERTHELOT’S PIPITS and Spanish Sparrows were the further garden birds. After breakfast, we then loaded our bags into the vans and made our way the short distance to the airport near Puerto del Rosario, dropped off the vans and went through the check-in and security process without a hitch. We said farewell to Javi here as he would be flying back to Spain, thanking him for all his fantastic organising, guiding and brilliant company throughout the tour, before catching our flight to London Gatwick. A fantastic first venture to the Canary Islands for Oriole Birding, and we look forward to repeating the tour again in November 2020!

 

 

This mornings star 'garden bird' - the endemic Canary Islands subspecies of Great Grey Shrike singing its heart out

 

Saturday 9th November – Fuerteventura

Sunny most of the day with scattered cloud, strong easterly winds, 23C

 

 A tougher-going day on Fuerteventura, with some species not playing ball, and stronger winds making for tough birding, though we still enjoyed some superb sightings. We started with a distinctly early start, leaving the hotel at 06:30 in the dark, with the hairbrained plan of going to look for Red-billed Tropicbird at their recent breeding site. It was a bit of a shot to nothing this venture, as we are now out of the breeding season, but we felt that there may be a chance the birds are roosting in their nest cavities, and we might catch them leaving roost. And either way, we would be sure to enjoy a nice sunrise over Tindaya! We crossed the Tindaya plains as the light grew, and found a single HOUBARA BUSTARD as we went; we have been greedy with this species this week! Disembarking the van, we walked the clifftop trail, enjoying superb views of a pair of Barbary Falcons close by, both perched on the cliffs and in flight. However unfortunately our main quarry didn’t appear, and Yellow-legged Gulls and a pair of Little Egrets were only small compensation before we walked back along the trail, all dreaming about coffee! Driving back along to Tindaya, we stopped to watch a group of 6 Barbary Partridges from the vehicle, and also a single female Spectacled Warbler in low scrub, while a Hoopoe in the village was also obliging. Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a late breakfast and then headed our around the hotel grounds for a bit of local birding. A few highlights were enjoyed here, with a few of us watching a pair of stunning FUERTEVENTURA STONECHATS in the garden! The male, carrying a large beetle, was particularly stunning. Additionally to these, a Hoopoe was ridiculously obliging and photogenic, while a Great Grey Shrike showed distantly, but it was nice to get a scope on one rather than the usual drive-by views. BERTHELOT’S PIPITS are also a garden bird here, with several seen, while 3 Black-bellied Sandgrouse were noted in flight  and a small flock of Spanish Sparrows chattered before we headed for the vans, to make our excursion north, this afternoon in search of our last target bird; the CREAM COLOURED COURSER. And boy did it work us hard! During the course of the rest of the day, we cruised around many areas of good habitat for this species, scanning meticulously for any shape or sign. North of the town of La Oliva, a network of dirt tracks provided sightings of Great Grey Shrike, and several Barbary Ground Squirrels amongst the stone walls. A stop in El Cotillo provided a welcome coffee before we continued into the plains north of Tindaya, where we worked through the habitat, noting a flock of 20 Lesser Short-toed Larks, 2 Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a small number of Berthelot’s Pipits, as well as a very entertaining group of Barbary Ground Squirrels which mobbed us as we got out of the vehicles to take pictures, clearly after food, and even peering into pockets as we sat to take pics! We had lunch on the plains in strong winds, sheltering by the vehickes as we ate, though dust still got virtually everywhere! We moved onwards, thoroughly checking every inch of the region, but without finding our most wanted quarry. We weren’t to be beaten however, heading east now towards the goat farm west of Tefia. This would be our last act of a long day, and it proved to be very worthwhile. Slowly scanning the rock-strewn plains, the radio crackled into life, as Javi reported that he had 2 CREAM-COLOURED COURSERS ahead in the goat pens! We tore down the dirt track to join the other car, and we watched these two elegant, regal desert-dwellers as they dashed amongst the Majorero Goats; what a great way to finish the day! We returned to the hotel happy, after making the most of our last full day on the island.

 

 

 

Friday 8th November – Fuerteventura

Sunny most of the day with scattered cloud, strong easterly winds, 28C

 

A full day on Fuerteventura, and it couldn’t have gone much better, with a major rarity, an incredible showing from some of the endemic and specialist species, and a fantastic finale! We began the day with a pre-breakfast visit to the Barranca de Rio Cabras, a short drive from our hotel. Parking up, a number of Egyptian Vultures were already up in the air (these being of the endemic subspecies majorensis), while walking over to the banks of the barranca (the local word for a steep, often dry river valley) produced 3 fly-over White Storks. Looking down into the valley, our main intension here was to search for the long-staying DWARF BITTERN; a very rare vagrant to the Canary Islands, and therefore an absolute mega bird in the Western Palearctic. This individual has been present in this same Barranca since 2017, but is incredibly elusive, with many people failing o see it. For this reason, we couldn’t believe it when we peered over into the valley, and there it was feeding happily on small fish; a stunning adult DWARF BITTERN Even more incredible was that, with everyone watching the bird, it flew into dense cover of tamarisk, and completely out of view; what luck! The valley also hosted some other superb birds, including the islands most special endemic species; the FUERREVENTURA STONECHAT. A male and female were present, with the male in song and a pallid female in close attendance. A distinctive bird, being smaller than Common Stonechat, with a slim white super over the eye and a slimmer bill; a real delight. Also here was a flock of about 20 TRUMPETER FINCHES roving the plateau, a couple of African Blue Tits of the Fuerteventuran subspecies degener, several Common Buzzards of the subspecies insularum, 6 Spoonbills, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, 6 Black-winged Stilts, Little Egrets and Common Snipe not a bad little haul! Back at the van, a Great Grey Shrike gave a nice show; the dusky koenigi subspecies. Back at the hotel, we had breakfast before setting off again with our packed lunches, ready for a day in the field. Leaving the hotel, another Great Grey Shrike was in the garden as we departed, heading west. We paused at a site which can host Cream-coloured Coursers, but didn’t reveal any despite careful scanning, so we continued to the site of a Majorero goat farm (those which produce the famous local Majorero cheese). We weren’t here to sample the local dairy products however! Instead we enjoyed a fantastic show from around 150 BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE! The birds were all around, including inside the goat pens, and offered superb views. The area also hosted several Lesser Short-toed Larks, a good number of Trumpeter Finches and Spanish Sparrows, a few BERTHELOT’S PIPITS, a pair of fly-over Ruddy Shelduck and an impressive flyover by an adult Barbary Falcon; a site from which it was difficult to tear ourselves away! However, leave we must, heading up the road to the Los Molinos reservoir. An area of freshwater, this site hosted a good number of Grey Herons and Little Egrets, 2 Spoonbills, over 100 Ruddy Shelduck (an impressive number by all accounts!), 2 Greenshank, 2 Common Sandpipers, 7 Little Ringed Plovers, 2 Black-headed Gulls, a single Mallard and great views of Egyptian Vultures over the far hillside, along with Common Buzzards and Ravens. Finishing up, we headed for a coffee at the scenic location of Puertito de Los Molinos. A bar set above a small beach at the end of a valley, the BERTHELOT’S PIPITS provided superb views at the water’s edge, allowing those of us with camera to get some really nice images. With lunchtime approaching, we decided to have this in the scenic village of Betancuria, up in the mountains.

 

 

 

Sitting in the village centre on picnic benches, we enjoyed sightings of Plain Tiger butterfly nearby, before a stroll through the back of the town provided sightings of Geranium Bronze butterfly, Canary Island Red Admiral, a few flocks of Spanish Sparrows, a single immature male Common Redstart (a rare migrant here), a Common Kestrel of the subspecies  dacotiae, and a Barbary Falcon. Later on, up the streambed which ran through the town, several Song Thrushes were noted, and finally Dave picked up a single LAUGHING DOVE which showed well for everyone perched up on boulder before we got ready to leave. Our afternoon would now be spent back around the area near Tindaya, where we saw the Houbara Bustard yesterday. Reaching Tindaya, we had another pause in the town to see the Stone Curlews again, which showed really well, before entering then plains west of the village. We searched carefully throughout the area, trying our luck for Cream-coloured Courser which sadlt didn’t avail us, but compensation was generous in the form of an outrageous 5 HOUBARA BUSTARDS. Initially the first was distant and elusive, but remaining in the vehicle, our presence didn’t worry the bird, which slowly came closer and closer, eventually offering amazing views close to the vehicle. The other 4 birds were found later on towards dusk, right at the start of the trails, and again showed outrageously close to the van. Apart from these, our only other birds of note were a couple of Ravens and a flock of 20 Lesser Short-toed Larks which fed close to the van again. The HOUBARA BUSTARDS were just amazing though; a real birding highlight, and a fine way to end the day.  

 

 

 

Thursday 7th November – Tenerife and Fuerteventura

Sunny spells with mist in the mountains, sunny but windy on Fuerteventura

 

A day of fantastic contrast, as we changed from a morning in the lush mountains of Tenerife, and finished in the dry deserts of Fuerteventura, with some fantastic specialist birds amongst superb scenery. We checked out from the fantastic Hotel Rural Bentor, thanking the wonderful staff for their help, loaded the vehicles and made our way into the hills. We had a plane to catch close to 2pm, so we had most of the morning to spend, and we chose to do this in the Canary Pine forests above Port de la Cruz, searching for some of the special species there. We noted a flock of over 100 Atlantic Canaries on the journey up the steep roads, and as we broke into the ‘corona del pinus’ (crown of pine) ay over 1300m altitude, we stopped to walk in the picnic area La Caldera; the crater of an extinct volcano! A plesant walk provided our best views of Common Chaffinch of the local subspecies, as well as plenty of Goldcrests, Canary Island Chiffchaffs and the local subspecies of Robin, superbus. After enjoying the photo opportunities, we moved on to another picnic site further up the road; Area Recreativa Ramon el Caminero. We knew that TENERIFE BLUE CHAFFINCH was a chance here, but we didn’t expect it to be so good! We finished with amazing views of 5 birds feeding on the ground, down to as close to 4 meters or so! The Great Spotted Woodpecker (ssp. canariensis) also obliged in ridiculous fashion, and Africa Blue Tit also gave itself up very nicely; a great stop! With a flight to catch, we headed down into Santa Cruz, where a busy city centre was traversed (offering a group of PLAIN SWIFTS over the vehicles while we stopped at a red light) on the way to the north airport. We dropped off the vehicles and headed through the airport with ease, before boarding our Binter flight to Fuerteventura at 14:20.

 

 

 

Arriving on Fuerteventua with some anticipation, we collected our new hire vehicles and made our way first to our hotel; the wonderful Hotel Rural Rugama near Casillas del Angel. As we pulled into the driveway, a soaring flock of raptors revealed themselves to be about 10 EGYPTIAN VULTURES; what a bird to start with! We checked into our rooms and settled in, with another fantastic bird revealing itself to be a garden bird; a BERTHELOT’S PIPIT outside the rooms! Awesome. From here we headed out for a couple of hours birding before darkness fell. We made our way north towards the Tindaya Plains, pausing in Tindaya town, where a flock of Stone Curlews were found by Javi in an area of rough ground; a great frock of 26, keeping company with a single TRUMPETER FINCH! A winter plumage bird with a hint of pink across the flank, this was great to see, but hopefully we will manage to see another, as it disappeared pretty fast. We then continued onto the Tindaya Plain, where we would search for a particular special species; the HOUBARA BUSTARD. A surprisingly elusive species at times, we worked our way slowly along the dirt tracks, scanning meticulously across the barren but uniquely beautiful stony terrain. As the sun set, we continued our vigil, using all the days light in our search, noting a couple of very confiding BERTHELOT’S PIPITS and a flock of about 20 LESSER SHORT-TOED LARKS in the process. As we returned to where we had started searching, and with little light left, Cheryl picked up a movement, and there it was; a HOUBARA BUSTARD within 20 meters of the van! Radioing across to Javi, we were soon watching this majestic bird as it quietly fed in the thorny scrub along the track; a real treat. It soon walked out of view, and as the light had all but faded, we made our way back to the hotel, thrilled with our successful first day on Fuerteventura. Our meal at the Rugama was utterly superb, and we went to bed replete and happy.    

 

 

 

WEDNESDAY 6th November – Punta de Teno, Lomo de Chico and Bosque de Agua

Overcast with sunny spells, a couple of moderate showers, north-east winds, cool, 16C

 

A mixed day of weather today on Tenerife had us wearing clothing more familiar to home than here! However, we were all well-equipped and ended up enjoying another superb day on the island, enjoying more good views and encounters with some of the islands most special species; particularly the pigeons. Setting out after breakfast, we headed west, intending to spend the morning at Punta de Teno. A short drive from our hotel however had us pausing just off the highway, peering up at a steep hillside dotted with scrub and some trees. We soon located a single LAUREL PIGEON perched high up the hillside; its white tail shining through. Even better was when a second dark pigeon flew into view and landed a few meters away; a BOLLES PIGEON! Brilliant to have the two side-by-side and in the same view; not something we expected so soon into the day! A final flourish was provided when a male BARBARY FALCON then flew in, perching against the sky high on the ridge. Not the best view, but you can’t beat a Barbary Falcon! We then moved on, driving to the most western point of the island; an are with restricted access meaning we had to enter before 10 am. As we approached a small flock of BARBARY PARTRIDGES flew over the minibus, but only offered some of the group a glimpse. However, we needn’t have worried, as later this species really performed! The drive along to the Punta de Teno was spectacular, with high precipitous cliffs towering over the winding road, and views over the sea, complete with offshore showers and a spectacular rainbow. At one of a couple of pauses along the road to admire the view, we picked up a few close Canary Island Chiffchaffs giving their strangely sparrow-like calls amongst the hillside vegetation. Then a flock of over 10 partridges flew in from below and landed on the slope besides us; BARBARY PARTRIDGES! Around 6 of these very smart gamebirds huddled in beneath a patch of scrub, allowing prolonged views with scopes before they slowly scuttled up the rocky slope and out of view; what a treat to see this normally difficult species so well! Moving along, we made our way out onto the flat rocky habitat at the end of the peninsular, stopping to explore this zone of cactus and endemic euphorbias. Birdlife was somewhat limited here (and we are becoming aware that we have yet to see one of the islands special endemics; the Berthelot’s Pipit!) but a highlight was a male Spectacled Warbler which was vocal and showed well with some persistence in the low desert-like scrub. A Canary Island Chiffchaff was also watched here before we moved onto the point itself. A seawatch from the black volcanic rock prominatory below the lighthouse provided us with several Yellow-legged Gulls and great views of many wheeling Cory’s Shearwaters over the choppy seas. Walking back, a couple of the guys had a pipit sit up briefly before darting off and being lost; clearly a Berthelot’s Pipit but sadly brief and not one most of us saw, so we will have to wait until the next one! A number of Atlantic Canaries were seen here before we made the drive out of the park, to the town of Garachico for a coffee. A brief pause in a small garden at the site of the original harbour entrance (destroyed some 300 years ago by the last eruption of mount Teide!) he had a surprise treat in the form of 5 Monarch Butterflies nectaring here. This species breeds on the island, wit a resident population either a result of vagrants from the US or released individuals. Either way, a stunning species to see. Leaving here, we drove up into the hills, having lunch at the mirador de Lomo Chico. Another site for seeing the islands endemic pigeons, we enjoyed views of around 3 LAUREL and a single BOLLE’S PIGEON; we’ve been totally spoilt by these days! Atlantic Canary and a brief Chaffinch were noted, as were at least 2 Common Buzzards where seen, along with a Canary Island Red Admiral Butterfly, as we tucked into our lunches.

 

Moving on from our lunch stop, we headed higher into the hills, following some incredibly steep and twisting roads to Erjos, and the Bosque de Agua viewpoint. Scanning the valley, things got a little silly regarding the pigeons, with around 8 LAUREL PIGEONS and 7 BOLLE’S PIGEONS seen below, in various bare trees and in flight; just outrageous! We had been spoiled again, despite strong winds, cold temperatures and misty rain threatening. A walk through the Laurel forest here provide sightings of Canary Island Chiffchaff, African Blue Tit and Goldcrest ssp. teneriffae, as well as stunning views of extensive Laurel forest from above. From here, we descended the mountain trails, taking the windy (and sometimes incredibly steep) roads back down to sea level. Reaching the coast, we had a short pause close to some reservoirs and a golf course, which provided our first Coots, Moorhens and a flock of nice Spanish Sparrows, before making our way homeward, after another very extremely rewarding day.    


 

Tuesday 5th November – Anaga Peninsular, Tenerife

Overcast with occasional misty rain in the cloud forest, moderate winds, 16C

 

This morning started in fine style, with a pre-breakfast venture out to overlook the northern slopes of Tenerife, where we enjoyed superb views of one of our top targets; LAUREL PIGEON. We were privileged to have excellent views of 2 birds perched out in the open in an isolated Laurel tree, showing themselves nicely before flying around the corner. An adult female BARBARY FALCON perched on a pylon at fairly close range offered nice scope views and was a real treat, while the area also hosted our first Blackcap, Robins (subspecies superbus), Sardinian Warblers and Chaffinch of the subspecies canariensis; a distinctive beast !Heading back to the hotel, we then had breakfast before heading out for the day, spending it exploring the Anaga peninsular. A distinctive region of Laurel Cloud forest and impressive peaks rising up straight from the coast, the scenery and distinctive flora were impressive in itself, but the birds stole the show. Setting off, we stopped at an area of mature Laurel forest along the Barranco de las Mercedes, where a stroll and search of the canopy soon revealed our next big target, and a surprisingly good view of it to boot; a superb BOLLE’S PIGEON! These birds are supposed to be shy and retiring, but this one was sat as prominent as it could possibly, allowing most of us a scope view before it flew, fanning its double-banded tail (as opposed to the white tipped tail of the Laurel Pigeon from earler). A further highlight here were a small group of 5 PLAIN SWIFTS which were hawking insects just over the canopy, though the views were very restricted here, so we moved onto a viewpoint further along the road. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get closer views of these agile, slim swifts, but at least 50 birds were seen from this viewpoint. A single Common Buzzard (of the island subspecies insularum) was also noted here, but the strong winds and low mist ensured that other bird activity was restricted. From here we continued along to other viewpoints, picking up a few bits including 3 Common Buzzards, a few Common Kestrels (again an island subspecies, canariensis) and a small number of common species including African Blue Tit, 4 Goldfinches and vocal Robins and Sardinian Warblers. Lunch was enjoyed taking in the superb scenery from the Catalanes chaple and Barranco de Valle Grande, before we continued our exploration of the Anaga peninsular.

 

 

Laurel and Bolle's Pigeons from today

 

Progressing along the peninsular, we paused to walk along a beautiful stretch of cloud forest, where ferns and mosses littered the mature trees, wet from the constant mists which rise up the hillsides; a fascinating habitat in its own right! It was cool and windy along here, so quiet in general on the bird front, but the stretch did give us another target bird; a pair of lovely Goldcrests of the endemic subspecies teneriffae; a bold and active pair showing of the distinctly grey head and neck ides, and bolder black border to the golden crown distinctive of this island endemic subspecies. Away from here we continued, crossing the spine of the peninsular and dropping down towards sea level on the northern coast, passing a beautiful beach of volcanic black sand, near where we stopped for a coffee and comfort stop. A scan of the sea here proved fruitful, with a good number of Cory’s Shearwaters passing offshore, which although most were very distant, some passed closer and allowed decent views. A small number of Yellow-legged Gulls were also dotted around, apparently nesting on the offshore stacks here. Finishing up, we started retracing our steps back along the peninsular, enjoying epic views as we went. We decided to have another stop at this mornings Bolle’s Pigeon site again, and we were glad we did, as the birds sure put on a show! At least 4 birds were noted in flight and calling in the canopy, and seen perched on a couple of occasions for prolonged periods, allowing everyone to fill their boots with this special bird. A number of Chaffinches of the Tenerife race we also evident, allowing us all to note the distinctly different plumage of this island subspecies. We made our way back to base under a stunning sunset, happy with another very successful day.

 

The Tenerife Goldcrest, Regulus regulus teneriffae

 

Monday 4th November – Tenerife afternoon

Sunny throughout, but with a cloud level towards sea level, moderate winds , 22C

 

Our first tour of the Canary Islands began with an early start at Gatwick North Terminal, with a full complement of participants all gathering at the check-in desk at 6am. We made our way through the airport more-or-less seamlessly, and after a bite of breakfast, boarded our plain on time and set off, arriving 4 hours later at the Tenerife South Airport. The views of Tenerife from the air were impressive, with the volcanic Mount Teide (the highest mountain in Spain at 3718 meters above sea level) dominating the skyline. Moving through security after landing, we collected our luggage and met with Javi Elorriaga, our guide for the week, loaded up our two hire vehicles and were soon on our way. With a picnic lunch already prepared by Javi, we made our way north into the heart of the island, noting a couple of Great Grey Shrikes of the dusky Canary Islands subspecies koenigi as we went, as well as a few flocks of Atlantic Canaries, before we arrived at the Las Lajas picnic site, in an area of Canary Pine forest. Here, aside from enjoying a great varied lunch, we also had superb views of one of our first big target species; the TENERIFE BLUE CHAFFINCH! At least three of these handsome, large finches were in the trees above the picnic site, unobtrusive but fearless, allowing us all to enjoy great views of a male and female, both coming to drink from a dripping tap at one point. A couple of Northern Ravens of the smaller canariensis subspecies cronked as they circled overhead, and brilliant views of several AFRICAN BLUE TITS were had as they hung acrobatically from the pines. Another highlight was at least 5 Great Spotted Woodpeckers of the distinctive canariensis subspecies, distinct in bearing a very dark smoky breast and underbelly, while Atlantic Canaries were abundant. A beautiful spot, we moved on from here to take an incredibly scenic route through the Teide National Park area. The volcanic lunar landscapes, enormous towering Mount Teide and stunning light made for a breathtaking route, with several scenic stops enjoyed. As we reached the northern part of the island the vegetation changed markedly, changing from the dry desert-like vegetation of the plateau, to more lush forest on the north slopes. Along the way we paused for a short coffee break in Las Canadas de Teide, not least because a busy bird feeder hosted dozens of Atlantic Canaries, several African Blue Tits and 2 superb CANARY ISLAND CHIFFCHAFFS; another endemic species! Coming to the food beside the restaurant tables, we were really able to study these subtly distinct species, with their distinctly longer bills being rather striking, while the supercilium was longer and better defined than in nominate. A nice stop! We then continued our journey, making our way to our base for the next 3 nights on the western outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz, in the lovely Hotel Rural Betnor. Checking in, we settled ourselves in, before having a few beers, enjoying a delicious meal and then running through todays sightings, before heading off to bed after a long day.

 

 

 

 


 

NORFOLK WINTER THRUSHES & EASTERN VAGRANTS TOUR 27TH OCTOBER - 1ST NOVEMBER 2019 (AJS)

 

THURSDAY 31ST OCTOBER - EAST NORFOLK

Sunny spells and fresh SE winds, 10C

 

A frustrating day today which promised plenty and delivered little as we headed into East Norfolk to explore the Broads region. A Pallas’s Warbler had been present for over a week at Waxham near the Shangri-la bungalow, so surely it would do the decent thing and linger for one more day? Sadly not, and neither us nor anyone else on site could find this delightful sprite among the ivy clad trees in the copse this morning. There were plenty of Goldcrests here, but these were scant compensation indeed. The sea was disappointing too – half a dozen Razorbills and a few Red-throated Divers moving offshore being the best of it. After a coffee, we headed along the coast road to Horsey, noting a decent flock of Pink-feet behind Brograve Farm, but no sign of any Cranes in any of the usual favoured spots. We continued down to Great Yarmouth and Breydon Water, where at least plenty of wildfowl and waders would be on offer on the ebbing tide at the east end. Yesterdays Grey Phalarope had gone (it really was a case of you should have been here yesterday!) but we saw some nice Pintail at close range among hordes of Wigeon, flocks of Black-tailed Godwits, 22 Avocets, about 200 Dunlin, a few Grey Plover and massed ranks of Curlew and large gulls. Several Rock Pipits were among the flooded sea lavender, and a female Sparrowhawk drifted in and flew really close to us, before spotting us at the last minute and dashing inland.

 

After lunch, we headed back to Acle and checked the fields nearby for Cranes without success, and so continued to Potter Heigham Marshes. After negotiating the very bumpy and muddy track, we scanned Heigham Holmes for Cranes but again drew a blank. The pools held hundreds of Teal, and a few Shoveler, Wigeon and Gadwall, and two Lesser Redpolls were a brief surprise in a birch along the edge of the Thurne where a dozen Fieldfare also assembled in a bush on the bank. Hickling NWT was our final port of call today, and thankfully the wind dropped and sun persisted until dusk giving lovely warm light across the marsh for the Stubbs Mill Roost. A Merlin appeared almost as soon as we arrived, and perched in the open on a dead bush. Two Common Cranes finally gave themselves up for us too, and we had excellent views both on the ground and in flight. Marsh Harriers numbered around 25 into the roost, and we finished the day with two Barn Owls out hunting, with several Brown Hares, Chinese Water Deer and Muntjac on the marsh and the Cranes bugling under the New Moon in the background. A nice start to Halloween!

 

WEDNESDAY 30TH OCTOBER - NORTH NORFOLK

Sunny spells and light Easterly winds, 12C

 

With a ridge of high pressure starting to push eastwards and east in the wind across the North Sea, we continued to hope for a few migrant birds from the continent and so headed down to Stiffkey first thing this morning to work the campsite wood. There had been a big marsh tide, which was just subsiding, and there were plenty of Brent Geese on the marsh as we headed through the sycamores to the east of the car park. Almost right away we were into a tit flock, and saw a Goldcrest and a smart Brambling. We followed the flock pretty much all the way through the woodland, adding a Great-spotted Woodpecker before a Yellow-browed Warbler uttered its distinctive ‘tsoo-eet!’ call from the canopy above us. We didn’t see it, so continued east through the sycamore belt hoping for a glimpse. At the far end, a surprise female Blackcap popped out, but otherwise it was mainly tits on offer. As we started to make our way back west, we relocated the Yellow-browed Warbler and with patience, we had superb views of it flitting in the canopy just above us. A nice result, as it looked increasingly like it would be the only one of the trip!

 

Wells Woods was our next stop, and the winds had dropped and the sun was out prompting hope that we could find something with the tit flocks. It was, however, very quiet – we saw a few Goldcrests, Redwings, two Chiffchaff and that was about it. Time to move on to Holkham, and have lunch, before heading out to check the bay in case any Shorelark had appeared for winter. Pink-footed Geese and Grey Partridges were showing brilliantly by the drive, and another Yellow-browed Warbler called vigorously and showed briefly in the canopy of a Holm Oak at the north end. Our on the beach, we failed to find any larks, but on the sea we saw Great Crested Grebes, Common Scoters and Red-throated Diver. As we returned to the car park, news broke of a Little Bittern at Titchwell – with the afternoon fading, we had just enough time to try for it! We raced to Patsy’s Reedbed screen, were a crowd was already gathered, but alas there was no sign of the bird as dusk approached. A substantial murmuration of Starlings was some compensation, as well as several Marsh Harriers assembling to roost. As dusk fell, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings were departing high to the west into the clear sky lit dimly by a new moon – continuing their journey having no doubt already crossed the North Sea in recent days. We managed to end our day on a high, with a roost flight of Pink-footed Geese, heading out to Scolt Head Island straight over the top of us at Brancaster Staithe.

 

TUESDAY 29TH OCTOBER - BURNHAM OVERY & TITCHWELL

Sunny spells and a moderate NE wind, 12C

 

With east in the wind, we headed down to Burnham Overy Staithe this morning with the hope of finding a few freshly arrived migrants. In truth though, it didn’t happen on the passerine front at all – we barely saw a ‘crest, thrush or Robin in the whole walk to the west end of Holkham pines and back! We did enjoy some good birding though, with good sized flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields by whincover, and an unprecedented 51 Barnacle Geese among them – presumably a feral group, but you never really know! Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit were in the estuary, where Brent Geese were also present in numbers. A Great White Egret flew in the distance, and a small group of Golden Plover and covey of Grey Partridge were on the grazing marsh. Reaching the dunes, we saw a trio of Stonechats before heading out to the seaward side of the dunes (several Little Auks had been seen along the coast earlier in the morning so we were hopeful). Close inshore were at least 500 Common Scoters, and we picked out two Velvet Scoters among them, though they were very difficult to see in the strong swell. Flocks of Sanderling, a couple of Razorbills, Goldeneye, Red-throated Diver and more Brents were strewn along the shoreline in perfect bright sunlight. Back in the dunes, we carried on east to the pines, picking up a few Redwing, seven overhead Brambling, two Siskin and a Goldcrest. From the vantage point of the dunes, we could see not only six of the eight Cattle Egrets among the cows by the boardwalk, but looking towards Decoy Wood, an impressive five Great White Egrets in one field of view! Two Red Kites showed brilliantly on the walk back, and Golden Plovers had now increased to an impressive 750+. A mention must also go to both Rock Pipit and Skylark, which were numerous throughout the whole morning, and we even glimpsed a Cetti’s Warbler by the seawall on the way back.

 

Lunch was had at Thornham harbour, where we hoped to catch up with the newly returned Twite. They weren’t around today, but we did enjoy a bit of a tringa-fest with a gorgeous Spotted Redshank in the creek, and 5 Greenshanks flying over calling noisily. We ended the day at Titchwell, where the stunning late afternoon light made for great viewing. We headed straight down to the beach – still no Little Auk! – and picked up a drake Common Eider, Great Crested Grebe, Goldeneye, Red-throated Diver and Red-breasted Merganser. The beach was full of waders too, and a party of Brent Geese were feeding on the mussel beds right in front of us with several goslings in tow. The freshmarsh was starting to fill with birds arriving to roost, and we stayed until it was dark noting increasing numbers of Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, a Snipe, 30 Avocets, 2 Ruff, and another excellent gull roost. An adult Little Gull was perhaps the highlight, but we also saw a 2cy Mediterranean Gull and 3 adult Yellow-legged Gulls. Little Egrets into roost in Willow Wood numbered around 70 – quite a sight to see them adorning the dead trees before heading in for the night. Two Barn Owls on the way home rounded odd a pleasant days birding indeed.

 

MONDAY 28TH OCTOBER - CLEY & BRECKS

Moderate NW-NE winds, showers and sunny spells, 10C

 

A good variety of species were recorded on tour today, as we headed down to the coast to start the trip with a seawatch from Cley coastguards. The wind was supposed to be quite fresh form the north with squalls, but it was actually flat calm when we arrived at the beach – very pleasant in fact! This soon changed as the first shower came in off the sea, and the wind whipped up from nowhere. Large auks were moving in numbers (passage of Guillemot and Razorbill has recently been very good) and we saw several mixed groups passing mainly east offshore, with some birds close in on the water. Most other species were moving west, and this included several Gannets, mainly juveniles, passing close in to the beach. Mixed wildfowl, such as Wigeon, Pintail and Brent Geese, were also in evidence, and Common Scoters were moving in good numbers with several good sized flocks of mainly young birds passing close inshore. Other highlights included a single Puffin hurrying west, two adult Kittiwakes, a female Red-breasted Merganser, numerous Red-throated Divers (close in) and six Goldeneye. Starlings and Skylarks, two classic late autumn ‘vis mig’ species, were also on the move, and a group of Golden Plover were in the Eye Field behind. After a ninety minute seawatch, we headed east along the shingle ridge, picking up a superb Merlin which flew west along the Eye Field fence before powering off across Blakeney freshes with several bursts of undulations. Behind North Hide screen, a Snow Bunting came up and flew past us calling, and a Kingfisher whizzed across Main Drain.

 

After a coffee and toilet stop at the Visitor Centre, we made for Walsey Hills, hoping that the long staying Yellow-browed Warbler might still be present. We saw a single Chiffchaff and Goldcrest in the willows, but that was it. A good sized flock of Pink-footed Geese moved along the ridge, and overhead went two Brambling and five Siskin. East Bank next, but there was a lot of water on Arnold’s after the morning tide and subsequently no waders other than a few Black-tailed Godwits. A drake Pintail was nice though, and we also picked a Common Snipe out. After lunch back at the centre, we decided to head inland for the rest of the afternoon, in view of the coast being relatively quite. This meant an hours drive into the Brecks, and to a spot for gathering Stone Curlews prior to their migration.

 

 

First-winter Yellow-legged Gull, Breckland pig fields, 28th October

This brute of a bird allowed close up study - note the white head, heavy bill with strong gonydeal angle, large size and bulk, solidly dark tertials with distinct pale fringe (lacking notching) and mid-grey second generation mantle feathers (darker than in Herring). The strongly white-barred greater coverts were also quite different to the much darker LBBG's present. A lovely, instructive bird. 

 

Reaching the site, we scanned distantly to check on the birds whereabouts, seeing one Stone Curlew hunkered down in the edge of a strip of fat hen in a pig field. The views were poor, so we drove further along the road and found a pull off where we could get closer views with the sun behind. Here we had four Stone Curlews out in the open, so numbers are dwindling but there are still a few here! Good views, and to cap it off, a superb first-winter Yellow-legged Gull was standing among the Lesser Black-backs right in front of us. A fine beast, we were also able to study its plumage features next to a young Herring. After a short stop at a nearby raptor viewpoint, which added a Sparrowhawk, we continued to Lynford for dusk in the hope that one or two Hawfinch might appear to roost. It was quiet, with no Hawfinches noted, but we did see an unprecedented 30+ Pied Wagtails gathering to roost by the lake. Mixed flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare were seen, and the day closed with a Goshawk, cruising through the paddocks much to the annoyance of the local corvids.

 


 

ORKNEY AND NORTH RONALDSAY OCTOBER 2019 (Jason)

 

Monday 21st October –Mainland Orkney

Overcast most of the day, moderate SW winds , 8C                   

 

A full day on mainland Orkney today started with a fine breakfast at the Sands Hotel, after which we took a walk around the local area of Burray village, to walk it off! Searching some pockets of sheltered habitat, we managed to uncover a single Willow Warbler in sycamores lining a small pond, in the company of a Chiffchaff; the former a late bird. From here we headed down onto South Ronaldsay to take a look at Olav’s Wood, again in search for some last migrants of our trip. The leeward side proved rather quiet throughout, though good numbers of Redwing were floating around, dropping in overhead from high up; possibly dropping in, in the company of a small number of Fieldfares and Song Thrushes. A single Chiffchaff was heard, but most entertainment was provided by a flock of 15 Siskins bombing around, and a couple of vocal Mealy Redpolls which floated around, one of which dropping into an alder, and preening in front of our eyes, no further than 3 meters away! A brilliant encounter. Departing here, news came through that a small flock of WAXWINGS had arrived in Finstown. Heading up that way, we arrived to a brilliant flock of at least 15 birds feeding on berries beside the road, giving their lovely jingling calls as they went. Brambling was also noted here, before we continued on to the north-eastern end of the island, to have lunch overlooking Rousay from Gurness Bay. A beautiful spot, we had great views of 3 Great Northern Divers, numerous Red-breasted Mergansers and a few Black Guillemots. Away from here, we crossed over some of the core moorland on the island, and enjoyed an encounter with 3 Hen Harriers; 2 females and a ghostly male, which all crossed the road one by one at close range; fantastic! Not far from here, we paused beside Loch of Banks, noting another Hen Harrier and a scattering of Teal along with the usual gulls and mallards. On fields behind us were a flock of Greylags which hosted 2 Pink-footed Geese. With a couple of hours to play with, we decided to visit the famous Ring of Brodgar Neolithic stone circle. Positioned between Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray, this proved to be both a cultural and birding experience! The loch of Harray hosted a scattering of Tufted Ducks, and amongst them 4 smart drake Greater Scaup. Also, on the loch were 3 Slavonian Grebes including one in near summer plumage, while a couple of Twite were seen while we walked the site of the stone circle. Taking this in, we then made our way on towards Kirkwall, having a coffee before nipping on to take a quick look at the plantation where we had the Yellow-browed Warbler yesterday. The wind was blowing into the plantation unfortunately, so things were rather quiet, only revealing calling Goldcrest, Chiffchaff and Chaffinch. We then headed south back to Burray, where we stopped overlooking Echna Loch as the light began to fade. It was great to stand enjoying the antics of about 150 Long-tailed Ducks and 100 Red-breasted Mergansers, while 2 Slavonian Grebes and a Great Northern Diver provided further distraction. This was our last act of the day, and a fine one to finish on, before heading to the Sands Hotel for our evening meal. Following this, we headed over to Kirkwall for our late night ferry, which would take us back to Aberdeen overnight, arriving there at 7 am, where we made our onward journeys.

 

 

Mealy Redpoll and Waxwings
 

Sunday 20th October –North Ronaldsay and Mainland

Overcast with sunny spells, squally showers and moderate N winds, 8C

 

With our flight off North Ronaldsay due in at 11am today, we knew that we would only have a small amount of time to play with before we would be off. We started as we had done each day so far, with a pre-breakfast walk! We headed up to Holland House, where the poor weather meant that the nets weren’t opened by the obs (unusual for this week!), but the gardens still offered shelter and hosted some interesting birds. The male Hawfinch was still fond of the rosa besides the house, while Goldcrest and Brambling were noted amongst the other usual species in the garden, and a Siskin flew over calling. Back at the obs, the crop was still alive with Twite, Bramblings and Linnets. The Hen Harrier put on its usual breakfast antics, harassing said finches; always a distraction from our bacon and eggs! After breakfast and saying our farewells to everyone at the observatory (all of whom had been brilliant for our stay), we made our way to the airstrip, awaiting our flight to arrive. A Mealy Redpoll flying over was our last bird as we said farewell to Alison and boarded the plane, enjoying stunning views of the islands as we passed over, arriving 25 minutes in Kirkwall.

 

After a few minutes wait for our luggage, we were on our way, driving into Kirkwall to grab some bits for lunch, pausing to note 2 Long-tailed Ducks, Wigeon, Teal and Tufted Ducks on the Peedie Sea opposite Tesco! From here, we headed south-east along the A960, stopping to check the rather inviting plantation on the Tankerness/Toab road. The east side was very sheltered, and a careful check came up trumps with a single Yellow-browed Warbler along with Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Brambling and 2 Blackcaps, while a Sparrowhawk also flew over. For lunch, we headed along to Newark Bay, where overlooking Copinsay we enjoyed a nice selection of waterfowl including Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, a flock of Shelduck, 3 late Puffins in winter plumage and a scattering of Black Guillemots. A Bar-tailed Godwit did a fly-by and Purple Sandpipers were seen with Turnstones and Ringed Plovers, while Golden Plovers and Curlews were in good number. We stopped at the public toilets on the isthmus between Deerness and mainland, having a look out from Dingieshowe Beach While we were there. A beautifully sheltered spot and extremely scenic location, the bay hosted Slavonian Grebe, Red-throated Diver and an assortment of other bit before we moved on, making our way slowly towards Burray. Loch of Ayre hosted some interest in the form of a single female Greater Scaup keeping company with the local Tufted Ducks. A single Whooper Swan was present here, as was a Slavonian Grebe which had climbed up onto the bank. Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and a good number of Wigeon, several Gadwall and Teal made up the rest here; a fine selection! Away from here, we figured that it might be worth exploring the area surrounding where last weeks Siberian Stonechat had been found; it had been seen 2 days previously after lingering, and didn’t appear to have been looked for much since. Arriving at the west end of Burray village, we met with Barrie Hamill (the finder of the Stonechat) who kindly showed us his patch and the areas the Stonechat had been favouring. While it did become unfortunately apparent that the Stonechat was gone, we enjoyed an hour birding here, noting Slavonian Grebe in Scapa Flow, Mealy Redpoll and Goldfinch amongst the gardens. This proved more or less to be our last activity of the day, as light faded and we headed into the Sands Hotel, settling into this superb hotel and enjoying a sumptuous dinner.

 

Saturday 19th October –North Ronaldsay

Overcast with sunny spells, squally showers pm, moderate NE wind, strengthening pm, 8C

 

A day of stiff winds and, later on, some short sharp showers brought us into autumnal weather with a bump, but to be fair was probably more like the weather we would expect at this time of year! Starting with our usual walk around the observatory, we walked around to the jetty, up to the observatory seed crop and back. The beach at Nouster hosted a couple of Sanderling along with Turnstones, plus a few Redwing and a Blackcap feeding on areas of seaweed. Robins were noted along the track and walls heading down to the jetty, where Black Guillemot and 5 Great Northern Divers were also noted amongst the usual Kittiwakes and Fulmars. Greylags were moving south through the island, numbering 130 birds, while up in the seed crop, the Brambling flock was still good value, with a number of Twite also knocking around there. The Hen Harrier came in for its usual morning breakfast out the back of the observatory, before we then headed in for our breakfast. Afterwards, we decided that we would have a seawatch off the north end; strong NE winds would surely produce something? A Mistle Thrush was on the airfield as we drove up, before we parked up near the new lighthouse. Bewan Loch hosted 3 Shoveler on top of the usual wildfowl, before we walked over to the seawatch hide. We gave it a good hour before packing up, and in that time picked up a single close Manx Shearwater which went west, an Arctic Skua distantly heading east, and a decent number of Guillemots, 4 Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Gannets. A Great Northern Diver passed overhead as we departed the hide, where the grassland surrounding the area hosted 2 Snow Buntings and a good number of waders. A single Knot, 3 Dunlin and a good few Golden Plover, Ringed Plover and Turnstone were littering the area, while Trolla Vatn held 15 Dunlin as well. Leaving here, we had time for a check of Ancum Willows, which held a couple of Chiffchaffs, before returning to the observatory for lunch.

 

After lunch, the wind had picked up and there were some black clouds looking ominous for rain, which duly obliged on occasion. We headed up to Holland and checked the garden which offered some great birds! A Siberian Chiffchaff was new in, and showed briefly but well on a number of occasions. Further into the garden, a male Ring Ousel and a male Hawfinch both dropped into the same rosa bushes! The Ring Ousel showed brilliantly feeding on the haws, but the Hawfinch stayed low in the bushes. We then headed off around the fields and crofts from here in a loop, picking up a single Common Redstart and Whinchats in the lea of stone walls; surprising birds this late in the year. Blackcap was also noted on these wanders, as was a female Hen Harrier, before we came around to the van. From here we headed around towards the western end of Nouster Bay, where the shore hosted a single Grey Plover, several Purple Sandpipers and Great Northern Diver in the bay. We then headed around to Bridesness point, where a Water Rail was flushed from the wet margin of the loch, and Goldeneye and Tufted Duck were seen. The light had faded pretty fast by now, so we made to head back to the observatory. A surprise was a female Redstart which was flying along the road, struggling against the now foul weather; clearly an arrival today. Back at the obs, we again enjoyed the cosy and relaxed atmosphere of this superb place, as well as some excellent home cooked food, before doing log and heading to bed.

 

 

Siberian Chiffchaff and Ring Ouzel

 

Friday 18th October –North Ronaldsay

Sunny most of the day with broken cloud, light SE am, swinging NE and strengthening pm

 

A real mixed bag today, with some birds not playing ball, some new interesting migrants but only a small number, and a great finale! We started with a walk around the observatory at 07:30, picking up a few new Chiffchaffs, and Blackcaps on the fence-lines, 2 or 3 fly-over Redpoll sp., and the busy finch flock in the obs crop, containing several Bramblings and 20 Twite. Down along the shore below the obs, a Black Guillemot flew past, as did 3 Great Northern Divers in full summer plumage. Another good sighting here was a juvenile female Peregrine which flew through with prey (probably a wader) in its talons, which it proceeded to pluck in flight! We then headed into breakfast, from where we enjoyed the usual views of a ringtail Hen Harrier hunting as we tucked into our eggs! Leaving the obs, we made our way up to the north end of the island, to bird the north-west coast and a few other crofts. Part of our intention was to attempt to see the HORNEMANN’S ARCTIC REDPOLL properly, having only achieved flight views so far. Arriving at the site, there was no sign of the bird, so we tried to linger in the area as long as was reasonable. After over an hour of no sign, we just had to give up; it didn’t look like this bird was going to be kind to us! However our time here wasn’t wasted, as 5 Chiffchaffs and 2 Blackcaps were noted below the croft, the 30 Bramblings were still busy in the stubble field, and 2 Merlin and a Hen Harrier were both watched hunting around the area. Redwings and Robins were still in evidence today, though in slightly lower number than the last two days. Purple Sandpiper was seen on the coast before we headed back to the road and took a walk between the various gardens and abandoned crofts, noting many Redwings, a couple of Fieldfare and Song Thrushes, a fly-over Yellowhammer which is noteworthy for the island, and a late female Northern Wheatear in a field of thrushes. A look into the Ancum willows revealed a Woodcock which flushed and headed west and 2 Chiffchaffs (one likely having been a Siberian Chiffchaff which had been seen shortly before, but we didn’t see it well), before we walked back to the van, and made our way back to the observatory for lunch.

 

After lunch, we knew that high tide would be around 14:30 or thereabouts, so we made plans to head to the east coast and the area known as the Links. As we departed the observatory, Simon stopped us to say that the Hawfinch from the previous days was here in the rosa bushes. Getting out of the van, the male Hawfinch was seen, but was very mobile, and we watched as it flew directly back to Holland House. Turning around, Si was waving to say he had a Hawfinch ahead of him; there were two birds! This one; a duller female, was equally mobile, but did at least stop in the area, eventually settling in a clump of rosa surrounded by pallets. Leaving it eating rose hips, we hot back in the van and headed for the east coast. Initially we stopped at Brides Loch, which hosted a single immature male Goldeneye, 3 Little Grebes and a few Teal, as well as a Water Rail which called and briefly showed in flight for the group. From here we dropped in to the Links. A flock of Golden plover were gathered on the short grass, and a single Mistle Thrush was sharing the area with several Redwing. From the beach, a trio of close Long-tailed Duck were a delight; particularly the drake! Several more were seen in flight, plus 9 Red-breasted Mergansers, 2 Bonxies which passed through, 2 Red-throated Divers and several Wigeon. Along the shore, we enjoyed watching the comings and goings of the assembled waders here, inclining a nice flock of Sanderling which came to roost (including 2 colour ringed birds with lime flags, ringed on Sanday), 4 Bar-tailed Godwits (including one with a white darvic JJJ3 which was ringed in Norway in 2010), a Grey Plover, several Dunlin and 3 Purple Sandpipers. Once we were all thoroughly cold, we walked back to the van, and had a walk around the crofts in the area, noting 2 more Chiffchaffs, Blackcap and plenty of Redwings, but little else of note. It was about half five now, so we made our way back, pausing at Holland Garden to see what Simon was catching in the mist nets. As we approached, a Hawfinch flew from the bushes and around the back of the garden; the male from earlier. Simon then appeared with a single bird bag, and handed it to Jason, saying here’s one for you! Mystified, we walked to the ringing hut, reached into the bird bag and pulled out the bloody HORNEMANN’S ARCTIC REDPOLL! What an incredible surprise! A real beauty of a bird, and strikingly large, Si took its weight (it had put on a little since it had been trapped a couple of days previously) before releasing it back towards the garden. There cant be many better ways to finish a days birding, particularly with a bird that had caused us so much strife these past few days!    

 

 

Arctic Redpoll and Hawfinch

 

Thursday 17th October –North Ronaldsay

Clear skies and sun all day, very light SSE winds, dry, 12C

 

Another interesting day on North Ronaldsay, featuring plenty of migrant birds through the whole day. Though it was a pleasure to search for birds in such plesant weather conditions, with continuing east n the winds, we did feel that after yesterday’s arrival, we were just lacking that bit of quality to cap the day off totally. As usual, we started our day with a walk pre-breakfast, which took us around the observatory and down to the boat jetty. Thrushes were still evident all around, though clearly in lower numbers than yesterdays epic arrival. The crop below the observatory provided lots of entertainment, with a good-sized flock of Brambling often lining the fencing, and at least 15 Twite also here amongst the throngs of Linnets. A walk down to the jetty showed that good numbers of Robins were still on the island, while the beach hosted a small number of Sanderling and Turnstone. The bushes around the Heligoland traps hosted 3 Blackcaps, Goldcrest and Chiffchaff, while 2 Mealy Redpolls were extremely confiding behind the stone dyke, sitting up within 3 meters of us, completely unfazed! Back at the observatory, we enjoyed a full English breakfast before heading out into the field, opting to visit the south-east of the island. It was a belter of a day by now, with blue skies and sunshine accompanying our walk; most of us felt we were wearing far to many clothes! We took a walk along to the iris beds towards Kirbest, and made our way through the cover here. The highlight was a stunning male HAWFINCH which flew across the irises, landing briefly before carrying on, while many Snipe were flushed from the wet ground. Continuing along the road south towards Howar, a pair of confiding Siskins accompaniesd us on our walk down to the edge of Nouster Bay, which held a couple of Black Guillemots, 2 Red-throated Divers, Guillemot and plenty of Shags and Fulmars, as well as smaller numbers of Kittiwakes. The rocks also hosted a couple of Purple Sandpipers, and the beach revealed Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Turnstones. Walking back, we followed the track north-east to Ness, and then round back to where the van was parked, picking up a couple of Chiffchaffs, a fly-by Mistle Thrush and a male Ring Ouzel in the process, emerging from perhaps 300 Redwing which were still liberally sprinkled across the fields. An abundance of Robins also kept up for entertaining birding, while the 8 Pink-footed Geese were again noted. Completing our loop brought us round nicely to lunchtime, which consisted of a delicious lentil soup and sandwiches in the lounge.

 

After lunch, a quick scope of Gretchen Loch from the top of the hill revealed the drake GREEN-WINGED TEAL which had been present for a while, though hadn’t revealed itself to us the other day, so it was good to connect with it finally. The loch also hosted 3 Shoveller amongst the Teal and Wigeon, and a single Black-tailed Godwit. From here we headed up island, to spend the afternoon in the north-eastern corner. Along the way we paused at the Manse and Ancum Willows, picking up a couple of Blackcaps and a Chiffchaff, along with plenty of Redwings, Fieldfares and Song Thrushes across the fields. Robins were jumping along every fenceline as we headed up to Garso, where a look out over Garso Wick revealed 5 Bar-tailed Godwits on the shore, and also the remaining bones of the Sperm Whale which had beached in the spring! Behind us, we walked the road and surrounding marshes, hoping for Jack Snipe but with no luck, though 100 Common Snipe were impressive! A couple of Coot were on the loch, and 2 Chiffchaffs were also found before we headed on to park opposite Bewan Loch. Overlooked by the 1789 Old Lighthouse, an impressive backdrop hung over the loch, which hosted a single Pintail, Gadwall, 2 Shoveler and a pair of fine Whooper Swans, along with a good number of Wigeon and 4 Snow Buntings which were feeding along the lochside. Garso Wick held a few Red-throated Divers and Eider, while the stone cleits which dotted the coastline here (old structures used for growing vegetables) all hosted their own Robins or Blackbirds. The grassland around the new (1854) lighthouse was sprinkled with Redwings, as well as 2 Mealy Redpolls and a group of 7 Bramblings, while a look at Trollavatn pool yielded 11 Dunlin which dropped in but little else. We then walked back, and with the day wearing on, we decided to give Nether Linnay a go. On the way, a Merlin dashed through and landed, and with careful manoeuvring of the van we achieved really superb views! At Nether Linnay, we wanted to have a quick look to see if the HORNEMANN’S ARCTIC REDPOLL would play fairer than it had yesterday. Although it did show itself again, it was yet again a real bugger! It appeared in flight from nowhere, circled around the croft and the completely vanished yet again! Where it goes, no one knows! A flock of about 30 Bramblings were in the stubble field here, and 2 Reed Buntings were feeding along the track, before we made our departure down island. A pause at Holland to see what Alison and Kevin had caught revealed 3 rather late Swallows circling around the garden looking to roost, while Brambling and Goldcrest were also shown to us in the hand, before we headed back to the obs, ready for dinner.   

 

Wednesday 16th October –North Ronaldsay

Overcast with sunny spells, moderate ESE winds, dry until last thing, 12C

 

What a memorable day! A massive arrival of thrushes from Scandinavia occurred under the encouragement of easterly winds and fair conditions, which combined by a morning of low-lying cloud over the island made for a real phenomenal dump of birds, and a constant procession of flocks continuing south. The numbers from the evening bird log at the bird observatory illustrate this, with over 10,000 Redwing and over 1000 Song Thrushes logged by all of us on the island (our more modest Redwing total stood at about 4000 from the areas we covered). The real marvel was that this was undoubtedly an underestimate, as new flocks could be seen arriving from the north all day, and every field was littered with thrushes, which seemed to move in waves as they trickled south. Other totls from the observatories logs, to give an impression of what an island covered in birds was like, include 320 Robins and 315 Blackbirds. Although we didn’t see all of these, the birds were distributed everywhere! Just amazing.

 

 

Redwings incoming!

 

The morning started with Redwings dropping from the sky and shooting through past the Observatory at an incredible rate, while Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests were in the bushes. A flock of finches in the observatory seed crop included several Bramblings fresh in, as well as 5 Twite amongst the Linnets. Over by the Heligoland traps, a high pitched ‘eehp’ call alerted us to a fly-over HAWFINCH which whizzed north towards Holland (where it was later trapped and ringed), while good numbers of Fieldfares were moving with the Redwing flocks, the latter making it to 1000 birds before we had had breakfast! A short visit to the Holland House garden saw a busy ringing team dealling with a good catch of thrushes, and we were treated to seeing a 1st year female Ring Ouzel in the hand, kindly shown by Simon. We paused to help extract a few birds from the nets, seeing Goldcrest, Blackcap and Redwing here, but then headed back to the obs for breakfast, as the ringers had everything under control, and a busy few hours ahead of them! A Hen Harrier was seen from the breakfast table again, before we the made our way out for a days birding; packed lunches in the van! We headed for a loop around the crofts between the airfield and Ancum willows, covering a bit of ground in search of migrants. A Woodcock flew up from the ground amongst some sheep barriers, while a juvenile Merlin was seen brilliantly in pursuit of Redwings, nearly catching one before our eyes. A Mistle Thrush was a good bird, being always a scarcer thrush on these islands. Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests were present in small numbers amongst the crofts, while Robins were popping up all over the place. A flock of about 15 Bramblings were in one of the grassy fields here and were a joy to watch, and a male Snow Bunting flew through the Redwing flocks at the West Banks. Wrapping around back to the road with lunch on our minds, we checked the Ancum Willows which were surprisingly quiet, and then headed back towards the van. News came in then of the Arctic Redpoll being sighted again up at Nether Linnay, so we grabbed the van and headed straight up there. A walk around the site where the bird had been seen, but to no avail, though both Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier were enjoyed for our efforts, as were 20 more Bramblings and a superb young male Ring Ouzel behind the sheep dyke. We were needing some fuel by now, so we stopped to have our lunch, before trying again in the area. Walking the west side of the croft, a Common Redstart was working along the shelter of the wall along with Blackcap and Robins, when Dante Shepherd appeared and got our attention; he had found the HORNEMANN’S ARCTIC REDPOLL again behind us! We heard it initially but didn’t see it, but then it began calling again, and flew over our heads steadily; its large size, buff-washed head and breast and massive white rump all noted despite the flight-only views! The call was interesting to hear also, being really slow and low-pitched compared to the Mealy Redpolls we had heard yesterday. Unfortunately, this flight view was all we got, as the bird disappeared completely again! A really tricky beast, which hopefully we can pin down properly at some point.

 

 

 

Hen Harrier and Ring Ouzel; three of each seen today

 

At this point, we were keen for a quick cuppa, having put in a few miles today! So we headed back to the obs to take 25 mins and take on some caffeine! Afterwards, we decided to head to Holland House, noting a Ring Ouzel hanging around the house. We then walked along to the south-east, checking a few crofts here for migrants. Another Ring Ouzel was along the roadsides, and the fields were still littered with Redwings, Fieldfares and Song Thrushes. Up at one abandoned croft, a ‘spizz’ call came from a grass field; a flying pipit which was either Olive-backed or Tree Pipit, but we never saw the bird or heard it again, despite searching; one for later in the week maybe! A Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier tussling over a large fallow field was probably the final highlight here before we headed back to the observatory; after a totally amazing day.   

 

Tuesday 15th October –North Ronaldsay

Overcast with sunny spells, light E wind am, strengthening later with some short showers,  12C

 

Well today didn’t really follow the script! With east winds and a really promising forecast, we awoke on our first full day on North Ronaldsay full of anticipation, looking forward to a day of good birding ahead. We had a good chance of new birds arriving, plus some interesting lingering species to look for, and also with the possibility of encountering a rarity or two. However, our hunt for a rarity didn’t take long to come to fruition, though it occurred in the worst of circumstances. We left the observatory at 07:30 for an hours birding before breakfast, taking a look around the obs garden and trapping area, picking up 2 fly-over Great Northern Divers, Goldcrest and a number of Redwings and Blackbirds which were likely birds that had arrived overnight. We then took a walk up to Holland House, stopping on a number of occasions as a ringtail Hen Harrier offered repeated superb views as it patrolled! Golden Plover and Curlew were numerous, while a fly-over Brambling gave itself away by its wheezy call. Stopping to say hi to Alison, who was ringing at the Holland garden, she informed us that a number of Blackcaps, Redwing and a single Fieldfare had been caught, as well as a few Brambling; definitely birds in! We saw what was probably her Fieldfare behind the house shortly before, dashing across the sheep-grazed fields. From here we walked back to the obs, in order to get back in time for breakfast. On the roadside, we found a dead bird; a Shrike! Picking it up, its dark brown crown and mantle, short primary projection, dark ear-coverts, minimal vermiculations on the breast and limited scalloping to the mantle and flight feathers were ringing alarm bells; could this be a BROWN SHRIKE?! It sure looked like one! We rang the obs, and George came down to take a look. He took the bird back to the ringing hut, and taking a few biometrics, confirmed this as Orkneys 2nd BROWN SHRIKE, and we had found it perhaps 5 minutes after it had been hit by a car! It couldn’t have been a more unfortunate set of circumstances, and it left everyone somewhat deflated at the obs! However over breakfast we discussed that this could only be a good sign of birds arriving and lots of potential (though realistically we weren’t likely to find a better bird than this today!). Simon perked us up over breakfast with a Yellow-browed Warbler in the hand, and a female Hen Harrier also did a fly-past from the breakfast table, before we got ourselves ready and headed into the field again. A Snow Bunting flew overhead calling outside the obs, before we got into the van and headed up island, stopping at the Ancum Wilows. A quick check here produced a pair of Chiffchaffs and a few Snipe out of the irises. We then had a look around the Old Kirk which hosted several Redwings and Song Thrushes, and a pair of very confiding Goldcrests, before we headed up towards Westness and Nether Linney. A loop and search of the various rough thistly fields, stone walls and ruined crofts here yielded some good birds including a male Common Redstart, 5 superb Mealy Redpolls in the thistles, a female Blackcap, an impressive but mobile flock of 55 Snow Buntings, a minimum of 2 patrolling Hen Harriers and a flock of Purple Sandpipers which flew past; two of which stopping on the shore with Turnstone sand offering really nice views. Working this area thoroughly, we then started heading back, stopping at the Ancum Willows again, which now hosted 2 Goldcrests, and the Manse garden which also hosted a Goldcrest and a couple of Robins. Lunchtime was close now, so we continued down the island and headed in for soup and sandwiches.

 

 

A sad demise for Orkneys 2nd Brown Shrike this morning, and a male Redstart at the north end

 

After lunch, we were keen to head out again, and hearing that James had re-found what was probably a RED-BACKED SHRIKE that had been in the area a couple of days previous. So, we made to spend a chunk of the afternoon birding the area around the crofts of Phisligar and Barrenha; an area with some nice habitat and gardens. Our walk around the site offered a confiding Mealy Redpoll in the gardens, superb views of a settled flock of Golden Plover and a few Robins dotting around the crofts. Approaching Barrenha, the sheltered sycamores in the garden hosted 2 Redwings and a Robin, and best of all a lovely pallid Siberian Chiffchaff which proved really confiding, allowing everyone to take in its buff super, cool brown uppers, green fringed flight and tail feathers and pearly white underparts; a real stunner! We then left it to the important task of feeding up and headed across towards Hooking loch. As we approached to get a view, a medium-sized passerine appeared from the left in flight and flew powerfully across our path; long tailed and slim. Initially it didn’t compute what the bird was; a large pipit perhaps? And then it landed on the fenceline ahead of us; it was the RED-BACKED SHRIKE! Scoped up, the bird was mobile but gave everyone good views as it fed along walls, fences and thistle spikes in the fields. Another unfortunate discovery today was a Short-eared Owl which jumped up from the grass and dropped down into a ditch. It had a severely damaged wing, possibly caused by a collision with a fenceline, and wasn’t in a good way; what is it with today! We left the poor beast alone, and with the afternoon wearing on, we decided to nip back to the obs, and head down towards Gretchen Loch. Driving towards the obs, we noted a significantly higher number of Robins along the roadsides; the weather had changed now to overcast, with strengthening east winds and a couple of passing showers. It appeared that there had been an arrival, and this was confirmed as we walked across the fields towards Gretchen hide. At least 15 Robins were noted along the sheltered stone walls ahead of us, while 3 or more Goldcrests also sheltered here. On the loch itself, a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were present along with numerous Teal, while behind along the shore, we flushed a Merlin off the rocks, complete with what was probably a Redwing dinner. From here we returned back to the obs, with the light quickly fading, and headed in to prepare for a delicious roast dinner. All in all, a really good first day on the island, though it could have been so much better with better luck! Maybe tomorrow our fortunes will improve.    

 

  

An alive-and-kicking Red-backed Shrike, and a superb Siberian Chiffchaff

 

Monday 14th October – Orkney West Mainland and North Ronaldsay

Overcast with sunny spells, windstill am, light E wind later, 12C

 

Our first day on Orkney dawned to stunningly calm and plesant weather, with flat calm bays out in Scapa Flow, viewable from our breakfast table. After a delicious Sands Hotel breakfast, we took a look into the bay beside Churchill Barrier 4, and picked up a number of Black Guillemots in winter plumage, 4 Red-throated Divers in flight overhead and a few Hooded Crows and Rock Pipits along the shore. We checked out of the hotel (a flying visit, as we will be heading to North Ronaldsay this afternoon) and headed north, stopping by Echna Lochside, where we enjoyed a fantastic spread of waterbirds. The sea hosted about 150 superb Long-tailed Ducks, many being males in full winter plumage (arguably their best plumage!). Amongst them were 31 Slavonian Grebes; a fantastic sight! Red-throated Divers, Red-breasted Mergansers and several Guillemots were also present. Behind us on the loch, a redhead Smew was a long-staying bird, but hadn’t been reported for a couple of days, so was great to catch up with. Also here were a number of Tufted Ducks, 3 Goldeneye and several Wigeon and Mallards. Snipe and a number of Redshank were also noted before we made our way further up to the next bay. Off Churchill barrier 3 we enjoyed a group of 5 adult Great Northern Divers, still sporting much of their summer plumage, while 3 more were further out. From here we drove up onto Deerness; the top eastern end of the island, where we had a search for migrants. The East Denwick plantation was fairly quiet, hosting about a dozen Redwings, a single Fieldfare, 2 Goldcrests and a single calling Chiffchaff, plus a few Reed Buntings. The highlight here was a female Hen Harrier which cruised over an oat crop, while Merlin was also noted briefly, as well as Peregrine and a single Twite settled briefly on wires before flying off. A number of Greylag Goose flocks were floating around, one of which was hosting a single tag-along Pink-footed Goose. A quick look at the impressive collapsed sea cave, called the Gloup, and the coast beyond gave us a fly-by Great Skua offshore, along with as ingle Kittiwake and a few distant Gannets offshore, while a walk along the Sandside track and burn failed to produce any migrants, though it did look rare (and has hosted Orkneys only Siberian Accentor, so always worth a look!). The beach held 4 Twite which gave nice views, while Meadow and Rock Pipits were also present.

 

From Deerness, we headed over to the Loch of Ayre, where we had lunch overlooking the bay and loch. A sprinkling of wildfowl here included a group of 5 Whooper Swans, a single redhead Goosander and a single Long-tailed Duck, while more common fare included several, Wigeon, Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, Shoveler and Mallards. Finishing our sandwiches, we headed south again, this time onto South Ronaldsay, where we would meet our friend Andy Mitchell, and take a look at Olav’s Wood. On the way, a flock of Hooded Crows hosted a single Carrion Crow, while at a high point of the road, the view of the northernmost point of Scotland and Dunnet Head, Swona and Stroma were superb. Meeting Andy, we took a walk around his patch and garden, picking up 5 Chiffchaffs (including making the peculiar ‘swee-oo’ call which is quite typical of migrant birds at this time of year), a flyover Redpoll sp., good numbers of Goldcrests and about 30 Redwing. A Sparrowhawk was floating around, and as we returned towards the house a superb female Hen Harrier offered brilliant views as it quartered the gardens at close range. Back at the house, it was getting on for time to head up to Kirkwall in time for our 17:30 flight to North Ronaldsay. So we bid farewell to Andy and headed off, arriving in plenty of time at the airport to sort out our luggage, have a coffee and wait to be called. Once the plane arrived (and after a quick group shot in front of our transport!) we boarded with some anticipation, and enjoyed a superb 15-minute flight over the beautiful northern isles, with their white sandy beaches, scattered skerries and turquoise waters. Soon we were at the airfield on North Ron, where we loaded up into the van and headed straight down to Holland House, where Alison and the team were ringing in the gardens. We got to see Linnets, Blackcap and Goldcrest in the had before we headed down to the Obs (a Merin flashing past on the way down). It’s always exciting to arrive at a Bird Observatory, especially when you have 5 days of birding to look forward to, and we enjoyed chatting to the staff and volunteers about the season, and what we hoped to see tomorrow, as well as a superb home cooked meal. We can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!      

 

 

Smew and a flock of Long-tailed Ducks and Slavonian Grebes

 

Sunday 13th October – Ythan Estuary, Blackdog and Aberdeen – Kirkwall Ferry

Sunny spells, light N wind, 11C

 

Today started for most of our group with a departure from Carlisle, where we had spent the night after driving up from Great Ryburgh the day before. Leaving here, we made our way into Scotland, crossing country and heading towards Aberdeen. Our ferry would depart at 1700, so we had some time to play with, spending it at the Ythan Estuary. Parking up, we walked out round to the edge of the estuary, with a fast-incoming tide lapping at the bases of the dunes. A Semipalmated Sandpiper had been reported the day before here, so we checked fringes of the estuary carefully, picking up Greenshank, several Golden and Grey Plovers, 4 Dunlin, a number of Turnstones and Oystercatchers, and a tight roosting flock of Curlew and Knot; the flock also hosting a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits. In reality, few waders were present, with the high tide apparently providing limited feeding or roosting opportunities. Several fine flocks of Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers were a joy to watch however, while  view of the sea from the dunes revealed a good number of Red-throated Divers and a single fly-by drake Long-tailed Duck, plus a scattering of Common Guillemots. A Walk through the gorse and sycamore-scattered dunes revealed a single Goldcrest, plus plenty of Robins and Stonechats, before we headed back to the van, heading round to Inch Point. From here we enjoyed further superb views of close drake Eiders, and a fly-by group of Knot, before we headed up the coast towards Aberdeen. It was nearly time to be heading for the ferry, but we squeezed in a quick stop at Blackdog, were about 150 Common Scoter and many Red-throated Divers were on the sea. From here we headed for the ferry terminal, arriving in plenty of time to board, ready for our crossing to Kirkwall.

 

Once we were on our way, we all made our way onto deck, where we enjoyed a good scattering of seabirds. The highlights were certainly a trio of individual Arctic Skuas off the starboard, one of which we enjoyed watching dogfighting with a dark POMARINE SKUA! A superb comparison between the two; the latter at one point seeming closer to a Bonxie in structure in comparison to the sleek Arctic. Double figures of Puffins were seen, many being adults in winter plumage, sporting smoky bills and faces, while Kittiwakes and Guillemots were noted in good number. A few Harbour Porpoises were also noted, and once the light had faded, we headed down below deck to have dinner. Our boat arrived in Kirkwall on the Orkney mainland at about 23:20, where we disembarked, and enjoyed a moon-lit drive across the Churchill barriers to Burray, were we arrived at the Sands Hotel, checked in and headed up to bed.

 

 


 

SHETLAND 4TH - 15TH OCTOBER 2019 (AJS)

 

MONDAY 14TH OCTOBER - SOUTH MAINLAND

Light East then South breeze, overcast, 12C

 

Our last day! We decided to forgo the pre-breakfast walk in favour of getting ourselves packed and out as soon as possible – a decision which would come back to haunt us later! We set off with anticipation for a good final search – a Bluetail was in the traps on Fair Isle, and we could see the outline of the magic isle on the horizon for inspiration! A Brambling was around the hotel car park as we set off to our first stop at Levenwick where we checked the small quarry before dropping down to the beach area. A Yellow-browed Warbler was in one of the larger gardens, but despite having a good thrash round the ditches and irises we couldn’t find anything better. Two Otters and a Harbour Porpoise in the bay, which was like glass in the totally calm conditions, were very nice to see. Up in the little gulley of willows at the north side of the bay, we had two lovely tristis Siberian Chiffchaffs along with a single collybita, and two Blackcaps. Channerwick next, and this was also quite productive with another Yellow-browed Warbler giving superb views in the lonely sycamore, along with a couple more Blackcaps. Three Siskins were joined by three big Mealy Redpolls down towards the beach – there were birds around! Just as we were leaving here, the Barred Warbler was sighted again at Spiggie so we decided to divert and head down there. We couldn’t see it (again!) but it was a nice spot for a coffee with Whooper Swans on the loch, and we caught up with Hugh again and he updated us on ‘our’ Short-eared Owl – it had fed overnight and was doing well, perhaps being ready for release later. Our coffee break was then well and truly cut short – BROWN SHRIKE AT GRUTNESS!! We bundled into the van and sped off, being only ten minutes away.

 

 

We arrived at Grutness and could see two or three birders in the fields between the beach and quarries, but though the best bet would be to head up onto the road towards the head and look down with the sun behind. We were soon watching an absolutely stunning and well marked Brown Shrike, feeding along the drystone walls and fences looking back down towards Grutness beach. It really was a fine bird, and a lifer for some of the group too. The finder’s must have almost choked when they set eyes on this avian gem from the east, and we were certainly grateful they had done. It could maybe have been a different day for us if we had done our usual early morning check of the quarries though!! While we were scoping the shrike, a Short-eared Owl floated through and landed on a wall. Shetland birding at its best! From here we headed north, checking three more sites en route to Lerwick – the Swinister Burn, Gulberwick and Seafield. We totalled a couple more Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, but that was it. Two Purple Sandpipers showed nicely on the rocks behind Seafield, and were our last meaningful birds of the trip. Off we went then to Aberdeen on the ferry at the end of another exciting tour to Shetland.

 

SUNDAY 13TH OCTOBER - SOUTH MAINLAND

Light easterly winds and sunshine, 12C

 

Ironically, today was our finest day of weather on the trip, and without doubt our quietest for birds! We kicked off with a pre-breakfast trip up to Sumburgh Head, to make the most of it while it was so calm. Fair Isle was prominent on the horizon, and the magic isle pulled out a Brown Shrike, Stejneger’s Stonechat and Red-throated Pipit by the end of the day. Sadly the mainland didn’t produce such quality, and on our walk around the head we saw a Mealy Redpoll, three Goldcrests and best of all a very nice Siberian Chiffchaff in the main quarry. After breakfast, we headed to Quendale, hoping to follow up on a Blyth’s Reed there yesterday. After a short detour to a quarry en route, where we saw nothing, we arrived at the mill and set about working the burn downstream. A Whinchat was very obliging down towards the bottom, but was the only passerine we saw. Another birder then came along and told us he had just seen a Short-eared Owl with an injured wing by the roadside up towards Hillwell but wasn’t sure what to do about it. We walked up and found the owl, which could manage a few flaps and just about get off the ground, but was clearly totally exhausted. It didn’t appear to have anything broken though, and was quite alert in itself. But it was so tired it couldn’t stand without falling over! We collected it up and wrapped it in a fleece, while local birder Hugh Harrop kindly fetched a cat box and came down to collect it from us. It then spent the night recuperating at his house and hopefully will make a full recovery! Next we tried going up the burn, but this was even quieter than downstream! One Goldcrest and a Blackcap!

 

 

Loch of Spiggie was the next stop as a Barred Warbler had been seen along the fencelines at the north end earlier. Needless to say, it had disappeared now – there were lots of local folk about with it being Sunday, so the area was quite busy. We decided as it was so quiet, we might as well make the most of the fine weather and drive up Mossy Hill, where the views down across South Mainland and out to Fair Isle were quite something. To the north-west, Foula stood proud on the horizon, and on such a clear day it appeared just a short boat ride away! Descending again, we checked Boddam, and then went north up to Cunningsburgh and called at MacKenzies for lunch. Revitalised, we checked the ruined crofts and burn at Fladdabister, seeing a superb Mealy Redpoll at close range, singles of Chiffchaff and Blackcap, but not a lot else! We had enough decent light after this for one more site, so chose Geosetter as the sun would still be facing onto the burn there. Two Robins, a Song Thrush and a Goldcrest – not much! Excellent views of Merlin, and a full summer Great Northern Diver, were seen in the area too. We ended with a quick look at Virkie, where the light was stunning and we could see a few common waders to end the day. Not a classic!

 

 

SATURDAY 12TH OCTOBER - UNST, YELL & VOE

Light easterly wind and sunshine, 12C

 

Our final morning on Unst saw us make an early start down to Valyie for a pre-breakfast amble. It was much the same as recent days bird-wise, though the weather was the best on the trip so far – it was a stunning morning. We saw an increase in Chiffchaffs to 6, and our first Yellow-browed Warbler here so far with one in the oat crop below the bungalow. Otherwise it was plenty of Twite, Brambling and Mealy Redpolls, a single Blackcap, a lovely Common Redstart and now at least 4 Tree Sparrows. After breakfast, we had to pack up and clear out of the houses, and then we headed back down to Norwick. A couple of Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap were the only migrants around the settlement, so we continued on to Skaw. Heading up past the croft, some of the group flushed a pipit which flew off with a buzzy call and dropped in the burn to the south side. We assembled, and walked up towards it, flushing it easily again and watching it head off to the hillside behind by the ruined buildings. On call alone it was clearly Tree or Olive-backed, and with uniform dark upperparts in flight we leant towards the latter. However, the bird had dropped into an area which we could not gain permission to search, despite asking nicely, and with that, news broke that the Lesser Grey Shrike had reappeared at Baltasound. We therefore had to leave the pipit and head off, after another quick circuit of the croft in case it had dropped back in. Frustratingly, it was seen again early afternoon and identified as an Olive-backed Pipit – a close call for a decent find for us! A smart male Common Redstart, small group of Siskins and a Whinchat were other species noted here.

 

Soon we were watching the splendid adult Lesser Grey Shrike at Burnside, in great light and at close quarters too. It was feeding along a stone wall, and often flying up onto the wires where it perched beautifully in the open. This was a lifer for most of the group, so to see it so well after yesterdays disappointment of missing out, was particularly rewarding. A Black Redstart was also confiding in the same spot, so the day was shaping up nicely. Clingera was our next stop, though we didn’t note anything much here other than Brambling and Goldcrest. So then it was on to Uyeasound for a quick look round by the hostel before the ferry. Another Yellow-browed Warbler was in the rosa by the shore, and a Swallow was flying around. An Otter feeding in Belmont harbour was our last Unst action of the trip, before we sailed off for Gutcher on Yell.

 

 

An adult American Golden Plover had been present the last week or so on Yell, so we drove along to Gloup to look for it. Expecting the bird to be with hundreds of Golden Plovers, we scanned the fields it was meant to be in but to no avail. Bumping into another group of birders, we learnt that the bird was actually feeding right beside the road, with a few Ringed Plovers and Redwings! Staying in the van, we enjoyed some fantastic views of this fine adult bird in the sunshine, before it flew off to the hillside with a duel-note call and flashing its dusky underwings. Heading off Yell, we reached Toft on the mainland and then headed straight for Voe, only fifteen minutes drive south. Our quarry here was a Red-breasted Flycatcher, something of a Shetland speciality and a species we are normally fortunate to see on every trip. Despite the extensive habitat, it didn’t take long to locate, as it was very vocal and giving its distinctive short, hard rattle from the birches down by the loch shore. We found a spot where we could view, and enjoyed great close ups of the bird – a lovely orange-washed first-winter, presumably a male. Another Yellow-browed Warbler, and many Redwings, were also present. The day was drawing to a close, but we just had time for a quick look at Kergord on our way to Sumburgh. We didn’t add anything much here other than single Chiffchaff and Blackcap, and a hunting Merlin. The drive down south from here was with a beautiful sunset, and the North Light on Fair Isle blinking at us in the distance as we dropped down to the voe of Sumburgh.

 

FRIDAY 11TH OCTOBER - FETLAR

Calm day, rain moving in later, 12C

 

We planned a day trip to Fetlar today, and with a very light easterly breeze wafting in and overcast skies, we had high hopes for a good day and a Lapland Bunting over Saxa Vord would hopefully set the tone for a few more good birds. We didn’t bother with a pre-breakfast walk, but instead got ourselves sorted and headed down for the 0855 ferry to Hamar’s Ness. Just as we were boarding the ferry, news broke of a Lesser Grey Shrike at Halligarth – we had just driven past there! Damn! We couldn’t really change our plan now so continued, certain that being a shrike it would hang around there for the rest of the day and we could see it later on. The Bluemull sound produced 11 Long-tailed Ducks and a couple of Harbour Porpoise, and after twenty minutes we reached the island of Fetlar and set off for the eastern end at Funzie. It was so calm you could hear a pin drop as we explored the farm at the far end, a remote outpost in a small bay with the Out Skerries on the skyline beyond. There was nothing here, so we moved back up the hill to Funzie itself, finding a Yellow-browed Warbler and two Brambling around the houses there. Driving down to Everland, we saw a superb Eastern Lesser Whitethroat, even browner and more striking in appearance than the bird at Gutcher a few days back. Sadly it eluded the camera though, and shot off along a stone wall.

 

The Feal burn at Houbie had recently been the subject of much excitement, as a Rufous-tailed Robin had been seen briefly late one evening, sparking a mass twitch, to no avail, the following day. This excellent location provided some of our best general birding of the day – 6 Blackcaps, a Wlllow Warbler, 2 Chiffchaffs, Goldcrest and a Yellow-browed Warbler were along the fence dropping into the burn, and a Common Redstart was the first one of the trip that we had all seen! After a brew, we continued to Tresta, checking the gardens around the shop on the way but adding nothing more than Robins and another Blackcap. There were large numbers of Golden Plovers scattered around the island, and we had the opportunity to scope through them, but we couldn’t find anything exciting. At Tresta, a Chiffchaff was in the main garden, and there were endless Snipe flushing up from around the edge of the lochan. A family group of Whooper Swans was also here, and the bay was beautifully calm with another fine view out to Skerries. We had lunch, and then moved up the hill to the handful of buildings just above the bay. Another Yellow-browed Warbler showed really well here, and then something flushed from the track and flipped round the corner of a barn – it gave a short dry clipped trill a bit reminiscent of a Lapland Bunting, and we approached expecting to find that species feeding on the ground just around the corner. What we found instead was a small, sandy lark with a finch like bill and dark marking at the breast sides – another Short-toed Lark! The bird fed in the open for us in a farm entrance, then flew back to where we had first flushed it from. We had some excellent views of it here, feeding in the middle of the track. We had overlooked the fact that it had been seen previously on and off, so it was a complete surprise to us to stumble across it. Now it was time to catch the ferry back to Gutcher on Yell, which we made with a few minutes to spare.

 

 

Disembarking at Gutcher, we had half an hour to kill before the ferry back to Belmont so drove up the hill to check the two large gardens. As we pulled up by the first, a Hawfinch flew out! The bird bounded across to the other garden and buried itself in the willows there, so we wandered down the field edge to look back in. There we could see the female Hawfinch, sitting quietly nibbling at rose hips in deep cover. Another nice surprise! Back on Unst, the weather totally closed in as we headed to Halligarth to try and relocate the shrike which had now gone missing. The visibility was so poor we had little chance, and after checking the area it had been seen in without any joy, we decided to head over to Haroldswick to check a report of a Little Auk. A Slavonian Grebe was now in the bay and we saw it alongside the Black-throated Diver which gave us our best views yet. There were three Red-throated Divers and four Razorbills too, but no sign of anything smaller. This was our last action of the day, due to the weather, and we returned to base for our last night here before moving back south tomorrow.

 

THURSDAY 10TH OCTOBER - UNST

Strong westerly winds and frequent rain showers, 10C

 

Our pre-breakfast excursion down to Valyie was rather damp and blustery this morning, but nevertheless there were still a lot of birds to see here including a distinct increase in Blackcaps with 8 seen along the burn and in the two crops. The Mealy Redpoll flock was still present though in smaller numbers, though Siskin were now up to half a dozen and fifteen Brambling were present. We worked the burn hard, giving it a couple of good flushes but putting out only Redwings and Robins in addition to the Blackcaps. A single Chiffchaff and a couple of Goldcrests were in the plantation, and we saw the Reed Bunting, Tree Sparrows and Tree Pipit again. Two Woodpigeon were the first of the trip!

 

After breakfast we headed down to Haroldswick to look for a Black-throated Diver. The bird was in the bay, but not easy to observe – it was quite distant and diving incessantly. Eventually we saw it really well – a subtle juvenile with a big white flank flash, and often in company with two Red-throated Divers, Guillemot, Razorbill, Eider and numerous Shags. A Merlin flashed in and landed on a fenceline, our third of the trip but the best view so far – interestingly we watched it hover like a Kestrel three times in succession, something none of us had ever seen before. Next we headed across to Burrafirth, where we had superb views of a Yellow-browed Warbler in the walled garden below the visitor centre. On the way back towards Haroldswick, we found 20+ Mealy Redpolls feeding quietly by the roadside and had a good look through them, but couldn’t elevate any of them beyond frosty Common Redpoll types. Another Yellow-browed Warbler was then seen in a random roadside spot working along a stone wall, and rounded off a decent morning.

 

After lunch it got more difficult, with persistent rain and strengthening winds. We headed to Baltasound, checking Halligarth but seeing only a Chiffchaff, and lots of Redwings. We then heard from Mark Golley that he had seen a ‘Common’ Sandpiper outside the tearoom in Haroldswick, so we dashed there to help him relocate it. The bird had totally vaporised though, and neither he nor us were able to find it again, so it will remain a mystery. The Black-throated Diver showed superbly though, coming right into the wick. Back in Baltasound, we found a lovely juvenile islandica Black-tailed Godwit with the Golden Plover flock near Halligarth, and then checked the Health Centre garden where the Pallas’s Warbler had relocated to. We couldn’t find it, so it had obviously moved on again – the nearby plantation behind the school held another vocal Yellow-browed Warbler, Brambling and a Swallow moving through. Far from a dead loss today despite the weather, but things were due to change from now on with an easterly flow and some drier conditions. Fingers crossed!

 

WEDNESDAY 9TH OCTOBER - UNST

Moderate Southerly winds and frequent heavy showers, 10C

 

We rose at first light this morning to make our first foray to our new ‘patch’ at Valyie, just a short drive away from our accommodation. It was really birdy here this morning, and as we walked along the road from the beach we flushed a Reed Bunting, and were surrounded by flocks of Twite, Brambling and Redpolls. The latter were mainly big, frosty Common Redpoll types, and they were feeding in the oat crop with one or two Siskins and around a dozen Brambling. The burn held a couple of Goldcrests, Robins and Blackcaps, while three Chiffchaffs and two Tree Sparrows were also seen, the latter a nice surprise but apparently now a breeding species here. We spent some time enjoying the redpolls, but we couldn’t see anything ‘snowball’ like among them. Back up at Norwick, a Tree Pipit flushed from the side of the road and perched beautifully on a fence post – lovely!

 

After breakfast we headed down to Skaw, and while it was now raining steadily, we had a walk round the croft and saw a few Redwing, a Chiffchaff and a brief Whinchat. As the rain cleared, we opted to walk out onto the headland to check the sheltered geo, and had a white-winged gull float across the peninsula. We only had bins with us and the bird was distant, but on the second views we had we could see an all dark bill and got a comparison of size with a Herring Gull – it was a juvenile Iceland Gull. Out on the clifftop, we encountered two flocks of Snow Buntings totalling 60 birds, fluttering like snow flurries in the wind in and out of the geos. Returning to the vehicle, we drove down to Lamba Ness, but the weather totally closed in and prevented us going to look for some of the birds reported yesterday such as Arctic Redpoll and Lapland Bunting. We did see another 40 Snow Buntings, and then found a cracking Jack Snipe in a small pool by the side of the track which allowed us to pull right up alongside it and get some great photos.

 

 

Next we headed south down the island to Westing, where our Norfolk birding friend Mark Golley had found an Eastern Stonechat which had more than an air of Stejneger’s about it – we were keen to connect with it, and compare with the classic maurus we had seen a few days previously in South Mainland. The bird was quite elusive, favouring the hillside behind the beach and never coming close, but it was like chalk and cheese comparing this dark, swarthy bird with the frosty Siberian at Brake. It showed a distinct dark cap, rich dark brown fringes to mantle feathers, a burnt caramel rump and stout, black bill. The underparts showed a white throat contrasting with a darker orange breast, and a little black could be seen in the bases of the ear covert feathers suggesting a first-winter male. It was a striking and informative bird to see and we were glad we had made the effort, despite the frequent soakings we got while looking for it!

 

Uyeasound was our next stop, and on Easter Loch we saw a nice female Greater Scaup and two Goldeneye with the Tufted Duck flock, and an obliging family herd of Whooper Swans. Driving along the Muness road, we found huge numbers of Golden Plovers scattered across the fields and set about scanning through them for something more interesting. We didn’t find anything initially, other than a lot of Ringed Plover and the odd Dunlin, so parked at the top of the hill to look back with a scope. As we did so, a Merlin dashed in and began chasing a Skylark over the field, scattering the plovers every which way. Our final action of the day was back at Norwick, with a wander round the village – 2-3 Chiffchaffs included a candidate for tristis, the Tree Pipit was still present, and we saw a few Mealy Redpolls buzzing around. 36 Snow Buntings flying over calling as dusk fell was a nice way to cap off the day.

 

TUESDAY 8TH OCTOBER - SOUTH MAINLAND, SANDGARTH, YELL AND UNST

Light Southerly winds and sunny spells, 12C                                                                                                                                                               

A very different days weather today, and subsequently far more productive bird-wise. We started our day down at Scatness, the peninsula immediately opposite the hotel across the West Voe of Sumburgh. It was nice and calm here, though with a heavy sea still hanging over from yesterday, the air was full of salty mist! A Redstart flicked around the houses at the end, where a few Redwing, Song Thrush and Robin were also along the stone walls. Scanning the small loch, a big dog Otter emerged and swam across before clambering out on the far bank and rolling around in the grass. Soon after, a Short-eared Owl flew through, followed by a second, and both dropped into the grass at the bottom of a stone dyke and sat in full view. A really nice start to the day! The nearby settlements of Hestingott and Toab added a Chiffchaff, the odd Goldcrest and that was it! Disappointing, as there was an air of ‘mega’ to the day and it just felt like something good was going to pop out at any moment. We headed to Levenwick, where a better roll call included another Redstart, two Lesser Redpolls, Blackcap, Brambling and a nice Yellow-browed Warbler, while a Dunnock was also new for the trip list! From here, we returned to Sumburgh Airport to drop Nick off for his return flight, before the rest of us pushed on up to Lerwick to collect our online shopping order ready for the four day trip up to the wilds of Unst.

 

En route to the Yell ferry, we stopped at Sandgarth where a Yellow-browed Warbler greeted us as we got out of the van, showing really well along the sheltered edge of a small copse by the entrance. A second was heard calling further down in the main gardens, where 5-6 Chiffchaffs included a pale Scandinavian type, and all the time small flocks of Redwings were dropping in calling. Two Blackcaps, several Goldcrests, and a very fleeting glimpse of a Pied Flycatcher were also had and it really felt like there were more birds around. Pushing on from here to Toft, we crossed to Yell and then drove on to Camb where both Waxwing and Little Bunting had been reported earlier. We found the overgrown garden and bonfire heap where the Waxwing had been (the heap was full of branches laden with red berries!) but there was no sign. We worked the burn to look for the bunting but that was not around either. We were just about to leave, when we spotted the juvenile Waxwing perched low down on the bonfire heap feeding quietly – we must have walked right past it! We now only had 10 minutes to make the 11 minute journey to Gutcher for the Unst ferry – and we did just miss it! We only had to wait half an hour for the next one though, so time to check the big garden just before the ferry terminal. This turned up another Yellow-browed Warbler, but also a superb blythi type Eastern Lesser Whitethroat – as well as being super brown, with much white in the tail, it also hinted at a rattling call a couple of times. A really smart and showy bird, it was a new taxa for most of the group.

 

News of a Pallas’s Warbler behind the shop in Baltasound had now reached us, but it was almost 5.15 by the time we reached Belmont and we figured that the light would probably be almost gone by the time we got there. However, luck was on our side and we were soon watching this wonderful little ‘seven-striped sprite’ flitting among the rosa down to just a few metres, its lemon rump flashing in the gathering gloom. Again this was a new bird for some of the group, so to see it so well was a magnificent end to a much better day. We checked into our self-catering accommodation at Saxa Vord, home for the next four nights, and enjoyed a very pleasant first evening together on the island.

 

MONDAY 7TH OCTOBER - HOSWICK, SANDWICK, QUARFF, MAYWICK, SPIGGIE

Strong SE winds and heavy rain, 11C

 

Today was a real challenge, with at times torrential rain and gale force windsmaking any birding a real test of our resolve! We didn’t bother with a pre-breakfast walk, but instead headed up to Sumburgh quarries around 8am. Immediately it was obvious that a few birds had arrived, notably Robins which were present in both quarries in increased numbers. Many Redwing were exploding up from the grass and there were Goldcrests on the cliffs again. The wind was already really strong though, so we didn’t hang around here too long. Moving on, we reach Hoswick and set about the Swinister Burn. It was at least still dry at this point, and by slowly moving down through the willows we managed to see a Yellow-browed Warbler and two Chiffchaff! Hoswick village itself was in the teeth of the gale, and we couldn’t find anywhere with any shelter – though another Yellow-browed called and a Goldcrest was seen. Sand Lodge in Sandwick was the next stop, and the highlights were all in the cove where we had excellent views of Purple Sandpipers, Gannets plunging into the ocean right in by the shore, and two Swallows which came in off. Lunch was had at Maywick, where we hoped to find some shelter at the end of the valley – Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, two Brambling and several large flocks of Redwing in the fields were the best of it in awful conditions.

 

Heading North towards Lerwick, the rain did begin to ease slightly as we reached Quarff so we decided to head down into the valley. The biggest garden held a Spotted Flycatcher, keeping low along the rear edge, and a Yellow-browed Warbler showed surprisingly well given that it was now absolutely sluicing it down again. The adjacent fields also held at least a hundred Redwing, so they were clearly being forced down today in the weather. We then called into Lerwick itself to find somewhere for coffee and to dry out, but everywhere was full to bursting! We eventually found a small café in a side street with some free tables, and made a brew last long enough to get our clothes partly dry! Four Black Guillemots in the harbour were nice to see at least. We then tried to head up to Kergord, but when we got there everyone decided that the weather was now so bad that we were never going to see anything, and so we gave up and headed all the way back south to Loch of Spiggie. Here the rain did ease enough for us to get out of the van and use a scope – in doing so we picked out three Scaup among the Tufted Ducks, and had nice views of Whooper Swans and Goldeneye. Boddam and Virkie failed to add anything new, so we finished at Grutness beach where a superb drake Long-tailed Duck was now accompanying the female, and the Red-throated Diver was still present. A very tough day.

 

SUNDAY 6TH OCTOBER - SUMBURGH, QUENDALE & WEST BURRADry with sunny spells and a strong SE wind, 11C

 

A decent days birding today despite the strong winds making it tough to find small birds for the most part. We started early, with a check of the two quarries at Sumburgh before breakfast and the early signs were that a few birds had arrived overnight – Redwing, Song Thrush and Goldcrest were very much in evidence and small groups were moving out of the quarry at first light. Goldcrest were feeding low on the cliffs, and a Robin skulked among the thistles. A Lesser Whitethroat was flushed and seen briefly, a sandy looking thing with much white in the tail and a brown crown so presumably ‘of an Eastern form’. We stopped to check Grutness beach on the way back for breakfast, noting the Purple Sandpiper among the Turnstones and Sanderlings.

 

 

After breakfast, we made our way out for the day stopping first at the Pool of Virkie to check for the Semipalmated Sandpiper. We found the bird mid way along the northern shore and enjoyed some really superb views by using the van as a hide. Now we really could take in all its subtleties and even see the webbing between the toes as it fed alongside a much larger Dunlin. Bar-tailed Godwit and Knot were also seen here, before we moved on to Quendale. A Siberian Stonechat had been seen at Brake in recent days, so we stopped at the bottom of the hill by Loch of Hilwell to scan the fencelines. We picked up a nice Whinchat, but couldn’t see our main quarry so continued to Quendale water mill. We put a shift in here, working the irses and thistles all the way up the burn to the top end – a Reed Bunting, two Blackcap, two Chiffchaff, three Goldcrest, a Brambling and plenty of Redwing were all we had to show for our efforts though. A brew was therefore very welcome once we got back to the mill, and then it was back along to Brake to try again for the Stonechat. This time we tried from the village end, looking back down the oat crop, and three of us managed a very brief glimpse of the bird on the fence posts at the bottom of the field. A swift relocation to the bottom of the hill proved fruitless though, and we never saw it again. Lunch beckoned, and a Sunday roast (for some!) in the excellent MacKenzies at Cunningsburgh!

 

In the afternoon, we decided to take a ride over onto West Burra, where a Bonelli’s Warbler had been seen yesterday, and in the same garden earlier today, a Barred Warbler. We didn’t see either, but the garden held six lovely Brambling, a Blackcap and a couple of Goldcrest. Retracing back to East Burra, we checked a small plantation which was in the sun and out of the wind – the resounding ‘tsooeet!’ of a Yellow-browed Warbler greeted us, and we went on to see and hear three in total, with some barn-storming views at close range. At least two Chiffchaff, a Blackcap, several Redwing and Goldcrest were also present, so a very nice hour. We had time to work one more site before returning to nail the Stonechat, so we headed back south and hit Geosetter which is always good fun to work. Several more Redwing and Goldcrest, a couple of Robin and that was it – quite disappointing on this occasion. We ended the day back at Brake, and this time the Siberian Stonechat did the business for us and showed really nicely in the harvested tatty rig below Ringasta, and we scoped the bird for over half an hour in the late afternoon sunshine. A lovely, pale bird of the classic maurus type, hopping around on the ground with two Wheatear and often perching up proud on the adjacent fence posts. A very nice way to round off the day.

 

SATURDAY 5TH OCTOBER - DALE OF WALLS, OLLABERRY, GOTT, GRUTNESS AND GARTH'S NESS

Dry day with strong SE winds, 11C

 

We were first off the Northlink ferry this morning and soon on our way full of anticipation of our first days birding on Shetland. The plan was to head first to West Mainland, and try and hit a couple of spots before they got too busy with birders. Arriving at Dale of Walls, we headed down to the farm at the bottom of the valley and had a wander around – there was virtually no wind, and we enjoyed fantastic views out to the Isle of Foula to the west. There were a few Redwing around, and a Goldcrest was in the burn, but otherwise it was rather quiet. Over the hillside, a flock of Golden Plover were feeding, soon flushed off by a big female Peregrine cruising over as we worked the willows at Mid Dale looking for migrant passerines. A few more Redwing were here, plus two each of Fieldfare and Song Thrush, a Chiffchaff, Blackcap and, well, that was about it. As we left the valley, a Merlin showed superbly, perched on a fence post by the road side.

 

Melby was our next stop, and down at the beach we enjoyed close views of Dunlin, Sanderling, Turnstone and Rock Pipit along the tideline, plus Black Guillemot and Great Skua out in the bay. Another Goldcrest and Redwing were noted in the gardens, but again it was rather quite. Along at the old watermills, another Great Skua cruised by, and five Twite were also seen. At this point, we realised that no new birds were arriving, and that our best bet now was to head off to twitch the European Bee-eater at Ollaberry. This was about one hours drive further north, but well worth the effort – the Bee-eater showed really well, keeping low around the leaward side of a few large gardens. We had the bird perched on a fence several times at quite close quarters, and then eventually it flew up and caught an insect and circled directly over our heads, hanging into the wind before dashing off across a nearby field. There wasn’t much else to report here – single Goldcrest and a Grey Wagtail being the best of it.

 

 

Bee-eater and Red-backed Shrike - two of todays highlights!

 

After stocking up on lunch provisions in Brae, we birded the community woodland there where three Lesser Redpolls were feeding quietly out of the wind. From here, we started to make our way south and the next stop was near Gott, at Tingwall, for a juvenile Red-backed Shrike. The bird showed extremely well, hunting from a fenceline by a small plantation and eventually flying right in close to the road we were watching from. A superb bird and great to see it at such close quarters. The question then was how to finish our day and maximise the available daylight – a Short-toed Lark was near Quendale but we also wanted to make sure we saw the Semipalmated Sandpiper at Grutness. With the sandpiper a priority, we decided to head to Grutness voe first and look for it, but on arrival we learned that it had flown off and not been seen for half an hour or so. A bustle of Turnstones were working over the kelp on the beach in a nosiy flock, punctuated by one or two silver Sanderling and browner Dunlin. In the bay, were point-blank views of Shag and Red-throated Diver, with Black Guillemot and Long-tailed Duck further out. Scanning the beach further up, we saw a few more small waders and among them was the distinctive, diminutive yet dumpy form of the juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper. We relocated further along the dunes for a better view and had some good comparisons with adjacent Dunlin and Sanderling. A Snow Bunting popped up briefly on the dunes behind as well, but it was the Nearctic wader that stole the show and gave instructive views for all – a very smart little bird!

 

We had an hour left in the day, and so we decided to have a stab at the Short-toed Lark near Quendale. Approaching along the track to Garth’s Ness, we met two birders coming away who informed us that sketchy flight views of the bird were all we could hope for. However, as we parked up, a lark flushed from by the abandoned buildings and dropped over the far side – it looked compact and short-tailed, and we were pretty sure it was the bird. We headed around the far side of the buildings, but there was no sign. Extending the search further, we flushed the Short-toed Lark and it flew back to the spot where it had flown up from originally. Stalking carefully up on the bird, we found it feeding on an area of dried mud by the entrance to the buildings, and had superb views of it out in the open for several minutes. A really lovely bird to end the day, and now it really was time to head to the Sumburgh Hotel for check in!

 

FRIDAY 4TH OCTOBER - ABERDEENSHIRE

Moderate easterly winds and overcast, 10C

 

Following our drive up to Carlisle from Norfolk yesterday, we set off from our Premier Inn early this morning and made the four hour trip up to Aberdeen. We drove through a fair bit of rain, but thankfully it was dry by the time we arrived at our first birding stop, near Newburgh on the south side of the Ythan Estuary. With the wind in the east, we decided to check the coastal dunes and bushes for migrants, and we were rewarded with a few birds in the first sycamore we looked in. Single Willow Warbler and Redwing were supplemented by three Goldcrest, and then a superb Siberian Chiffchaff – a lovely bird with snow white underparts, brown upperparts and buff supercilium lacking green or yellow hues. We never heard it call, or managed a photo unfortunately. Further down in the dune slacks, we checked a large area of willows adding three more Goldcrests, and then got stuck into the birds on the estuary itself. Several hundred Common Eider were here at the river mouth, showing really well in perfect light. We couldn’t find a King among them, but did see a lone Pink-footed Goose, a few Knot, Turnstone and Bar-tailed Godwits. Large numbers of Grey Seals were hauled out on the sandbanks, and four Common Scoter were distantly offshore.

 

Moving on, we headed up the coast a bit further to Collieston, a well known migrant hotspot. We didn’t find anything here though other than a couple of Stonechat and Rock Pipit, and so returned to the Ythan Estuary to watch the tide pushing up. Good numbers of Pink-footed Geese were in the adjacent stubble fields, with another small group on the estuary containing two Barnacle Geese. A family herd of Whooper Swans, half a dozen Goldeneye and three Red-breasted Mergansers were also out in the channel. Waders were represented by large numbers of Redshank, a few Bar-tailed Godwits, two Black-tailed Godwits and both Grey and Golden Plovers. A nice bonus to round off the day came in the form of a Great White Egret, which was certainly something of a surprise to see this far north. Evidently, it had been in the area for most of the year. From here we headed south to Aberdeen and collected our remaining two passengers, before making our way round to the ferry terminal where the M.V. Hjaltland departed on time at 1900.