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BIRDING DIARY
Trip reports and latest news from Oriole Birding tours
Date: 2019-04-18

 
 
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NORFOLK SPRING MIGRATION 15TH - 18TH APRIL (AJS)

 

THURSDAY 18TH APRIL - WELLS, STIFFKEY & TITCHWELL

Sunshine and a fresh easterly breeze, 14C

 

A really nice days birding to wrap up the tour today, with a more relaxed pace after yesterdays long walk at overy! We headed down to Wells Woods first off this morning, to make the most of the warm, sheltered birches early morning before the crowds descended, and to see if any migrants had trickled in overnight. The woods were full of birdsong, and Willow Warblers have now taken over from Chiffchaffs with six in song around The Dell. Interestingly, there were a good few Goldcrest about, and also several thrushes, which included a party of ten Redwing. Single Redpoll and half a dozen Brambling were also no doubt getting ready to depart, and a lovely Firecrest was found feeding low down under the birches south of the toilet block. We checked the more open area west of The Dell and added two Sedge Warblers, but try as we might, we couldn’t find a Pied Fly. On Quarles Marsh, there were good numbers of Teal and still a few Wigeon, while a skydancing pair of Marsh Harriers were overhead calling.

 

Next up was Stiffkey, and we wanted to try for a Great Grey Shrike which had been present in recent days down on the coastal footpath. Reaching the area of gorse and scrub where the bird had been seen yesterday, there was no immediate sign of it. Singles of Willow Warbler and Blackcap were in the bushes, and a flock of Brent Geese were on the marsh. The familiar ‘kyaow!’ of Mediterranean Gulls could also be heard as a pair passed over, and a fine Whimbrel was feeding on the saltmarsh and gave us some excellent views. Checking the next area of scrub to the west, we had amazing views of a Short-eared Owl, which came out of the gorse and then flew right along the coast path towards us, passing no more than a few feet from us. It ended up being pursued by a number of gulls, and landed on the saltmarsh where they continued to bombard it. Heading back, we started to make our way towards the fen, when a suspicious silhouette appeared on a distant bush – it was the Great Grey Shrike! The bird flew almost right away, but perched again in the hedge a bit nearer to us. We just about managed to get everyone on it, before it dropped out of view. There were now a few other birders present, but none of us saw it again! We had no idea where it went! We decided to crack on anyway, as we had at least seen it, and make our way to Titchwell for lunch.

 

 

It was warm and sunny in Titchwell car park and we had a singing Cetti’s Warbler there while we ate lunch – the bird perched up briefly and then flew along the back of the car park into cover. A male Blackcap was more obliging, singing its heart out in the open. Heading onto the reserve, we had some good views of Bearded Tits by the west bank path, and heard both Sedge and Reed Warbler singing too. We only went as far as the freshmarsh today, and from Parrinder Hide there was a nice flock of Sandwich Terns resting. One was colour ringed, from a scheme in North-east Scotland, and two Common Terns were also with them – our first of the year. As well as the hundreds of Mediterranean Gulls present, we also saw four Black-tailed Godwits, four male Ruff just starting to come into plumage, and a pair of Little-ringed Plovers. There was just time for good views of the faithful Water Rail on the way back, in its usual ditch, before we returned to Ryburgh by the scenic route via Docking – noting a lovely party of Yellowhammers on the way.

 

 

WEDNESDAY 17TH APRIL - NORTH NORFOLK

Fine and sunny in moderate east winds, 14C

 

Today was a contrast to yesterday both in terms of weather and birds! With lighter winds throughout the day, and more sunshine, it was the perfect temperature for our long walk out through Burnham Overy Dunes and Holkham, and it felt distinctly more spring like in birding terms too with an excellent flush of summer migrants juxtaposed with some winter stragglers. Four House Martins over the pub as we set off set the tone for the day, and we added a cracking Barn Owl and brace of Grey Partridge by the time we reached Holkham. Parking a second vehicle at Lady Anne’s Drive, we then drove round to Burnham Overy Staithe and parked at the top of Whincover. With the Alexanders in bloom, bumblebees buzzing around the hawthorn blossom and the first Lesser Whitethroat of the year in song, we had high hopes as we set off towards the dunes. Our first Sedge Warblers of the year were also singing along the track here, and the last Pink-footed Geese of winter were grazing on the marsh. Just before the sea wall, a Grasshopper Warbler began reeling as we approached. It was initially very elusive, only giving brief snatches of song from deep cover by the dyke, but eventually it got going and worked its way up into a dog rose where we could get a scope on it for everyone. A Great White Egret flew along the marsh too – a species which barely gets a second glance from our groups these days! Up on the seawall, a few waders included a stunning breeding plumaged male Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit, a few Avocets and a Grey Plover, while the last Brent Geese of winter flew off the saltmarsh and onto the reedbed pool for a bathe. The rest of the walk to the dunes was quiet, apart from a single Whimbrel hurrying over east along the dune ridge. Two Blackcap were in the boardwalk bushes, and our first two Wheatear of the day were along the fenceline – it had been a lively start!

 

Heading west towards Gun Hill, three more Wheatear were seen, but it was otherwise quiet – a Spoonbill came off the saltmarsh as we retraced our way back to the boardwalk, and was the first of many seen today. East of the boardwalk things got more interesting, with another flush of half a dozen Wheatear, and then three Ring Ouzels feeding in the dunes just west of the pines. While we tried to get round the back of the ouzels for better views, a male Common Redstart popped into view and added a very welcome splash of spring colour – excellent! The ouzels were not easy with lots of walkers in the dunes moving them around, but we got lucky as one of them perched up on a bush right in front of us for a few moments before they all took flight and headed past us. We returned to the Redstart, which was now on the fenceline, and showing much better in the improving light. Heading into the pines, we could hear the dry wheeze of a singing Brambling and found two feeding among the cones, while a flurry of butterflies in the warm sunshine here included our first Holly Blue, Green-veined White and Orange Tip of the year. It was clear that there were in fact a number of Brambling feeding in the pines, but it was only once we took the birding trail through the willows just west of crosstracks, that we had good views of them. Here, a dozen or so were coming to drink from a small puddle under the bushes, and there were some dazzlingly fine males with glossy black heads. It was great to hear them singing too, and compare their short, dry and monotone wheeze with the more musical song of the Greenfinch.

 

Joe Jordan Hide provided us with a welcome rest stop, as we had walked a good distance today so far. Two more Great White Egrets were seen from here, while a number of Spoonbills around the colony included three full adults on the main lagoon from the hide. A pair of Garganey also swam into view here, and a Green Sandpiper fed with Redshank at the edge of the pool. Throw in a Red Kite, passing Peregrine and the ubiquitous Marsh Harriers, and we were having a busy time! It was now 1.30pm though, and with a half hour walk back, we really needed to get moving. Six Willow Warbler singing along the route back were a real sign that spring had arrived, and even back at Lady Anne’s Drive as we had lunch we enjoyed more birds – two more Green Sandpipers, and four Little-ringed Plovers chasing each other around calling. After what proved to be a rather late lunch, we decided to wander out onto the beach as we met a birder who had seen the Shorelarks earlier on. The light was fantastic, the beach was totally out of the wind and the Shorelarks performed – 23 of them scurrying within a few metres of us at the edge of the track. They really did look something special in this light, and now in full plumage too, with neat black mask and ‘horns’, and a bright rusty wash on the nape.

 

 

We didn’t have time to do another main site today, so opted instead to pop down and check the flashes at North Point east of Wells on our way home. There was a good hand of Teal and Gadwall present, plus four Ruff, two Sand Martin, another two Wheatear, three Common Snipe and a singing Cetti’s Warbler. That really was enough excitement for one action-packed day, and we returned to base with probably not far shy of 100 species in the notebook.

 

TUESDAY 16TH APRIL - EAST NORFOLK

Hazy sunshine and moderate easterly winds. 12C

 

We headed east for the first day of our Norfolk spring migration tour today, a decision which looked a no-brainer with several good birds to look for, including a long-staying Hoopoe and Ring Ouzels – the reality was slightly different! Winterton would be our first stop, where the Upupa epops had been hanging out, and we set off into the south dunes with trepidation in the hope of a sighting. After combing the area about half a mile south of the road, and back again through the valley, we had not only failed to find the target bird, but not seen a lot else either! Three Wheatears and a singing Chiffchaff were about the size of it. The dune system here is massive, and without some further gen to point us in the right direction, we had to accept that we weren’t going to find it today. Offshore, several parties of Gannets were heading south in the stiff wind, and the odd Swallow was hurrying south.

 

Heading north towards Horsey, we made a couple of roadside stops to scan the coastal fields. A pair of Marsh Harriers were skydancing at our first stop, the female flying high into the blue sky and pulling some spectacular loop-the-loop manoeuvres while giving her Lapwing-like call. A bit further down along Horsey straight, we stopped to scan a large Mute Swan herd, and saw a Great White Egret stalk up out of one of the dykes. The bird flew low across the field and then settled in the open for us, giving some good views. Among the Greylag, a single Tundra Bean Goose was seen distantly – this winter straggler could be identified by its heavy, deep based black bill and dark chocolatey brown upperparts. In the hedge behind us, the first Common Whitethroat of spring burst into song, and perched briefly in the top of the hedge – this had been a good stop!

 

Waxham next, and after parking up at Shangri-la we walked south to look for the recently reported Ring Ouzels. A pair of Blackcap were in the copse, with the singing male showing nicely. There was also a clear emergence of overwintered Peacock butterflies in the warming sunshine, with many seen along the walk, and Swallows were again trickling south along the dune ridge. In the field the Ring Ouzels should have been in, there were four Wheatears, but no sign of any mountain blackbirds. We walked further down, towards the old pipe dump, and Nick saw a male Ring Ouzel really distantly looking towards the chicken farm, but the rest of us missed it and despite our best efforts to relocate it, the bird completely vanished and we didn’t see it again. It was now already 1.30pm though, and we were a fair way from the van, so we started making our way back up. We were certainly ready for our sandwiches, which we had in the sunshine by Waxham church.

 

Potter Heigham Marshes would be our final destination for the rest of the afternoon, to add a bit of variety and some waterbirds to our list. The pools here still hold a lot of water at this time of year, and there were a lot of gulls and ducks here rather than waders. Still, we saw a good selection, with a Common Sandpiper being a year tick for most and a cracking pair of adult Mediterranean Gulls on one of the islands. A drake Garganey then swam into view, a really smart bird and one we were certainly hoping to find here. In the end we saw probably as many as five different birds, with two pairs and a single drake. Two Avocets also flew in, and a fine male Marsh Harrier flew right past us along the River Thurne bank. Passerine migrants had certainly been in short supply in the cool winds, so it was good to at least hear a snatch of song from a Sedge Warbler as we walked back. Great Crested and Little Grebes, Wigeon, Gadwall and Shoveler were also seen, and on our way out we had more excellent scope views of one of the drake Garganey. From here it was an hour back to base – a challenging day.

 


 

 

CORNWALL- THE BEST OF THE SOUTH WEST 14TH - 20TH APRIL (JWM)

 

FRIDAY 19th April – Lands End, Sennen Cove, Nanquidno Valley, St Gothian’s Sands and Marazion

Sunny all day, light E winds, 21C

 

Absolutely scorchio today, with a pleasant easterly wind to provide optimism for some good birding, as well as taking the edge off the heat! Our final full day in Cornwall would begin at Land’s End, where we would perform a full loop of the cycle and coastal path. Beforehand, we had a check of the small stream and paddocks north of the visitor centre, noting a single Blackcap, and enjoying an epic display of 400+ Gannets plunge-diving into a shoal of fish off the Longships. Guillemots were also on the colonies in force offshore, with a scattering of Razorbills and Fulmars also. We then took a look at the marshes and gardens nearby, noting our fist Sedge Warblers of the trip, as well as singing Willow Warbler in the sallows. Taking the walk out towards Sennen, we picked up the scratchy song of a Common Whitethroat in some low bramble scrub, from which it did a song-flight; again our first this week! Towards the Sennen end of the walk, a pair of corvids flew past, one of which looking a lot like a Hooded Crow! However it proved to be the long-staying hybrid bird which we actually saw last year at this location. The rest of the walk produced a small number of Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, as well as 3 Wheatears, while the scenery was well appreciated as always. Back at the van, we enjoyed a well-earned cuppa before taking another look at the singing Sedge Warblers and Willow Warblers, all the while watched by a pair of the resident Stonechats, before heading to Sennen Cove for lunch. Driving out to the scenic harbour town and parking at the bottom (not an easy task on an Easter bank holiday week!) we sat on the grass with our sandwiches and enjoyed overlooking the azure blue sea, complete with Gannets, Fulmars and Shags, as well as a single Sandwich Tern. A 3rd year Mediterranean Gull was roosting with Herring Gulls on Cowloe Rock, while House Martins buzzed back and forth along the sea wall and Rock Pipits remained vocal throughout. Finishing up a most pleasant lunch, we packed up and headed to Nanquidno Valley, where we would try our hand at finding some migrants.

 

Things started rather well here, as on exiting the van we picked up a 2nd year Iceland Gull which cruised south over our heads, its translucent white wingtips really apparent in the bright sun. The walk through the gardens and stream-side scrub revealed a small number of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, plus another Whitethroat, along with the usual commoner species, while out on the open coastal stretch we picked up a single Wheatear and another Whitethroat. Stonechats were a frequent feature, and we also managed to pick out a distant but vocal Chough over the sea, drifting off into the haze. From a high vantage point, we noted a few passing Sand Martins, before completing our circuit and returning to the van. Our next move was determined somewhat by news of a drake Garganey being found at St Gothian’s Sands near Gwithian. With our previous visit a few days ago being in really awful weather, we were all keen to revisit this site in nicer weather, so off we went! 35 minutes later, we arrived at the site and, after a cuppa, we walked out to the main pools. Tufted Ducks were here in small numbers, and were accompanied today by a single drake Pochard, while a Greylag Goose was with the Canadas, and Little Grebes and 3 Coot made up the rest. Scanning the weedier, better vegetated parts of the pool soon turned up our target here; a superb drake Garganey which offered some of the best views any of us had had in a long time, dabbling in the open within 15 meters, while a Dunlin was also present. However the star moment of this site was when Audrey said ‘there’s a GLOSSY IBIS with the gulls!’. Eyes over fast, and there’s 2 GLOSSY IBIS roosting with about 40 large gulls on the island in the middle of the gravel pit! Ridiculous, and what a find by Audrey! The two birds, an adult and an apparent 2nd year bird, began feeding and drinking in the shallow water, calling occasionally to each other. Suddenly all the gulls took flight, and the Ibis’s followed, gaining height before drifting SW towards the Hayle, where they were spotted by some birders over there a few minute later. What a stop, and it’s not often that Garganey gets relegated to also-ran! About 50 Sand Martins were swarming over the dunes, presumably above a sand cliff colony, and with that we headed aaway. Time was ticking, so we needed to be heading off, but had time to stop in at Marazion first, in part to check if the two Glossy Ibises had stopped there. They weren’t, though the long-staying bird was still present and showing very well. We enjoyed good views and song of 6 Sedge Warblers here, and the light over the reedbed was just superb, with the temperature dropping now nicely. Walking back to the van, a pair of Turnstones were on the beach, while a scan of the sea produced a pair of Common Scoter and a distant diver. The shimmering haze over the sea made it difficult to identify at first, especially as it was diving frequently. However after a while it settled and revealed itself to be a winter plumaged Black-throated Diver. Great to see all three divers on this trip, and a nice bird to finish on today, heading on from here through Penzance and onto Bosavern, where another fine dinner awaited us.   

 

 

An awesome hour at St Gothian's Sands produced these 2 Glossy Ibis and this Garganey

 

THURSDAY 18th April – Kenidjack Valley, Cot Valley, Hayle Estuary

Sunny with scattered cloud, moderate E winds, 14C

 

A game of two halves today, with an exciting morning in the Cornish valleys followed by a somewhat quieter afternoon on the marshes. With easterlies still pushing their way through the UK, we were optimistic that our quests into the migrant hotspots would turn up something, and so Kenidjack Valley did! Driving into the top of the valley, just outside St Just, we exited the van and made our slow way west, carefully checking the lush cover which lined the horse paddocks and stream. A number of Chiffchaffs and smaller numbers of Blackcaps were noted here. Passing the sewage works, a loud couple of calls caught our ears, and a fairly large bunting flew over our heads. The calls; a loud high-pitched ‘spli’ and a clipped, lower ‘chup’ given a second or two apart from each other strongly suggested ORTOLAN BUNTING, and in flight, its featureless plumage, long slim cigar-like body shape and long tail did nothing to suggest otherwise! However the bird wasn’t stopping, and with a couple more calls uttered, it was off strong and to the north-east. What an exciting couple of seconds, though ultimately frustrating that it couldn’t have paused for us at least for a little while. Heading on, we could only guess what else the valley had in store for us! Meeting with our friend John Swann, we did a loop up onto the tops of the valley, overlooking the Crown Mines at Botallack (scenes of Poldark if you’re a fan!). Linnets were common here, while a slight passage of Swallows, House and Sand Martins headed north. A female Adder was also seen along the walls here, but soon slithered off. Reaching the Kenidjack Castle, we could see a small roost of gulls down below on the kelpy shoreline. A quick look through with the scope revealed a fine 2nd year Iceland Gull with the Herrings! Two in two days isn’t bad! Dropping into the valley bottom, we headed down towards the shore along the base of the valley, and were delighted to see a female Ring Ouzel flash away from us and into some old quarried ground. Approaching the area, she shot out and crossed the valley in typical rangy fashion, covering ground in a long loop around us before settling high on rocks on the valley sides. We managed just about to get a scope on here before she flew back and wasn’t seen again. Down at the shore, we enjoyed further views of the Iceland Gull, before heading back up valley, finishing with a total of around 15 Chiffchaffs and 10 Blackcaps. The local breeding pair of Choughs also played their part in the entertainment, particularly appearing to enjoy the windy weather! All in all, superb, and high time for a cuppa! From here, we headed around the corner to check another famous valley, Cot. We drove down to the bottom and enjoyed lunch overlooking a rough sea, with many Gannets, Shags, Fulmars, Guillemots and Razorbills buzzing about, the latter four species visiting the colonies offshore. A pair of Stonechats were noted here, while further up the valley, a walk through the lushly vegetated stream and gardens revealed a singing Willow Warbler, several Chiffchaffs, 2 Long-tailed Tits and a pair of vocal Goldcrests. The highlight here was certainly a squadron of 4 noisy Choughs which bounded up the valley as we returned to the van. Just superb.

 

 

Whimbrel and Iceland Gull

 

With an afternoon high tide, we though we would mix things up a little and head to Hayle estuary in the hope of some wetland bird action. We paused at Ryans Field, noting the usual small number of Shelducks and Redshanks, while the walk to the estuary bank revealed a single Common Sandpiper along the tidal sluice channel. The estuary itself hosted 2 2nd year Mediterranean Gulls with the Black-headed and Herring Gulls, a Whimbrel with 3 Curlew and 4 Wigeon. Copperhouse Creek was quiet, with 16 Teal and 2 Black-tailed Godwits noted as well as a few Oystercatchers. As the tide came in, we moved back to Ryan’s Field, in the hope that the incoming water would push in a few more birds. However very little did come in bar 5 Whimbrel and a few more Oystercatchers, and so with that, we headed home, very pleased with the days efforts. 

 

WEDNESDAY 17th April – Marazion, Coverack, Lizard and Church Cove

Sunny with scattered cloud, moderate E winds, 12C

 

Another fine day with the winds turning to the east again, and looking like they will stay that way for the rest of the week! Our optimism is growing that our trip might have a surprise up its sleeve, to go with an already good highlights reel. Our days plan today was to visit the famous Lizard peninsular, spending the day birding there. However on route we stopped at Marazion, taking advantage of good weather and flatter seas. Parking up, we could hear Cetti’s Warbler and Reed Warbler in the reedbeds, while the long-staying Glossy Ibis was still present along the marsh edge with a couple of Teal and several Grey Herons also. The beach and rocky outcrops in Mounts Bay hosted 5 distant Sanderling and 3 Turnstone further along, as well as a couple of distant Whimbrel, while the sea held a really smart Great Northern Diver in full summer dress and also a single male Common Scoter. Walking along the front of Marazion, a pair of Reed Warblers were noted, while Swallows and Sand Martins were buzzing over the pools. Our final bird from this stop was our first female Wheatear of the trip. After enjoying nice views of her, we headed on towards the Lizard.

 

Negotiating some slow Easter traffic, we made our way east, and rather than stopping at the Lizard, we pushed on a little way further to Coverack. Our reason for visiting was that a small sewage works here had hosted a Pallas’s Warbler for a fair chunk of this winter. It had previously been seen on Saturday morning, and though there had been no reports in the intervening time, we fancied our chances of it potentially still being present. Pulling up at the bottom of a windy rough track which culminated in a cul-de-sac, we disembarked and had a cuppa before beginning our search of the tangle of coastal cover here. Blackcaps were singing all over here, as were one or two Chiffchaffs. Then a song began emanating from deep in the willows; a peculiar warble of various different unfamiliar elements; could this be a singing Pallas’s Warbler?! It had to be, and soon we located the songster; and absolute stunner of a bird which, although pretty mobile and very difficult to follow, we all managed a nice full view of. And what a song! Really great to hear in the UK. From here, we drove into Lizard village, where we had lunch before embarking on a circular walk across to Caerthillian, across to the coast and round to the lighthouse, and then back to the village. A Wryneck being discovered on this route the day before influenced this choice of route in part, but although we didn’t see it, we enjoyed a beautiful scenic circuit. On the route a steady trickle of Sand Martins passed through, numbering perhaps 20 total, while 2 Chiffchaffs were the only grounded migrants; quiet indeed. However a close flyby Raven and all the accompanying commoner species, as well as Gannets and Fulmars offshore, provided a fine backdrop. The best was saved for as we reached the village again. We picked up a couple of male White Wagtails on some ploughed fields, before a flight of gulls to the west caught our attention. Amongst them was a ghostly individual; a 2nd calendar year Iceland Gull! This beauty of a bird cruised overhead and landed in a sheep field, allowing us prolonged views through scopes besides the road. With that, we had well earned an icecream! Leaving the village, we headed around the corner to the beautifully scenic Church Cove. This idyllic spot was again quiet for migrants, with a handful of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps noted, along with a pair of Stonechats and a superb low fly-over from a Peregrine. Finishing up, we got back in the van and headed back to Bosavern, having worked up a fair appetite for dinner!

 

  

Iceland Gull at the Lizard, and Wheatear from Marazion

 

TUESDAY 16th April – Porthgwarra, Gwennap Head and Nanquidno Valley

Sunny all day, scattered cloud, light W winds, 15C

 

What a difference a day makes! After yesterdays horror-show of weather, today was glorious, with sunshine throughout. Proper t-shirt weather! It started for us heading over to Porthgwarra, where we would spend the morning. On the way down we stopped at Polgigga to check the fields for the long-staying ‘Channel’ Yellow Wagtail. It wasn’t reported yesterday, but we were pleased that we checked, as this distinctive male bird (a hybrid between flavissima and flava) was showing really well in the turned-over field with 6 White Wagtails and 4 Pied Wags. A great start, and we also noted a Sparrowhawk and a Chiffchaff here. Once we had filled our boots, we headed down into Porthgwarra, where we would have a thorough search for migrants. First of all though, we set up for a seawatch. Over the course of 30 minutes we enjoyed a steady passage of over 400 Manx Shearwaters, several Kittiwakes and Sandwich Terns and 5 Red-throated Divers, along with plenty of Gannets, Fulmars, Shags and auks (mostly too distant to identify. Well worth a look! We then headed up the valley, noting a number of Chiffchaffs and a couple of singing Blackcaps, while the heath on Gwennap Head hosted several Stonechats. Up at the Coastguard lookout a couple of Rock Pipits were present, and after a while spend up here, we enjoyed an incredible encounter with a Red-billed Chough. Its call alerted us to it as it came along the cliffs, straight at us, and then landed on the turf where we were stood, and went on to feed for 5 minutes within 5 meters of us! A colour ringed bird, this was the male of a local pair, and we couldn’t quite believe how confiding it was! Digging out what looked like leatherjackets, it eventually flew off, leaving us delighted. We then headed down into the valley, visiting 60ft Covert and the ponds further on, noting a couple of Blackcaps, 2 Willow Warblers and several Chiffchaffs, as well as a single Sparrowhawk and numerous soaring Buzzards. In reality it was pretty quiet for migrants, but a nice walk all the same. Back at the van, we had lunch before moving on to our next destination; Nanquidno Valley.

 

 

The Polgigga Channel Wagtail and one of many Chiffchaffs from today

 

Arriving at this site, we had another nice walk to look forward to, and this one proved a bit busier on the common migrant front. The walk through the gardens and well vegetated stream of this very attractive valley produced at least 20 Chiffchaffs, around 5 Willow Warblers and up to 5 Blackcaps, while a small number of Swallows passed overhead. Up on the coast, an area of ploughed fields hosted 5 very smart male Wheatears, while Stonechats were again noted in the open areas. The sea held a feeding flock of about 30 Herring Gulls, and amongst them was a single adult Mediterranean Gull in full breeding plumage, while 3 Red-billed Chough performed their acrobatics over the cliffs, sharing the air at times with an impressive Raven. We walked back and enjoyed a cuppa at the van, basking in sunshine and watching Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs at close range, and also watching a pair of very busy Stoats which were dashing along the track. By now, with the day featuring a couple of fairly long walks, we were ready to head back to Bosavern House, though a couple of the group were still up for a short walk down the top end of Cott Valley from the accommodation. Dropping down into the beautiful valley bottom, we didn’t see an awful lot of new stuff, bar a Coal Tit in the pines! However Common Buzzards were still aerial, and a couple more Chiffchaffs and a singing Willow Warbler were noted, making for a pleasant finish to a fine day.

 

 

MONDAY 15th April – Porthgwarra, Drift Reservoir, St Gothian Sands and  Hayle Estuary

Very strong SE winds, showers am, heavy rain PM, 6C

 

Back down to earth with a bump after yesterday’s outrageously good afternoon of birding! Somewhat more slim-pickings were on offer in near-gale force winds and heavy rain, though we did manage to eek out some good sightings. With the winds being strong, we thought that a look off Porthgwarra could be worthwhile to see if any seabirds might be on the move. However this was rather reliant on theirs being some shelter at the valley mouth, which there wasn’t! We were barely able to stand up straight in the strong wind, despite trying lots of different spots, and had to give up fairly sharpish, though we did note a number of Gannets and Fulmars, a single Guillemot and a couple of Shags. Instead we took a look up the valley in the more sheltered spots of cover here. A Common Sandpiper overhead calling was the most noteworthy species, while the trees and gardens hosted a few bits and pieces of common species, but no migrants. With this, we headed off inland to visit some of the area’s wetland sites. Our first stop was Drift Reservoir. The site was pretty sheltered and stayed dry for the time we were there, which was a bonus! A good number of Sand Martins were present, along with our first House Martins of te trip and a few Swallows. The Sand Martins in particular were good value, hawking for insects close to the path and sometimes within a meter of us! The water itself hosted a number of Great Crested Grebes, a pair of Gadwall and a small number of Mallards and Canada Geese, which hosted amongst them a hybrid Canada x Greylag Goose. A pair of Ravens cruised through, mobbed by Carrion Crows and gave nice close views, while the sallows here held both singing Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers, with 3 of the latter noted. From the hide at the end we enjoyed a further close display from the Sand Martins, before walking back up to the van and onto our next stop.

 

This took us up beyond Hayle, to St Gothian’s Sands. This small sand dune and wetland nature reserve was rather exposed, and we were subject to a few sharp showers, so we didn’t stay too long, though we did note a number of Tufted Ducks and Little Grebes, a single Coot and a small roost of Greater and Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls on the island. A chiffchaff called from some low scrub, but anything other the waterbirds here were always going to be keeping their heads down! And so we mimicked them, walking back relieved to reach the van against strong winds and stinging rain! Tough going, but he who dares! On from here, we pulled in alongside Copperhouse Creek, where we scanned the channel from a bench, trying to tolerate the rain as long as we could. Amongst the roosting gull selection we did manage to pick out a 2nd year Mediterranean Gull with Black-headed Gulls, while the mud also hosted a group of about 12 Teal, a single Curlew and a pair of Ostercatchers. By now, the tide was beginning to approach its high point, so we made our way to Ryans Field, to sit out the tide and see what was pushed onto the mud (as well as escaping the now very heavy rain, truth be told!). Up to 10 Redshank were present here, along with a pair of Shelduck, but very little else visited the reserve here despite the tide. However a flock of 10 Sandwich Terns over the main Hayle Estuary across the road were entertaining to watch. A pair of Wigeon were also pushed off the main channel whilst we enjoyed a cuppa in the hide, before we made our exit. The rain was really hammering down now, as was getting to the point of being unbirdable. However we braved a quick look at the Hayle channel, which proved productive, providing a smart flock of 20 Ringed Plovers and 4 summer plumaged Dunlin on the near muddy bank. This was basically our last act of a challenging day, as we opted for a slightly earlier-than-usual bath back at the accommodation. We are optimistic for some kinder weather tomorrow!

 

 

Sand Martin and Raven from Drift Reservoir today

 

Sunday 14th April – Polgigga, Lands End and Marazion Marsh

Overcast with some showers, strong SE winds, 6C

 

Our 2019 spring tour of Cornwall commenced with a pick-up from Penzance train station at 12, followed by us all meeting up at the lovely Bosavern Guesthouse in St Just; our base for the week. After checking in and sorting out our stuff, we all got togged up (the weather wasn’t particularly pleasant truth be told!) and headed out for an afternoon excursion, starting off with an attempt to find a ‘Channel’ Yellow Wagtail reported near Polgigga. Arriving here, we took a short walk around the village to try to figure out which fields the wagtails were being reported in, but also had a check of the shrubs and trees surrounding the village pond. A Moorhen was present here, along with several Chaffinches, but best of all was a very pallid-looking Chiffchaff feeding actively at the base of an overhanging Sallow. A pale super lacking green tone, brown-grey upperparts and green restricted to the flight feathers; a great candidate for Siberian Chiffchaff! It didn’t call, but it certainly looked good. Leaving this bird, our initial target of wagtails was nowhere to be seen, having apparently hopped over to a neighbouring and inaccessible field, so we made our tracks, deciding to head for Lands End. Parking up at the end, we exited the van and made to take in a loop of the complex, in part hoping to pick up the recently long-staying Pied Crow present in the area. Within seconds, this large and distinctly black-and-white beast came up from behind the centre, gave us a close fly-past and headed off up the road towards Swinggates. It’s hard to know what the situation is with a bird like this. A species of Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s either an escape (though they are apparently pretty rare in captivity) or possibly a ship-assisted vagrant to the UK! Either way, it was pretty weird to see it here, and potentially a good ‘insurance tick!’ After the ‘excitement’ of the crow, we headed down towards the cliffs hoping to get out of the wind a bit. Offshore, a number of majestic Gannets were passing, while Fulmars cruised close inshore. An offshore stack hosed a small colony of Shags and also some Razorbills, one pair of which were getting pretty amorous! On the water surrounding the rocks were more Razorbills, and also a smaller number of Guillemots. Doing a small loop towards the crafts centre, a female Wheatear was a brief treat in the horse paddocks, while Rock Pipit, 6 Linnets and a pair of Stonechats were also noted, all in relative shelter from the wind. From here, we headed back round to the van, and made our way towards Penzance, where we would finish the afternoon at Marazion Marsh.

 

Reaching Marazion, we drove along the seafront with the marsh on our right, and almost instantly noted a large dark bird roosting on the banks of the open pools in front of the reedbed. A Glossy Ibis has been present here for well over a month now and, although there had been no reports of it today, this was surely it! Parking up and walking over, there it was; a Glossy Ibis roosting with a pair of Mallards and a pair of Teal. It woke up when a Herring Gull landed nearby. After a bit of preening, it took off and flew inland, and didn’t return. Good timing on our part! A pair of Shoveler flew in, while at least 20 Sand Martins were busy hawking insects over the marsh. A Red-rumped Swallow was seen here yesterday morning, and got us talking about the suitability of the site for a passing bird, and that time invested checking all hirundines during the spring here would likely turn one up with perseverance. However the bird was only seen in the morning previous and didn’t appear to have lingered, and with no further reports today and it being about 16:30, we thought it fanciful that it would reappear. Reaching the end of the marsh, a pipit flew up, circled and then landed again on the reed edge; a superb summer plumaged Water Pipit, complete with peach washed breast and face! A superb looking bird which was soon joined in flight by a second one before departing. A flock of waders passed over the reeds; 2 Curlew and 3 Whimbrel; the size comparison being very useful here! And then it happened. Checking through the Sand Martins; the number of which had built up, a flurry of 6 Swallows came through; and with them appeared a RED-RUMPED SWALLOW! Unbelievable! A really exciting moment, and the bird basically hawked over the pool in front of us for about 15 minutes before appearing to head east and being lost from view. Just superb, and fantastic after having been talking it up! With that, we made our way back to Bosavern, feeling we had punched above our weight on this short afternoon of rather grim weather!   

 

    

The stunning Red-rumped Swallow at Marazion

 


 

SCOTLAND - SPRING IN SPEYSIDE 7TH - 13TH APRIL (AJS)

 

FRIDAY 12TH APRILSunny spells and a fresh east breeze, 12C

 

Our pre-breakfast walk from the accommodation today took us through some nice forest where we had more good views of Scottish Crossbill types, but very little else. It was a stunning morning though, and it was atmospheric to see the mist rising through the pines and the sun burning orange through the trees. After breakfast we headed back int the forest again around Abernethy, and did a 2.5hr circular walk through some prime habitat where we hoped to find more crossbills. It was a tough walk, with very few birds to be seen – one clearing had a few Siskin and Redpoll buzzing about, but that was about it. A pair of Crested Tits did show for us, foraging high among the pines and occasionally pausing to call from the top of a conifer. The cup of tea waiting for us back at the van at the end of the hike, was very welcome indeed!

 

Next we moved on to another tract of forest to have another short walk to look for crossbills, but again it seemed initially really quiet as we headed up the path to a good vantage point to scan the tops of the pines and listen. A Sparrowhawk flew over, our first of the trip, but otherwise you could hear a pin drop other than a small party of Redpoll passing over. Eventually we heard a very soft, faint sub-song of a crossbill coming from the pines and scanned hard to try and find the culprit – we spotted it perched halfway up an isolated pine tree and it immediately looked interesting. Grabbing the scope, we were soon trained onto a very smart male Parrot Crossbill, sitting still and quietly singing though we could only hear the odd note every now and again on the breeze. The bird sat in full view for ten minutes, allowing us to study its bull-headed shape, massive bill with broad lower mandible and barely a cross at the tip. The flat head blended into the top of the bill and it looked really front heavy – a classic Parrot in every respect.

 

 

Lunch would be up at Dorback Valley, a beautiful wild spot with a superb vista all around for scanning for raptors. It was cool and breezy here, so the local Buzzards were up and about in force. A Peregrine also flew along the ridge, scattering the corvids, but the biggest surprise was an Osprey which came flying low across the moor and right past us! It headed off high towards the mountains, so clearly on a bit of a mission. After lunch, we dropped down to the forests again to have one last walk in the vain hope of finding a Capercaillie. We are always keen to stay out of the woods in the early morning lekking period, but it does mean chances of a sighting are rather slim and reliant on stumbling on a bird close to a track or road. We visited a good area and walked round slowly for an hour or so, but saw and heard nothing at all. In fact we saw more birds by our parking spot close to the river, as several Sand Martins were around and a Dipper was on the bank. Another Osprey then appeared and began hovering over the river, giving superb views in excellent light, and our final bird of the trip appeared on the shore opposite – a newly arrived Common Sandpiper. From here we returned to Carrbridge a bit earlier than usual, to give ourselves time for a quick visit to the pub before dinner to celebrate what had been a really enjoyable weeks birding.

 

THURSDAY 11TH APRILSunny spells and light NE winds, 10C

 

Our pre-breakfast walk this morning took us through some nice local forest where we enjoyed our first Red Squirrels of the trip, and heard quite a few Crossbills. The local Dippers were busy again as well this morning, and a pair of Goosanders were by the old bridge too. After breakfast, we set off to first try a spot for Black-throated Divers, a species high on everyone’s agenda for a spring visit to Scotland. The chance to see this species in full breeding plumage is usually one of the trip highlights, but what happened today was beyond special. After seeing some close up Red Grouse, a fly-by Raven and a perched Golden Eagle sitting sentinel atop a low hill, we began to check the loch for the divers. Initially we couldn’t see them at all, so found a convenient stopping place along the road to scan properly with a scope. Eventually we picked up the pair of Black-throated Divers, around ¼ mile away across the loch and feeding quietly up against one of the banks. The views through the scope were good, as the loch was as flat as a sheet of glass in the still morning air and the light was good. Soon they moved out more into the loch, and one of the birds began calling – what a sound! They then began to make a bee-line towards us, and so we made sure to stand still and quiet, to see what they would do. The birds came directly at us, and then split up, one of them passing us around 100m offshore but the second bird swam right into the bay in front of us. We held our breath as it dived, and then surfaced 20ft in front of us. It was so close we could see the beads of water running down its neck and its deep red eye. It swam past us almost at the shore, just feet away. We were stunned – no-one spoke or breathed! A tractor went past and still the bird didn’t bother, it just gradually worked its way along the shore and back out to join its mate. Sometimes birding throws up a moment that you just can’t legislate for, or describe in words, and this was one. What an amazing encounter.

 

 

The Moray Coast was our destination for the rest of the day, and we started up at Lossiemouth with a visit to Loch Spynie. This delightful spot didn’t disappoint, with stacks of wildfowl on the loch including Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye and a single Whooper Swan. Red Squirrels were visiting the feeders, and an Osprey circled in high overhead and began checking out the loch – we thought it might dive for a fish, but after a couple of circuits, it thermalled high and disappeared. Lossiemouth itself was our next stop, and the river mouth here provided a chance to check loafing gulls for white-wingers. We didn’t find any today, and in fact there weren’t many gulls present. A selection of common wildfowl and waders, including three redhead Goosander, were about the best of it. Lunch would be taken at the maltings at Burghead, just a bit further west along the Moray Coast. The sea was azure blue and flat calm, and this made scanning for divers and ducks a lot easier. Before we had munched into the first sandwich, we picked up a diver about a third of the way out. It was preening, and we could see it was a large bird with white check-marked back. Then it raised its head, revealing partial breeding plumage of dark head and white collar – and an ivory white bill! It was a splendid White-billed Diver almost in summer dress, and what a cracking view. We watched it for fifteen minutes solid, drifting in on the tide and preening. It’s bill really stood out against the dark blue sea, and it obliged everyone with brilliant scope views. It eventually dived – and we never saw it again! A second bird was also seen, much further out, and in in less advanced stage of moult. Other birds on the water here included a few Razorbills, Long-tailed Ducks and singles of Kittiwake and Fulmar. Moving down to the point, we checked the rocks for shorebirds on the rising tide, and found a single Purple Sandpiper with Turnstones – nice!

 

Our final stop of the day would be further west again, at the town of Nairn. A drake King Eider had been seen here over recent weeks, and we really wanted to try and see it. The bird was most frequently seen off the breakwater from the harbour, but a wind had now picked up and the temperature down to 8C – it was chilly work! We scanned hard for almost an hour, but there were hardly any Eider present and the bird wasn’t with them. About fifty Long-tailed Duck were scant compensation. Looking east, we could see the sand bar off Culbin Sands, and wondered if it could be better to try and view from the beach along there. We checked the map, and found a track to a small car park about half a mile east of the town. This took us onto the dunes opposite the sand bar, and looked ideal – it was also several degrees warmer out of the wind! A small group of Common Eider were just beyond the surf, but despite scanning through the fifteen or so birds several times, the King wasn’t to be seen. We were almost about to give up when we scanned the flock again – and there it was! A full drake King Eider in all its glory! Goodness knows how we had missed it before, but it was now showing well with the sun catching its colourful bill. At times though, it would completely blend in to the flock and was hard to see, its predominantly black body being the best way to find it. Just before we left, the King Eider surfaced with prey and was immediately set upon by a first-winter Herring Gull. The eider responded by taking flight and heading off on its own out towards the open sea, being pursued by the gull. We followed it until it was almost lost to view offshore, when it turned and headed straight back in! As it passed us again, it now had three Herring Gulls in pursuit – all young birds – and this time it flew west some ¼ mile to the breakwater where it eventually shook off the gulls and landed again. Remarkable behaviour, which none of us had ever seen from a seaduck before. A lifer for most of the group, this was a great way to sign off another remarkable days birding.

 

WEDNESDAY 10TH APRIL - WEST COAST

Calm but cool and overcast, 10C

 

It was a frosty start to the day in Carrbridge, as we set off at 0630 to our local Black Grouse lek around ten minutes drive away from the accommodation. It was a wonderful crisp morning under blue skies, and we were soon watching a male Blackcock hunkered down in a hollow in the grass, the sun picking out his red wattles. This was the only one we saw this morning, but eventually he did get into full display mode and begin bubbling away with tail fanned and even with the occasional flutter-jump. Back at base, we enjoyed a hearty Scottish breakfast before heading off on our longest day trip of the week, up to the west coast around Gruinard Bay. On the way, we called in at RSPB Loch Ruthven where we hoped to improve on our views of Slavonian Grebe – we weren’t to be disappointed.  Four pairs of these stunning birds were on show from the hide, and we even saw them indulging in display, rising up against one another in the water before diving in unison. We could hear them calling too, since it was such a calm morning. From here it was around one hour and twenty minutes drive up to Dundonnel, and our first stop on the shore of Little Loch Broom. Greenshank was our target here, and we saw two along the edge of the saltmarsh at the head of the loch, as well as Common Ringed Plover. Three more Slavonian Grebes were on the loch, as well as a Great Northern Diver and five Red-breasted Mergansers. Scanning of the surrounding ridges didn’t produce any eagles, but we would keep trying!

 

It was already early afternoon by the time we reached the pull off overlooking Gruinard Island, and we scanned the flat calm sea for divers. A stunning Great Northern Diver was close in, often in company of a Black Guillemot, and we also saw a single Common Scoter, two more Slavonian Grebe (13 seen today, all in full breeding plumage!) and a Red-throated Diver. Over the ridge behind us, a White-tailed Eagle circled into view and gave everyone scope views before it drifted off over the ridge – excellent! Heading round by First Coast, we made another stop looking back north across the bay – the views really were stunning, looking across beyond Ullapool one way and the Beinn Eighe range to the other. Not much was added from this spectacular vantage point though other than a few Common Seals on the rocks below and yet more Great Northern Divers.

 

Mellon Udrigle is surely one of the most delightful spots on the west coast and proved a perfect spot for lunch today. With dapper male Wheatears buzzing around the short turf, we sat in the sun and enjoyed our sandwiches. A wheezy call alerted us to the presence of a singing Twite, which perched up on some rocks and gave excellent scope views, a nice highlight which we were hoping to catch up with here. A single Red-throated Diver was in the bay, which was azure blue under the clearing skies – it looked more like the Mediterranean than Scotland! Heading back out to the main road, we had a treat in store for the end of the day as we headed further south along to the village of Mellon Charles. A drake Blue-winged Teal had been found here a week or two previously, and we were hoping it might still be present. The tiny lochan the bird was favouring proved to be a delightful spot, and we soon found the Blue-winged Teal feeding quietly in the reeds at the back. This immaculate Nearctic visitor then swam right across the lochan towards us and gave some really great views as it cavorted with a couple of Common Teals. In the surrounding trees, we could hear the buzzing calls of redpolls and so wandered round for a closer look. We saw a couple of belting Common Redpolls, with pink-dusted pale rumps and white wing bars. A more gingery Lesser Redpoll was seen as well, proving a nice comparison with the bigger and paler Commons. Back at the lochan, the Blue-winged Teal entertained us again while we had afternoon tea, taking a wash and brush up before sitting up in the water and flapping its wings to show the bright sky blue wing covert panels. Eventually it took flight and came right back across the lochan towards us before disappearing into the reeds. A delightful bird!

 

 

With over two hours to run back to Carrbridge, we really had to start making our way back, though hoped we might have a reason or two to stop on the way back. The first impromptu pull-off was for a superb Golden Eagle soaring above the road. Thankfully there was a convenient place to stop and enjoy the bird circling right over our heads. We headed back via Loch Maree, taking in yet more jaw-dropping scenery with the mountains reflected perfectly in the glass-flat waters. Our day was rounded off perfectly with a pair of Red-throated Divers looking immaculate in breeding plumage by the side of the road. It wasn’t a great place to stop, but we managed to pull a u-turn and park carefully beside the birds and enjoy some really great views. They were so close that we could see the beautiful tiger striping on the nape through the telescope, really gorgeous birds indeed. The rest of the journey back was uneventful, and we arrived back at the hotel just after 1830 in time for dinner.

 

TUESDAY 9TH APRIL - CAIRNGORMS & STRATHDEARN

Fine and sunny in light winds, 11C

 

A magnificent day of both weather and birding saw us start before breakfast in Carrbridge with a Dipper showing beautifully by the old stone bridge. We also had fantastic views of a pair of Goosander there, which were fishing right under the bridge and just feet away from the viewing platform. Three Grey Wagtails were also present, but otherwise our walk down to the footbridge and back was pretty quiet. In the gardens and woodland edge on the Station Road side of the river though, were a few smart Brambling and lots of chattering Siskins, making for a lively walk. After breakfast, we drove directly up to the Coire Cas car park on Cairngorm Mountain, to asses the snow levels and decide which walk to take in order to try and connect with Ptarmigan. With the railway currently defunct, we had to do things the hard way this year, though in the glorious sunshine it wasn’t much of a hardship taking the hiking trail up to Coire an Lochain. Before we set off though, we had superb views of a pair of Ring Ouzels right by the car park. They were feeding along the sunny slope at the western side of the car park, and frequently perching up at close range in the sunshine – just stunning! A soft call behind us then alerted us to the presence of a single Snow Bunting, which flew in and landed on a stone wall. Typically for this species, we were able to get pretty close – its black bill and rather scruffy plumage a sign of transition to summer dress. Heading off up the trail, we soon encountered our first Wheatears and Red Grouse could be heard calling in the perfectly still air. The sound really carried in these conditions, and the birds sounded like they were right on top of us when in fact they were a distance away. We had some good views though, amongst the lingering snow beds from last weeks fresh falls. The path got decidedly icy as we climbed up, and we had to be careful, but it didn’t take too long to reach the base of the rocky escarpment. The views back up to Cairngorm, and north across Loch Morlich towards the Monadhliath Mountains, was quite something. Scanning the ridges carefully with the scope, we soon picked up a male Ptarmigan way up on the next ridge. He was perched on a rock, silhouetted against the snow, and probably calling through it was much too far for us to hear it! The scope views weren’t bad considering the bird was a good distance away, and all were satisfied enough to make that the end of the walk and retrace our steps back to the car park. The male Ring Ouzel showed magnificently well on our return – such a smart bird to see at close range.

 

 

Ring Ouzel and Snow Bunting - two Cairngorm specialities showing well today

 

Net we dropped down the mountain into the Caledonian forests of Rothiemurchus below, for lunch at a favoured spot where we hoped to find more forest birds. We enjoyed our sandwiches with the warm sun on our backs and a welcome brew – just reward for the mornings exertions! Just around the car park, we could hear the soft contact calls of a crossbill, and eventually found it perched in the very top of a pine. We managed some good views and a few record shots, and this one looked distinctly more stocky than yesterdays bird with a deeper based, blunter looking bill with bulging lower mandible. A much better fit for so called Scottish Crossbill than yesterday's bird, though who knows for sure - it certainly didnt give the impression of being bull-headed or chunky billed enough for a Parrot. Further on we had great success with Crested Tits, hearing calling birds at three different spots and having absolutely brilliant views of one pair foraging in small conifers right by the path. They seemed oblivious to us, and ended up right above our heads on a few feet away. When one flew out and landed in full view, in perfect light with blue sky behind, we knew we had put that species well and truly to bed for the trip! The rest of the walk was quiet, but we did have excellent close views of a Treecreeper, and just generally enjoyed the ambience of the forest.

 

 

A Scottish Crossbill candidate, and a very showy Treecreeper from the Caledonian forest this afternoon

 

The second half of the afternoon saw another change of scenery, as we headed north and made our way down Strathdearn for a raptor watch. This beautiful valley is one of the scenic gems of the trip and just a nice place to while away a couple of hours regardless of seeing any birds! We did of course see some birds though – Red Kite, a pair of Ravens, several Common Buzzard and a cracking Peregrine right overhead being some of the highlights. A singing Wheatear was also by our watchpoint, and a Mountain Hare still mainly in winter coat sat crouched among boulders, with its ears flattened. Red Deer were also seen up on the distant hillside, and eventually a pair of Golden Eagles also soared into view, very distantly looking west up the valley. A stunning place to round off a really excellent day in the field.

 

MONDAY 8TH APRIL - FIFE COAST TO SPEYSIDE

Overcast and cold in a fresh E wind, giving way to sunshine, 7C

 

We rose early this morning for breakfast at 0630 before packing up our gear and making the hour long drive east along the Fife coast to Ruddon’s Point at the far end of Largo Bay. This is an excellent area for flocks of wintering seaduck, divers and grebes, and today we were not disappointed. It was cold at the point, but the wind hadn’t really picked up too much so early in the day and we enjoyed pretty ideal viewing conditions with flat light and a calm sea. A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers kicked things off, right in the small bay on the south side of the point, and as we scanned out to sea, we could see hundreds of Common Eiders dotted across the water. In this one bay we had a Black-throated Diver, two Red-throated Divers, two Great- Northern Divers (often side by side for comparison) and some small groups of Long-tailed Duck and Common Scoter. Gannet, Fulmar and Kittiwake were all noted passing by and occasionally a Razorbill would pop up into view in the surf. After getting everyone some nice clear views of the three diver species, we moved round towards the point and scanned more to the west across Largo Bay, and here we had some more excellent views of Long-tailed Ducks, and some distant Velvet Scoters. Three Sandwich Terns called as they flew past us over the rocky shore and a distant Red-necked Grebe in summer plumage was a good pick out by Pete. The wind began to pick up considerably and it was now Baltically cold, so our scan of the northern side of the point was rather more brief! Nevertheless there were a hundred or so Sanderling and two Bar-tailed Godwits here, which rounded off our stop nicely.

 

Driving back west around the bay we called in at Lower Largo, to check for scoter flocks there. We were in luck, with several hundred birds close in shore, and they were mainly Velvet Scoters – magnificent views, with the sun now breaking through and illuminating them perfectly. Another breeding plumaged Red-necked Grebe popped up, and we had five Slavonian Grebes in summer finery too, in groups of two and three. Long-tailed Ducks were also more numerous here, with around fifty scattered across the water in small groups – we saw everything from full winter plumage, to chocolate brown summer dress. This concluded our morning birding session, and we then had a two hour drive north up the A9 to our lunch stop, which would be at the House of Bruar complex near Blair Atholl. After sandwiches and tea in the warm sunshine in the big conservatory building, we continued on our way up through the impressive Pass of Drummochter and into Speyside. An Osprey circled over the road shortly after Newtonmore, and a quick stop at Loch Insh produced good views of a female Goosander and several Goldeneye.

 

With the sun now shining and the winds having dropped off, we decided to make the most of the last couple of hours of the day and explore some prime Caledonian Forest. Our walk took us through some lovely old trees, and despite being typically eerily quiet among these ancient pines, we soon found a Crested Tit calling away and managed some nice views of the bird perched on top of a conifer, albeit rather distant. A species that many people seem to struggle to find easily, we have always found them pretty straightforward on our tours, though it certainly helps to be familiar with the calls. Down at one of the forest lochans, we saw more Goldeneye, and several Sand Martins were hawking over the water. In the pines nearby, we could hear the soft contact calls of Crossbills, and excitedly moved closer to see if we could locate them. Initially the sound seemed to be frustratingly ventriloquial, and we couldn’t pin it down. We soon realised though that the bird was almost right above us, and careful positioning of the scope meant we soon had fantastic views of two Crossbills – but which ones? The identification of crossbills in these forests is notoriously problematical, and all we could say for sure was that these were not Parrots. Reviewing the images and sound recordings later on showed that they were probably most likely ‘just’ Common Crossbills, as the male had a pretty slender bill with elongated upper mandible and pronounced crossed tips. It wasn’t particularly deep-based either. The female was a wonderful bright emerald green with very heavily marked undertail coverts, but we didn’t get great views of her bill structure. Lovely to see some crossbills so early in the trip though, and definitely something to build on! The walk back was quiet, and from there we made our way on to Carrbridge which would be our base for the next five nights.

 

 

Crossbill in the Caledonian forest - probably a Common! But note how the appearance of the bill structure changes with angle..

 

SUNDAY 7TH APRIL - LOCH LEVEN

Fresh NE winds and overcast, 8C

 

After a smooth journey north from Norfolk today, departing at 0600, we made our pick ups en route at King’s Lynn, Doncaster and Penrith before finally reaching Dunfermline just before 1400. It was a grey and cold afternoon, and visibility was poor, so we decided the best option for the rest of the day was to make the short journey along to RSPB Vane Farm at Loch Leven. The feeders around the visitor centre were buzzing with finches, and there were plenty of gaudy male Siskins among them. Tree Sparrows showed really well too, and it’s always a nice bonus to add them to the trip list. Heading across onto the reserve, there wasn’t a huge amount to be seen from the hides in the cold and windy weather – a few Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon, Gadwall, Little Grebe and Tufted Duck. There were plenty of Curlew on the marsh, and we saw a single Redshank – slim pickings! The loch itself offered more interest, with good numbers of Great Crested Grebes and Goldeneye, the latter including some fine looking drakes. The distant St Serf’s Island hosted a handful each of Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, while over the open water, hundreds of newly arrived Sand Martins were hawking low over the water. It was great to see so many of these hardy hirundines, fresh in from Africa – though they probably wished they’d stayed where they were! Two Little Egrets on the marsh were a bonus this far north, and a Peregrine had drifted over earlier towards the ridge beyond. Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon though were a handful of dapper Brambling, feeding with Chaffinches beneath the feeders as we returned to the visitor centre. One of the males was almost in full breeding plumage, his glossy black head feathers wearing through. A good start to our list, and a whetting of the appetite ready for our first full day tomorrow!

 

 


SOUTHERN CYPRUS 22nd - 29th March (JM)

 

 

THURSDAY 28TH MARCH – Sunny spells and dry, light W, 18C

 

A fine day of weather for us to see out our last full day on Cyprus this year, which we spent birding the one and only Paphos Headland, hoping for one last bite at finding something good, while also soaking up the fantastic migration that’s on offer this year. It really has been such a good week for migrants, with the changeable weather really shaking things up, and we have loved every minute! Arriving at the outer walk around Paphos Headland, we parked up and were instantly confronted with a superb array of Yellow Wagtails, numbering over 400 birds across 400 meters of path, and featuring 3 subspecies and 2 ‘hybrid’ subspecies, plus one ‘xanthophrys’ type. The comings and going of these birds in the grasses and at the recently created puddles made for addictive viewing! Lesser Whitethroats littered the footpath, while hirundines buzzed overhead, including at least one Red-rumped Swallow. A male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was noted on distant railings, while a Woodchat Shrike was a bit closer, just the other side of the fence. Scanning through the bushes inside the mosaics fence also revealed a distant and brief Eastern Orphean Warbler, our first Whinchat of the trip, a coupe of male Ruppell’s Warblers and also some good views of a Tree Pipit perched up obligingly. Best of all was a superbly distinctive ‘CASPIAN’ SIBERIAN STONECHAT which flew across the grassland, flashing its very distinctive tail pattern all the way before settling on a grassy mound, and showing almost continuously. The bird had been found a couple of days ago here, so we were really pleased to catch up with it. However, whilst watching this, things got even more special, as Jean noticed a wheatear on the beach down from where we were standing. Alerting us to it, in the bins we saw a very pale sandy wheatear, with elongated black bill, low profile stance, and on flying, a tail with very extensive white washed an apricot buff; a female HOODED WHEATEAR!!! This was a real Cyprus rarity, and was twitched by several island birders through the day, the bird being very confiding and faithful to this stretch of coastline. What a bird, on a trip that just keeps on giving! Walking back to the van, we stopped to admire the diverse array of Yellow Wagtails, before moving on to our next stop.

 

 

 

Via a brief pause at the hotel for a bathroom break, we made our way to a new area of habitat known locally as Timi Beach. A fairly unassuming area normally, but with this winter’s rains, the areas fields are extensively flooded, and so are hosting a good variety of wetland birds, as well as the usual coastal array. Locating the correct track down to the coast, we stopped at the first major flooded field, noting a couple of Hoopoes along the way. The flood hosted a single Glossy Ibis and Black-tailed Godwit, 3 Spotted Redshanks and 2 Little Ringed Plovers; not a bad start! We then drove on along the coastal dunes track to a picnic area, and began exploring the area. A couple of Northern and a single Isabelline Wheatear were on the dunes, while an area of thin flooded forest hosted further interest, including a female Marsh Harrier, 6 Little Egrets, one Cattle Egret, 2 Water Pipits, several Yellow Wagtails and best of all a male COLLARED FLYCATCHER. This pristine bird performed really well for us along the edge of the trees, before creeping deeper into the woods. A single Wood Sandpiper was also heard here while 3 Greenshank were also noted; certainly an interesting wetland site, though it has been dry for several years. We had our lunch here under the picnic shelter, seeing Sandwich Tern and a Shag offshore, while the Glossy Ibis and 3 Spotted Redshank came to join us at the flooded forest. Finishing lunch, we then headed on to our afternoon stop; Anarita Park. This site, a large area of relatively unspoilt rolling grassland and rocky outcrops, is just superb for wheatears, and we enjoyed great views of many stunning Eastern Black-eared Wheatears, virtually around every corner! Cyprus Wheatear was also noted, along with Northern Wheatears. Hoopoes were close to abundant, while 4 Cretzschmar’s Buntings also showed themselves nicely, appearing to be on breeding territory. Further on, we reached an open area close to the ruined goat sheds, where Jane Stylianou had recently found a male COMMON ROCK THRUSH and had given us directions for where to find it. Scanning the area, we spotted a Blue Rock Thrush; not strictly the rock thrush we were after, but very much appreciated! The bird shared its hillside with a Cretzschmar’s Bunting, adding to the quality. A distant raucous chattering alerted us to two Great Spotted Cuckoos which flew along the valleys, chasing each other, and landing up in some distant isolated bushes; brilliant! We wanted to get a closer view of them, so we started walking down towards the other side of the clearing, when another quick scan of the far hillside revealed a small bright orange object on top of an isolated boulder; the Rock Thrush! With everyone getting scope views, we then headed over, to view the hillside more closely, and enjoyed brilliant views of both the Rock Thrush and Great Spotted Cuckoos from our position. We could see that the Rock Thrush was singing, as its throat was moving, but we were too far from it to hear. However, the songs of both Black-eared and Cyprus Wheatears were clear enough. Having our fill of this superb array of birds, we made our way out of the park, heading for a well-overdue coffee!

 

 

 

We had our coffee in Mandria, where we noted a couple of dainty Laughing Doves in the village, before finishing the day along the shore at Mandria. The dunes were very quiet, with a single Isabelline and a couple of Northern Wheatears present along with a single Tawny Pipit; a contrast from the start of the week. The bushes by the picnic site were more productive, revealing a dozen Lesser Whitethroats, 2 Ruppell’s Warblers, a male Eastern Subalpine Warbler and an Eastern Orphean Warbler for one member of the group. A fine finale to the evening, before we headed back to base, was the local Black Francolin piping up on the hillside over the cereals, showing itself and singing; a much-appreciated parting gift from this popular bird. We then headed home, giving us time to do a bit of packing before dinner, with tomorrow being our last morning on Cyprus.  

 

 

 

WEDNESDAY 27TH MARCH – Overcast with some heavy showers, moderate W, 16C

 

One of those days where the weather forecast resembles the reality very little, and in our case today, to our benefit! With the possibility of rain from lunchtime onwards today, we were expecting to spend much of our time sheltering either in the van or in hides, but there was no need in the end. Our day started with a drive out east towards Larnica, stopping at Kiti Dam. Parking up, we almost instantly were alerted to the raucous calls of a GREAT SPOTTED CUCKOO over the Agios Georgios church, which flew up onto overhead wires and allowed superb views before flying into cover. This bird was soon followed by a second which also showed really well; a great start! A check of the bushes here revealed many Chiffchaffs and a couple of Lesser Whitethroats, as well as singing Reed Warbler, but the highlight was 2 Wood Warbler which, though fairly elusive, we all saw well. Up on the banks of the dam, the area held lots of water after the wet winter, and along with many Coots, hosted a pair of Shoveler and a single male Garganey. A pair of Green Sandpipers were vocal in the area also. From here we made our way across to the airport wetlands and salt lakes close to Larnica. A small pool close to the road hosted a small tight flock of waders; a Spotted Redshank and an impressive 9 Marsh Sandpipers! We admired these for a short while, but with a threat of heavy rain, we wanted to push along to Spiros Pool, as we knew we would be very exposed there. Greater Flamingos covered the roadside lagoons, with around 300 present in the area, while 4 Glossy Ibis drifted over the road and ahead of us. Reaching Spiros Pool, a good number of birds greeted us and provided an entertaining bit of birding. Three Little Gulls were watched dip-feeding and then roosting on the beach, while the salt pool hosted an assortment of waders including several Greenshank, Little Stints, Ruff and Spotted Redshanks, while the beach was full of Kentish Plovers and a very smart pair of GREATER SAND PLOVERS. A Common Ringed Plover was our first of the trip, while possibly best of all here was a pair of adult summer Slender-billed Gulls on the lagoon, complete with beautiful pink flush. In addition to these wetland birds, the surrounding shrubs hosted Black Redstart, Ruppell’s Warbler, Lesser Whitethroats and a good number of Northern Wheatears. Driving away from here, we paused again to view the 9 Marsh Sandpipers properly with the scopes, appreciating how elegant they were in their delicate summer plumage, while also noting 2 Green Sandpipers and a Willow Warbler. On from here, we had lunch at the Larnica Water Treatment works. A Black Francolin was seen along the entrance track briefly, and raucous Spur-winged Plovers were common here. The pools were disappointingly quiet, with only a couple of Green Sandpipers and Greenshank along the fringes, Mallards on the water and various hirundines including Sand Martins hawking overhead.

 

 

 

After lunch, we then headed out from the area, noting a female Stonechat along the way, and also more Spur-winged Plovers, before heading to Oroklini Marshes to the north of the airport. These pools proved superbly productive. Hosting a large colony of breeding Cattle Egrets at its centre, we enjoyed seeing these birds, some with rose-flushed bills of full courtship condition. The water held numerous Shoveler, as well as smaller numbers of Teal and a single Pintail, though particularly notable were a total of 7 superb Ferruginous Ducks at the back of the pool. Trumping these however was the superb spot by Chris of a male LITTLE CRAKE feeding along the edge of the reeds! The bird showed itself superbly at times, and soon after we spotted a female LITTLE CRAKE working the reeds a little further on! Great to see these elusive and sought-after birds here. At least 5 Black-tailed Godwits were feeding tucked in to the right, and Cetti’s Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and a single Robin were all noted. From here we stopped to have a long-overdue coffee in a neighbouring café. Whilst enjoying our coffees, we saw a flock of 5 Glossy Ibis drop into the neighbouring lagoon; our next stop. A large flock of Black-headed Gulls also began circling the area, and hosted a pair of adult Slender-billed Gulls and several Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Driving round to the further lagoon, the 5 Glossy Ibis could be seen at the back, while 6 Garganey were also present there, along with a nice variety of other wildfowl. Before long, it was time to make our way back to base, after a superb days birding.

 

 

 

TUESDAY 26th MARCH – Fine but breezy, low cloud and bad visibility in mountains,  17C

 

We started out today with a short pre-breakfast walk out onto the Dhiarizos valley. A very showy Wryneck was probably the star of the show, sunning itself for a short while on some roadside boulders before dropping out of view. Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps were present in small numbers while Cetti’s Warbler and Nightingale were both heard. A Cyprus Warbler was still holding its territory in the bottom of the valley, and what was probably a calling Great Spotted Cuckoo was heard distantly but not seen. We then headed back up for breakfast, and then headed to Mandria for a wander round to see what might be around. The recently cut hay fields hosted about 150 mostly Black-headed Wagtails with a scattering of other subspecies, while a rather impressive flock of about 200 Short-toed Larks flew up at the back of the field and dropped in again out of view. Along the shore, Isabelline and Northern Wheatears were noted along with 4 Tawny Pipits, but it was fairly quiet all in all. A single Ruppell’s Warbler was in some clifftop scrub over towards the east, while a harvested potato field hosted good numbers of White Wagtails and a couple of Yellow Wagtails. Some heron migration included a pair of Grey Herons headed west, a smart Squacco Heron which came on off and headed inland and a single Little Egret east. From here, we headed inland to explore the upper Asprokremnos Dam. The water itself was quiet except for a pair of Grey Herons on the banks, while a Troodos Lizard was noted basking. Out in the more open scrubby areas of the banks of the dam, a female Cuckoo came out of the pines and flew past at close range. The pines themselves hosted singles of Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Common Redstart and a Chiffchaff; a few bits eeked out in quiet conditions! Our next move was to start travelling north, heading for the Troodos mountains, with a stop along the way at Nata ford.

 

 

Started the day with Spanish Sparrows at the hotel, and ended with a Black Francolin at Melandia beach 

 

Arriving at Nata ford, we parked up and began scanning the surrounding green hillsides of this lovely location, on the lookout for any soaring raptors. A pair of Green Sandpipers were vocal and working around the rivers edge, while a Black Francolin was heard distantly. Chris then picked up a distant large raptor which we all got onto. As it came nearer, it was evidently an eagle! As it circled, its long tailed, relatively long necked and long winged appearance coupled with its flat, and occasionally down-bowed wings identified the bird as a Bonelli’s Eagle! The plumage was unusual, being a dark bird, with only a hint of a dark underwing covert bar and a lack of rufous tones was unfamiliar to us in general, but fairly typical of a sub-adult, with this bird perhaps in its 3rd year. Another raptor picked up soon after was slightly more straight forward; a Long-legged Buzzard with many Golden Eagle-like plumage characteristics – white tail base and extensive white primary bases, so likely in its second year. Shortly after that, another pair of raptors then appeared over a distant hillside; a pair of adult Bonelli’s Eagles! This was proving to be a very productive stop! These two were watched as the male conducted a spectacular ‘switch-back’ display flight, probably covering 100m of ascent and descent in this dramatic stoop and climb display. Just superb, and a great way to spend lunch.

 

After this we made the long winding drive into the Troodos Mountains, where we would go in search of some of Cyprus’ endemic subspecies, many of which are confined to higher altitude. The journey up produced numerous roadside Cyprus Wheatears, as well as a single Grey Wagtail. As we approached the peak, snow was still lying on the hillsides, but the biggest feature of the high point was low cloud! Initially it was fairly sparse, and we were able to enjoy superb views of a singing male Common Crossbill as we exited the van. Cyprus Coal tits of the subspecies cypriotes were vocal and easily encountered, and are probably the most distinctive subspecies as far as appearance is concerned, being very dark and dusky, with a broad bib which creeps down onto the upper flanks. We headed in for a much-needed coffee before venturing out into the pines, with a fine view from the café windows providing us with views of our first Cyprus Eurasian Jays of the subspecies glaszneri. Exiting the café, the cloud had descended in dramatic fashion, leaving us with about 15 meters of visibility! Thankfully we had already seen most of our target birds well, but there was one we still wanted to see; the Cyprus Short-toed Treecreeper (subspecies dorothaea). The bird wasn’t difficult to find, as several were singing frequently, but the problem was seeing one in the murk! In the end, after a bit of manoeuvring, we did all see one in flight and darting between trees, and could at least note its distinctive song! We were all pretty cold by now, so with little to be gained by remaining so high, we descended back down to sea level a little early, heading to finish the day at Melandia Beach, east of Paphos. The journey down did produce 3 long-legged Buzzards, before we pulled into the beach and took a walk along the shoreline path, taking in coastal scrub, low-intensity arable farmland and a strip of rocky garrigue. The beach hosted an Eastern Black-eared Wheatear of the white throated form, and also a Northern Wheatear. A female Ruppell’s Warbler was also noted along the access track, while a surprise came in the form of a female Hen Harrier which cruised across the fields, mobbed by Hooded Crows. The rocky scrub area hosted numerous Sardinian Warbler, and also a single female Cyprus Warbler which was seen carrying nesting material. In the low warm sun, this was a delightful place to finish the day! Aswe left, a Black Francolin was feeding in the middle of the track, allowing us to all watch it from the van before it darted into the neighbouring fields. Taking in another fine sunset on the journey back, we headed in after another productive day.

 

MONDAY 25TH MARCH - Paphos, Akamas Peninsular and Mandria

Fine but breezy, dry all day, cool N, 17C

 

A fine day which, after yesterdays heavy rain, left us all excited for what the day might bring. Things started well, with the local Cyprus Scop’s Owl discovered in the trees in the back garden, and offering superb views for all of us. After breakfast, we headed across to Paphos, where we made our way to the mosaics for a second time, figuring that the sheltered areas of shrubs and trees might host some migrants grounded by the storms yesterday. The birding was interesting right from the car park, with at couple of Nightingales singing in the back bushes and a Wryneck showing well in the fork of a pine trunk. A flock of 6 Night Herons were roosting in the tall trees at the back; new for the trip. From here we entered the park, and immediately noted a number of Lesser Whitethroats; a species which proved to be abundant, with at least 100 noted across the area, while Chiffchaffs were similarly abundant. Common Redstarts were seen in a variety of spots, while Eastern Black-eared Wheatears were also seen across the site. We also noted our first female Subalpine Warbler of the trip, while a confiding Woodlark was also found. The was more than one particular highlight of this visit, the first being the appearance of a black-and-white flycatcher in flight across the south-eastern section of the archaeological park. Even in flight, the bird was utterly distinctive; a male COLLARED FLYCATCHER! It flew across into a scattering of trees, towards which we walked and enjoyed excellent views of this perfect adult bird, sallying for food in perfect light. This was doubly special in being the first of the spring in Cyprus. Our next highlight was encountered at the excavation near the Odeon. A Woodchat Shrike allowed close approach nearby, while the excavation area of weedy grassland with a couple of small isolated bushes hosted an incredible volume of migrant birds, which held our attention for about an hour! A flock of about 90 Yellow Wagtails included at least 3 subspecies, while a small number of Short-toed Larks were also present. However, it was the Sylvia warblers which stole the show. A pair of tiny bushes hosted a superb Eastern Orphean Warbler, 6 Ruppell’s Warblers (4 males and 2 females), a male Eastern Subalpine Warbler, about a dozen Lesser Whitethroats and at least 3 Common Whitethroats; just mad! Closer towards the Odeon, a large dark thrush with long tail, wings and bill flew across onto the rocks behind; a female Blue Rock Thrush. The amount going on here meant that, before we knew it, 3 hours of absorbing birding had passed. Allowing ourselves a look at the spectacular roman mosaics, and noting a couple more Redstarts on our way out, we headed for the van, to make our way to our next stop.

 

 

Cyprus Scops Owl (courtesy Mike Cram) and Cyprus Wheatear; two island specials

 

From here, we headed north to the Akamas Peninsular, hoping that a similar affect had been had on migrant birds following the previous days rough weather. Our first stop was the Saint Minas Chapel, where we had lunch overlooking the valley. A pair of Cyprus Wheatears were busy down in the valley, but the highlight by far was a male Masked Shrike spotted by Chris far down in the valley! Through the scope, the bird looked pristine, and it was great to pick it up after not seeing any last year. Finishing lunch, we then headed round to the Baths of Aphrodite campsite; a top area of habitat which can often be very fruitful for migrant birds. A good sweep of the area revealed a single Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, singles of Black and Common Redstart, a sprinkling of Chiffchaffs and Lesser Whitethroats and a male Cyprus Wheatear which was in good voice, while overhead our first few Pallid Swifts of the tour were noted with Common Swifts. However, in truth it was surprisingly quiet here, particularly in comparison to this morning. Finishing our loop, we treated ourselves to a coffee and ice cream overlooking Chrysochou Bay, where we noted 3 Mediterranean Shags distantly on an offshore rock. A trio of Red-rumped Swallows soared overhead before we made our way back south. With a little bit of time to spare, we paid a short visit to Mandria before the sun set. Parking at the picnic area, we were stunned to find an absolutely immaculate male Masked Shrike in the picnic area bushes, bathed in perfect low evening light! One of the most incredible looking birds, we filled our boots with amazing views of this superb bird. The bushes here were alive with Lesser Whitethroats, while another Eastern Subalpine Warbler was also present. Add to this lot about 8 Tawny Pipits, an Isabelline Wheatear and Northern Wheatear and several Short-toed Larks, and you could say that this sunset visit was a bit good! We heaed back to Vasilias Nikoklis tired but very pleased with todays haul.

 

 

Masked Shrike and Ruppell's Warbler; two of many reasons to visit Cyprus in late March!

 

SUNDAY 24th MARCH – Mandria and Akrotiri

 

Scattered cloud am, stormy pm, with some heavy rain and lightning, moderate N, 17C

 

Today started with another pre-breakfast walk, which took us up the road from the hotel, towards the abandoned Turkish village up the valley. The tracks here allowed us to reach the riverbed, where the highlight was seeing a couple of cryptic Stone Curlews creeping around amongst the boulders; somewhat different habitat from what we are used to at home! Back towards the van, a male Woodchat Shrike was perched up on the far hillside, while Corn Buntings provided a constant soundtrack. Our 07:30 breakfast was soon waiting for us, so we returned, before heading out for the day towards Akritiri, via a short stop at Mandria. On the way to the coast we were able to stop by the side of the road to admire a smart male Cyprus Wheatear on the hillside, before heading to Mandria. Our reason for pausing here was the recent report of a Bimaculated Lark, which certainly warranted a look! Unfortunately we couldn’t locate it, and the recent big flocks of Yellow Wagtails seemed to have dispersed. However, quality was provided here amongst the crops, with 2 male Eastern Black-eared Wheatears beautifully adorning the sprinklers. A Northern Wheatear was also here, along with a couple more Stone Curlew, while a pair of Quail were heard deep in the potatoes. A Nightingale was seen very briefly in flight, as was a Black Redstart along the track, while a single Kentish Plover was on the shingle beach. From here we moved on, setting off for the Akritiri peninsular.

 

Setting the sat nav for the route across, it advised of a road closure, and sent us on an alternative, through some small villages and across the hills and valleys slightly inland, rather than the motorway. This route proved surprisingly fruitful! An incredibly productive stop was initially caused by a single Spectacled Warbler which flew across the road in an area of typical Mediterranean scrubby hillside and plateau. The bird landed in a thorn bush in the company of a second individual, affording prolonged views. Bundling out of the van in the middle of nowhere, things got rather exciting, initially with the appearance of a male and female Cretzschmar’s Bunting atop close-by bushes, soon followed by a male Cyprus Warbler, then a male Ruppell’s Warbler! We hardly knew where to look next! A really special selection of birds, the Spectacled Warblers, Cyprus Warblers and Cretzschmar’s Buntings both in song in this ideal breeding habitat. A male Common Redstart was also present here, along with Cyprus Wheatear and various Sardinian Warblers, while an aerial treat came in the form of our first Alpine Swifts of the trip, a pair overhead. Once activity settled, we moved on, though further distraction came in the form of two separate Long-legged Buzzards circling over the hillsides, allowing us to stop and note their salient features including creamy head and breast, white tail side, prominent carpal patches and long wings. Back on the main road, we then continued on to Akritiri.

 

 

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear and Bittern

 

Our first stop at the marshes was the area surrounding Phassori Reedbed. Our first stop was an abrupt one, with a Eurasian Bittern right out in the open, hunting in shallow water amongst cows, like a Cattle Egret! We watched from the van as it stalked small morsels of food; a view we rarely encounter anywhere! Just superb. Further along, the hide was very quiet, with only a single Coot and a Marsh Harrier on show, and 5 Cattle Egrets further on. A more productive area was overlooking some wet grazing marsh, where along with Little Egrets, about 20 Little-ringed Plover and a couple of Green Sandpipers, an impressive flock of up to 300 Yellow Wagtails were present. Scanning through the flock, our eyes landed on an eye-catching day-glow yellow headed bird; a male Citrine Wagtail! For such a striking bird, it unfortunately managed to slip away, flying and being lost, and despite concerted scanning, couldn’t be refound, meaning that many of the group missed it. We had lunch here, enjoying watching the diverse flocks of wagtails, and we also spotted a pair of fine Spur-winged Plover before moving onto the Akrotiri Gravel Pits. A recently flooded pool here provided our most diverse selection of wetland species of the trip so far. An assortment of birds included 2 Marsh Sandpipers, 2 Wood Sandpipers, a Greenshank, a couple of Snipe, 3 Black-winged Stilts, numerous Green Sandpipers and Little ringed Plovers and a good selection of Yellow Wagtails. Swifts were also numerous, buzzing around ahead of the incoming storm clouds. From here, it was high time for a coffee! With that in mind, we headed over to the east of Akrotiri Salt Lake in search of a café. Reaching the top of ‘Lady’s Mile’, a look at the sea produced a selection of large gulls, which included two really smart adult Armenian Gulls amongst the many Yellow-legged Gulls and a couple of Black-headed Gulls. We also had a single Lesser Black-backed Gull which was possibly of the race intermedius’. The café here was rammed, so we nipped into the outskirts of Limassol and found some caffeinated relief! Afterwards, fully refuelled, we headed for a look at Kakaki Wetlands on the outskirst of town. This site has become severely overgrown in recent years, and was disappointing as far as wetland species were concerned. However, a skirt round the outside of the area produced some good birds. A Wryneck flushed up from the track and into a Tamarisk, and though it proved elusive, we all managed some views of the bird. While working on views of this, along with a couple of Lesser Whitethroats, we also found another Ruppell’s Warbler in the same bush! Common Swifts were streaming through now, with the sky turning black and the wind picking up; the storm was coming! We took a drive along the lagoons along Ladys Mile, which proved very quiet, though at the end we watched a number of Kentish Plovers, including a male and female which performed some interesting courtship. The female began scraping out a (probably mock) nesting depression in the sand, while the male approached and bowed, before mating with the female. From here we passed the Akrotiroi Salt lake and noted an impressive 300 or so Greater Flamingos, before stopping as a flock of Yellow Wagtails flew up from an overgrown roadside field. These birds provided much entertainment, offering superb views from the van of a variety of subspecies, plus the ‘supercilliaris’ and ‘dombrowski’ hybrids, plus what is called the ‘xanthophrys’ hybrid; a mix of Lutea and Feldegg. A hybrid or no, this was one smart looking wagtail! Rain had started to fall, but not so heavy as to stop us from making one last stop at St Georges Chapel. On our way here, an awesome brief moment of excitement came when a superb male Pallid Harrier crossed the road right in front of the van! Brakes on we pulled over and enjoyed superb views of this hyper-sleek harrier. St Georges Chapel features an area of planted tamarisks and various other trees is a haven for migrant birds, and proved to be fairly busy. Four Common Redstarts were present, along with several Common Chiffchaffs and Lesser Whitethroats. However the best bird here was an Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler which was sheltering at the back of the area. Close to the chapel, 4 Hoopoes were sheltering from the wind, and proved to be our last good bird of a superb day. The drive back was accompanied by an incredibly dramatic sunset over the sea against dramatic stormy skies, and capped off a great day.  

 

   

Eastern Bonelli's Warbler and a 'supercilliaris' Yellow Wagtail

 

 

ATURDAY 23rd MARCH - Dhiarizos Valley, Mandria, Paphos, Asprokremmos Dam and Aiga Varvara 

Fine with sunny spells, overcast later, light northerly/variable winds, 18C

 

Our first full day on Cyprus began with a short walk out from our accommodation before breakfast, hoping to get a feel for the birdlife that we may encounter through the day. A few busy corners of scrub featured good numbers of Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps, while Cetti’s Warblers were vocal Walking the edge of the Dhiarizos Valley, by far the most exciting moment was when Chris pointed out a distant flock of birds coming in off the sea distantly. Quickly getting a scope on them, it was instantly clear that they were Cranes, and as they neared their identification became clear; DEMOISELLE CRANES! This flock, totalling 42 birds, cruised in V formation tracking the Asprokremmos Dam valley adjacent to our own, and drifted slowly out of view. What a way to start! Our usual walk along the dry river bed was not possible this time, as heavy rains have washed the banks leaving a steep cliff. However a scan of the river bottom did reveal a treat; a pair of Cyprus Wheatears. The male and female showed really nicely for us, with the male occasionally singing. Before we knew it, an hour had passed, and it was time for breakfast!

 

 

The superb flock of Demoiselle Cranes from early on, and one of the Greater Sand Plovers

 

Following a fine breakfast, we loaded up into the van and headed out, paying another visit to the Mandria ‘wagtail fields’ from yesterday. The area was still alive with Black-headed Wagtails, plus also 3 Grey-headed Wagtails (ssp. thumbergi) which we didn’t note yesterday. The field also hosted our first Red-throated Pipits amongst some Meadow Pipits; their ruddy clean faces and chests standing them out from the crowd. Neighbouring fields hosted a number of Crested Larks, as well as Isabelline Wheatear and a small number of Short-toed Larks. Returning back to the van, a small dark warbler flushed from the roadside ditch. Distinctly dark with a fairly broad, rounded tail, it was clearly a locustella, and the bird provided us with nice perched views in a small clump of reeds; all-dark, plain faced and heavily streaked through the wings and mantle; a Common Grasshopper Warbler. Great to see in itself, but on reporting the bird to local birders, it transpired that this is a real Cyprus rarity, with only 2 previous records! Our run of rarities on the island just continues. From here we loaded up and took a short drive along the front, getting really nice views of Short-toed Larks and Tawny Pipits from the van, while a distant Black Francolin called in the background. A quick scan of the shore revealed two waders on a rocky shelf; a pair of Greater Sand Plovers! Showing some summer plumage, the birds (probably a male and female) wore a pastel orange wash across the chest, surrounding a gleaming white throat; really splendid waders. They flew and joined a third wader; a Kentish Plover, joined them, before they all flew offshore. A superb run of birds so far! From here, our next stop would be the famous Paphos Headland, where we would spend a couple of hours at the Mosaics and lighthouse there.

 

Paying the entry fee, we entered the park, and were instantly greeted by a pair of Purple Herons circling over, having just come in off the sea. We would go on to note another 5, and then 2 more later on; a nice indication of visible migration. A little way up onto the plateau, a Wryneck showed nicely on top of a small shrub by dilapidated buildings, while the area was fairly busy with Blackcaps and Lesser Whitethroats throughout. Northern Wheatears were numerous, particularly around the rocky areas and excavations, while Isabelline Wheatear and a really splendid Eastern Black-eared Wheatear all took a liking to one small pile of rocks. This pile also hosted our first Cretzschmar’s Bunting, a really smart male which was feeding low against a grassy edge, its rich terracotta underparts, malar and throat standing out from its blue-grey hood; a truly beautiful bunting, and one of two individuals we would encounter here. Lesser Whitethroats and Chiffchaffs were in every bush, with 40 of each a conservative estimate, while our first Common Swifts, House Martins and, pleasingly, Red-rumped Swallows were also noted overhead. A check of an open area of rougher ground produced a couple of larks; a Crested Lark and a Woodlark; a common wintering species, but not so typical on the coast. Nightingale was heard calling from dense scrub on our way to the lighthouse, where we had lunch. A Kingfisher was noted distantly on the shoreline rocks, while two more Common Nightingales were vocal and showed briefly in flight. The area also hosted a Reed Warbler; one of 2 seen in the area. After finishing lunch, we completed our loop of the area, noting a single Black Redstart and numerous more Lesser Whitethroats and Chiffchaffs, plus 3 Stonechats. Exiting the site, it was high time for a coffee!

 

 

Crested Lark and Spotted Crake

 

After some caffeine and a rest, we then made our wat to another site, the lower part of Asprokremmos Dam. Driving along the dirt track, we noted our first Chukar Partridge of the trip, with two further noted later. Further along we parked up and walked along the valley bottom, scanning the scrubby hillside as we went. Corn Buntings and Crested Larks were common, as were Sardinian Warblers. A Steppe Buzzard crossing the hillside was our first large raptor of the trip, while Jackdaws and Hooded Crows were common. A small vegetated gulley in the hillside revealed a movement which turned into another male Cretzschmar’s Bunting which afforded scope views, and was soon followed by another movement in the scrub; a male and female Cyprus Warbler! This was our main target here, wit the habitat perfect for the species, and though they were distant, we all managed to scope them and get good views of their salient features. Further along we encountered another very brief male which some of the group saw, and round the bend, a pair of males showed well, having a scrap and uttering their dry rattling calls; a superb showing for the site. Non avian interest was gained in the form of a Paphos Blue butterfly; endemic to the island, and a really stunning Swallowtail which was settled and allowed us to photograph it at leisure. A Green Sandpiper was noted in flight also, before we made our way back to the van. From here, we had time for one more stop before finishing for the day. This would be an area of settling pools close to Aiga Varvara. With heavy rains this winter, many of the islands wetter sites have gained a new lease of life, and a tip off from Jane Stylianou, we went on the hunt for Spotted Crake. Arriving at the pools, there was initially no sign of the bird, with only 4 Moorhen noted. Black Francolin was heard in two locations, and a couple of Black-headed Wagtails did drop in, but as we walked away from the site, Jean had a last scan of the back of the pools, and there was the bird! A really nice adult Spotted Crake, showing beautifully at the back of the pool. So well in fact, we had to leave with the bird still on full show! Four Green Sandpipers flushed from the roadside as we left, and headed back to base. One last treat was in store, with a look around te hotel before dinner revealing our resident Cyprus Scops Owl in full voice and showing well in a pine tree behind the hotel, duetting with a second bird down in the Dhiarizos Valley; a superb end to an action packed day. 

 

 

FRIDAY 22nd MARCH - Dhiarizos Valley and Mandria

Fine and sunny, light northerly/variable winds, 19C

 

Our 2019 Southern Cyprus tour began, unsurprisingly, at Gatwick Airport North Terminal! Here we met with a full quota of tour participants early in the morning at check-in. Everything ran smoothly through to boarding, and our flight departed on time, arriving in Paphos Airport at about 13:00. A smooth transition here saw us collecting our hire van, and we were soon making our way out of the airport, and along the Dhiarizos Valley towards our accommodation at Vasilias Nikoklis. The entrance to the Inn hosted our first Spanish Sparrows sharing a palm with House Sparrows, whilst Barn Swallows were busy prospecting the eaves. After dropping our things in our rooms, we took a moment to soak in the tranquil surroundings over a cold glass of home-made lemonade, before heading out for a couple of hours before sunset, to Mandria. This area provided some very enjoyable birding last year, and proved to be similarly productive this evening. The first good birding was to be had in the areas of agricultural land just in from the coast, particularly focussed around recently cut silage fields. These fields hosted a superb flock of about 150 Black-headed Wagtails (subspecies feldegg), many of which being stonking males dressed in vivid yellow and black. Scanning amongst them, the fun game of picking out the various other subspecies, which we enjoyed, separating out flava (Blue-headed Wagtail), supercilliaris and dombrowskii (distinctive plumages, both considered to be intergrades between other subspecies). Certainly a colourful mix! The same filed also hosted a pair of Hoopoes, a Crested Lark and a Meadow Pipit, while a vegetable patch behind us also contained 7 Short-toed Lark and a Northern Wheatear. A male Serin was singing in trees behind us the whole time and gave up nice scope views. From here we drove down to the coastal plains, parking up to view this undeveloped stretch of coastline. One of the first sounds which met us as we exited the van was the distinctive ‘song’ of a Black Francolin, and it wasn’t long before we laid eyes on him up on a prominent rocky outcrop, allowing superb scope views. We usually have to work harder to get a sighting of this species on Cyprus! The low sandy fields here, covered in a sand dune-like flora, hosted a good number of migrant larks, pipits and wheatears. Most prominent were a spread of around 30 Northern Wheatears, while amongst them where three Isabelline Wheaters; their sandier plumage, more upright stance, black lore white supercilium and broad tail bands separating them from their cousins. A flock of about 30 Greater Short-toed Larks also crept around low amongst the vegetation, occasionally flying up together before dropping in again, while three Tawny Pipits were also present here. A small patch of bushes held a single Lesser Whitethroat, two female Black Redstarts and a pair of Sardinian Warblers which were feeding young. All in all a fairly busy start to proceedings! A notable element of this wander was a fair profusion of Painted Lady butterflies; a species we had noticed from stepping off the plane, and which we probably saw 200 of during the course of the afternoon. The island is currently seeing one of the largest migrations of this species in many years, so we can expect to see more in the coming days! Returning to the Hotel following a very pleasant sunset over the sea, we enjoyed dinner to the sound of calling Cyprus Scops Owl and Stone Curlews in the Dhiarizos Valley.  

 

 

A showy Black Francolin and Isabelline Wheatear from Mandria

 


 

NORFOLK BRECKS & COAST 18TH - 21ST MARCH (AJS)

 

 

THURSDAY 2ST MARCH - NORTH NORFOLK

Sunny spells and calm, 15C

 

Another fine day of weather for our final day spent ‘mopping up’ on some target birds on the Norfolk coast. We started off by visiting a site where we hoped to get some better views of Firecrest, as we had only managed pretty sketchy views down in the Brecks. One of our favoured spots for the species on the Cromer-Holt ridge came up trumps, with a male to be heard singing as soon as we got out of the van. In all, we heard three different singing males, and had excellent views of two of them, flitting among the bare branches of an oak catching midges, and pausing to sing occasionally. One flicked into the front of an old ivy covered trunk, and its bronze-washed shoulders shone out against the dark background – lovely! Onto the heaths next, to have a look for our first Dartford Warbler of the year. We hoped we might hear some singing, with it being such a lovely calm day. Yellowhammer and Chiffchaff song greeted us, and Red Kite was again seen circling over – we had seen this species at virtually every site we had visited in the last few days. Success in finding Dartford Warblers outside the breeding season normally revolves around finding the resident Stonechats, though we weren’t sure if the two species would be hanging around together at the moment. We found a pair of Stonechats, and sure enough, a Dartford Warbler was rooting around in the same bush underneath them. It didn’t stay there long though, but burst into song, heading off in a song flight and perching right on the top of a silver birch. Over the next half hour, we watched with a scope and the male Dartford would frequently pop out and sing from an open perch, giving some really fantastic views. He was never far away from the Stonechats though, of which there were now two pairs, and a Woodlark fluted in song flight overhead – a superb morning!

 

 

Dropping down onto the coast we headed next to Holkham, where we hoped to have our final session of the season with the wintering Shorelarks, which would soon be heading off to northern climes. A few Pink-footed Geese were by Lady Anne’s Drive as we set off in the warm sunshine – we really had been very lucky with the weather on this trip. Out in the bay, it didn’t take us long to find the Shorelarks, which flew in high from the north calling. They were chasing each other around, and flying high up into the blue sky in pursuit of each other calling all the time – quite unlike their usual behaviour, and indicative that they would soon be on their way. Eventually they settled among the sea lavender, and we watched them through the scopes with the sun behind us. Really stunning birds, and a lifer for some in the group. The sea was generally quiet, but a few hundred Common Scoter were offshore, and thirteen Common Eider flew east.

 

We didn’t have too much time left before departure to King’s Lynn station, but opted to lunch in Burnham Overy harbour and then have a quick walk out onto the seawall to check the grazing marshes. The new flooding out on the marsh here has created some excellent habitat for wildfowl and waders, and looks really exciting for the spring. Today it was full of Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall, plus a Great White Egret was stalking along one of the reedy channels. In the distance, three Spoonbills could be seen flying away, not the best of views, but nice to see all the same. Brent Geese, Avocets and Black-tailed Godwit were some of the species seen on the mudflats, and of course a Red Kite circled over us! Back at the harbour, we said farewell to John and Colin who were heading home, while the rest of us had a cuppa and scanned the harbour. Three Spoonbills – an adult and two immatures – dropped onto the saltmarsh right in front of us. The adult was in full breeding plumage, with a gold gorget and full crest. What stunning birds to round off our tour!

 

WEDNESDAY 20TH MARCH - SCULTORPE, BRECKS AND TITCHWELL

Broken cloud and sunny spells, calm, 15C

 

A bit of a mix today, as we combined some breckland and forest birding with an afternoon on the coast. It was a bit of an up and down sort of day, but with some nice spring highlights. We started at Sculthorpe Moor NR, where a Coues’s Arctic Redpoll had been overwintering and regularly visiting the feeders there. As soon as we arrived at the niger feeders, we could see a pale redpoll feeding there with bright white wing bars and a large among of unstreaked white on the rump and we thought it was going to be the bird in question. However, after everyone got their scopes up and we focussed in more closely on the bird, we could see that it didn’t look right – the bill looked big, and the plumage was a bit too heavily streaked. Sure enough, the bird flew up into the alders and despite looking even paler now, showed numerous dark arrowhead markings on its undertail which pointed to the correct identification as a Mealy Redpoll. We saw the same bird again later on and had a good view of its rump, which showed a god clean band of unstreaked white through the centre at least matching that of the actual Arctic, but it always looked quite dark and ‘swarthy’ and large-billed – they’re not easy! At least four different Mealy Redpolls were coming to the feeders, and two or three Lesser Redpolls. One of the Mealy’s was a fine male, with raspberry flushed cheeks and breast. Siskins were dropping in frequently too, so despite not seeing our main target, it was a nice spot to stand with the sun on your back! Wandering further down into the reserve, we enjoyed Bullfinches, Bramblings and Reed Buntings at the Whitley Hide feeders, and had excellent views of a Red Kite over the big clearing. As we walked back, we caught sight of another raptor cruising high above, and were surprised to see that it was a ringtail Hen Harrier, a very good local sighting. The warming temperatures were encouraging the local Common Buzzards up in numbers too, and a pair of Sparrowhawks showed really well with the male in full display and the female perching up in the poplars. After another check back at the feeders for the redpolls, it was back to the car park for coffee and on to our next stop.

 

 

Mealy Redpolls at Sculthorpe - a white rumped bird (left) and a raspberry red male

 

We had enjoyed a decent view of a Goshawk on yesterdays foray into the Brecks, but we were left wanting more prolonged scope views for everyone, so decided to do a smash and grab back into the north Brecks to try again given it was such a fine morning. Within moments of setting up our scopes at our chosen watchpoint, a male Goshawk circled into view and put on a great show, powering up to a height on deep, slow wingbeats before soaring around over the road for about ten minutes and allowing everyone the chance to follow it in the scope – excellent! Red Kite was seen again here, and many Common Buzzards, so it had been worth the trip down,

 

Lunch would be back up on the coast at Thornham Harbour, where we enjoyed our first coastal birding of the trip – flocks of Brent Geese rising off the marsh, and Black-tailed Godwit and Grey Plover in the creek. There was no sign of the Twite flock today, which may well have departed in the mild weather, but a fine male Marsh Harrier cruised by and it was nice to eat our sandwiches to a soundtrack of the saltmarsh on such a lovely calm day. Titchwell would be our destination for the remainder of the day, and we started with a good search for the Woodcock near the car park, but to no avail. The regular Water Rail was much more confiding, feeding right out in the open in the ditch by the main path. The freshmarsh was bustling with activity, though this was mostly gulls! The burgeoning colony looks to have even more Mediterranean Gulls than ever in attendance this year, and our entire visit was punctuated with their distinctive ‘kyaow’ calls. Avocets were around in small numbers, and a roost of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits in breeding plumage were a very nice addition. Small numbers of Knot were roosting on the islands too, ahead of the incoming tide, and we picked out a couple of Dunlin and Turnstone as well. Nipping down to the beach, we added five Sanderling, and offshore a quiet sea hosted two pairs of Red-breasted Mergansers. The tidal pool was more interesting, with flocks of Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit resting there and best of all, a fine male Northern Wheatear hopping around on the turf at the back – our first of Spring. The pair of Red Crested Pochards were on this pool too, looking particularly dazzling in the low afternoon sun. Back to Parrinder Hide, and we ended the day watching the comings and goings of the Mediterranean Gulls, counting a minimum of 140 of these beautiful and charismatic gulls close to the hide. Better still though was an adult Little Gull which we picked out resting on a small island right of the hide – another year tick on tour! With another fruitless search for the Woodcock on the way back, we rounded off the day at dusk and headed back to base.

 

 

TUESDAY 19TH MARCH - BRECKLAND

Calm overcast day, 15C

 

A magnificent days birding today saw us head down into Breckland to look for the many speciality species which make the region so popular in early spring. Top of the billing is always Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, and we have been enjoying a good success rate with them on the tours this year so were hopeful of a sighting given the beautiful calm conditions. Our walk down the river bank produced a nice selection of birds, with a singing Grey Wagtail, Marsh Tit, Treecreeper, Chiffchaff, Reed Bunting, Stock Dove and a fly by pair of Mandarins. Just as we approached the poplars, we could see a disturbance in the water ahead – two young Otters were frolicking around under a willow by the bank! Two people were photographing them at close quarters, and we moved quietly closer and were soon no more than 5m away from the two animals, which were totally unperturbed by our presence. We could hear them sniffing and snorting as they ferreted around beneath the matted weed under the overhanging tree, and occasionally they would chatter to each other too. The views were quite amazing, and a nice lifer for at least one of our group! Onto the task in hand though, and we continued a short way to find that we had missed the female Lesser Spot by a few minutes – we hoped our encounter with the Otters hadn’t cost us! We hung around at the location for a while, listening carefully and scanning the trees for movement. Another group of birders appeared and told us they’d seen a female much further on, so we now weren’t sure whether to stick or twist. Thankfully we stayed put and carried on scanning, and suddenly the male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew across the river and landed just above our head! He flew up onto a dead branch, and drummed, before hammering away for a few minutes at the rotting trunk. The views were first class, as we had the sun behind us and the bird close overhead. He soon flew a short way, but we relocated him again and had further scope views for five minutes or so, and heard the bird call a few times before he re-crossed the river and flew out of site. A brilliant result!

 

 

Walking back up, we took a detour on the way back to check a favoured spot for Woodlark. Surprisingly they were not singing today, but we had lovely views of one, probably a male, calling occasionally as it moved around unobtrusively in the long grass. Eventually he flew up into the edge of the pines and perched beautifully in the sun. All the while, small groups of finches were flying up out of the pines – mainly Siskins, Bramblings and Chaffinches, but also a few Redpolls. We located a single redpoll feeding low down close to the path in a small silver birch – it was a Mealy Redpoll, fairly large and big-billed, with a generally pale ground colour, white wing bars and white undertail coverts with single shaft streak. A bit further on, we found three Lesser Redpolls feeding in a similar fashion, giving us a nice chance to compare the two varieties! Another Marsh Tit showed very well too, rounding off an excellent session.

 

We had struggled so far this season to find any Stone Curlews, and keen to rectify this, we headed further south to a good site for finding the birds early in the season. Our luck was in today, as we had great scope views of two Stone Curlews standing motionless among the heather. As we scoped them, a Woodlark called occasionally behind us, eventually perching up nicely in a sapling, and a pair of Stonechats were also around. Whenever you are birding in the brecks, any commotion from local corvids is always worth careful investigation – sure enough, the agitated behaviour from the Rooks alerted us to a large female Goshawk circling over the heath, and we were able to watch the bird soaring for some time mobbed by various corvids and looking enormous by comparison! We were even able to get some scope views, and see the birds distinctive flight silhouette well. It eventually made off over distant woodland – another nice bonus bird! We had lunch in the company of another Woodlark, which sat silently in a birch tree the whole time we ate our sandwiches – a good day for this species.

 

Heading back into the forest, we had originally planned to try for the Great Grey Shrike but forestry operations in the area meant we were not able to access the clearing today. We instead spent some time looking for Crossbills, and had some fantastic views of 4-5 different birds, including a lovely singing male who obliged for some prolonged scope views for us. Our target birds were falling nicely, and we had one major one still to find before the end of the day. This meant a visit to Lynford, to look for the Hawfinches, and generally enjoy some excellent woodland birding as the forest resounded to the songs of many species this afternoon. Bramblings and Redwings were both observed in full song – closing our eyes, we could have been in Scandinavia rather than south Norfolk! We really enjoyed watching the summer plumaged Bramblings feeding in a ride with Siskins and Yellowhammers alongside in the afternoon sunshine – perhaps one of the highlights of the whole day in fact (and there had been several!). Further down into the arboretum, we checked in on our regular roosting Tawny Owl, which was in residence and gave some tantalising views among the dark tangle of branches it chooses to call home, way up in the top of a tall conifer. Crossing the bridge, we could immediately see that there were lots of birds moving around in the treetops in the centre of the paddocks – lots of Redwings, restlessly whizzing around and again in full song, clearly getting ready to depart for Scandinavia. Among them were five Hawfinches, and they were equally busy, hardly sitting still for a moment as they chased among the branches, the males pausing to sing occasionally. We watched them for the next half an hour, and ended up with a minimum of eleven birds and some really great views – the males looked stunning in the low evening light. Eventually they all made their way up into the conifers for roosting, and the Redwings all took to the air with a cacophony of ‘seeeps’, and that was that. The Tawny Owl showed a bit better on our return, and three Crossbills flew low over calling but were not coming down to drink in their usual spot – thankfully we had enjoyed great views in the forest earlier on. Up near the car park, a Firecrest sang from deep inside a big Holly and we had to be very patient to get some glimpses of the bird among the branches. Eventually it showed quite well to about half the group, before flitting up high into an ivy covered tree out of view – one for another day!

 

 

To end our day, we used the last half hour of good light back up in the Wensum valley looking for owls. Despite the excellent conditions, we failed to find a Barn Owl this evening but we did have some decent glimpses of one of our resident Little Owls, which popped out to perch on an old palette in a tumbledown barn. We managed a few scope views of the bird, which was quite active and mobile, and not quite sitting still long enough for everyone to see it well. We saw the pair mating last week, so know them to be nesting close by, and this seemed to be most likely the male out and about while the female is perhaps getting ready to lay. With Yellowhammer and Chiffchaff in song as dusk fell, it had certainly felt like a spring like day.

 


 

ESTONIA 14TH - 19TH MARCH 2019 (JWM)

 

MONDAY 18th MARCH – Overcast with sunny spells and wintry showers  pm, light S winds am, easing later, 7C

 

Our final full day in Estonia saw us entering some of the most densely forested regions of the country, where we would make a big effort to encounter the regions specialist woodland species. A combination of the forests age and wild state, with much natural tree growth and dead wood from fallen trees mean that it is a haven for woodland birds and mammals, with the diversity of woodpeckers here being particularly impressive, and so it proved today! Our day started after breakfast with a drive out from Rakvere, entering the forest from the west. The strategy for today, with so many promising areas of forest to explore, was to pause within a variety of rich areas, and just wait and listen. This strategy proved extremely fruitful in the main through the day, though the morning was grey and a little windy, so things started fairly slowly. Our first couple of stops produced little in the way of activity, though a high passage of Lapwings and Skylarks was evident overhead, and continued through much of the day. Much of our exploration took us along frozen forest logging tracks, where we entered into a winter wonderland of mature Spruce forest with thick white snow covering the ground. It was in a location like this that we encountered the first of one of our most sought-after species; a Three-toed Woodpecker. This elusive species appeared silently above us in high Birches, before flying across the track and perching up long enough to get a scope on it, noting that it was a female bird, lacking yellow on the crown, before it passed silently back into the forest and never reappeared. Black Woodpeckers were also very vocal here. Searching for forest birds, we were conscious that the morning period can often be the most productive time, with birds at their most active. However, we were more-or-less finding the opposite was true this morning, with a relative lack of activity from most things, probably down to the cool grey conditions. However, we did manage to encounter some great hotspots of action. One such hotspot involved a tit flock which featured Crested Tits, a couple of the northern race of Willow Tit (our first good sighting of this distinctive bird, and one we had been looking forward to seeing well), Goldcrests and Marsh Tits. A couple of calls from a White-backed Woodpecker were also heard here, but no sighting was forthcoming. Our next stop took us into more open forestry with some larger clearings between Spruce stands. This site produced another sought-after woodpecker for us; a fine female Grey-headed Woodpecker. This bird gave us a good show, calling regularly with its distinctive high pitched, descending ‘kleee klee kle klu klu klu’ call which sounds somewhere between a Green and Black Woodpecker. A short drive onwards saw us pause in another promising site, which Uku said looked good for White-backed Woodpecker. As has been the case for almost this whole trip, Uku’s intuition was proved correct, with a splendid male White-backed Woodpecker appearing, clinging onto a tall deciduous tree trunk, before dropping very low down towards the base, where it began probing for food, moved around the back and was lost. Considering this morning felt like the weather had made many of the woodland birds ‘quiet’, we were doing very well, with our two most sort-after woodpeckers in the bag! Another nice sighting here was of two more very vocal borealis Willow Tits which showed well as they sang their hearts out in front of us. From here, it was time to have our picnic lunch, surrounded by 1-meter deep snow and peaceful forest.

 

 

White-backed Woodpecker and borealis Willow Tit

 

Finishing our lunch and coffees, we then continued onwards, heading further east into the Alutaguse forest. We paused in an area where a long forest trail led off at a right angle from the main track, and was covered by relatively soft snow still. We scanned this trail with binoculars as we passed, as there is always a chance of spotting a grouse or mammal using these quite tracks. Nothing was obviously present, but on getting out of the van, a male Capercaillie erupted from the forest edge and flew down the ride, entering the pines half way along! It was obviously just feeding off the track! We walked along the track a short way in the hope of spotting this majestic bird in the trees. We stopped in our tracks as a Three-toed Woodpecker called over our heads, giving its squeaky ‘quick’ kick call. Unfortunately despite a long vigil we couldn’t get a sighting, the bird probably slipping away unseen. However 6 Woodlark were noted flying overhead on migration, and then the Capercaillie flew again, heading further down the track! We weren’t going to likely manage a better view of this bird, so we left it to it, and returned to the van. Our next stop took us to a wide-open clearing, where we enjoyed a superb show from two Black Woodpeckers; a male and female which were incredibly vocal and flew across the clearing, landing in isolated trees and showing superbly well, giving a full range of vocalisations. The weather was improving now, with glimmers of sunshine, while an immature White-tailed Eagle cruising into view seemed to agree. However, this didn’t last, with a dark weather front passed over us, bringing some heavy wintry rain our way. This lasted about 20 minutes, but we remained out of the van, as we discovered some fascinating mammal tracks in the snow nearby. European Elk tracks lined the path, as did a number from Roe Deer. However even better were a long set of Brown Bear tracks which Uku found leading down a narrow trail covered in thick snow. These animals are only just waking up from hibernation, and these tracks were probably as fresh as to be from last night! Another good set of tracks were those of Eurasian Lynx; the large cat-like impressions working along the side of the track. Following this fascinating distraction, we then continued our hunt for woodland birds! A walk along a quiet snow-covered track proved fairly quiet, until a Hazel Grouse began calling from nearby! The habitat was perfect, with tightly packed and low-growing Spruces forming an impenetrable forest floor. With this, it was unsurprising that we didn’t see the bird, but it was cool to hear it. Back to the main track, an immature Goshawk cruised over, as did an adult White-tailed Eagle, before we moved on. Heading between sites, we paused to scan some open countryside, which yielded Common Crane, numerous Buzzards, a flock of Fieldfare and, frustratingly, a distant aquila eagle which eluded identification but was either Golden or one of the Spotted Eagles. We then moved into further mature forest, and with the weather markedly improved, bird activity continued to remain high, particularly from the woodpeckers. Black Woodpeckers were ridiculously vocal (and totalled 10 individuals across the day), while we also managed further very good sightings of Grey-headed Woodpeckers (finishing the day with 6 individuals) and White-backed Woodpecker (totalling 4 for the day); a true woodpecker-fest! A superb highlight of this late period was a huge male Capercaillie which, unlike todays earlier one, sat up in the top of a tall spruce for a bit before flying down into the forest and away. With the light fading, we heard three different Pygmy Owls, before making our way back to Rakvere for our last evening in Estonia. What a cracker of a day.  

 

 

Black Woodpecker and Brown Bear tracks

 

SUNDAY 17th MARCH – Overcast, moderate and cold south wind, 3C, but felt much colder

 

Today saw us wake up in the well forested Roosta Holiday Village, where we rose at a more leisurely 07:45 to have breakfast and then head onwards. The pine forest here held a coupe of early treats for us, first of all with a pair of vocal Parrot Crossbills which erupted from pines outside of reception, flew over calling and then landed prominently on  top of a Spruce tree. The deep-based bill and thick necked appearance of this irruptive species was evident, and it was pleasing to catch up with them; a difficult species to catch up with in Estonia. Another good sighting here was an inquisitive Crested Tit which investigated us for a while, again showing well and calling loudly from tall pines.  A nice way to leave this attractive site.   From here, we had a fair day of travelling ahead of us to reach the north-eastern part of the country, where we would be spending the next couple of nights. However before embarking on the drive, we first headed north to revisit the peninsular at Põõsaspea again, to see if any morning migration was evident. A vigil from the headland did produce some movement, with a small passage of Tufted Ducks, Velvet Scoter and Greater Scaup evident, along with small groups of Russian White-fronted and Tundra Bean Geese offshore, while some passerines were also on the move, including a flock of Siskins, several Ravens and a number of Skylarks all either passing or coming in off the sea. The water also hosted numerous Long-tailed Ducks and plenty of Goldeneye and Eider. At the base of the peninsular, and area of rough grassland was worthy of a stop, as it produced 3 Woodlark which appeared to have set up territory and were singing high overhead and chasing both each other and the local Skylarks. In the neighbouring field we enjoyed seeing and hearing a pair of Cranes which seemed to have set up territory there, while a Great Grey Shrike also adorned the overhead wires. From here we commenced our journey east, taking us past Tallinn and on into Lahemaa National Park and the area around Palmse. Entering the area, an adult male Goshawk cruised through over open fields and into a woodland stand beyond, right on queue before we headed for an enjoyable lunch in a rather spectacular converted old farmhouse.

 

 

Middle Spotted Woodpecker and the strikingly pale northern subspecies of Nuthatch

 

After lunch we made our way into some fine areas of old parkland surrounding some impressively regal old manor houses. The habitat looked good for Middle Spotted Woodpecker in particular, so we invested some time in searching for this and other woodland species. The weather had seen a shift from the previous days calm and mild conditions, with a fairly stiff cold wind blowing and very grey skies, and the areas birdlife had responded, showing very low activity and little sound even from the local Great Tits! However, a slow and thorough lap around the impressive grounds of this house did unveil some nice sightings. Northern Bullfinches were seen well for the first time in this trip, and also produced their nasal trumpeting calls for the first time, along with illustrating their strawberry red underpart colour and whitish wingbar with thin pale ‘teeth’ creeping up the outer web of the feather, creating a ‘comb’ effect to the wing-bar. Marsh Tits were also seen, and a Willow Tit was heard (a species we are yet to catch up with properly yet, so hopefully tomorrow!). With perseverance, we eventually encountered our first woodpecker at the site; a female Great Spotted Woodpecker. A vocal Nuthatch of the northern European subspecies also showed well, showing off its pearly white underparts. Then a smaller woodpecker flew overhead and landed in a further off deciduous tree; a Middle Spotted Woodpecker!  The bird performed really nicely for us, feeding and visiting a variety of dead and living trees and quietly testing and probing the wood for food, allowing us to note its dark-streaked  flanks,  neatly and heavily-spotted flight feathers and the delicate pinkish-red flush to the undertail coverts; much less vivid than in Great Spotted Woodpecker.  A really great bird and a good performer to boot! From here we then pushed on with our journey east. The weather steadily worsened as we drove, with the wind increasing, and a light snow beginning to fall. The journey produced an impressive number of Common Buzzards, with an impressive 35 birds counted over the duration. We began to discuss how surprised we were to not see a Rough-legged Buzzard amongst their number, when as if on queue an adult (probably a male) rose up from the roadside and banked away from the van, revealing its white tail-base and pale streaked head and upper breast. Stopping the van, we saw the bird pass round the back of a mound, but never saw it appear out of the other side! Another rather brief encounter with this species. A couple of Common Crane were also noted besides the van during the journey. As we neared our final destination, we entered some areas of mature Spruce forest which hosted lots of fallen dead wood; ideal habitat for Three-toed Woodpecker. The wind was really blowing through the treetops here and the forests were more-or-less silent, so we struggled to get many sightings of note, though it was interesting to see holes in the lower trunk of a Spruce created by a Three-toed Woodpecker attempting to extract sap from the pine. With this, we headed to Rakvere where we would spend the night, looking forward to entering the old forests of this region tomorrow, on the hunt for woodpeckers!

 

 

SATURDAY 16TH MARCH – Overcast with light rain all day, almost windless, 5C

 

A rather grey, damp day greeted us today, as we made our way off of Saaremaa Island to head east onto mainland Estonia. The weather meant that this first part of the journey was best served driving, though a brief pause was had for a small flock of Tundra Bean Geese which were resting in roadside fields. Making good progress, we arrived at the ferry terminal on Muhu Island for the 08:30 crossing, noting 100’s of Long-tailed Duck and numerous Goosander and Goldeneye; all par for the course on this trip so far! Disembarking the ferry, we wound our way into some forested roads around Tuhu, stopping along a promising stretch where we encountered a couple of palustris Marsh Tits and heard a Willow Tit but couldn’t locate it. A call to Uku from Marika; the director of Estonian Nature Tours informed us of an active Black Grouse lek close by. Heading up the road, we were able to enjoy a very energetic display of 11 cock Black Grouse strutting and tussling across an open area of boggy grassland. Interestingly the birds shared the area with 19 female Black Grouse, who all appeared to be enjoying the show, before they flew up into nearby Silver Birch trees and proceeded to feed on the buds at the ends of the thin branches. We were all impressed by the level of activity we were witnessing, especially so late into the morning. Common Cranes were bugling in the distance, while the next frozen field held another treat in the form of a flock of 9 Waxwings. These birds were entertaining to watch as they visited the frozen pools, dropping onto the ice with outstretched legs and cocked tail, apparently gleaning some food of some kind, before flying up to overhead wires. Things got even better as we headed deeper into the forest, as we paused to overlook another forest clearing. Drizzle was falling steadily, but the wind was non-existed, and we could hear perfectly for miles around. Things were initially quiet, but then the call of a distant Pigmy Owl reached us, from perhaps 500 meters away. A little expert imitation from Uku and some patience later, and a tiny bird bounded over the treetops ahead of us and perched up. No bigger than a Starling, a superb PYGMY OWL was sat up for us all to see, and remained there for the next half hour! In fact, we left the area with the bird still in situ!  However, this wasn’t the only bird of note here. Following a movement in close treetops, a NUTCRACKER flew out and over our heads, calling and pulling in no fewer than 5 other Nutcrackers from the far end of the clearing. One sat up in tall Spruce and posed for us all; what a performance! Just superb, and some of Estonia at its best.

 

 

 

Black Grouse and Pygmy Owl

 

Our next stop was made in response to a field of wild geese and swans, which provided some really good viewing. The flock consisted of 480 Tundra Bean Geese, 6 Taiga Beans, a single Pink-footed Goose (a scarce bird in Estonia), several Russian Whitefronts, around 40 Whooper Swans and 8 Bewick’s Swans. These flocks have only been arriving in the area over the last couple of spring-like days, heading north to breeding grounds, so we have timed our trip to perfection to enjoy these super flocks. Another good bird, though it didn’t hand around for long, was a Rough Legged Buzzard which flew alongside the van as we were getting out, but disappeared from view soon after. From here we continued north up the western coast of the country, heading towards pour next base at Roosta. Another pause on route featured our first caudatus Long-tailed Tits of the trip. They didn’t show particularly well, but even in flight it was evident what a snowball they were, and we hope to see this distinctive subspecies again before the end of the trip. Another interesting and distinctive subspecies here was the nominate subspecies of Eurasian Nuthatch, europaea. This bird was striking in possessing completely clean white underparts except for the dark red-brown undertail coverts and vent, making it appear an extremely neat and tidy beast. Marsh tit and Jay were also noted here, as well as Great Spotted Woodpecker. Close to our accommodation, we passed a wide bay with still a lot of ice across the waters surface. However, many gaps were forming as the thaw progressed, and these were occupied by numerous Goosander and about 8 Smew, including both males and females, diving in amongst the gaps in the ice. From here we made our wat to the Roosta Holiday Village, where we dropped our things, checked in and readied ourselves for a late evening patrol of the nearby key areas.

 

 

Nutcracker and a mix of Tundra Bean and Russian Whitefronted Geese and Whooper Swans.

 

Our first stop from the accommodation was the very scenic peninsular in the north-west, Põõsaspea. The sea here hosted getting on for 1000 Long-tailed Duck, while Goldeneye were abundant and several Goosander were also present, along with a flock of about 30 Eider. This is a good migration spot, but nothing was moving offshore, so we headed into the forest, were we began to patrol suitable habitat where our final target bird of the day might be found; Ural Owl. This holy grail of northern forests is actually not that uncommon in Estonia in the right habitats, and often shows itself in the early evening. However, after pausing at 4 or so sites with no calling heard, and with a fairly persistent drizzle, we wondered if our luck might be used up for one day. A last stop consisted of a fairly open cross-shaped clearing in thick forest, with power line rides cut through, offering good viewing. As the light faded, the incredibly distant calls of a male and female Ural Owl caught our ears, though they were so far away we could barely make them out. Then suddenly Sue gathered our attention, pointing to the edge of the clearing; there was a bloody URAL OWL sitting half way up a scots pine tree about 100 meters away! This large, pallid owl looed utterly majestic sat there, its black eyes staring out from a pale facial disc. Amazingly, a second bird then appeared along the forest edge further along the ride, sitting in a similarly exposed position, from where we enjoyed it until the light had nearly faded completely, and we left them in peace to head back to our accommodation. What a day!

 

 

Ural Owl - the ghost of the Estonian forest

 

FRIDAY 15th MARCH – Overcast with occasional bright spells, some showers, sometimes heavy, light S winds, 3C

 

Day two in Estonia would see us with a full day on Saaremaa island, and what a cracker it prove to be! Saaremaa is famous for hosting the vast majority of the European population of Steller’s Eider; Europe’s only critically endangered seaduck, and one of our main targets for this tour. Our quest for this species would see us heading north after breakfast, with a White-tailed Eagle noted before departure towards the Undva peninsular in the north-east of the island. Our journey was punctuated by a Great Grey Shrike on power lines, but we soon arrived at a remote area of rocky shorelines, Juniper scrub and open bays. We began scanning the flat seas, noting large numbers of Long-tailed Ducks, Goosander, Goldeneye and 3 Red-throated Divers, plus a migrating flock of about 15 Greater Scaup heading east and a party of 3 Smew heading over in the same direction. A Snow Bunting flew over calling but was not seen, and 6 Common Eider were spotted offshore but no sign of their rarer cousins. We headed further along to the west and scanned the neighbouring bay, with a distant dense flock of dark seaduck noted almost instantly on disembarking the van by one of the group. This was them; the STELLER’S EIDERS! The flew into the bay and landed on the sea fairly distantly, but offered good scope views as the sea was flat calm. A couple of fly-rounds brought the birds somewhat closer at times, where the rusty underparts and distinctive black collar and ‘cape’ of the males was clear, particularly when stretching and wing-flapping. The females were distinctive in how blackish they appeared at distance, and also with their double white wing-bars. They were a surprisingly small seaduck, evidenced by them being dwarfed by nearby Velvet Scoters! A real treat, and fantastic experience to view this ultra-rare bird. After about 40 minutes of viewing, the rain set in, so we made our way back to the van to get out of the wet. Other birds noted here included a distant White-tailed Eagle over the tree tops and another fine selection of seaducks in good number in the bays. Driving away from the site, the rain soon passed allowing us to stop at a small harbour at Veeremaes on our way south. A feature of this site was a superb mixed flock of scoter, containing around 200 Velvet Scoter and a similar number of Common Scoter, while Gadwall, Coot and Shelduck were also noted along with a couple of Greater Scaup and several hundred Long-tailed Ducks including a few very close to the jetty, offering superb close views. A little further south, an enclosed concrete jetty hosted a flock of about 40 Tufted Ducks and, amongst their number, a couple of Smew including a fine drake. The flock unfortunately spooked at distance and left the harbour for open water, so we made our way round to view them out in the main bay. A good number of Goosander, several hundred more Long-tailed Ducks and numerous Tufted Ducks were out in the bay, with a couple more Greater Scaup amongst them. We soon picked up a single winter plumaged Slavonian Grebe close to the duck flocks, and then a Red-necked Grebe amongst the same flock; good winter birds here. Once we finished up here, we made our way back to Loona Manor for lunch, following a thoroughly productive morning of some of the most productive ‘sea-ducking’ most of us had ever encountered.

 

 

Distant Steller's Eiders, and a more obliging Long-tailed Duck

 

After a sumptuous lunch of home-made lamb stew, we then headed out for the south-western tip of the island. The journey was punctuated by a small flock of 91 geese in wet roadside fields which provided fantastic value, consisting of around 15 Russian White-fronted Geese, 16 Taiga Bean Geese and around 60 Tundra Bean Geese. The close comparison of the two bean geese was particularly valuable, allowing us all to get a feel not only for the amount of orange present in the bill (which varied immensely between individuals), but also how different the two species are structurally, with Taiga showing its long, thin ‘snakey’ neck and triangular head and bill profile, as opposed to Tundra Beans shorter, stouter neck and more rounded head profile. The field here was shared by a pair of Common Cranes, 8 Whooper Swans and a good number of Lapwings, Stock Doves, Skylarks and Jackdaws, and entertained us for a good 30 minutes. From here we moved south onto the Sõrve Headland. This scenic peninsular and its impressive tall lighthouse hosted at least 4 White-tailed Eagles, including two seen talon-grappling over offshore boulders. The bay also held a pair of Whooper Swans, A couple of Wigeon and numerous Red-breasted Meregansers, Long-tailed Ducks and Goldeneye, with smaller numbers of Goosander also present. From here we stopped in at the Sääre museum, where a small bird observatory operates in the spring and autumn, but also contains a small military and natural history museum. An active bird feeder here hosted numerous Greenfinches as well as some Yellowhammers, Blue and Great Tits and also brief Bramblings and a Dunnock. However the undoubted highlight of the area was a superbly showy female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which spent 10 minutes at head height in bare trees, allowing prolonged views as it worked the trunks and thin branches. The bird performed so nicely that we had to walk away, with time ticking. Our journey home was spent pausing at a couple of likely forest sites, where we tried our luck for Pygmy Owl without joy, but did encounter our first Coal Tits and Northern Treecreeper, as well as hearing a scolding Willow Tit, but unfortunately not spotting it. A Great Spotted Woodpecker also flew overhead, while Wren and a couple of Roe Deer were noted at another stop. A final pause on our way home provided a nice ending to the day, with a sheltered bay surrounded by reeds hosting a good number of Tufted Ducks and, best of all, about a dozen Smew. The drakes were particularly appreciated! From here it was time to head back to Loona Manor, where another delicious dinner was waiting for us; hard-earned after a superb days birding.   

 

 

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Tundra Bean Geese

 

THURSDAY 14th MARCH – Overcast and cool, occasional light showers, light S winds, 3C

 

Our journey to Estonia commenced with all of us meeting at Gatwick Airport at the delightful hour of 05:55, where we made fast and easy progress through checking and security, had a bite to eat for breakfast, and then boarded our 3 hour flight through to Tallinn Airport in the north of Estonia. We landed at 12:55 local time and met with our local guide from Estonia Nature Tours, Uku Paal. Loading up the van (and noting our first bird of the trip; Hooded Crow) we set off west, on a journey across country towards Virtsu Harbour, where we would catch a ferry to Saaremaa Island. The drive was about 3 hours long, but was punctuated by a couple of short birding stops along the way. A Great Grey Shrike on overhead power lines was a treat, while a pause close to Lihula at a small petrol station produced a small group of 6 Bewick Swans in fields keeping company with 12 Canada Geese and 17 Greylag Geese, while a second Great Grey Shrike was in the neighbouring field and allowed scope views. On route we noted a single Common Crane in flight, and a number of Common Buzzards and Lapwings; the latter newly arrived spring migrants, while Jackdaw, Raven, Blackbird and Starling were also noted in small numbers. A second birding stop provided us with a nice, if tantalising bit of quality. Standing in hushed silence besides the van, we could hear the distant ‘oop’ call of a Pygmy Owl. Deep in a stand of forestry, it wasn’t close, and Uku’s impressive imitation of the bird couldn’t bring it closer. However, following some distantly heard ‘Kliieee’ calls of a Black Woodpecker, Uku managed to usher this bird closer and closer. Evident now that there were a pair, one of these magnificent woodpeckers suddenly flew across the treeline, and came in to land atop of a lone bear tree in the clearing we were stood in! Shortly after, its partner came in, and there we were watching two Black Woodpeckers; a male and female, perched together in the same tree! A fantastic way to start things.

 

 

Our first Black Woodpecker, and a Grey Seal with pup on the sea ice

 

From here we made our way to Virtsu Harbour, where we boarded the car ferry to cross over to Muhu Island via the Suur Strait. There was still quite a lot of ice on the water here, with numerous ‘bergs’ floating around, and a substantial band of ice which we would sail through to cross. However it is much warmer than our trip last year! A number of Herring and Common Gulls were present along with smaller numbers of Black-headed Gulls on the broken ice, while Goosander and Goldeneye occupied sheltered parts of the harbour. The highlight of the crossing was a flock of about 250 Long-tailed Duck which took flight as we sailed past, while 4 Common Scoter were amongst them. Something new for all of us to see was a couple of cow Grey Seals with 1 week or so old pups out on the floating ice sheets part way across the channel. The icy white background concealed the fully-furred white pups perfectly, and revealed the adaptation which these young white pups have, but what is lost as a benefit on the UK colonies. More Goosander were present on the other side of the channel, before we boarded the van and disembarked the boat onto Muhu Island. The drive from here was fairly uneventful with the light fading fast, though a White-tailed Eagle sat out on the ice-sheets as we left the harbour was great to see! We arrived at Kihelkonna and our accommodation at Loona Manor Guesthouse at about 19:00 where, following a lovely home cooked meal, we retired to our rooms, tired after a long day of travelling.

 

 


 

NORFOLK BRECKS & COAST 12TH - 15TH MARCH 2019 (AJS)

 

FRIDAY 15TH MARCH - BRECKLAND

40mph Westerly winds and showers

 

We returned to the brecks today, leaving early with bacon butties in order to give ourselves the best possible chance of connecting with the ever-elusive Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. It was really windy again, so we didn’t fancy our chances, but were more than willing to give it a crack! Heading down along the river bank path, finches were very much in evidence and were a feature throughout the whole day – Siskins and Chaffinches were constantly heading over, with smaller numbers of Bramblings and Redpolls too. Soon, we were stopped in our tracks by the distinctive ‘ki-ki-ki’ call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, and it sounded really close by. The usual tense moments of scanning followed, as we tried to track down the call. The bird flew out from a big tree, crossing the river and landing in view just in front of us. What happened next was quite unprecedented – we first had the female calling and feeding in the treetops for ten minutes, and then the male appeared and called behind us. He replaced the female, showing for an even longer period as he worked away on the high branches of the alders. We left the bird, continuing further down the river to look for other species, but we heard another Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling much further down and had another twenty minutes of continuous views of the foraging female! The male then reappeared (or possibly a second male) and the two flew back over the river, indulging in much aggressive chasing and calling right in front of us. We didn’t think this was mating behaviour, and seemed more like a territorial dispute between a rival pair. At one point, they had hold of one another and tumbled down out of the trees almost to ground level no more than 5m away from us! It was quite a remarkable showing, and one of the best we have ever had of the species. We knew we couldn’t top that with anything, so made our way back out for a coffee break!

 

 

Woodlark was next on the agenda, and we visited a favoured ride where a pair has been showing pretty well recently. Unfortunately we got caught in a heavy squall and had to take shelter, but soon after a Woodlark appeared, singing briefly above us before perching in the pines and giving some nice scope views. All the time, more Siskins, Redpolls, Bramblings and Chaffinches were piling out of the pines – clearly a spring exodus of these species was taking place at the moment. Earlier in the tour, we had managed some pretty poor views of Goshawks, so before lunch, we wanted to return to our favoured watchpoint to try again. We were in luck this time, as two birds were on show as we arrived. Both males, one was clearly adult, while the other was a brown, streaky second year bird. Both charged around over the treetops in pursuit of one another, with slow, deep wingbeats. The adult male reminded us of the display flight of a Nightjar at times! The feud ended with the adult returning to the pines, while the young bird flew low across the field in front of us – so close we could see it had a bulging full crop! With that one put to bed, we made a welcome stop for lunch, before heading back into the forest for the end of the day.

 

 

Lynford is a key spot in the brecks in early spring, and we wanted to head back to try again in particular for Crossbills which we had missed previously. A Firecrest showed really well justa round the car park, flitting among the bare branches of a deciduous tree and occasionally pausing to sing and flash its bright crest. By the feeders, we really enjoyed watching dapper Bramblings foraging alongside a stunning group of Yellowhammers – a real surprise to see these farmland buntings feeding here and the first time we have ever seen the species at the site. While we were scoping the finches and buntings, we heard the penetrating ‘tick’ call of a Hawfinch from just in the trees above us. Repositioning, we could see a fine male Hawfinch singing from the top of the trees, and soon the female appeared next to him and the two sat together in the sunshine – excellent! Down by the bridge, we had a careful look for a roosting Tawny Owl which Jason had found recently, and today it was sitting well in the open and showing well – for a roosting owl! Finally, down at Lynford Water, we enjoyed a pair of Mandarin flying around calling (we had seen six at the woodpecker site earlier too!) -we never did see nor hear any crossbills, but we had enjoyed a really excellent afternoons birding to round off our trip.

 

THURSDAY 14TH MARCH - NORTH NORFOLK

Sunshine and 50mph westerly winds, 13C

 

The forecast had suggested that the wind might be a bit lighter today, but in fact, it was worse! We planned to spend the whole day on the coast, starting at Holkham where we hoped Lady Anne’s Drive would stay open (much like Sculthorpe they are quick to close in high winds due to public safety concerns). We parked on the drive, and battled our way out of the vehicle – this was going to be tough going! Large numbers of wildfowl were on the freshwater flashes here, with big flocks of Wigeon, Shoveler and Brent Geese in particular. We didn’t linger here too long though, and instead headed into the shelter of Holkham Meals. Walking through the woods it actually felt surprisingly spring like out of the worst of the wind and in the sun – we logged three singing Chiffchaffs along the walk to crosstracks, and from the hide we enjoyed some of the first signs of spring on the marshes. The Spoonbills are already back to business, and we enjoyed watching their comings and goings. We saw at least five different birds, including a splendid adult in full breeding plumage on one of the pools. The highlight though, was watching one battling in against the wind carrying a small branch of about three metres in length! The bird eventually had to give up and drop its bounty! We counted seventeen Russian White-=fronted Geese on the marsh, among the various Greylags, two Bar-headed Geese and a few Pink-feet. Two Great White Egrets were seen resting against the reeds out of the wind, and the pools were also liberally scattered with Teal and a pair of Avocets. Red Kites hardly get a mention in our reports these days, being almost as frequent as the numerous Common Buzzard and Marsh Harrier sightings we enjoy in this part of Norfolk – we saw several kites today though, hanging on the wind and often already cruising round in pairs. Leaving the hide, we made our way back east through the meals, enjoying a surprise pair of Common Crossbills which were perched in the pines close to the track before flying off calling.

 

After coffee, we braced ourselves for a sortie out into the bay to look for the Shorelarks. It was going to be windy! Thankfully though the light was now superb, and the birds performed for us. We found the Shorelarks bustling among the Sea Lavendar out in the bay, but keeping low and hard to spot. We could count nine, until they flew up with the wind behind them and headed out to the cordon, when we were able to count the usual eleven. We accepted this as a good result given the weather, and beat a hasty retreat to the shelter of the van. Thornham Harbour was next stop, and here it was so windy we could really only just about stand up. Our quarry of the wintering Twite flock seemed unlikely to materialise, but we managed to scan the outer harbour with the sun behind us and at least add a nice selection of waders – Ringed Plover, Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling, Turnstone and Grey Plover. Three Red-breasted Merganser were in the channel, and eight Common Eider could be seen hauled out on a mud bank towards Thornham Point. As we battled our way back to the van, the Twite flock bounced in and dived into the saltmarsh grasses out of view. We saw them again flying around at close range, but views on the deck were never on the cards today – the birds just didn’t want to sit in the open (and who could blame them!). A Peregrine blazed through the harbour scattering the wildfowl, so all in all, we had done pretty well.

 

 

Red Crested Pochards and Woodcck at Titchwell today

 

After lunch we arrived at Titchwell, where we would spend the rest of the afternoon. A male Brambling was at the feeders and of course the faithful Water Rail was in the ditch as usual. As we walked down the main path, we could see large numbers of Brent Geese really close to Island Hide, so we dived in there first of all. Two Red Crested Pochards were also on view from here, and we found the Water Pipit creeping along the reedy fringe of the freshmarsh. Water levels are still very high on the reserve, but a few waders were still managing the find some suitable areas around the small islets – several Knot, two Black-tailed Godwits and a few Avocets being the best of it. From Parrinder, we had better views of the bustling gull colony, which is just starting to get into full swing for the breeding season. We counted at least sixty Mediterranean Gulls here, looking absolutely stunning in the spring sunshine. Marsh Harriers playing on the wind, and more great views of the Brent Goose flock, rounded off our visit nicely. On our way back to the car park, we decided to have a quick check around the Fen Trail in case we could find a Woodcock skulking under the bushes. After some time scanning carefully, we found our quarry – a superb Woodcock feeding quietly among mossy branches and newly sprouting nettles deep under the willows. We had some fantastic views through the scope of this popular bird.

 

Heading back towards base, we spent the final hour of daylight looking for owls. We saw no less than four different Barn Owls, including fantastic close views of one perched on a post at a field edge, watching the grassy margin intently for prey. We couldn’t find a Little Owl, but added Stock Dove and Grey Wagtail to the trip list and headed home feeling pretty happy with the days haul considering the weather!

 

WEDNESDAY 13TH MARCH - BRECKLAND

Gale force winds and showers, 10C

 

A difficult day of weather saw us start and finish the day strongly, but largely struggle in between. We knew it was going to be tough with winds forecast to be gusting in excess of 50mph, and they were not wrong about that. We initially thought we might chance our arm on the coast, but took a last minute decision to head first to Sculthorpe Moor reserve, in the hope that they would not shut the reserve due to high winds until after they had chance to get around and check things out! We got in with a warning that they might be closing soon, but that gave us chance to try for the Coues’s Arctic Redpoll which has been frequenting the feeders on and off for several weeks. As soon as we arrived at the birds favoured spot, we could see a couple of redpolls at the feeder, though they were one each of Lesser and Mealy Redpoll. Within a minute though, the Arctic Redpoll had appeared and gave us several minutes of excellent views feeding at the niger. Its unstreaked band of white through the rump, small, fine and pointed bill, padded plumage, pale ground colour and white undertails with single faint central streak all provided good pointers to its identification – not a traditional ‘snowball’ this one, but a nice bird nonetheless. The bird soon headed back off to the tall poplar trees and we were left with only Siskins at the feeders, though we did pick up Great-spotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper and Chiffchaff around to bolster our list. Wandering down to Whitley Hide, the wind was ferocious but we managed good views of Brambling, Bullfinch, Reed Bunting and Marsh Tit at the feeders, and a Red Kite cruised by. Hastening back to the portacabin feeders, we had further excellent views of Lesser and Mealy Redpolls, before the reserve closed and we had to leave – we had made a good choice to come here early!

 

 

What to do next in the biblical winds? Well, we figured we had at least a chance of connecting with Goshawk in the north brecks, so we headed south of Swaffham to our favoured raptor watchpoint. A 45 minute vigil produced plenty of Common Buzzards, and more views of Red Kites, but only very distant views of a male Goshawk gliding effortlessly on the strong wind, its cross-bow silhouette and full, rounded tail being obvious features despite the distance. It circled for a few minutes, disappearing over the trees having not flapped its wings once – not the views we were hoping for, but something. We went on next to check a number of rolled maize strips in the surrounding area hoping for an early Stone Curlew, but we couldn’t find any, so retired to Mundford for a welcome stop for coffee and lunch.

 

After lunch the wind really took a grip on our day, so we decided to take a chance and drive south a bit more to try for Stone Curlew at Cavenham Heath, where we knew they had already been sighted this spring. Sadly though, the wind was just too much, and we could barely use a scope, never mind spot a Stone Curlew. We gave up, and beat our retreat to Lynford where we would end the day in the relative shelter of the arboretum. Bramblings were plentiful here, and we added a few Redwing, Marsh Tit and another pair of Great-spotted Woodpecker. Down at the paddocks, we found five Hawfinches, perching atop the conifers of their roosting spot despite the wind. Two flew down lower into the deciduous trees bordering the paddock, giving us much better views, and salvaging something from a difficult afternoon. Wandering back up, we saw another Hawfinch in the arboretum larches, and were very surprised to find fourteen Yellowhammers by the feeding ride, perched among the blackthorn blossom with several smart Bramblings. A nice way to end a challenging day.

 


 

 

We enjoyed great views of Wallcreeper on our recent Spanish Pyrenees, Steppes & Ebro tour - you can now see the full tour report online by clicking >>> HERE >>>

 

 


NORFOLK BRECKS AND COASTAL MARCH 2019 [JM]

 

THURSDAY 8TH MARCH – Brecks day

Sunny all morning, clouding over later, light S winds, 6C

 

Our last day of this Norfolk trip saw us return to the Brecks, where a mixture of new and revisited sites would bring us away with some bird sightings. One of our main targets of the day

 Would be Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, so as per usual we set off with some take-away breakfast from the Blue Boar. Our journey south was broken up by a short visit to take a look at 4 Russian White-fronted Geese which have wintered in the valley and still remain with their Greylag friends. Then on we went into the heart of Thetford Forest. Walking out into fine sunny conditions was a treat compared to yesterdays wet weather, and the birds were responding with calls and song from Treecreepers, Nuthatch and numerous Siskins; the latter giving nice views on some bird feeders along with several dapper Bramblings. Walking along the river nearby, we enjoyed good views of Treecreeper, and Stock Doves were also in evidence, ‘singing’ in their understated way close to their Poplar wood nest-holes. After a walk of about a km, we reached the area of riverside trees we were aiming for; haunt of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Listening and searching carefully, things were soon put on hold, with the appearance of 2 superb immature Otters putting on a show. You cant help but be entranced by the antics of these superb animals, particularly when they allow close approach, and are so active. An amazing encounter. However there was a particular bird which we needed to stay alert for, and it wasn’t long before we; or should I say Tony, found it! Scanning a clump of alders where our target woodpecker was previously seen entering, Tony called ‘woodpecker’ and there it was. A superb little male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker feeding on the trunk of an Alder across the wiver. Gathering the group together, most of us managed a scope view of it working the rugged bark of the tree before it flew back and out of view. After this, we lingered for another 40 minutes or so, hoping for another opportunity to see this secretive little bird. However, despite the fine conditions, we were surprised how quiet things were, with not even Great Spotted Woodpecker being particularly vocal. The walk back provided nice views of a feeding Water Rail along the riverbank, while the bird feeders were again full of Bramblings and Siskins. After a coffee, we headed around the corner so a forest ride where we would look for Woodlark in their favoured habitat. We had already heard a male singing nearby, but a sighting was soon being enjoyed. The bird surprised many of the group in just how subtly attractive this small lark is, with its rich brown and chestnut plumage tones. We were all blown away as it rose up above us and began its world-class song flight; simply stunning every time.

 

 

Crossbills were probably the star avian performer today, but Otters were the highlight fos some

 

Following a visit which provided rather brief and poor views of Hawfinch, we all agreed that we would like to return to Lynford Arboretum to try again. And so we did, arriving and having lunch in the carpark. We then headed down into the Arboretum, where a male Crossbill was sitting proud up in some Larches, offering itself up to our scopes. The nearby feeders were alive with Bramblings as well as the usual tits and finches, and a couple of Yellowhammers. Down at the bridge, a number of people were assembled, waiting for Crossbills which have been visiting the spot to drink frequently these last few days. And so we were treated to awesome views of both a male and female birds coming to drink down to 5 meter range, providing some of the best views you could ever hope for. Marsh Tits were particularly evident at the feeders here, along with Nuthatch. After enjoying all the action at the bridge, we went to put in a vigil at the paddocks. However unfortunately, and rather unusually for the time of year, not a single Hawfinch sighting was forthcoming, despite considerable effort! Both Fieldfare and Redwing were evident here however, and 2 more Crossbills were also noted, so some compensation. Back over the bridge, it would have been rude not to have taken a look in at the roosting Tawny Owl, which showed itself in the usual, partially hidden fashion! A female Crossbill was up in the top of the Larch trees where we saw a male before, making it 6 birds in total. From the van, we had a walk out to Lynford Water to see what was out there. The highlight was probably a flock of at least 120 Siskins in Western Hemlock trees, their noisy calls and seeds falling like snow both indicating their presence. He water was quiet, though held Great Crested Grebes and a number of Tufted Ducks. Following a cuppa, it was time to start making our way home, with a drop off at King’s Lynn train station made before dropping the last of our fantastic group back at the Blue Boar, where our trip concluded.

 

WEDNESDAY 7TH MARCH – NW Norfolk

Sunny initially, but cloudy with rain from 12, strong S winds, 10C

 

A mixed bag today, with a number of high-quality sightings achieved despite some really poor weather conditions, particularly after lunchtime. The truth of the matter today is that, if the group weren’t so resilient (and perhaps slightly foolhardy) we wouldn’t have seen half of what we did! Instead we ploughed on in poor weather, and did really well. Our day began with a drive NW towards the farmland surrounding Choseley and Ringstead. Pausing on occasion on route to look for Grey Partridge, we noted good number of Chaffinch and Linnet in the hedges. However, the liveliest area came close to Courtyard Farm where, along with the habitat being good, we were also out of the worst of the wind as well as enjoying the only sunny spell of the day. A grassy field hosted a good number of Skylarks and about 60 Linnets, while numerous Yellowhammers adorned the hedge. Peering down slope, a couple of larger buntings flew up and into the bottom hedge; Corn Buntings. Following distant scope views we made our way closer, obtaining better views of up to 12 birds in their favoured hedgerow. Over the strong wind, it was nice to hear song of Skylark, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting here; a sure sign of spring. Further on, much of the other farm habitat was much to windy, keeping any smaller birds well tucked in, though we did note 3 Grey Partridge briefly. Towards Choseley Drying Barn, further searches were rewarded by better and more prolonged views of 2 males and a female Grey Partridge; always a popular bird, given their widespread decline in the UK. An unsuccessful search for the long staying Black Redstart did give us good views of Yellowhammers on the ground, while a flock of about 30 Fieldfare were a welcome sight. At this point, on hearing earlier that Lady Anne’s Drive was closed due to high winds, we received news that the gates at Holkham were again open. Having missed the Shorelarks yesterday morning, we wanted to return, and so headed east on the coast road, noting Marsh Harrier on the way. Pulling into the drive, the marshes were alive with Wigeon and good numbers of Marsh Harriers were seen. However, the sky was beginning to tur dark and the wind was picking up, so we made our way hastily out to the bay. We quickly located a solitary Shorelark out in the saltmarsh, and enjoyed brilliant views of this surprisingly well camouflaged bird down to 10 meters in the scope. We were now exposed to the strong wind and light rain, and so opted to return to the van without venturing further onto the marsh, which proved to be quite a good decision as, on arriving back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we spotted an immature Peregrine which drifted over and then stooped in spectacular fashion onto the flock of Wigeon! The attach was unsuccessful but all the same impressive.

 

From Holkham, we headed back west to Thornham Harbour. A Spotted Redshank was present in the main channel, offering good views from the van, but even better shortly after, allowing us to approach and set the scope on it. Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank were also present here, but there was no sign of the Twite flock. The rain was heavy now and, with the strong wind, rather unpleasant, so we retreated to the van for lunch, overlong the birds favoured drinking pools. Bar a dashing sighting of another Peregrine and a good number of Brent Geese, we didn’t see the Twite. Finishing our sandwiches, we beat a retreat, but stopped as a flock of 12 small dark finches passed to our right over the marsh; the Twite! We exited the van and, setting the scope, they flew over to the far side of the marsh. The rain was really heavy, but we all wanted to see them better, so off we set for the far side and, with some perseverance, we all enjoyed good but wet views of these superb finches. Getting back to the van, we certainly felt we were earning our birds today! From here we headed to Titchwell, where we would finish the day. The feeding station by the visitor centre hosted an impressive 25 or so Chaffinches along with a single female Brambling and a few Greenfinches and Goldfinches. Further on, we had great views of 2 Water Rails in the usual ditches, while a visit to Patsies Pool gave us several Pochard, Gadwall and Tufted Ducks. Walking towards the Freshmarsh hides, a scan of the Reedbed Pool produced a pair of Red-crested Pochard; the male looking particularly handsome! To escape the wind and rain, we darted into the Island Hide, where a nice variety included Mediterranean Gulls, some roosting Knot, Dunlin and Avocets and good views of many of the commoner wetland species was provided. Further onto Parrinder Hide, a flight of over 100 Brent Geese provided an atmospheric moment in both sight and sound; their delicate ‘brrnt’ calls filling the air for a while. Grey plover and Turnstone were noted on the Volunteer Marsh, while from the hide we were directed to a close Water Pipit feeding close by, while a Snipe was even closer. After filling our boots with good views of what was present, we made our way back towards the van. The rain had stopped, and the strong wind had served to dry our wet clothes nicely, meaning the journey home in the van wasn’t too steamy! A hard earned day of good birds. 

 

 

Spotted Redshank from Thornham and Water Pipit at Titchwell

 

TUESDAY 6TH MARCH – Holkham and Brecks

Overcast and cool, occasional light showers, moderate S winds, 10C

 

A mixed bag to kick of our first Brecks and Coast March tour, with a few disappointing dips to contrast with some really good sightings. A The day started fairly damp as we picked up from the Blue Boar, but the rain was kind, and stopped by the time we arrived at our first destination; Holkham NNR. The journey features a number of sightings of Red Kite before we pulled into Lady Anne’s Drive. The wet grazing land was alive with Wigeon, while Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Curlew and Oystercatcher were also present along with several Shoveler and Teal. Marsh Harriers were actively patrolling the area, while 4 late Pink-footed Geese were also seen. Out towards the dunes, 4 Mistle Thrushes were floating around, while another bird was perched high in one of the dune pines. Reaching Holkham Bay, a good number of Rock and Meadow Pipits were present in the saltmarsh; the former showing hints of their greyer, cleaner summer plumage; a sure indication that our Norfolk birds belong to the Scandinavian race Littoralis. Skylarks were in good voice also. A flock of about 30 Brent Geese were sharing company with several Shelduck, while a careful scan of the flock revealed an individual brent with a chalkier white flank patch, darker mantle and a broader neck collar meeting below the bill; one of the regular Black Brant hybrids. Always an interesting topic of conversation! The sea was fairly quiet, with us noting several Great Crested Grebes, a flock of about 200 Common Scoter, several Red-breasted Merganser, though much of this was pretty distant. Returning to the saltmarsh, our main target was conspicuous by its absence, and despite spending a good hour searching all their favoured spots, we just couldn’t find and Shorelarks! They often get a bit erratic as the winter wears into spring, and there was a lot of standing water after overnight rain which might have affected things. However, we sugar coat it though, we just couldn’t find them! Maybe another visit is in order on another day. Back towards the van, we had a hot drink, noting more Marsh Harriers and a couple of Buzzards, Egyptian Geese and a fly-over Mediterranean Gull which the group saw while the guide was in the bathroom! From here, we headed for a change of scenery, making our way down into the Brecks. Stopping just south of Swaffham, we set ourselves up to watch for our next target bird; Goshawk. The Skies were grey and dark and the air cool, and other observers present hadn’t noted any activity in the last 30 minutes, so we weren’t sure how we would get on. However, we needn’t have worries, as following a brief view of an adult Goshawk flashing through at treetop level, we were treated to a fine display of aerobatics by the regular 3rd calendar year male Goshawk, giving its deep slow-mo wingbeat display and a prolonged fly-around of over 5 minutes; a real delight! Woodlark was heard singing here but not seen, while 2 Red Kites, several Common Buzzards, calling Curlew and displaying Lapwing were also noted in the area.

 

Moving on, we headed to fire-break 110, where a walk along the forest ride revealed a few bits and pieces, but was fairly quiet on the whole. A couple of different pairs of Marsh Tit gave good views in the pines, while we spend some time listening to and identifying the various woodland bird calls, including the commoner tits, Goldcrest, Treecreeper, Siskin and Chaffinch. A male Sparrowhawk also circled overhead. With time wearing on now, we made our way to our final destination of the day; Lynford Arboretum. Parking up, we took a look at the first feeders, and our patience was rewarded with a superb group of about 15 Brambling, in all sorts of plumages, coming to feed on the dropped seed. Some of the males were really coming into some good summer plumage, while other good views were had of Yellowhammers, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatch. Down at the bridge, Marsh Tit showed well along with various other woodland species, but following this we headed down to view the main paddock area, to try and see Hawfinch. While we did note 3 Hawfinches in the area, the two perched views were very brief, and a fly-over bird didn’t hang around, meaning that many of us didn’t manage a view, and most felt rather short changed! However on a cheerier note a Firecrest obliged us superbly by appearing in an ivy-clad bust besides us, showing briefly but unusually well, allowing most to get a really good view. The area was full of Redwings, with at least 50 seen, while a couple of Crossbills were heard but not seen. Wandering back, we paused by the usual pine and were treated by the roosting Tawny Owl showing us uts underside as usual! Always a treat when visiting here, and a great bird to finish on, along with lots of vocal Goldcrests in the Larches, getting louder before going to roost.    

 

 


 

Norfolk Custom Brecks day trip [JM]

Monday 4th March 2019Bright and sunny most of the day, strong winds, 8C

 

Our final custom tour for the start of March took us back into the mighty Norfolk Brecks to spend more time with the region’s special birdlife. Another attempt to see the areas Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers was in order, and so dictated a fairly early start, leaving Steve and Lily’s accommodation at 07:30 and heading for the heart of the forest. The area abounded with superb Bramblings entering summer plumage, noisy flocks of Siskins, trilling Lesser Redpolls and various other commoner woodland species. The river hosted Grey Wagtails which showed nicely on the floating vegetation here, while Treecreepers were again common, though harder to detect in the windy conditions. In fact, with the wind so strong and the higher trees swaying, a number of species seemed to be keeping their heads down; particularly noticeable was the reduction in song of the Song Thrushes which usually provide a soundtrack here. Walking down river, we entered the heart of the areas Lesser Spotted Woodpecker range, and began to quietly explore the area, checking for movement in the surrounding trees and listening for the bird’s distinctive call. Suddenly, the sharp ‘kee-kee-kee’ call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker emanated from across the river in a clump of Alders. Searching for movement, none was forthcoming. Ten minutes later, and this time much closer, another bout of calling came from overhead! We peered into the swaying trees intently, but still never saw a movement. A third bout of calling, and still no sign! The wind appeared to be keeping the bird from our sight, perhaps restricting it to the feeding areas at the ack of the plantation. Either way, we just couldn’t manage a sighting today, which is a real shame, but we can’t have it all! A highlight however was an adult male Goshawk which we watched circling over the back of the area for a short while before heading back to the van. We heard a distant singing Woodlark whilst walking back, and so went to investigate, and were treated to both superb song flight of a male bird high overhead, and also nice views on the deck of two more birds, feeding together amongst the low-cropped bracken cleared area. Lesser Redpolls were trilling here again, though were flighty in the gusty wind. Back at the van, we had a quick hot drink before moving onto our next stop.

 

 

The Great Grey Shrike near Brandon was distant, and the Lynford Tawny Owl was hiding! Other species showed somewhat better today

 

The past week, the forest has hosted a Great Grey Shrike in the area between Brandon and Elveden, along forest break 7. This would provide a good excuse to explore a new area of the forest, and provided some great sightings. The walk down was notable for the number of Chaffinches feeding in low brambles below the pines, with at least 100 birds intermixed with a few Bramblings and Siskins. A pair of Stonechats were frequenting a clearing along with a couple of Yellowhammers. About 1km further along the ride we came to another larger clearing and, scanning the far young bines, noted a distant pale spot atop a sapling; classing Great Grey Shrike! Walking up to the fenced exclosure to get as close as possible, we were able to observe the bird well through the scope, though the distance was still pretty great. Still, always an elegant species, and a real Brecks star! Another star during our watch was the appearance of a big 1st winter Goshawk which appeared over the trees distantly behind the Shrike, drifting over the treetops and out of view; superb! Walking back was enlivened by a pair of Common Crossbills which, after briefly pausing on top of a tall pine, took flight again. Fortunately the male chose to perch on a deciduous tree, and offered really nice prolonged views through the scope. A productive walk to say the least! From here we them made our way to Lynford Arboretum, where we would finish the day. Walking down towards the paddocks was interrupted by numerous Goldcrests, a small number of Bramblings and 4 Yellowhammers under the feeders and, best of all, a male and female Common Crossbill coming down to drink beside the bridge, offering superb views, particularly of the male. The paddocks themselves were fairly quiet in greyer and windy conditions, though our perseverance payed off, with a male Hawfinch flying into view, perching up in the Hornbeams for a bit before disappearing off to our right. The light was nice on this bird, showing off the bright terracotta wash to the head and blue sheen to the unique flight feathers. A further 3 Common Crossbills were floating around this area, leaving the pines behind us and flying around frequently; a great day for Crossbills. Back towards the bridge, we had some nice views of Marsh Tits, while a quick look at the Tawny Owl roost site revealed our regular bird peering down at a pair of agitated Nuthatches which had taken umbrage to its presence. Our final treat came on our way back to the carpark, with a singing Firecrest appearing beside the path and showing well, though its typical flighty behaviour made it typically difficult to follow with the bins! However, with perseverance, we all managed a view, and even got it in the scope for a bit. A brilliant suite of species seen today, and we returned to Steve and Lily’s base very happy with the days birding.

 

 


Norfolk Custom Brecks day trip [JM]

Sunday 3rd March 2019 – Overcast with rain most of the day, sometimes heavy, moderate winds, 10C

 

One of those days where the weather dictates play to a large extent, but superb birding was had all the same! Nicky and Richard had Lesser Spotted Woodpecker high on their most wanted list, and so this dictated an early start to get into the forest in good time. Departing Swaffham at 07:30, we were in the heart of the forest by 08:00, and we were pleased that it wasn’t raining yet! The area was full of bird noise, with at least 50 Siskin in the area, and a flock of Lesser Redpolls which showed well by the Forestry Commission car park, while many Bramblings were also noted. Two Mandarin flew down the river as we walked the usual riverside track, while Grey Wagtail and 3 Water Rails were also seen well. Treecreepers also abounded, with at least 5 seen before we approached an area of suitable for us to begin searching for our main target; the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Remarkably, within 5 minutes of arriving on this grey and dreary day, a weak undulating flight movement of a broad tailed and broad winged bird caught the eye, and a beautiful female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was there in front of us! Feeding at the base of the large Poplar buds, the bird gave us a wonderful show over the next 5 minutes, occasionally giving its ‘kee-kee-kee’ call, before crossing the river and being lost from sight; always a thrill! Great Spotted Woodpeckers were also drumming in the area, and a Chiffchaff was also noted. A further treat was in store for us, as on nearly completing the walk back along the river, a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker chose to appear for us, dropping into low willows and again offering great scope views before flying out f view; just superb! It felt like luck was really on our side today. Our next bird highlight was watching the ever-delightful Woodlark which we know so well in this area, giving some short bursts of song despite the rain and allowing nice viewing on the ground. A flock of 25 Lesser Redpolls were also feeding in Silver Birches here. The rain was falling fairly steadily still, but not so bad, so we moved on to Lynford Arboretum. Goldcrests abounded in the pines here, while a pair of Crossbills were a treat in some Larches. A good number of Brambling were present under the feeders, along with 4 Yellowhammer, and the roosting Tawny Owls was nice to see in its usual pine tree. Down at the bridge the usual activity from the birds visiting the food included some close Marsh Tits and a Nuthatch, before we headed down to have a look at the paddocks to check for Hawfinches. After a short wait a pair of birds flew up and landed in the tops of the Hornbeams, calling lots before flying over our heads and distantly towards the back poplars. A third Hawfinch then followed suit, and with no further calls coming from the area, we beat our retreat from the rain and back to the van! Over lunch, we discussed our options, and came to the decision that, with heavy rain due to continue and the wind set to increase with the approach of storm Freja, the forest wasn’t likely to offer us many more highlights. Instead we chose to make our way to the coast, where we would spend the rest of the day at Holkham.

 

 

Woodlark and Shorelark today, from pine forest to saltmarsh!

 

Arriving after lunch, we enjoyed superb views of large numbers of Wigeon on the marshes lining Lady Anne’s Drive, along with plenty of Teal, Curlew and a small group of Brent Geese. We then made our way out to Holkham Bay, where the saltmarsh hosted good numbers of both Meadow and Rock Pipits. A short walk east soon produced a flock of 22 small larks flying low and fast over the marsh, giving a high-pitched ‘weep’ call as they went; these were the Shorelarks! The birds saw fit to settle within 10 meters of where we stood, offering lovely views in the short vegetation, and delighting Rich and Nicky with their appearance! They soon shot back east again, but settled close to the cordon, where we were able to watch them in the company of a flock of Linnets and Skylarks; superb as always. The sea was quiet on checking, and the wind and rain were both increasing, so we walked back towards the Lookout, where a coffee was most welcome! The pause wasn’t without its birding highlights, with our first Marsh Harriers of the day followed by a super Spoonbill which flew right over our heads. A Red Kite was busy worrying the Wigeon flock, sending them into impressive swirling flight, and we also noted a couple of Pink-footed Geese. Time was ticking now, but before we headed back towards Swaffham to finish, we paused to overlook the freshmarshes at Holkham, spotting 3 White-fronted Geese and a distant Great White Egret which crept through distant reeds and quickly disappeared. A wet but action-packed day of birding.

 


 

Norfolk Custom Brecks and Coastal [JM]

 

Saturday 2nd March 2019 Overcast, brightening later on, light winds, 10C

 

Todays birding was spent primarily in the Brecks, with the settled weather ideal for trying to locate the areas best species. An early start was on the cards to make the most of the visit, arriving at the Blue Boar at 7. Before heading south, we had a quick look in at the local goose flock on the road to Gateley, and enjoyed some nice views of a family of 4 White-fronted Geese which have spent the winter in the area in the company of the Greylag Goose flock, with a single Pink-footed Goose also with them. From here we then headed south, straight into the heart of Thetford Forest. Walking out towards the River Little Ouse, we quickly noted numerous vocal Siskins, while a smart Brambling was visiting the bird feeders here. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling, while 3 Mandarin flying high and west were a brief treat. Birdsong abounded throughout, with Song Thrush and Siskin making up much of the soundtrack, while a distant Woodlark could also be heard. A mention of a pair of Otter performing well further down river saw us pick up the pace a little, and we were glad we did, as two Otter were performing superbly and constantly, foraging along the river bottom (leaving an easily followed trail of bubbles on the surface). The animals were clearly successful hunters despite their young age, coming up almost every time with small fish, which they would chomp and quickly swallow. These two absorbed us for at least 20 minutes, but we dragged ourselves away to focus on some more avian targets! And it was worth it, as walking back a short way and pausing beneath the nearby mature poplars, a sharp ‘kee-kee-kee’ call alerted us to the presence of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! It took a short while to reveal itself; a diminutive female, during which time we were able to alert the other prospective LSW admirers in the area. The bird crossed the river and began to tap quietly in dense Alders, called briefly and then gave a burst of the classic long drumming, before showing itself again nicely, crossing the river and working its way back away from us and out of view. A classic encounter with this extremely rare Norfolk species. Great Spotted Woodpeckers were also noted in the area, and Marsh Tits and Treecreepers were also vocal. Back to the van, we made our way along to another woodland ride and walked out towards where we had previously heard the distant Woodlark singing. A female Sparrowhawk crossed the ride, and gave us a good opportunity to discuss their sharper, faster flight style with quick wingbeats and tighter turns than their larger cousin, in preparation for hopefully seeing Goshawk later. Before long we were enjoying a full volume serenade from what must be one of the best songsters in Britain. The views on the ground were superb also, and a second bird entered the fray at one point; probably the bird’s partner. From here we headed off, feeling that anything else would be a bonus after such a superb start!

 

 

Another superb Brecks day, with many highlights including Otters and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

 

Our next species on the agenda were Goshawks, and they didn’t disappoint! Arriving on site, a short wait was soon interrupted by an immature Goshawk which cruised into view at treetop level. Before long there were three birds up together, and they put on a nice display for about 10 minutes, giving some ‘deep wingbeat’ display flight and occasionally tussling in mid-air. Several Common Buzzards and a Red Kite were also up, while a distant Woodlark could be heard singing nearby. All of this before lunch, and we were pretty pleased with the show! A short walk along a forest ride followed, where we noted a brief flyover Crossbill and a distant singing Woodlark, whilst also testing our knowledge of the various calls of the tits and Siskins. Three Yellowhammers showed very well here in a clear area, before we headed out to grab some lunch in Brown’s Café in Mundford. Finishing a superb Bubble and Squeak (it’s a hard life!) we headed then into Lynford Arboretum, where we would finish up. A Firecrest was calling close to the carpark but couldn’t be located, though many Goldcrests were found in the process. Walking down towards the bridge, a quick look in its favourite tree revealed the regular Tawny Owl, fast asleep but fairly well exposed for a change, and great to see as always. The bridge was busy with the usual visitors, including Nuthatch and Marsh Tit, while a high pitch ‘eehp’ call coming from the top of some tall poplars alerted us to the presence of a nearby Hawfinch. It flew over into the paddocks, were we were able to have a good look in the scope; a female. Further calls were emanating from near the bridge, so we walked out to try and see them from another angle. However, scanning the treetops revealed instead a pair of Crossbils perched on top of an Alder, presumably above some standing water where they were dropping down to drink. Another Hawfinch perched up nicely for us, but actually, most birds remained hidden deep in their favoured feeding patch of Hornbeam and willow, only advertising the fact that there were multiple birds by their ‘pix’ and ‘eehp’ calls. Still delightful all the same. After seconds of the Tawny Owl, we walked back towards the car park, first noting a frustratingly mobile Firecrest which, after a short burst of song and some brief views for the guide only, flew out into the arboretum and was lost. However whilst searching we did enjoy excellent views of another pair of Crossbills in the top of some Larches. The male was looking splendid in bright light, while it was very interesting to watch the female collecting bare twigs from the tree and carrying them out of site. Some manoeuvring for us to get a better view revealed that she appeared to be building an untidy nest in the fork of some Larch branches! It will be interesting to check this another day to see if she advances the nest, as it is quite late now for one to begin nesting, unless they have perhaps failed in an earlier attempt. A fascinating finish to another superb day in the field.


Friday 1st March 2019Overcast but fairly bright, light winds, 10C

 

While it looks like we have left last weeks summer temperatures and clear skies behind, the weather we are being forecast for these couple of days is nothing to be sniffed at, and todays calm conditions made for a good day to be out. Starting with a pick-up from the Blue Boar, a scan of the river valley before heading towards the coast revealed a group of 5 Pink-footed Geese hanging out with the Greylag Geese; maybe some of the last we will see this winter? A Little Egret was feeding in the channel, while Shelduck, Teal and Grey Heron were also in the flood plain. A bright male Sparrowhawk crossed over the road and landed in a bare ash tree, allowing some nice scope views, before we headed on. A short visit to a regular Tawny Owl roost site failed to produce the owl, though Song Thushes and Nuthatch were vociferous. From here it was onwards towards the north-west of the county. Following a Red Kite on route, we took a slow drive along the Burnham Market – Ringstead road, stopping early at the sight of a good flock of Linnets bathing close to the road. Getting out, the Linnet flock was impressive, numbering over 200 birds, while Yellowhammers were also present in good number. The high-pitched ‘Aaow’ call of a flying Mediterranean Gull caught our attention, and we enjoyed nice views of a pair of adults high above, their calls sharing the airwaves with singing Skylark and Linnets. A Red Kite was seen distantly, though the star raptor here was a circling Peregrine. Crossing the area very slowly and at great height, it was clear it was looking for a meal, and sure enough it stooped in dramatic fashion in towards a huge flock of Woodpigeons. The spectacular dive didn’t yield any breakfast for the bird unfortunately, though it was spectacular to watch! On a bit further, another finch-filled cover crop produced yet more Yellowhammers, though the main bulk of the birds were Chaffinches and Goldfinches. A third pause along this productive stretch of road revealed more Mediterranean Gulls associated with the pig fields, while across the road, a field of rough grassland yielded more Linnets, at least 20 Yellowhammers and, best of all, 14 Corn Buntings showing superbly well in the corner of the hedgerow. We were able to approach them quite closely, and it was superb to hear them breaking into bouts of jangling song. Such a rare sound in the county these days! Once we had filled our boots with this fine group of farmland species, we had one more stop before lunch beckoned. Another field which possessed a good percentage of cover crop hosted an abundance of activity, mainly from a large flock of around 50 Reed Buntings. However, amongst their number, we managed to pick out a few Tree Sparrows. This site has been a regular place to see these in the winter, but this is the first time we have found any here this winter, so very pleasing to see and hear about 5 of these characterful sparrows. A pair of Grey Partridges crossed the field before we headed on to Thornham, where we had lunch in the superb Lifeboat Inn.

 

 

Twite at Thornahm and Mediterranean Gulls in breeding plumage were just some of todays highlights

 

Finishing a fine lunch, we headed over to Thornham Harbour, where a distinctive ‘chu-it’ call alerted us to a Spotted Redshank which flew along the channel (rapidly filling with seawater as the tide was coming in) and landed right beside us! Great timing, as we were just discussing the salient differences between the Common Redshank and this species. It showed itself off for a few seconds before it flew further up the channel and wasn’t seen again! The wintering Twite were our next distraction here, as a small group of about 12 were flying around the saltmarsh, before crossing over to land on the wooden jetties. These characterful finches put on a superb show for us, and we enjoyed great close views, and were even able to read a few colour ring combinations which we will send to the relevant project, though we know that these birds are coming from their breeding quarters in the Pennines to winter here each year. Rock Pipit and Brent Geese were also noted, before we headed along the coast to Titchwell. A Brambling on the feeders was a treat, while a walk along the Meadow Trail brought us to a small, group of people peering into the willow scrub; a sure sign of a Woodcock! Peering over a thick bramble, we were able to obtain nice binocular views of this master of hide-and-seek, before the crowd of admirers grew and we moved on. From here, the walk out to the sea was punctuated by plenty of activity on the Freshmarsh, including a growing number of Avocets and small flocks of Black-tailed Godwits and Knot, roosting through the high tide period. The gull colony was full of activity, and hosted a good number of Mediterranean Gulls, though we would take a closer look at these later. Reaching the sea, a scan revealed good numbers of Great-crested Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers and a few Common Scoter, Goldeneye and Red-throated Divers in flat calm conditions. However, most things were very distant and, apart from a very distant Great Northern Diver and a single Gannet, we couldn’t find any of the scarcer species which have been offshore between here and Holme.  The beach also hosted plenty of Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling here. Walking back along the main path, we stopped in the Parrinder Hide to take a closer look at the rapidly forming Mediterranean Gull colony and, while the minimum of 50 birds present here was impressive, it was enjoyable to observe their early-season displays and strutting about! With light fading, it didn’t appear that many Marsh Harriers were coming into roost, with only 6 or so noted coming in from the west. However, a scan of the Thornham side saltmarsh did reveal a female-type Hen Harrier flying low over the marsh in hunting mode, skirting the channel and Suaeda bushes in search of a late evening meal. The ditches either side of the path close to the VC provided one final treat in the form of a Water Rail scuttling amongst the fallen willow branches, before we headed homeward.

 


 

NORFOLK WINTER WILDFOWL SPECTACULAR 5th - 9th FEBRUARY 2019 [JWM]

 

Saturday 9th February – Sunny all day,  very strong W winds with gale force gusts, 7C

 

The last day of out Norfolk tour today took us to the north-west of the county where, while the wind was absolutely howling for most of the day, we enjoyed another great day of birding with some real highlights. Our route across county took us through some of the areas richest farmland. However, the wind was extremely strong and farmland passerines were in short supply, so we didn’t linger too long. Our route did pick up a nice adult male Sparrowhawk and three Red Kites close to Creake. We moved onto Titchwell RSPB, where a few hours were well spent. A Song Thrush singing in the carpark was enjoyed, while the feeding stations hosted the usual variety including an extremely smart male Brambling. The Meadow Trail hosted quite a crowd of birdwatchers who could only be looking at one thing; a skulking Woodcock in the undergrowth. We enjoyed playing the game of spot-the-woodcock for the while, before everyone managed to find the angle required to see it, and some nice scope views were had of a species which is so rarely seen as well as this anywhere else! We then worked our way out onto the main reserve. The Pochard flock appeared to have been blown off Patsies Pool, with 30 birds, unusually for them, on the Freshmarsh, along with a few Tufted Ducks. We would a save a proper check of the Freshmarsh for later, instead heading over to the beach first. On the way, the Tidal Marsh hosted a single Greenshank along with a group of 5 Avocets, several Bar-tailed Godwits and a pair of smart Pintail. The sea, with the wind now coming from the west and very strong, was therefore extremely choppy, making it difficult to pick up birds on the sea. However, we did sea a number of Red-breasted Mergansers, a few Goldeneye and a single Common Eider amongst the white water, while the beach hosted Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwits and a few Turnstones. Thoroughly sand-blasted, we retreated back to the Parrinder Hide. From here we enjoyed really nice comparative views of both Rock and Water Pipit on the main island, while a few Dunlin and a single Ringed Plover were also of interest amongst the throngs of Teal. From here we headed back, pausing in the Island Hide to admire the close views of Pochard, and also stopping to enjoy the confiding Water Rail in the usual place! By now it was lunchtime, which we took besides the van.

 

From here we were going to head further along the coast, but we allowed ourselves the luxury of returning for second helpings of the Meadow Trail Woodcock. The bird was still there and, while we enjoyed the views again, in reality the viewing was much more difficult now with various obscuring branches. Once we were satisfied, we returned to the car park, only to be greeted by a another Woodcock being watched by the reserves volunteers. This bird was showing superbly, and was an absolute delight to see so well! Following saying our thanks to the superb RSPB volunteers, we made tracks, heading now to Thornham Harbour. Here we parked up and walked up over the sluice, noting almost immediately a mixed flock of 30 Linnets and Twite, the latter making themselves known in flight with their distinctive ‘dweeeet’ calls, interspersed amongst the usual Linnets twittering. We enjoyed great comparative views of the two species amongst the saltmarsh vegetation, in farm more manageable conditions than yesterday, as the wind had dropped a bit by now. Afterwards, whilst making a cuppa, David spotted a low flying raptor crossing the saltmarsh to the east quite close-by. Bins up, it’s a superb female-type Hen Harrier gliding past in lovely light across classic Norfolk coastal scenery; brilliant, and a great bird to nearly end on. However, after this mornings difficulty in locating many birds of the farmland, we made our route home via some prime habitat to see if we could locate anything of interest. Pulling up besides a large fallow field, we walked the hedgerows a short while, eventually noting a few Yellowhammer. More then erupted from the hedge and flew into the fallow field, the low sunshine really illuminating them beautifully. More birds were still in the hedge, , so the flock totalled at least 25 birds. Suddenly a number of birds irrupted from the stubble, carrying with them a distinctly larger and bulkier bird; a single Corn Bunting. There was no sign of the main flock anywhere here, so we were pleased to see one at least! Skylarks were singing over the field, and provided a nice soundtrack for us before we headed home, arriving Sculthorpe Mill where we concluded the tour.  

 

 

Titchwell produced some superb sightings, including Woodcock and Song Thrush

 

Friday 8th February – Overcast all day, very strong SW winds with gale force gusts, 11C

 

An interesting day of shifting plans on the North Norfolk coast today, as a weather forecast of all-day rain becoming heavy later on never transpired at all! While it was incredibly windy which hindered matters somewhat, the day stayed dry and provided some great birding. Our day began with a goose chase, heading out towards farmland between Langham and Wiverton. Passing through the lanes we were fortunate to have a dashing female Merlin pass the front of the van; a treat this far inland. Soon after we duly found a nice flock of around 2000 Pink-footed Geese in a small, recently harvested beet field. Finding somewhere to view, we scoped part of the flock we could see, enjoying the god views of the species, before moving back along the road for another view, as much of the flock was hidden in field undulations. Finding a new spot with a gap in the hedge, almost the first bird we laid eyes on had vivid orange legs, a dark mantle with buff cross-stripes and an orange bill spot; a superb gander Tundra Bean Goose! This was a big bird, and nice for us was the closed bird in the flock, so thoroughly enjoyed. Chatting to a local, he put us onto a second bird keeping company with a Greylag Goose. This bird was smaller (so probably a female) and in mainly 1st winter plumage, with blotchy dark flanks and irregularly fringed mantle, as well as with less vividly orange legs. A great turnout, and compensation for our long walk out to Winterton without success yesterday! From here, and with the weather holding nicely, we decided that Cley would be our next port of call. Following a loo stop, we parked up at the end of the East Bank and made our way to the beach. A small number of Dunlin, Curlew and Redshank were on Arnolds Marsh, while the Serpentine hosed good numbers of Wigeon and Teal. Marsh Harriers were also on the wing despite the blustery conditions. Reaching the beach, a scan to the west along the ridge revealed something we hoped we would encounter; the long-staying Glaucous Gull. A 1st winter bird, we could see it ‘just chillin’’ on the shingle, probably with a belly full of dead seal. It allowed us to approach it quite closely, offering great views. The sea produced a couple of Guillemots and Great Crested Grebes, as well as some passing Brent Geese.  A treat here also was two groups; 6 and 4, of White-fronted Geese which came in-off and headed west along the coast. Walking back to the van with a strong headwind was hard work, but it was well worth the effort!

 

 

Two crackers from this morning; a Tundra Bean Goose and Glaucous Gull

 

From here we then headed round to the beach carpark, pausing first at the visitor centre to report our sightings and also for a quick scan of the pools, from where we noted a small group of distant Pintail on North Scrape. On the way to the beach a large flock of feeding Brent Geese stopped us and offered superb views, with two family groups coming to drink at very close range. Parking at the beach, we took a quick look at the sea, which produced a few Gannets and Guillemots, while a stomp along the shingle east provided some flighty Snow Buntings in the vegetation. The flock of at least 30 birds were hunkering down in the gale, and we probably should have been too! However, braving the elements gave us some great views of the flock. Our next move was a bit of a fruitless one as, with us expecting torrential rain at any minute, we opted to head for Sheringham to see if we could find the wintering Purple Sandpipers, and also not be far from the van in case the weather turned foul. However, the rain never materialised, and neither did the sandpipers, as the tide was well out and there were lots of people climbing about on the groynes! So little to report here. However, we finished off well, heading to Blakeney where we took a walk around Blakeney Freshmarsh. Fantastic views of Wigeon and Shoveler were had on the way out, and with a gale-force tailwind, we reached the seawall at a good pace! However, at this time the sky was looking pretty black behind us, so we were contemplating making a start to head back to the van. However, a quick wander along the fence line further along the bank revealed a real treat; 16 Twite hunkered down feeding on the short vegetation! We didn’t fancy our chances of finding these birds in such harsh conditions, but we enjoyed fantastic views of them, allowed to approach quite closely due to their reluctance to fly in strong winds. The walk back was into the strong wind, but the rain never happened, and a female Peregrine and a couple of Golden Plover accompanied our walk back to the van. It was nearly time to head home and, following a pause in Morston Harbour where Redshank and numerous Teal were noted, we made our way back to Sculthorpe Mill. 

 

 

The Cley Brent Goose flock, including an intersting pale-headed bird

 

 

Thursday 7th February – Overcast with sunny spells, heavy rain am, strong SW winds, 11C

 

A day of heavy rain and near-gale force winds was never going to make for easy birding conditions, and so it proved today out in East Norfolk. However, some good sightings were to be had with perseverance and flexibility. Setting out across county, we had about an hours drive beyond Norwich and on towards Wroxham, where we stopped first at the nearby Barton Broad. Walking from the carpark towards the broad, noting a small number of Redwings along the way. Arriving at the reserve, a blustery Alder carr habitat held a number of Marsh Tits, some of which gave good views, and also a couple of active Treecreepers. Reaching the viewing platform overlooking the main broad, careful scanning revealed a pair of female Greater Scaup bobbing around on the choppy water amongst a large flock of Tufted Ducks. In addition, a good number of Goldeneye were present, while Coots and Great Crested Grebes were also common. A couple of Marsh Harriers were also noted, completing the scene. The weather, whilst fairly wild, had held nicely for us so far, though once we returned to the van the first spits of rain began to fall. From here (after a cuppa of course!) we made our way across towards the coast, pausing on route at Ludham Airfield, noting that the wintering flock of wild swans had disappeared completely; a sign that birds are starting to disperse and winter is coming to an end! Onwards from here, we continued towards Winterton, where a Taiga Bean Goose had been spending time amongst a Pink-footed Flock. We knew this flock was not viewable from the road, and would likely involve a couple of miles walking along the dunes to reach a viewing point. This had the makings of a ‘wild bean-goose chase’, and so it later proved! However, for the past half-hour the rain had really started to come down, and a particularly torrential spell in strong winds deterred us sufficiently from attempting the walk! Instead we then made our way south again, crossing farmland to check suitable maize strips for Common Cranes. Thorough searching of areas which have been very productive these past weeks drew a complete blank, with the birds either having moved on or perhaps hunkered down somewhere out of sight. Either way, we were now particularly keen to improve our birding fortunes, with a few blanks now under our belt!

 

We did improve our fortunes markedly by visiting the marshes south of Ludham. Pulling up first at Coldharbour Farm, a small party of swans were present to our right and, getting out the scopes, revealed themselves to be 7 splendid Whooper Swans. Despite wobbly scopes in the blustery conditions, it was great to see these majestic birds, possibly for the last time this winter before they head north. A walk up onto the riverbank then revealed a distant party of 7 Common Cranes feeding over towards St Benet’s Abbey; fantastic! A quick run around to that side of the marsh saw us having much better views of these majestic birds feeding quietly out on the undisturbed marsh. An impressive number of Lapwing were here, numbering perhaps 600 birds, and several Marsh Harriers and Buzzards were noted, while on our other side a flock of geese on the grassland to our west, whilst initially appearing to be mostly Greylags, featured a flock of 45 superb Russian White-fronted Geese. The birds were fairly close and we were well sheltered from the wind by a nearby barn, so enjoyed really nice views of these, including some family parties. We enjoyed lunch overlooking these birds from the shelter of the van, as the wind was getting pretty excessive! Finishing up, we stopped the van where we could have another look at the Common Cranes using the van to shelter the scope, and enjoyed some iconic views of this East Norfolk speciality. From here, the weather looked like it might be clearing up, so we headed north-east again, towards the coast, where we would make an attempt to locate the goose flock between Horsey and Winterton. Parking up at Horsey Gap, the sun had come out, and the walk along the dunes was in some of the finest weather we had had today. The beach here was full of hauled-out Grey Seals, including some well-grown pups from this winter’s record-breaking pupping season. A pair of Stonechats entertained us along the fence-lines, and a couple of male Marsh Harriers were looking superb over the grazing marshes, while several Common Buzzards also featured. However, our main quarry was nowhere in sight, as it appeared that our targeted goose flock had flown inland, probably towards Horsey Mere; what a bummer! We walked bac to the van, tired but enjoying what was now becoming a superb sunset, and had a well-earned cup of coffee before heading home.      

 

 

A coupe of East Norfolks special birds; Common Cranes and Russian White-fronted Goose

 

Wednesday 6th February – Sunny and mild with scattered cloud, light SW wind, 11C

 

With plenty of sunshine and a minibus thermometer reading 11C and over today, it was the first day that really felt like spring this year, and a perfect excuse to go and explore the Norfolk Breckland areas. With a sunny start beckoning (though a foggy Swaffham made us think otherwise) we started our day at Santon Downham, where he liquid song of a Woodlark greeted us, and provided a superb soundtrack to most of the morning. Things got even better soon after, as a quick scan of the nearby treetops revealed the wintering Great Grey Shrike sitting proud over the railway line here, and allowed us to approach quite closely, the bird illuminated perfectly in the morning sun. A variety of small birds came to pester the shrike, and at one point included a single Lesser Redpoll which raised its crest and cocked its tail in agitated fashion. A Crossbill was heard but not seen here, while close to the van another Woodlark was heard distantly. Treecreepers and Nuthatches were vocal all morning, and the former were seen well whilst we enjoyed a cuppa, before we headed for the riverside path. A walk along the River Little Ouse produced a few highlights including a very showy Water Rail, numerous singing Siskins and vocal Marsh Tits and drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker. Back towards the village the garden feeders stopped us in our tracks, providing superb views of a number of Bramblings as well as Nuthatch, Marsh Tit and Siskins. A fantastically productive start to the day! From here we made our way back towards Swaffham, where we positioned ourselves in our favourite Goshawk watching site. We had literally only gotten out of the vehicle when we started scanning our first soaring raptors, all enjoying the warm conditions and light breeze. Working through a good number of Common Buzzards, we laid eyes on our first Goshawk; a super adult bird, with classic ‘crossbow’ profile with wide hips and heavy wingbeats. Soon after we were watching a pair of birds; a clear male and female, with the female dwarfing the male, and the male entering into full-on ‘switchback’ display flight. A fourth bird was noted soon after; this time the first-winter with buffy underparts showing heavy blotchy streaking on the underparts. Over the course of 30 minutes these birds entertained us with various flight, while 2 Sparrowhawk and around 12 Common Buzzards were noted in addition. Just superb, and a very enjoyable way to spend lunch!

 

 

A fantastic Breckland duo; Great Grey Shrike and Woodlark

 

From here we took a ride into the forestry, where a variety of woodland species greeted us, including a profusion of tits including several Marsh Tits. An extremely brief close encounter came in the form of a Goshawk which, with a sudden rise in alarm-calling birds in the area, tore across the ride and out of view at great speed; too fast for most of us to notice! We then moved on from here to our last stop of the day; Lynford Arboretum. Leaving the car park, a pair of Common Crossbills flew over calling high above the treetops. While that was two encounters with the species today, they don’t appear to be common in the forest this winter, and we haven’t really had any good sightings of the species in a while. However, a flock of about 60 Bramblings on seed down a wooded ride nearby made up for it, providing quite the spectacle. A brief Yellowhammer was a surprise here before we headed down towards the paddocks. The feeders over the bridge were very lively, attracting a profusion of tits and the odd Brambling, while the paddock itself held one of the afternoons many highlights. Taking a look at the first Hornbeam, we spotted our first Hawfinches; three birds in the low branches, dropping down to feed on the ground. It soon became apparent that there were more than this, with a small group flying left to the next Hornbeam, followed by several more, totalling 19 birds! Walking over to view the centre of the paddock, more came from the first Hornbeam, and we estimate up to 23 Hawfinches were in the paddock at this time, before beginning their pre-roost routine of perching in the high pines of zigzag covert. A superb number of birds, and signs of the flock building up as the winter progresses. Leaving here rather pleased with the display, there was one more surprise in store. A number of Blackbirds and tits were going haywire in the top of a nearby pine tree, leading to suspicion that an owl of some kind might be roosting there. After much manoeuvring and careful checking, we finally managed to find an angle through the dense foliage to spot the culprit; a sleeping Tawny Owl. Still too early for it to be active, the most movement we saw was the occasional head-turn and the odd blink! Still it was great to see here, and a fitting bird to head back to the van with. From the carpark, we headed home, noting a Barn Owl on route to round of another superb day.

 

 

Water Rail and Brambling in Santon Downham

 

 

TUESDAY 5th February – Sunny and frosty morning, clouding over later, light S wind, 9C

 

Our Norfolk February Winter Wildfowl Spectacular tour really kicked off in style for the group, and earlier in the day than usually expected! Staying in the Sculthorpe Mill Hotel for the duration of the week (Laura and James are taking a well-earned holiday from the Blue Boar) the group were busily tucking into their full English breakfasts when, peering out of the dining room window which overlooks the River Wensum, not one but 4 Otter heads popped up from out of the water! They enjoyed these superb animals for the duration of their breakfast, before I had even arrived with the van! Arriving to hear all the gory details, the Otters were unfortunately no longer performing. However, a female Grey Wagtail was showing nicely on the riverbank. In such pleasant surroundings, it would have been rude not to explore further, and a 30-minute wander around the hotel produced a pair of drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Grey Heron, and singing Goldcrest, while the whole area certainly holds plenty of potential. Expect more updates over the coming days! From here we set off towards the north coast, noting 4 frisky Brown Hares in one field on route to Holkham. Pulling into Lady Anne’s Drive, we made our way to the end where we enjoyed a single dashing Sparrowhawk, superb flocks of Wigeon on the flooded grazing marshes, a small number of Brent Geese, 3 Black-tailed Godwits and 2 wintering Ruff. More distantly to the west we could see a couple of quartering Marsh Harriers, these at one point flushing a flock of about 30 Black-tailed Godwits from the direction of Joe Jordan hide. From here we made our way out to Holkham Gap, where we were greeted by a couple of small squadrons of Pink-footed Geese coming off the sea. The low winter sun was really beautiful here this morning, and made our next sighting all the more special. Walking along the edge of the saltmarsh, the sun was catching the pale sandy mantles of the wintering Shorelarks feeding quietly in the short saltmarsh vegetation. Positioning ourselves at the edge of the marsh, we enjoyed wonderful views of these superb northern larks, them contentedly working their ways closer and closer to us. The group was difficulty to count in the longer vegetation, but we managed a high count of 21 birds before we dragged ourselves away. Our next bird was a treat, as a vigil at the dune-edge Sea Buckthorn provided us with some superb views of the wintering Dartford Warbler. Often elusive, this ground-dwelling Sylvia posed in characteristic fashion for us on two occasions; a rare winter treat. Following this, the Snow Buntings was begging for attention, glinting in the sun in flight behind us, settling within the Holkham saltmarsh cordon. We approached these birds to within 5 meters, them feeding deep in thick vegetation and apparently unfazed by a growing crowd of admirers. Holkham at its best this morning! A quick scan of the sea produced a single Great Northern Diver, 7 Great Crested Grebes, a couple of flocks of Common Scoter numbering perhaps 80 in total, 6 Red-breasted Mergansers and a small number of Red-throated Divers and Guillemots. From here we made our way back towards the van, pausing for seconds of the superb Shorelarks which were still performing well, and took out our sandwiches, as incredibly it was already lunchtime! A small flock of Brent Geese were present just west of the drive, and these hosted one of the regular Black Brant hybrids that we see so frequently here. The light was perfect to see the birds wash of silvery grey mantle feathers interspersed amongst the usual darker tobacco-washed plumage; these grey feathers a sure sign of hybridization with Dark-bellied Brent Goose.

 

 

Typical, and less typical species of Holkham Gap - Shorelark and Dartford Warbler

 

From here, we then made our way along the coast to Wells. Abrahams Bosom hosted the usual Tufted Ducks, Gadwall and Little Grebes, while the woods, on first impressions, seemed spookily quiet! However, perseverance did pay off with some superb viewing of male and female Bullfinches in various spots and, after much searching, a pair of quiet Lesser Redpolls which, after a bathe, gave really nice views preening, and then feeding in Silver Birch. There was no sign of the rest of the Redpoll flock however. Grey Partridge was heard over Quarles Marsh but not seen, while Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal were enjoying the floods, along with a couple of Black-tailed Godwits. A Red Kite low overhead was also a treat before we made our way back to the van. Driving back towards the town, a hunting Barn Owl stopped us in our tracks, patrolling the nearby reedbed before dropping out of sight. A little further on, a large flock of Brent Geese had gathered on the playing fields, and it wasn’t long before a distinctive individual stood out from the crowd. Appearing distinctly black-and-white, with extensive chalky white flank patch, wide neck collar meeting under the chin and dark tobacco-brown mantle, this was a classic pure Black Brant, and an educational encounter following our views of the hybrid earlier. Whilst watching, the Barn Owl was often in the same binocular views! Can you get any more Norfolk?! Onwards, we headed east, pausing to check the floods east of Wells, where a good number of Lapwings were present in neighbouring fields, before we headed towards Stiffkey Camp. With coffee in hand here, we positioned ourselves overlooking the saltmarsh, quickly noting a couple of Marsh Harriers. A distant Peregrine sat out on a post was good to see, while a Sparrowhawk was patrolling the area. The highlight however was a male Hen Harrier which cruised into view and headed west towards East Hills, where it patrolled the saltmarsh distantly. A female-type Hen Harrier followed suit soon after, though again the viewing was distant. With both birds up in flight out towards Wells, this encouraged us to retrace our steps as, if the birds remained active, we could have improved our views by viewing from the Wells side. However unfortunately, on arriving at the Quay, the birds had already gone down, presumably to roost. However, the journey was not wasted, with a single Guillemot on the shoreline close by here, a patrolling Marsh Harrier and a flock of Knot in the harbour all adding value. We had one final treat up or sleeve now before heading home. Passing through the back end of Holkham estate, we stopped to observe as around 40 Red Kites were gathering over the surrounding farmland, readying to roost in the woodland copses here. A single knarled Oak tree hosted 6 birds at one point, providing a great illustration of just how big these majestic birds of prey really are, and we went home pleased to see a sight which has only been possible to see in the last few years in the county.

 

 


ISLAY 3RD - 8TH FEBRUARY 2019 (AS)

 

FRIDAY 8TH FEBRUARYStorm ‘Erik’, 8C

 

A tumultuous day’s weather which had seen our ferry cancelled, as storm ‘Erik’ swept in from the Atlantic and battered northern Britain for the next 24hrs. We expected to wake to severe gales, but actually it wasn’t bad at all and we wondered if the forecast was correct – it was no windier than it had been on Tuesday! But The low soon moved in and struck with a vengeance, dispelling any thoughts that we had got away with it! We’d planned a later breakfast, and with news of the drake Green-winged Teal reappearing after a months absence at Loch Gruinart, we decided to make a morning trip up there to visit the hide, take shelter and see what we could find. A couple of quick checks of Barnacle Goose flocks on the way out produced both the Pink-footed Goose and Pale-bellied Brent Goose again, and we added a Fieldfare en route too. Reaching Gruinart, we saw the usual swirling flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing on the flats before heading down to the hide. We saw both a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Peregrine hunting over the reserve as we walked down, and both were seen again several times from the hide. The Hen Harrier was particularly superb, battling low across the scrape right in front of us and settling on the bank. At one point, it was mobbed by the male Peregrine, a small and particularly slate blue individual. Large numbers of Common Teal, Pintail, Wigeon and Shoveler were carefully checked, and this yielded the drake Green-winged Teal, which showed really nicely for us all through the scope before everything was flushed by the Peregrine and the American visitor flew off with a ‘splinter group’ of Teal and did not return. We had been lucky! After waiting out perhaps the worst part of the storm of the day, we made a dash for it between pulses of rain back to the van. The visitor centre provided shelter for a cup of tea and use of the facilities, before we retraced back down the island to the accommodation for lunch.

 

With our plans all up in the air, we had a fair bit of sorting out to do after lunch, booking onto alternative ferries and thinking about the journey back south afterwards. Eventually we also got the inevitable message that tomorrow mornings ferry would also be cancelled and that the earliest we would now leave the island would be 6pm tomorrow. After organising another evenings dinner, two of us set out for a couple of hours goosing while the rest of the group chilled out at the house. We checked three large Barnacles flocks, at Leorin, Bridgend and Mulindry. The weather made doing any birding a challenge, but we still could not find the hutchinsii from Monday evening. However, on our way back to base we did relocate the Todd’s Canada Goose with the Leorin flock, and enjoy some more prolonged views through the scope. It really is a distinctive looking beast with its snakey neck looking too small for its big, long body. Back at base, we enjoyed what we hoped would be our final dinner as a group before taking an early night – tomorrow could be a very long day!

 

THURSDAY 7TH FEBRUARYCalm day with sunshine and showers, winds increasing, 8C

 

We enjoyed a real ‘calm before the storm’ feeling this morning, as we headed out along the high road to Bridgend for what was our best mornings birding of the trip. After a quick check of the Bridgend Barnacle flocks (they were all pretty distant from the road in their favourite field behind the farm!) we dropped down to Loch Indaal and headed for the Gaelic Centre at the edge of Bowmore. The sea was like glass, with no wind, and we had the sun on our backs as we scanned the water for seaducks and grebes. We pretty much cleaned up here, with fantastic views of small flocks of Common Eiders and displaying Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers, Red-throated Divers and a sprinkling of Common Scoter. Great Northern Divers were common with over twenty spread out across the loch, and a small group of Greater Scaup, mainly female types but with a single adult drake, were floating on the water close inshore . Slavonian Grebes numbered at least ten, and all the time skeins of Barnacles could be heard barking away as they commuted off towards Gruinart against the backdrop of sunlit hills. After a great session here, we headed round to the north shore of the loch and stopped at Blackrock to scan for Long-tailed Ducks. We had to shelter from a passing rain shower, but had excellent views of eight ‘Sea Pheasants’ with the drakes long tails waving in the breeze. A Great Northern Diver was really close in fishing for crabs in the shallows, a really stunning view. Next we headed on to Bruichalddich, as we wanted to try again for the Purple Sandpipers which we had missed in Tuesdays strong winds and rain. No such trouble today, and we had around a dozen on the rocks below the distillery with a few Ringed Plovers. It had been a good morning!

 

Net we headed up to the north-east end of the island, stopping first at the Islay mill. Coal Tits were at the feeders, but there was no sign of the reliable Dipper on the river here. On to Bunnahabhain, and we lunched overlooking the Sound of Jura with the snow-sprinkled Paps in the background. A heavy hail shower bustled through, with a striking rainbow following it off across the sound – stunning! We didn’t see anything much here though, so retraced back to the ‘Glen road’ towards Mulindry to look for raptors. We had a Golden Eagle crossing high over the road here, and on our second circuit, a male Merlin was perched on a roadside fence. It landed again a little further off, and we managed some brief scope views before it took flight. There was a nice Barnacle Goose flock by the road here too, with presumably the same Pale-bellied Brent Goose in tow, but we could not re-find either of the Canada’s from earlier in the week.

 

After a quick trip back to base to drop some folk off, the rest of us headed back up to Bridgend for more goosing. The big Barnacle flock from the morning was now feeding close to the road in a tightly packed flock, and allowed good observation with the scopes. We couldn’t pick anything out of the throng, but enjoyed a marvellous spectacle as they eventually all took to the air in a noisy mass, splitting into smaller groups and heading off in different directions. Dropping down to the loch shore, we headed round the north side and took the Coillabus road for a bit. This road is now little better than a farm track and becomes less suitable for non-4x4 vehicles he further down you drive! We went far enough, however, to see a beautiful male Hen Harrier floating across the moorland, amazingly our first of the trip. Back down to the loch and we waited until dusk for any roosting geese, but nothing came in this evening. We instead had the joy of learning that Storm Eric had put paid to tomorrows ferry and we would be staying (at least!) one more day on the island!

 

WEDNESDAY 6TH FEBRUARYFresh NW winds and sunshine, 9C

 

A much better day of weather today saw us head up to the north-west of the island for the morning. We once again headed out along the main goose ‘highway’ along the top road to Bridgend, but we didn’t see many geese until we got to the far end. The big Barnacle flock had come back together again, but was feeding too far off the road to really scan it properly. Dropping down to Loch Indaal, we took the road towards Port Charlotte and then off to Loch Gorm, where we made a short stop to check some arable fields which held good mixed flocks of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese. A ringtail Hen Harrier drifted across briefly, and there were a few Ravens, Rock Doves and Hooded Crows about too. Reaching Machir Bay, we took a walk across the dunes to the beach, where the Atlantic rollers were crashing ashore in dramatic fashion – we were glad we weren’t on the ferry today! Our main quarry here would be Chough, and we heard them calling soon after our arrival. First, a group of 24 appeared over the dunes, landing briefly before continuing further along the coast, and then a vocal pair flew right past us at close range. We headed up the cemetery road, getting more close views of Greenland White-fronts, before heading along the Loch Gorm circular road to try and get better views of the Choughs. Here a huge flock of Barnacle Geese were bathing in  small lochan, but they were typically flighty (the shooting of these birds has not surprisingly made them much harder to approach) and they headed nosily off towards the machair as soon as we stopped. However, the field on the other side of the road held all 26 Choughs and we had fantastic views of them, along with a group of three ‘boxing’ Brown Hares! The Choughs are known to group into age-related flocks, and these were a group made up entirely of juveniles, while the adult birds are apparently all up at Ardnave – fascinating! We carried on round the Loch Gorm circular road, stopping to admire some roadside Redwings, before eventually reaching RSPB Loch Gruinart.

 

 

A close encounter with a White-tailed Eagle at Loch Gruinart today

 

Over a cup of tea, we scanned the Gruinart flats and saw big numbers of Lapwing, Curlew and Golden Plover, and of course more Barnacle Geese. We decided to go along to the hide, because there was no disturbance there today and lots of wildfowl on the pools. As well as a local rarity in the form of a Little Egret, we enjoyed fabulous views of flocks of Teal and Pintail in perfect light. The odd Shoveler was also present, and we saw a Greenshank, two fine Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of Snipe. At one point, all the birds went up and we looked up expecting perhaps a passing Peregrine or Sparrowhawk. We were amazed to see neither, but instead the unmistakable shape of a White-tailed Eagle lumbering towards the hide, low to the ground! This magnificent bird flew across the scrape and landed at the back, in brilliant light. We couldn’t quite believe it had settled so close, and set about taking some pictures before it took flight again and lazily hovered over the marsh in front of the hide! A family party of Whooper Swans took no notice of it at all! Eventually the eagle moved off, leaving us on a high as we headed back to the car park and on to the accommodation for lunch.

 

In the afternoon, we planned a walk up on the spectacular Oa peninsula, a wild corner of Islay with some stunning scenery. The sun was shining and the wind blowing, as we made our way out there. A stop by the cemetery just past Port Ellen gave us another chance to scan Barnacle Geese in amazing light, and while doing so a subadult Golden Eagle circled into view over distant pines, and showed well for a while before drifting off over the ridge. Continuing on, we crossed the bleak moorland heading out to the RSPB car park, where we started a circular hike out to the American Monument. It was nice to have a walk after a lot of driving over the last few days, and the sun made for some impressive views – all the way back to Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich to the north, and about 17 miles to the south, clear views of Rathlin Island, the Northern Ireland coast and the Mull of Kintyre. A flock of Twite were buzzing around a kale crop at the farm, and settled on the fence there briefly, while we saw Fulmars down below the cliffs and ‘cronking’ Ravens over the moor. Dusk was approaching by the time we returned to the car park, and a ringtail Hen Harrier briefly by the road was our last action of a busy day.

 

 

TUESDAY 5TH FEBRUARYHeavy rain and strong NW winds, 8C

 

It was a pretty challenging day of weather today, but we did our best to make good of it! A party of Greenland White-fronted Geese were a lovely start to the day, grazing on the croft outside our accommodation. We remarked at just how dark they looked, particularly in the low light of dawn, and their lovely yellow-orange bills could be seen. Heading out of Port Ellen, we took the ‘high road’ towards Bridgend, which is often a good road for ‘goosing’. We soon located our first Barnacle Goose flock of the day, but they were really flighty being close to the road. The rain, which was forecast to start at 1pm, was already falling heavily at 9am and this made viewing more difficult, but almost right away we picked out another vagrant Canada Goose among the flock! Immediately though, this bird was strikingly different to yesterdays. It was much larger, being clearly bigger than the Barnacles, and it had a big, long body and longer legs than the Cackling Goose. It had a rather thin, sinuous neck which looked too small for its body size, and a broad based white cheek strap which tapered to a point. The bill was longer, and the head showed a more sloping profile than yesterdays bird. We concluded that the bird was a best fit for the form interior, or Todd’s Canada Goose, one of the Greater Canada Goose complex. Still a really nice bird and much better views than yesterdays huthcinsii. Continuing on this road, we had good views of Common Raven, and more groups of Barnacles and Greenland White-fronts, before we reached Bridgend. Here we found fragments of last nights flock, and had a good look through them again – we couldn’t find the Cackling, but we did see a nice Pale-bellied Brent Goose among them.

 

Next we headed up to Bridgend and west towards Gruinart, turning off towards the sea loch and heading down its eastern shore. Here we found a huge flock of Golden Plovers, Lapwing, Starling and Dunlin all feeding together by the roadside – quite a sight! Greenland White-front groups were dotted around everywhere, and we saw Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Common Stonechat too. Heading right down towards the oyster farm, we had good views of two Great Northern Divers, and saw both Greenshank and Bar-tailed Godwit on the estuary. Over the far side, a large raptor drifted along the ridge – it was our first Golden Eagle, and it gave some prolonged scope views albeit through driving rain and strong winds! Keen to get back in the warm van, we headed around to the west side of the loch, seeing some big flocks of Curlew in the fields on the way. The RSPB staff were strimming in front of the hides, so we abandoned the idea of walking out, and instead headed straight down to Ardnave Loch. Here we saw nine Whooper Swans, and a small group of Common Goldeneye, as well as a few Wigeon and Teal. The weather was now biblical, but thankfully we had a treat in store for the afternoon as we had planned to visit the nearby Bruichladdich Whisky Distillery for a short tour and tasting. Islay is world famous for its whisky, so it is rude to visit the island without gaining an insight into its production. We enjoyed a very informative tour, followed by an even more enjoyable tasting, meaning lunch came a little later than planned! We didn’t achieve much after lunch, a combination of the whisky and the weather, but we headed back along the same road we had taken in the morning and scanned the Barnacle flocks again, but to no avail – the Cackling Goose was hiding somewhere, but we needed better weather and closer views!

 

 

Vagrant Canada Geese are a feature of any winter tour to Islay. Richardson's Cackling Goose (left) from 4th and Todd's Canada Goose from today

 

MONDAY 4TH FEBRUARY – Light NW winds and showers, 10C

 

After our journey up from the south yesterday afternoon, to meet in Carlisle, we rose early this morning for what would be a long days travelling and birding. Departing the Premier Inn just after 7am, we headed north to Glasgow where we had a planned stop to collect our Tesco online shop, ready for four nights on Islay at our self catering croft accommodation. The second leg on to Kennacraig ferry terminal on the Kintyre peninsula, took us through spectacular scenery with snow-capped peaks all around. We arrived in good time for the ferry, which set sail just before 1pm, and soon we were seeing our first Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Eiders, Common Goldeneye, European Shag and Great Northern Diver. This species was the most frequent diver encountered on the crossing, but singles of Red-throated and Black-throated Divers were also noted. Common Guillemot and Razorbill, a few Kittiwakes and Black Guillemots in both summer and winter plumage were seen by the time we reached Port Askaig in the north-east of the island. The drive south to Port Ellen took around half an hour, passing our first flocks of Barnacle Geese on the way, and we arrived at Balclava Croft around 3.30pm. A swift check in meant we still had an hour of daylight left, and we were keen to use it to full potential! Driving back up to Loch Indaal, we planned to check to see if the Barnacle Geese would be coming in to roost there. But we got sidetracked by a huge flock grazing in fields just up the old Port Ellen road (the so called ‘high road’) and so we diverted along there to see if we could find a spot to scope them. A conveniently placed farm track entrance was ideal, and we had the light behind us too – what a spectacular sight, with thousands of Barnacle Geese spread out in front of us. Once they were flushed by the farmer, and flew right around in front of us filling the air with their calls, before whirling back down into the fields. We picked a single Pink-footed Goose out just in front of us, but a much bigger surprise came as we unearthed a fine Richardson’s Cackling Goose among the hordes. This diminutive Canada, now split from the Greater Canada Goose group, was initially tricky for everyone to get onto, but once people got their eye in, good views were had by all. Its dinky size and stature, ‘square’ head shape with steep forehead, tiny bill, short neck and uniform warm brown plumage were all good pointers, helping to rule out the often similarly sized parvipes. A Cackling Goose had been seen on the island in late October, so presumably this was the same individual returning after a November foray to Oronsay. It was now almost dark, so after a quick stop via Bowmore Co-op, we headed back to base for dinner. A good start to the tour!

 


 

 

NORFOLK WINTER TOUR 22nd - 26th JANUARY 2019 [JWM & PR]

 

 

SATURDAY 26th JANUARY – Overcast with some sunny spells, the odd shower, moderate SW wind, 5C

 

Our final day saw us returning back to the North Norfolk coast, where we would try to add to what has already been a superb week of birding. Our first destination was the seafront at Sheringham, parking up at the carpark above the Funky Mackerel café! Our reasoning for choosing this location was to try and locate the small wintering population of Purple Sandpipers which frequent the granite boulder breakwaters along this stretch of coast. From the car park, we could already see our first Purple Sandpiper, and walking down to the shore we discovered a second bird. The species is always approachable here, and a delight to see along with the throngs of Turnstones. Further interest here came from the sea, where Fulmar, Razorbill, Guillemot and numerous Red-throated Divers were noted. Rapping up here, we drove a short way along the coast, pausing for a short while at Weybourne. Out to sea here we noted further Red-throated Divers passing in groups of up to 4, while a couple of large flocks of Common Scoter offshore failed to yield a hoped-for Velvet Scoter amongst their number. Now it was high time we had a cuppa!

 

Once refreshed, we continued along the coast to Wells. A very nice flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese stopped us on route to the beach, feeding on the fields next to the football pitch. Scanning from the van we were pleased to pick up a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose amongst our more familiar birds, while one of the regular Holkham hybrid Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brents was also present. Shortly after, the flock flushed due to dog walkers, so we continued along to the Pines. Parking up, we headed out into the pines, on the hunt for Redpolls! Abrahams Bosom held the usual Gadwalls, Tufted Ducks and Little Grebes as we passed, walking to the Dell. The trees here include many Silver Birches, which the Wells redpoll flock has been favouring this winter, and it wasn’t long after crossing the Dell Meadow that we heard our first ‘chip chip’ calls of the Redpoll flock. The group have hosted a number of Coues’s Arctic Redpolls since the autumn, but the flock has been extremely irregular, so it was great to have them here again. The flock was very mobile, moving between feeding trees quite frequently and so making it difficult to pin down individuals for more than a few seconds. However, with perseverance we managed to get some views of one of the Coues’s Arctic Redpolls, and also enjoyed comparing the many Mealy Redpolls with their more gingery Lesser Redpoll cozens. After about an hour and a half, and following the flock flying off purposefully, we felt we needed to move on, content with our sightings but, in reality, wishing we had seen the Arctic Redpolls a little better. We needn’t have worried however, as on our way back we walked right into the flock again, feeding just above head height in track-side trees! Scanning through the group revealed 2 of the Coues’s Arctic Redpolls, offering really superb views to all in the group, and really scratching the itch we all had! One of the birds was a real belter, with a classic pale biscuit wash to the face and upper breast, very limited whispy flank streaks, a very small thin undertail streak and unstreaked white rump. The other was also distinctive, though the undertail covert streak was slightly broader, the flanks slightly more heavily streaked and the head and upperparts being slightly more coarsely streaked and darker. Really nice to be able to analyse these birds and compare, particularly with the help of photographs. Leaving these, we thought this would be our last act before heading back to Ryburgh. However, following a tip-off from Andy Bloomfield, we stopped again by the football pitch, where the brent flock was still present. Finding a viewing position, we soon an incredibly distinctive Black Brant; the pure bird! Brilliant to see this bird, which has been enigmatic this year. Now the flock, in addition to the Pale-bellied Brent, also now hosted both of the Brant hybrids! It doesn’t get any better with Brents. From here we hit the road, back to Great Ryburgh where the tour concluded.

 

 

A couple of cracking rares from today! Coues's Arctic Redpoll and Black Brant

 

FRIDAY 25th JANUARY – Overcast all day, heavy mist am, clearing later, very light breeze, 5C

 

Today we made our way down into the Broadland areas of East Norfolk where, while the weather meant we faced some challenges and had to adjust the itinerary accordingly, we had a really decent day. Our intention was to first visit the RSPB marshes at Cantley. However, driving into heavy drizzle and poor visibility, we knew that we would struggle to observe much of the reserve, and its associated special geese! So, with that, we adjusted and headed further north into the farmlands around Clippersby, on the hunt for Common Cranes. Approaching an area of maize strips and winter wheat which the species seems to have taken a liking to this winter, we quickly spotted a group of these superbly elegant birds not far from the road. The group took flight and headed across the field, where they joined a further group of feeding birds, numbering a total of 12 individuals. Great to pick these up, despite the murk, and we were off to a great start! With the weather still close, we headed on to try to find our next target species; Whooper and Bewick’s Swans. Our location for these would be the fields surrounding Ludham Airfield; a classic wintering site for this small population of wild swans. And, as expected, there were a fine group of 66 birds, numbering approximately 32 Bewick’s Swans and 34 Whooper Swans. Amongst there number were a fair few juveniles, the young Whooper Swans particularly delightful with their pastel pink bills. Pied Wagtail and Skylark were noted here in addition, while we had a hot drink in the swans company.

 

From here we then moved on towards the Trinity Broads, and particularly Ormsby Little Broad, where we would walk out to view the broad along the wooded boardwalk. Tits were numerous and included a couple of Marsh Tits close to the car park. Once overlooking the broad itself, numerous Great Crested Grebes and Tufted Ducks were in evidence, and Marsh Harrier was seen over the far trees. However, after a short wait a superb winter plumaged Red-necked Grebe swam out into view for us, giving superb close views before making its way over to the farther reedbed. This individual has been present for a number of weeks now, so was great to catch up with. Leaving here, we then crossed the road and took a look at Filby Broad. Out here we noted a single female Goldeneye amongst the other usual Tufted Ducks and Coots and, with some diligent scanning in harsh light at the far end of the broad, we managed to get some views of the pair of redhead Smew which have also been present for a while now. A superb couple of scarce inland species on these beautiful broads. Back at the van, we had lunch before moving onwards towards Horsey. Driving the straight towards Horsey Corner, we paused to scan the marshes and picked up another pair of Common Cranes; we are doing so well for this species lately! The fields also held a number of Golden Plover, while many Lapwings, a couple of Marsh Harriers and a Common Buzzard were also noted. Further ahead, a big flight of Pink-footed Geese took off and landed again, unfortunately in an area impossible to view. However closer to Waxham we managed to watch a good flock at close quarters from the van, while a single wintering Chiffchaff was vocal in nearby pines. Now, we had a couple of hours to bird before the light faded. Seeing as we had failed to visit Cantley in the morning, and as the weather had improved vastly, we decided to head back south and finish the day there. Arriving at the Burnt House Road entrance to the marsh, we first had a scan from high on the neighbouring farmland, looking hopefully for any Bean Goose candidates. These were not forthcoming, though distant geese included both Pink-footed and over 100 Russian White-fronted Geese. We then walked out across the marsh, obtaining closer views of the White-fronted Geese, while also seeing a nice adult Peregrine on the deck, a couple of Common Snipe, 5 or more Marsh Harriers, several Common Buzzards and 1000’s of Rooks and Jackdaws going to roost. A pleasant way to finish the days birding, making the most of the fine weather which graced us last thing.

 

 

THURSDAY 24th JANUARY – Overcast with brief sunny spells, light hazy mist, very light breeze, 4C

 

A day in the NW of the county today saw us out early to take advantage of the high morning tide, starting our birding at Snettisham RSPB. Before we had even finished unloading the boot, a huge flock of 1000’s of Pink-footed Geese erupted from the wash, ready to set off for feeding grounds. A superb sight in front of the rising red sun. Making our way towards the sea wall, we noted a few smart Goldeneye on the 2nd Pit along with a few Wigeon and Tufted Ducks, while Golden Plovers were seen overhead with some movements of Lapwings. Reaching the bank of Pit 3, further Goldeneye were noted, while over the already high tide, some superb smoke-like flights of Oystercatchers, Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits past at great speed low over the water. The flat sea itself hosted a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers, Pintail and numerous Shelduck. Out at the southern end of the area, we set ourselves up to view the head of the estuary, where literally 1000’s of waders were jostling for position distantly at the edge of the saltings. An impressive number of Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards, along with a single Merlin were taking their turns to stir things up, leading to some impressive flights, but things were mostly settled here. Taking a look out from the Shore hide, an impressive congregation of over 10,000 Knot were all packed together on one small island, with a skirt of Oystercatchers vying for their place. Eventually, presumably related to the birds innate knowledge of the tidal state, the whole lot took flight and swooped over the pit and onto the estuary; spectacular! One unlucky Knot was unfortunate to be knocked into the water, where a Great Black-backed Gull was quick to take advantage. A single Pochard was seen here also. Exiting the hide, many Oystercatchers were gathered on the mud, along with 100’s of Dunlin and Bar-tailed Godwit, while we appreciated a big adult Peregrine out on the marsh, kindly pointed out by another group. From here we made our way back, but not before discovering the wintering redhead Smew at the start of pit 3; where had that come from?! The bird provided super views from the bank with its escort of Tufted Ducks. Leaving it behind, we made our way back to the van.

 

 

The Wash wader spectacle was superb as ever

 

From Snettisham, we headed north along the A149, where we intended to make a brief stop at Holme before heading into the farmland areas around Choseley. However, our journey was abruptly interrupted, as a glance out the window at 50mph revealed a Waxwing feeding on berries in a roadside hedge! Some quick manoeuvring saw us returning to the bird and, pulled up off the side of the road and enjoyed 10 minutes viewing of this superb bird. A 1st year bird owing to the lack of anchor-shaped markings on the primaries, it was happily gorging itself on berries, and we left it to it and continued north. Stopping into Holme for the toilets, we then headed up towards Choseley and began our search for our main target here; the wintering Rough-legged Buzzard. The bird seemed to have settled into more of a routine now, after a couple of weeks of irregular sightings. Happily, after just our second pause to scan fields and hedges from the Burnham Road, we picked up a buzzard sporting a distinctly pale cream head and upper breast, and distinctive dark mask which looked like our bird. To make sure, we made our way round to another position to view it more closely. Heavy long streaking down the breast and heavily feathered tarsus; this was definitely the Rough-legged Buzzard! Dead pleased to find this arctic beauty, it gave us a couple of superb flight views before dropping over the hill and out of sight. Perfect time for our lunch! A couple of Common Buzzards and Marsh Harriers were seen while we ate, before we headed a little further west up the road. Pulling up alongside a greenway, we checked out the traditional site known for Corn Buntings; a site which has been quiet so far this year. We were pleased we stopped however, as a superb flock of 21 Corn Buntings were adorning the hedgerow Oak trees; the biggest flock we have had in a few years! A couple of Yellowhammers were also present, while a surprise came in the form of a ringtail Hen Harrier which shot through a fallow field, flushing about 150 Skylarks from the long vegetation, and lunging acrobatically at a few of them! Superb. Slightly further up the road we made another field-side stop, this time to check a cover crop for Tree Sparrows. Unfortunately, we weren’t successful with our quarry here, though a flock of at least 15 Yellowhammers in amongst over 50 Reed Buntings were entertaining in themselves, while the area also hosted 3 Red Kites.

 

 

Todays Waxwings, and a record shot of the Rough-legged Buzzard

 

Feeling in good spirits from a superb first half of the day, we would now finish off at the RSPB’s mighty Titchwell reserve. Walking out, 2 Water Rails were feeding in the path side ditch. Opening out, the Freshmarsh hosted relatively few birds, though a couple of Pintail were delightful as ever. A Spotted Redshank was heard but not seen here, while the highlight was probably a bathing Water Pipit which allowed us all to follow it as it then flew to the reed bank to preen and sort out its plumage. Various waders on the Volunteer Marsh included Grey plover, Ringed Plover and showy Black-tailed Godwits, while the Tidal Marsh hosted 2 Avocets, a Pintail and several Wigeon. Jean then alerted us to a ringtail Hen Harrier which crossed the back of the marsh, across to Parinder Hide and then west towards Thornham; superb! From here we reached the sea and, following a scan from the dunes and realising how distant things would be with the low tide, we walked down towards the shore. A female Eider and Common Scoter were both extremely close in, while several Red-breasted Mergansers and Great Crested Grebes were also noted. Slightly more distant were 3 Long-tailed Ducks and a single winter plumaged Slavonian Grebe; always a highlight of any watch off Titchwell in winter. The sun was dropping fast now, so we wandered back towards the Freshmarsh where, as a fine finale to a superb day, we watched as the Marsh Harrier Roost began to build slowly. Our third Hen Harrier came across from the west to join the roost and, whilst watching this head east, we became aware of a swirling mass of 40 Marsh Harriers all up over the roost site together; superb! A Barn Owl distantly towards Thornham rounded our visit off nicely, while another Barn Owl along the Docking Road on route home capped off a superb day in NW Norfolk.

 

 

WEDNESDAY 23RD JANUARY – Overcast with low hanging cloud, light breeze, 3C

 

A rather cold and grey day today in the Norfolk breckland proved to us that the area can produce the goods, even if the weather doesn’t give much reason for optimism. A dry but overcast day was forecast to perhaps feature a few sunny spells, and led us south to search for forest species. Our day began with a roam around the areas of farmland between Foulden and Oxborough, where a brief Great Grey Shrike had been reported the previous afternoon. An area of long hedgerows and small copses, we made a thorough search, noting a large number of Redwings and Fieldfares as well as several Yellowhammers in a cover strip, but unfortunately no shrike. Satisfied that we had covered the area thoroughly, we then moved on. Arriving at our next stop, a walk around a large area of clear-fell provided us with sightings of a Common Buzzard, a flyover Lesser Redpoll and a surprise but brief calling Hawfinch which Paul picked up as it flew over. Once we had completed a lap, we enjoyed a hot drink besides the van before heading off to another area, where our plan was to attempt to pick up a sighting of Goshawk. Pulling into an area overlooking mixed forest, a customary scan of the treetops revealed a raptor sat clear as day atop a bent-over Larch tree; the 1st winter Goshawk we have seen previously in the area! It was superb to see this bird up on show for the duration of our stop here, occasionally wing-stretching and fanning its white undertail coverts broadly around the tail. We were doubly pleased that the bird was showing here, as the dark weather seemed to be keeping other Goshawks at bay, although Common Buzzard activity was very high, with around 6 birds seen along with 2 male Sparrowhawk sightings. Other birds noted included a couple of flyover Bramblings and a small flock of Linnets. A superb 40 minutes spent in the company of the Brecks’s top predator.

 

Following up from this superb end of the morning, we headed south, pausing briefly to check on some roadside pools which occasionally host Green Sandpiper. While no waders were forthcoming, a pair of Egyptian Geese were present, while a large flock of finches across the road included a good number of Brambling, and a Marsh Tit was enjoyed in song along the lane. We then pushed on to Santon Downham where we had lunch. Whilst parked up we got wind that a Great Grey Shrike, initially located earlier this morning, had reappeared somewhere along towards the railway line! Heading over, we scanned the area to the west of the road, and Paul picked the bird up distantly atop a small bush before it dropped out of view. All assembled, the bird then took flight and flew across the clearing and out of view towards the river. We made the decision to walk the riverbank, where we knew we would then get a better view of the clearing. Reaching the western end, we relocated the Great Grey Shrike and enjoyed tremendous prolonged views of it up in the lower bushes along the railway line, and also up in classic shrike fashion on top of some of the taller trees. A really superb bird, and very tricky in recent years. The area held a good number of Siskins and Bramblings, as well as calling Marsh Tits and a number of vocal Nuthatches, while a showy Water Rail was also a highlight along the riverbank. A really productive spot today. However, with time rattling on, we had one more site to visit, so we made our way, to Lynford Arbouretum for the final hours of daylight. The Beech ‘tunnel’ just into the Arboretum hosted an impressive 50 or so Brambling coming to the ground to feed, while a bizarre bit of behaviour here was a Treecreeper apparently feeding on peanuts from the peanut feeder! Certainly nothing we have ever seen before! A few Redwing were flying amongst the ornamental trees along with more Bramblings, Chaffinches and Goldfinches, before we reached the paddocks. A good number of Fieldfare were grouped together behind the Hornbeams here, and a pair of Hawfinches flew up into the lower branches of the trees, showing briefly before flying left and out of views unfortunately. At this point it seemed that the feeding activity would be over, with it being time for birds to roost, though another bird appeared out of nowhere in the first Hornbeam as we left! However, the most prolonged views we managed here were of a couple of birds which saw fit to sit up for a while in their favoured pre-roost pines at the back of the paddock. Making our way back to the van, we made one final stop further on at Lynford Water, where 3 Goosander were enjoyed along with numerous Tufted Ducks, 3 Great Crested Grebes and a few Gadwall. The light had all but faded now, and so saw us heading home after a superb day with some of the Brecks’ finest birds.      

 

 

Brilliant to see this Great Grey Shrike at Santon Downham, while Bramblings were abundant in the forest

 

TUESDAY 22nd JANUARY – Sunny all day with light SW winds, 5C

 

Our second January winter tour got off to a really nice start, with our morning journey out towards Cley being punctuated by a pair of Barn Owls hunting over the wet grasslands behind the village. Not many better ways to start a trip than this! Once both birds had finished their rounds, we continued on to our first stop of the day; Cley beach. Stepping out the cool light wind was tempered by the beautifully bright sunny weather, and we set off along the shingle in positive mood. The sea held numerous Red-throated Divers, Guillemots and Cormorants, as well as a fly-over party of Pintail and a few groups of Teal. Marsh Harriers were patrolling the marshes, and would be a feature of today, with probably 20 noted across the coast. Not far along the shingle ridge, we picked up a small party of about 15 Snow Buntings which looked superb in the winter sunshine. A species we hoped to run into here was a wintering Glaucous Gull which has been regular the last couple of weeks, but unfortunately there was no sign, though the birding in general here made up for dipping. Back at the van, various flocks of Brent Geese were seen over Blakeney Harbour, and this area would be where we would visit next. Passing through Cley village, we made our way down to the bottom of Blakeney village, where we left the van and headed round onto Blakeney freshmarsh. The walk out was punctuated by a confiding female Stonechat, a Common Buzzard and several further Marsh Harriers. Out main target here gave itself up easily, with 16 Twite bathing in a shallow pool, and preening close besides, allowing close approach and excellent viewing. A short walk up onto the bank here revealed a fine selection of common waders including Grey Plover, several Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin, as well as an abundance of Shelduck, Wigeon and Teal on the exposed mudflats. Skylark were calling frequently, and a couple of Reed buntings were noted before we made our way back towards the van. On our way news came through that the Cley Glaucous Gull had appeared on Arnolds Marsh, and so our next move was dictated for us.

 

Parking at the bottom of the Cley East Bank, we set off along the path towards Arnolds Marsh, enjoying the impressive flocks of Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler as we went. The Glaucous Gull was not difficult to locate, being found roosting out in the middle of the marsh, only lifting its head glaringly as swathes of wildfowl swept across, being frequently disturbed by patrolling Marsh Harriers. A bonus sighting here was an agile Merlin first spotted by Jean as it chased a small passerine over the marsh, before landing and offering nice scope views along the shingle ridge towards Salthouse. Once we had had our fill of the spectacle here, we walked back and made our way towards Holkham, with a short detour into Morston Harbour. This stop was more-or-less for one thing; the regular wintering Greenshank which is often found haunting the harbour channel, and today was no exception. Feeding in the company of Redshank, Curlew and Brent Geese, it was nice to add this species to our winter selection. We then made our way to Holkham, noting Red Kite on the way. Pulling into Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped half-way down to scan some of the many goose flocks lining the track. Initially paying attention to the Brent Goose flock, we quickly picked up the regular Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Hybrid which we so often see here, but a scan through the neighbouring Pink-footed Goose flock also came up trumps, revealing two each of Barnacle Goose and Russian White-fronted Goose. Adding to these Greylag Goose and Egyptian Geese, and the area was pretty goose-rich! Aside from these, a tame Grey Partridge was popular beside the track. From here we headed out onto Holkham Gap, picking up a fairly large flock of Linnets in the low saltmarsh vegetation. Further on, a flock of around 60 Snow Buntings flew ahead of us towards the cordoned-off area, while a second flock numbering around 70 birds fed quietly further up the beach; an impressive number of birds! The Shorelark flock was initially nowhere to be seen, though a distraction came in the form of a couple of brief sightings of a Dartford Warbler in the dune Sea Buckthorn! A bizarre sighting, but the bird has been hanging around the area for the past few days, typically in the company of a single Stonechat. From here we were able to watch the Snow buntings on the sand, until the faint call of the Shorelarks caught our ear, and a flock of around 30 birds appeared over the marsh behind us! Walking back, we enjoyed nice views of the birds feeding low amongst the sea lavender and saltmarsh grasses; typical of their behaviour this year. The bay came up trumps for us again! Light was fading fast now, so we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, pausing to enjoy a small group of Rock Pipits along the way. From the Lookout, a single Barn Owl was hunting the marshes, dropping frequently for prey, while a look out over the western marshes revealed a further 2 Barn Owls; a superb day for these birds. The Pink-footed Geese were also putting on a brilliant display, taking flight in impressive skeins as they headed inland from their day roost on the Holkham marshes. This may have seemed counter-intuitive given the time of day, though the presence of clear skies and a full moon facilitating night-time feeding on the beet fields explained this behaviour. Our final treat this evening was a distant Great White Egret which could be seen floating around distantly opposite the Joe Jordan hide; a fitting end to a superb North Coast Norfolk day.

 

 

 

 


 

 

NORFOLK WINTER TOUR 7TH - 12TH JANUARY 2019 [AS & JWM]

 

 

SATURDAY 12TH JANUARY – Overcast but fairly bright and dry. Moderate W winds, 9C

 

A mild but blustery final day of this Norfolk Winter tour took us north-west, starting the day at Snettisham. A 10:06 high tide meant that we would coincide with some wader congregations here, though a 6-meter tide wasn’t a particularly large one, and would mean that the site wouldn’t be at its absolute best. However, a long-staying Smew aided our mission, and we came away enjoying a nice variety of birds, as well as some impressive flocks of waders. Walking out from the RSPB carpark, Goldeneye were in evidence on the pits, with around 20 noted across the site, including some half-hearted display from the smart males. Reaching the first part of pit three, we were greeted by our main target; the redhead Smew. Always a smart bird to see, we enjoyed close views for the duration of our visit, as the bird seemed to follow us up and down the pits! Numerous Wigeon and a few Teal and Gadwall were also present here, while the mudflats also offered their own entertainment. Golden Plover were much in evidence, with a flock of perhaps 2000 or more birds swirling ahead of the incoming tide, while Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Knot and Grey plovers were well represented, along with abundant Shelducks. A flock of around 30 Linnets were feeding on the strand-line, and a pair of Stonechats escorted us back towards the van, where we appreciated a warm drink away from the cool wind.   

 

On from here, we made our way to Holme beach, where we walked out to the shore for a seawatch. A good number of Red-breasted Merganser were on the sea along with a couple of Great-crested Grebes, 3 shearing Fulmars and a single Shag, but the highlight was a 1st winter Little Gull which we watched dip-feeding just off the breaking waves. Following our sandwiches, we then headed inland, where we would finish up searching through the local farmland to see if we could pick up on a few species which were missing from earlier in the week. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull any Tree Sparrows or Corn Buntings out of the bag (these are so far proving difficult this season) though a pair of vocal Grey Partridges, 2 Yellowhammers and a nice spread of Reed Buntings across the area made for fine viewing. Whilst watching, a steady stream of Pink-footed Geese were flying south from the coast and headed in the direction of Sedgeford, tempting us to go and investigate during the last 45 minutes of day available to us. After a bit of investigation, we found a flock of around 2000 birds settled across 3 fields. Initially staying in the van, we enjoyed really nice views in flat light from the cover of the minibus, the vehicle providing a hide to avoid disturbing the closest birds. A thorough scan of the flock produced only a single Greylag Goose as different from the rest, though even this providing some interest. A distinctly dark bird and only slightly larger than the neighbouring Pink-footed Geese, it looked very much like the migratory Icelandic Greylag Geese which we see more often in Shetland in the Autumn. Great to end the tour with a fine flock of Pink-footed Geese here, following a week which has featured 8 species of Goose! And with 129 species in total, we come to an end on another superb Norfolk Winter Wildfowl Spectacular.

 

 

The stars of the weeks show; our wonderful Pink-footed Geese, and the redhead Smew from Snettisham.

 

 

FRIDAY 11TH JANUARY – Overcast but fairly bright and dry. Light W winds, 7C

 

Todays birding took us back onto the north coast, first visiting Wells harbour. A Glaucous Gull had been present for the past few days near the lifeboat station and warranted a look for. Though we couldn’t find it here, we did note 5 Red-breasted Mergansers and a female Eider out in the channel, along with 2 Guillemots drifted in on the high tide, several close Dark-bellied Brent Geese and a spread of Shelducks, Oystercatchers and Curlews. From here we headed into the woods on the hunt for Redpolls. During our search we got really nice views of at least 5 confiding Bullfinches feeding amongst the brambles, along with Treecreeper, numerous Goldcrests, a single Green Woodpecker and at least one wintering Chiffchaff. The flashes at Quarle’s Marsh were alive with 100’s of Wigeon and Lapwing along with small numbers of Shoveler, a small flock of Golden Plover and 3 Black-tailed Godwits. The lapwing flock taking flight suddenly had us scanning the skies for raptors, and sure enough a male Peregrine came into view above the flocks, though made no attempt to take anything. A fairly tatty winged bird, we suspect it is the immature male which we often see on the Wells Church. Back to the woods, a small flock of 9 Redpolls flew into view from the adjacent caravan site and perched up for us to scan; 8 Lesser Redpolls and a single Mealy Redpoll amongst them. These moved on, but we were able to relocate them, plus two extra Lesser Redpolls, back where we started, gaining really nice close views in one of the few remaining silver birch trees which still held seed. Leaving these, we headed back to the minibus for a brew.

 

Setting off out of Wells, we paused by the football pitch which, having been empty on our way out, held about 150 Brent Geese which offered really nice viewing from the van, including several good family groups. On from here, we headed to Holkham. Pulling into Lady Anne’s Drive, a flock of Pink-footed Geese stopped us from going any further, warranting a good check with the scopes. Viewing was tricky as the birds were in the next field with various bushes in the way. However, amongst a few Brent Geese within the flock we did pick out a single nice Barnacle Goose. Further on the group found a couple of Grey Partridges at the end of the drive whilst we were having our sandwiches, while Marsh Harrier and Common Buzzard were also seen. We then had a rather productive time out onto Holkham Gap and saltmarsh. With our main quest being to try and find Shorelarks, there was initially no sign of them. However, a fantastic diversion was a flock of 30 Snow Buntings which we enjoyed at close range. Heading out to the beach, we set about scanning the sea. A brilliant selection of birds at close range included a fly-by Mediterranean Gull, a single winter plumaged Slavonian Grebe about 100 meters offshore, a Great Northern Diver literally bobbing around in the surf and, best of all, a Black-throated Diver which motored west at close range, diving incredibly frequently but offering everyone a quick look through the scope between dives. In addition a flock of Common Scoter, a single Red-throated Diver and several Great Crested Grebes also featured here. Heading back onto the saltmarsh, we made to walk a bit more widely than usual, as we still hadn’t found the Shorelarks. This produced the goods, as a flock of about 25 erupted from dense Sea Purslane and Sea Lavender, flew a short way ahead and completely vanished deep into the vegetation again! It was looking like these might be a little frustrating, though with a little manoeuvring we found a spot where we could pick them up as they fed undisturbed. Always a treat to see this species here. Heading back to the van, it was time to head off to our last stop of the day; Stiffkey Meals.

 

 

Female Bulfinch at Wells and some of the Snow Bunting flock from Holkham

 

Driving out towards Wells again, a pair of Red Kites were noted close to the road. Reaching Stiffkey Campsite car park, we set up scopes and began scanning the saltmarsh. Not long into our vigil the highlight of the evening appeared; a male Hen Harrier. The bird put on quite a show, quartering back and forth in front of us before heading off to the east. A Peregrine dashing off towards Blakeney Point also livened things up, as did a Barn Owl which, after a frustrating brief view off east, then obliged with a nice flypast behind us. However otherwise it was quite a quiet watch, with only around 5 Marsh Harriers noted, and very little coming into roost. However, a large flock of Brent Geese and Wigeon passing noisily overhead and squadrons of Pink-footed Geese heading out towards Blakeney Harbour last thing made for a typically idyllic finish to the day. Returning back to Great Ryburgh, we finished with brief views of another Barn Owl and the sounds of the local Tawny Owls calling around the village.

 

 

THURSDAY 10TH JANUARY – Overcast all day, very light rain pm. Light winds, 7C

 

An absolutely cracking day out east in and around the farmland and marshes of the Broadland. Our main focus would be on geese, with the two species of Bean Goose both present in the area, along with Pink and White-fronted Geese. In addition to this, both the wild swans and Common Cranes would also be searched for, and in the end, we came away with a clean sweep!

 

Leaving Rybrough and setting off for the Norwich Northern Distributor Road, we headed straight for Cantley Marshes; home of the rare Taiga Bean Goose. The site is home of one of only two wintering populations in the UK, and they are notoriously difficult to find. However, we were lucky as, on finding a viewpoint which gave us a good overview, a flock of 15 geese dropped in from the direction of Buckenham marsh. Noting a narrow white band at the tip of the tail, they looked interesting, though they looked rather pale above on descending, so views were inconclusive. However, they dropped into the marsh and, noted between the long rushy vegetation, the long-billed head profile and extensive orange across the mandibles confirmed it; Taiga Bean Geese! The views from here we frustrating, the birds getting themselves amongst the deep ditches and rushes and being mostly out of sight. With this, we headed around to find a better viewing angle from the marsh itself. This proved worthwhile, with excellent views of 5 birds obtained at closer range. A supporting cast of about 1000 Pink-footed Geese hosted a couple of fine Russian White-fronted Geese amongst them, though the bulk of this species flock was probably over towards Buckenham. Furthermore, the marsh here hosted a couple of Ruff, Snipe, large numbers of Wigeon and several Marsh Harrier. Several Chinese Water Deer were also noted while Stock Dove was also noticed on our way back to the van. A positive start to the day, and we were pleased to have gotten good views of this much sought-after species.

 

After a cuppa, we then made our way north, stopping at the Ludham airfield area, noting a brief roadside Woodcock on the way, obviously flushed from its day roost. Crossing the plateau of the airfield and scanning the fields, a flock of swans stood out like a sore thumb, and we found a good place to view them from. Working through the group, a superb combination of adult and juvenile Whooper and Bewick’s Swans formed this flock, numbering approximately 52 Bewick’s Swans and 44 Whooper Swans. A superb total, and far more than we registered at any point last winter. Egyptian Geese were noted nearby as we then headed back the way we came, following a tip-off from a friend of a flock of 6 Tundra Bean Geese which were frequenting fields close to Thrigby. On our way here we enjoyed a pause to watch a group of 4 Whooper Swans feeding close to the road. Crossing the area the Bean Geese had been seen in, there was initially no sign of them. However, we soon picked up 6 geese in flight over the other side of the road which, on a quick scope, proved to be the Tundra Bean Geese we were looking for! Flight views weren’t much good for appreciating the birds, and they frustratingly dropped behind the brow of a winter wheat field out of view. However, a quick bit of manoeuvring saw us find another view point which afforded superb views of the group. Great to see both species of Bean Goose in one day! Another much-appreciated tip-off from the same friend saw us winding our way towards Clippersby, where we had the pleasure of watching a flock of 7 Common Cranes feeding quietly besides a maize strip. Staying in the van so as not to disturb them, we watched this group of apparently all adult birds as they picked at the surface of a newly shooting winter wheat field, while various individuals played sentinel. A shout from Alan revealed a lone pair of birds at the bottom of the field across the road and, whilst watching these another pair flew into views and dropped into the same fields. Further careful scanning picked up two more, making a fine total of 13 feeding Common Cranes in this rather innocuous area of arable farmland; just superb.

 

 

A close Whooper Swan and a part of the nearly 100-strong flock of Whooper and Bewick's Swans

 

By now the time was 14:30, the spitting rain had become somewhat more persistent and the deeply overcast skies left us to decide that, rather than pursue our original plan of finishing at the Stubb Mill watchpoint, we would instead spend our time cruising the marshes between Horsey and Sea Palling, where we would search for geese and also stand a chance of an interesting raptor or owl. The area produced a couple of superb flocks of Pink-footed Geese, numbering about 300 in the first and perhaps 2000 in the second. Unfortunately, no other goose species could be picked out in the rapidly declining light, while the larger flock observation was dictated by the antics of 2 Red Deer stags which charged through the middle of them! A large flock of Golden Plover and several Ruff, plus a smart male Marsh Harrier provided further variety to the area, and before long it was time to make our way back home. A day of good fortune and superb success in connecting with our target species. Hopefully tomorrow will be as successful!   

 

   

Some of todays Common Cranes and 5 of the 6 Tundra Bean Geese

 

 

WEDNESDAY 9TH JANUARY – Overcast with sunny spells, moderate N winds, occasional showers throughout, 5C

 

Day two of our first Norfolk tour of 2019 saw us down in the Brecks, where we would explore the mix of farmland, heath and pine plantations for the area’s specialities. A forecast for a bright morning followed by more overcast conditions later on, plus no major indication of rain meant we thought we would take a look in suitable habitat for Woodlark, with a chance of some early song. However, on the journey south the sky was dark, and showers set in at various points. Arriving on site, things were very quiet bird-wise, with a heard-only Bullfinch the only vaguely notable record! After our second moderate shower set in here, we knew our target wouldn’t perform, so we headed round the corner to walk an area of forestry fire breaks in search of other woodland birds. Things started well, with two bulky finches crossing the track and landing prominently on top of a pine; Common Crossbills. The species has been very scarce here for 18 months, so it was good to see these. A single female Brambling, a couple of vocal Marsh Tits and a spread of other tit species made up the other sighting here. By now the sun had begun to peak out, so we headed back to the Woodlark for another 10-minute saunter, though this failed to produce unfortunately. Cutting our losses, and with plenty of day left to play with, we continued on to see if we could pick out some mid-winter Northern Goshawks. Pulling in overlooking a good vista of farmland, mixed deciduous and conifer forest, we literally waited 2 minutes for our first sighting, with a Common Buzzard soon being pursued by a cracking adult male Goshawk! The birds flight, initially relaxed, soon became more purposeful, featuring deep exaggerated wingbeats, and unsurprisingly an adult female Goshawk soon came into view! These two birds, offering a superb comparison, performed on and off for what must have been 40 minutes or more, with more birds appearing from time to time, including a second adult female, a 1st winter bird still in predominately juvenile plumage and a 2nd winter bird at one point, so totalling 5 individuals. At one stage the adult male Goshawk went into full ‘switchback’ display flight high above us; possibly the first display of the season. A real performance from these birds, and not anticipated on this early date. Further raptors here included a Sparrowhawk and 2 Red Kites, while other interest included a small flock of Bramblings bathing in a roadside puddle along with Goldfinches and Chaffinches.

 

After a hot drink and some chocolate, we were content to move on from the raptor fest! From here, we headed down to Santon Downham, passing a flock of over 50 Bramblings in a Beech strip visiting roadside puddles. A quick pause at the Forestry Commission carpark allowed us to have lunch and use the facilities, before walking towards the river. The gardens here were typically busy, with Siskin, Nuthatch, Brambling and Marsh Tit all noted along with a throng of other woodland birds. However, another heavy shower had us cowering back to the van! By now it was a good time to head for Lynford, where we would see out the day. Arriving at about 2, we had time to first head down to the gravel pits. The track down featured an impressive flock of over 100 Siskins feeding on a cone-laden conifer, plus a group of three Lesser Redpolls in flight towards the pits. The left-hand pit hosted 4 Goosander; 3 males and a female, while the other larger pool hosted another male Goosander; always nice to see in the county. Along with numerous Tufted Ducks, Coots, several Gadwall and a small number of Great-crested Grebes, there was a bit to look at. Finishing up, it was time to head the other way, down into Lynford Arboretum and the paddocks, where hopefully the county’s Hawfinch stronghold would produce some sightings. The feeding station over the gate was alive with Bramblings; a good day for this species today. Getting down to the paddocks, a scan of the far pines quickly produced a single Hawfinch sat up on the tops, preparing to go to roost. However, the next sightings provided better views, with 2 males feeding under the large Hornbeams in the centre of the paddock, occasionally perching up and showing off their saturated colours in low light. Very nice! Once these had moved on we continued to watch the roost site, going on to note 3 more Hawfinches before activity levels dropped and it was time to head off. A female Green Woodpecker showed well through scopes, while Redwings and Fieldfares were both present in the area, along with a Mistle Thrush. On our way back a Firecrest was calling in dense pines, though in couldn’t be located unfortunately, though a few Goldcrests were also sharing the likely roost tree. From here we were ready to hit the road, after a final hot drink, pleased with our day’s efforts.  

 

 

Male Hawfinch and a pair of Goosander at Lynford today

 

 

TUESDAY 8TH JANUARY – Sunny spells in fresh NW winds, showers in afternoon, 7C

 

Our first tour of 2019 kicked off well as we spent a windy day exploring the coast and farmland around North-west Norfolk. Our first quest of the day was to try and find some Pink-footed Goose flocks, and so we drove some minor roads between Burnham Market and Docking, noting several skeins of geese in the air but struggling to find any on the deck that we could really get stuck into. The hedges hosted small groups of Redwing and Fieldfare at several spots, but with a lot to fit in we decided to continue down to the coast at Holme and check the sea before the tide dropped off. It had been a big spring tide, with the wind behind it, and the marsh had all been covered earlier on. Now the water was receding fast, and we were able to cross the beach easily to the low dunes and scan the rather tumultuous breakers. The light was superb, and we enjoyed close views of Rock Pipits and Skylarks as we headed along the strand line. Offshore, we were limited to birds flying past as the sea was too rough to spot anything on the water, but we still did well – five Red-breasted Mergansers, three Fulmars flying close in through the breakers and a steady stream of waders moving back to The Wash included Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling, Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit. The highlight was a big, dark diver lumbering west close inshore – a fine Great Northern Diver, with its huge feet trailing behind. It has been a good winter for this scarce species, so really nice to see one on our first attempt.

 

Thornham Harbour was our next stop, as we wanted to try and catch the Twite before they headed out onto the saltmarsh on the ebbing tide. There was no sign of them around the car park, so we took a walk up onto the seawall in the direction of Holme. A young Peregrine circled over us, then off across the grazing marsh where it flushed a big flock of Golden Plover into the air. One of the group spotted some small birds distantly along the seawall, so we opted to walk a bit further to check it out. Two Stonechats were along the fence, and we had fantastic close views of Grey Plover and Black-tailed Godwit in the creek. Reaching the first big bend in the sea wall, we picked up the small finches down in the Sea Lavendar – they were indeed the Twite flock, so a good spot! The light was superb, and they were very settled, so we were able to enjoy some excellent views. A single Linnet with them was also a useful comparison! Eventually they flew past us over the seawall and onto the grazing marsh to drink from a puddle – sixteen birds altogether. As we watched the Twite, we could hear Pink-feet in the distance – a spectacular sight of around 3000, whiffling down from the sky and onto the NWT reserve – superb!

 

A Rough-legged Buzzard had been present in the area inland from Titchwell recently, and a report of it near the drying barns prompted us to take a drive around some minor roads to see if we could find it. We saw an incredible number of raptors – literally everywhere we looked there were Marsh Harriers quartering, or popping up over a hedge in front of us. Common Buzzards were everywhere too – we must have seen a dozen just in one area. Another big skein of Pink-feet were dropping into a rape field, and we found a good spot with the light behind us to have a scan through them – most of them were going to sleep though, so hard to pick our anything interesting. Our lunch stop was a bit further west, in a productive area for farmland birds – Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer, Redwing and Fieldfare were all easily seen, and a cracking ringtail Hen Harrier appeared right beside us and began quartering a game crop at the field edge – close enough for us to easily see the birds deep ochre washed underparts denoting juvenile plumage. We couldn’t find the Rough-leg anywhere though, nor any Corn Buntings, and with the day fading away, we headed down to Titchwell.

 

There are not many ‘guarantees’ in birding, but seeing a Water Rail at Titchwell in winter has to be up there! We saw three today, including two together in the usual ditch, chasing each other around in the mud just a few metres in front of us. A lovely Brent Goose flock was by the entrance road too, and we could see lots of goslings among them with their white-tipped wing coverts. We were really lucky with the weather to end the day, because we were now sandwiched in between two showers, though the sun was actually breaking through and illuminating the freshmarsh in a fantastic evening glow. We scanned the gull roost which was growing by the minute, as Golden Plovers whirled down out of the clouds and Marsh Harriers began to build in numbers over the reedbed. At one point we counted 34 in the air together! The light was excellent for sorting through the gulls, and nice and early on we picked out a gorgeous first-winter Caspian Gull, strikingly white headed and with beautiful long, slender wings and bill. This classic looking bird has been present several weeks, and really is an easy one to pick out! By dusk, there were many hundreds of gulls present and more still arriving, but we couldn’t pick out anything else. A single Avocet, and some stunning Pintail were the other highlights. As we walked back along the bank, a Bittern performed a surprise long flight over the reedbed, and we had two ringtail Hen Harriers together among the swirling flock of now over forty Marsh Harriers. What a sight!

 

 

Our cross-country route home took us along many narrow lanes, and we always hope for a surprise in the headlights – a Woodcock perhaps, or maybe even a Tawny Owl if you are really lucky. Imagine our amazement, when a brown owl sitting three foot off the ground by the side of the road, turned and looked as we drove past and turned out to be a magnificent Long-eared Owl, sitting with its ear tufts fully erect!! Unfortunately, by the time we had turned round, several other cars had passed and it was gone, never to be seen again.