NORFOLK CUSTOM TOUR 20TH & 21ST JANUARY 2022
FRIDAY 21ST JANUARY – Cold and sunny in fresh NW wind, 3C
A beautiful day for birding on the North Norfolk Coast and we planned to spend the morning at one of our favourite locations, Burnham Overy Staithe. The walk out along the seawall was filled with birds, starting with a Rock Pipit around the boats in the harbour and a Great White Egret standing sentinel on the saltmarsh. The tide was high, and this meant lots of small groups of waders roosting at the edge of the harbour. In the distance, off the end of Gun Hill, we could see the two Long-tailed Ducks which have been wintering in this sheltered inlet, and everywhere around were Brent Geese and Wigeon. Heading out to the dunes, we continued straight out onto the beach and turned east to follow the high tide line, with the itinerant group of four wintering Shorelarks being our main target here. We soon found four small birds feeding on the strandline, but they were Snow Buntings – still great to see and confiding as ever, as they scurried right up to us. There were ten Skylarks foraging at the top of the beach too, and scanning of the sea revealed a single drake Eider hurrying east. The light was superb and the beach was virtually empty, as we scanned intently all the way eastwards to Holkham Gap to see if we could pick out the Shorelarks. Sure enough, we could see them about ½ mile east of us, along the high tide line at the top of the beach. After some very distant scope views, we set off to walk towards them but in the meantime they must have flown as they appeared right in front of us! Over the next half hour, we had some truly memorable close views of these superb birds, feeding, preening and calling to each other as they scurried about no more than a few metres from us. This certainly made the long walk back feel a lot easier!
Some images of the four Shorelarks which entertained us on Overy beach today
Holkham next where we parked at Lady Anne’s Drive for lunch. The Pink-footed Geese were day roosting on the marsh having been feeding under the full moon, and this made for a truly spectacular sight the like of which only happens a couple of times each winter. The wardens count was 27,000 birds – quite something! After lunch, we continued east to Cley, taking the beach road to check for the Brent Geese flock. We enjoyed some great close views of them from the sea wall, about 600 in total, but the Cricket Marsh behind was hosting another day roosting horde of around 4500 Pink-footed Geese too. East Bank was rather quiet today, and we couldn’t find the regular Iceland Gull, though we saw a Kingfisher, and the usual assortment of waders and wildfowl. We rounded off our day at Stiffkey scanning the saltmarsh for arriving raptors, as dusk approached, but it was rather disappointing – several Marsh Harriers and a brief Barn Owl being the best of it.
THURSDAY 20TH JANUARY – Cold day in fresh NW winds and wintry showers, 3C
The first of two custom day tours saw us head down to Titchwell where we planned to utilise the hides to escape the squally wintry showers blustering through. The freshmarsh gave us a great start to the trip with large numbers of waterbirds congregating here – top billing among them being about a thousand Golden Plover thronged onto the islands and the bund between the two cells of the marsh. They looked stunning even in the overcast conditions and it was great to see them wheeling around when one of the local Marsh Harriers breezed by. An assortment of wildfowl included Teal, Wigeon, Shoveler, Gadwall and Pintail. Three Goldeneye included two superb drakes, and among the other waders noted were Avocet and Dunlin. A flock of Brent Geese wheeled in burbling from the saltmarsh and landed right in front of the hide – it was all happening! As we left the hide, a loud ‘tchek’ note alerted us to a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds by the boardwalk, and we saw it flicking through the reeds briefly and then flying over the path.
Heading down to the beach, we had some great comparison views of Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits side by side with Grey Plover on brackish pool, and then Greenshank and Spotted Redshank together on tidal pool. The beach held yet more waders, but it was baltic here with the icy wind coming off the North Sea – more Bar-tailed Godwits, Knots, Turnstones and Sanderlings were seen here though and the light was superb for viewing. Retracing our steps, lots of wildfowl had flown in onto the Tidal Pool and been joined by two Red-breasted Mergansers, the drake was a particularly smart specimen.
Back at the car park, we warmed up with a coffee before heading east along the coast to Holkham, and there were yet more flocks of birds to enjoy by Lady Anne’s Drive. A family of four Russian White-fronted Geese were seen, plus we could see thousands of Pink-footed Geese sleeping further out on the marsh, having obviously been feeding under the light of the full moon. Snipe, Fieldfare and Black-tailed Godwits showed brilliantly alongside the drive, and two Ruff were also noted. We walked west, through the pines as far as Washington Hide noting several woodland birds along the way – Treecreeper and Goldcrest among the highlights. From the hide, a Great White Egret lumbered in and landed on the pool and we could scope the distant throngs of resting geese. We managed to pick one Barnacle Goose out among them and seven Red Deer were also seen edging along a hedgerow at the back. The geese generally were quite a spectacle, especially when a Marsh Harrier caused them all to take to the air. Back at The Lookout, a Grey Wagtail in a muddy puddle was a nice surprise, and Red Kites were also seen.
Back into West Norfolk now for the latter part of the day, and a short stop at a farmland site to check for buntings yielded an excellent 28 Reed Buntings perched together in one hedgerow! The birds were dropping in and out of a cover crop, along with about ten dapper Yellowhammers, twenty Chaffinch and thirty Linnet. Finally at Roydon Common, we watched as dusk approached and managed one brief view of a male Hen Harrier, at least nine Marsh Harriers, several Buzzards, Kestrel and a perched Sparrowhawk to round off the day.
NORFOLK WINTER TOUR 11TH – 15TH JANUARY 2022
SUNDAY 16TH JANUARY – Overcast day with increasing breeze and sunny spells, 7C
Our day exploring the Brecks from our base at Mundford started just as dawn was breaking, as we made the short journey to nearby Lynford Arboretum before breakfast to watch the Hawfinches leaving their winter roost. It was a lovely calm morning with plenty of birdsong, with Song Thrushes in good voice and soon joined by other woodland residents as the morning began to break. Hawfinch are notoriously late risers and it was almost 8am before the first birds appeared from the roost, perching in the treetops before eventually moving down into the paddocks. This process was repeated over a twenty minute period by several more groups of 2-3 birds at a time, until 18 had been logged. Most dropped into the paddocks and either disappeared or remained perched in the tops of the trees allowing for some good scope views. A great start to the day!
Hawfinches – two of at least eighteen seen leaving their roost first thing this morning
After breakfast we headed into the northern part of the brecks to try a raptor watch for a couple of hours. It was perfectly pleasant scanning the forest with the sun on our backs, and we noted around a dozen Common Buzzards but very little activity from our target bird, the Goshawk. Eventually, as we were about to give up, a young Goshawk slinked low along the top of the woodland canopy and gave brief views, before dropping in out of sight. Two Woodlark were more obliging, doing a big circuit over the fields in front of us calling, and we also saw several flocks of Fieldfare and a few Brambling.
Dropping back down into the forest we tried a couple of tracks for better views of Woodlark, which are always a bit unpredictable so early in the season. Despite the sunshine, we didn’t hear any singing and had to make do with two Green Woodpecker. Back to Lynford then to end the day, though it was something of a circus here with hundreds of people and cars everywhere! Nevertheless we had some good views of Hawfinch again with six feeding on the ground and a couple then perching up in treetops for us. Marsh Tit was also added to the trip list before we wrapped things up about 3pm.
SATURDAY 15TH JANUARY – Overcast and calm day, 5C
We set off for East Norfolk today for some target birding around the Broads area, about an hours drive from our base. Buckenham Marshes was first port of call, for the tiny wintering flock of five Taiga Bean Geese – they are always distant and tricky to find, and on top of that spend large parts of the day ‘over the railway’ out of view on private land. This would actually be the first time for connecting with them on a tour for several years! Arriving on site we drove down the track and stopped about halfway down to scope a large resting flock of Pink-footed Geese. Among them were around 150 Russian White-fronted Geese, which gave fantastic views and we could hear their high pitched yelping calls from among the pinks. There were good numbers of young too, with several family parties noted, so a species hanging on pretty well in the valley here, unlike their dwindling cousins. Beyond this main flock, way over the back among the juncus, five dark brown heads could be seen peeking out above the vegetation. Scrutinising them carefully, we could see that they were indeed the Taiga Bean Geese! Sadly though they almost immediately took flight, confirming their ID with their long-winged/long-necked shape and really dark tails. They flew over the railway and we thought that would be that, but luckily they u-turned and settled again in the same spot. Now we could the see the predominantly orange bills on a couple of them, and had some acceptable views as they lolloped through the long grass mostly obscured but occasionally showing us their upper half! We decided to park at the fisherman’s car park and walk to the mill, to try and get better views. The birds had other ideas though, as while we were distracted by a male Peregrine which flew in and perched on a gate, they flew off over the railway again and this time didn’t return. Also on the marsh were massive numbers of Wigeon and Teal, and a handful of Barnacle Geese.
Cranes were our next target, and thankfully this winter a large number have been faithful to some fields close to minor roads around Oby. They were present in the same field we saw them in before Christmas, and the colour-ringed Finnish bird was with them again too. 17 Common Cranes in total, and some really good views of them both on the deck and in flight. The adjacent hedgerows were full of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers, and we added Stock Dove to the list here too.
Hoping to continue on a bit of a roll, we tried next for the Red-necked Grebe at Ormesby Little Broad. Our luck ran out on this one though, and there was no sign of the bird at all. We checked Filby Broad too for good measure, but had to make do with a few Goldeneye, Great Crested Grebes and our first Tufted Ducks and Pochards of the tour. Lunch back in the car park, then a ten minute drive up the road to check Ludham Airfield for wild swan herds. This is always a reliable spot for both species after the turn of the year, and sure enough we had good views here of four Bewick’s Swans and about thirty Whooper Swans chilling out in a winter wheat field.
On a winter’s day in the Broads, time always rattles on rather quickly and it was now already 2pm and time to head towards Winterton where our final roll of the dice today would be to try and see the Short-eared Owls which have been entertaining birders and photographers here in recent weeks. Walking north from the beach car park (now half its original size following another recent cliff fall!) for about ¾ mile, we chose a high vantage point in the dunes where we could scan north and west over the distant rough grass and scattered bushes. Within moments, a Short-eared Owl floated into view, and we ended up with three on show at once including some great perched views. A Merlin appeared, perching on one of the bushes before dashing off south towards the village, and we also had great views of a hunting Barn Owl, and a distant Great White Egret standing sentinel in a field. A super way to end the day!
FRIDAY 14TH JANUARY – Frosty start, clear and bright, 3C
An absolutely fantastic days winter birding today under yet more blue skies and sunshine. It was a cold start again but that added to the atmosphere with frost dusting the beach out at Burnham Overy and a hint of mist in air. We set off from Burnham Overy harbour with a rather optimistic target of trying to relocate the four Shorelarks which had been missing from Holkham over the past week. We knew the wardens had seen them up the Overy end of the beach, but not for a couple of days, so it was a real roll of the dice to undertake the 5+ miles of walking to check the beach from Gun Hill to Holkham pines. Heading out along the sea wall, a superb male Marsh Harrier, big flocks of Brent and Pink-footed Geese, and hordes of waders on the marsh were just some of the highlights. A Kingfisher perched on the shore which we watched take a fish and bang it on a rock, looked stunning in the perfect morning light. Sparrowhawk and Stonechat were also seen before we reached the first bend in the sea wall, and here we enjoyed some superb views of four Bearded Tits foraging at the very top of the reeds, pinging away quietly and perching in the open for some ten minutes.
Bearded Tit at Burnham Overy, 13th January
From here it was more or less a direct ‘yomp’ to Gun Hill, where we had great close views of two Long-tailed Ducks in the channel with nine displaying Red-breasted Mergansers and four Goldeneye. The morning was going well, even without our main quarry, but we continued east along the strandline towards the pines to keep checking for the larks. Eight Skylark were found feeding quietly among the flotsam on the beach – close, but no cigar!
Long-tailed Duck – one of two in Gun Hill channel
A party of Snow Buntings then flurried in and settled right in front of us, eighteen in total, but we couldn’t see any sign of the Shorelarks at all. A Great Northern Diver on the sea was some compensation, and we noted a few Common Scoter and Great Crested Grebe too. Just about to give up our search and cut back through the dunes, ‘one last scan’ produced four tiny specks on the sand about ¾ mile east of our position – surely the Shorelarks! We could make out enough through the scope to see that it was they, and so decided to yomp on towards them. Eventually we got to within about 300m of the birds, and had some nice views – another forty Snow Buntings dropped in too for good measure! A truly superb morning and we went on to add fifty Barnacle Geese and a Great White Egret on the long walk back to the van.
Snow Buntings at Burnham Overy beach
After a rather late lunch, we received news that the wintering Todd’s Canada Goose had reappeared at the goose field at Stanhoe which we had visited on each of the last two days. Being only fifteen minutes away, we were quickly on site and could see the birds feeding in their favoured field, beautifully lit. At first glance there was no sign of the Nearctic wanderer, so we walked further up the track where another birder was on it tucked up asleep on the top of the ridge in the field. This bird had eluded all our previous Norfolk winter groups so far this season and so it was great to finally get it on tour.
Todd’s Canada Goose – our initial views as the bird slumbered among the Pinkfeet
Todd’s Canada – better views as the bird began to feed in the low evening sun
Todd’s Canada Goose – always exciting to see a ‘yank’!
Its large body but short, often stumpy neck, black throat line dissecting the cheek patches, dusky grey breast concolourous with the belly and overall very dark upperpart and flank tones were all clearly seen. While watching the Canada, more and more Pinkfeet were dropping in and suddenly a cracking Tundra Bean Goose walked across our view. It initially disappeared into a dip but back down at the start of the track we relocated it again and had some ace views in the low evening sun. A truly top day, and now it was time to head south to our next base at Mundford in the Brecks.
Tundra Bean Goose – those ‘day-glo’ orange legs catching the sun!
Tundra Bean Goose – showing the distinctive dark chocolate coloured upperparts
THURSDAY 13TH JANUARY – Calm and clear with frosty start, 7C
A beautiful day of weather again, but surprisingly a rather tough days birding. We started under clear blue skies at Titchwell, just a stone’s throw from our hotel (where the Barn Owl was out and about again during breakfast). A Siskin by the Visitor Centre and a Song Thrush in full song was a precursor to a fantastic view of the wintering Siberian Chiffchaff, which was in the alders by the west bank path. We saw the bird flitting and sallying around just a few feet away and were able to easily see its beautiful pearl white underparts, black bill & legs, grey upperparts with brown wash to the face, and green tinge to the wing feathers. A smart bird and great to get to see it up so close. Further along we noted a few Reed Buntings, heard Cetti’s Warbler, and enjoyed the massive whirling flocks of Golden Plover over the freshmarsh. We wanted to push on straight to the beach though, as the tide was dropping and we hoped to see a few bits offshore. The mussel beds were swarming with waders and all the common species were noted – Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Turnstone, Sanderling, Grey Plover, Knot and Black-tailed Godwit. Offshore, it was rather quiet – Red-breasted Merganser, about eight Goldeneye, a scattering of distant Great Crested Grebes and Red-throated Divers and three Kittiwakes following a shrimp trawler were the highlights. A lovely bonus though arrived from the east as we heard a buzzing, chattering series of calls which alerted us to a super high flock of fifty Snow Buntings, glinting in the sun as they flew over us and off to Thornham Point.
Thornham Harbour next, for a quick check to see if any Twite had appeared. There was no sign, but there were masses of Wigeon, Teal and Curlew on the flooded fields, and Rock Pipit around the harbour. Inland next, to check two farmland sites for passerines. We didn’t find much beyond a dozen Reed Buntings, a couple of Yellowhammer and single Redwing with a few Fieldfare. Our plan was to reach Holkham for a late lunch, but we wanted to go via the fields where we had yesterday viewed large numbers of Pink-footed Geese. There were only about one thousand on view today, and most were asleep – a sure sign they had been feeding during the night under the waxing moon. A flock of Brambling in a sunflower crop were a bonus though, and we were seeing Buzzards and Red Kites all over the place as we headed on down to Holkham for lunch.
Lady Anne’s Drive added more Fieldfare with Mistle Thrush, lots of Snipe, Black-tailed Godwits and three smart Ruff. We planned to head out into the bay both to check the cordon area for Shorelark, and also to scan the sea for grebes etc. The walk out was quiet, and we knew the Shorelarks had not been reliably seen in the cordon area for several days, have been initially moved off the area by recent high tides. Offshore, eight Common Eider, a few Common Scoter and more Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested Grebe and Red-throated Divers were all we had to show for our efforts – the shrimp trawlers had moved back in though after an absence and this had no doubt effected the seabed and available feeding for ducks and divers. There was no sign at all of the Shorelarks (the Holkham wardens had also kindly checked further west for us as well) so we wound our way through to Washington Hide for last knockings. Two Great White Egrets and a small herd of Red Deer were seen, and then a surprise Spoonbill was picked out feeding in a distant pool – an overwintering bird, or an early arriving spring migrant?! Back at the drive, against a burnt orange sky, we rounded off the day with the fantastic sight and sound of thousands of Pink-feet arriving to roost. Superb!
WEDNESDAY 12TH JANUARY – Calm day with frosty start, 3C
Our first tour of the year saw us also kick things off from our new accommodation base at Briarfields Hotel, Titchwell, where we set off this morning under beautiful blue skies for a cracking days birding. In fact a Barn Owl from the breakfast table kicked things off nicely. Our plan was to get right onto the geese, with good numbers still using the Holkham roost and the beet harvest still in full swing meaning we had a couple of good spots to check. Arriving at our first location near Stanhoe we could see large numbers of Pink-footed Geese settled in a distant resting field, against the light. The freshly harvested beet tops were sitting there waiting for the birds and they clearly wanted to get on there, but were nervous. We set up in a good position and waited, with the first scouting groups u-turning and reluctant to settle. We knew as soon as one group hit the deck then the whole lot would follow and sure enough this was eventually the case. The light was just fantastic and the birds close, so it was quite the spectacle listening to skeins whiffling in and dropping right in front of us. We managed two neck collars (birds tagged in Iceland) but nothing more, before the whole lot got flushed by an arriving car. We didn’t really feel as though we’d got fully to grips with them, so one to earmark for another try.
Pink-feet arriving to feed, Stanhoe 12th January
Next we headed east along the coast to Cley where there were a few good birds for us to target, but four Great White Egrets were added along the way too overlooking Holkham Freshmarsh. Reaching Cley, first up was the wintering Iceland Gull which had been dining out on dead seals along the shingle bank – lovely! We walked down East Bank, enjoying a couple of bonus good views of Bearded Tits, and could already see the juv Iceland Gull shining out like a beacon on the shingle bank half a mile away! We checked the pools on the way down – loads of wildfowl and waders including Pintail, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff.
Iceland Gull at Cley beach
Reaching the shingle bank we made a right turn and wandered right up to the Iceland Gull, getting some really nice close views of the bird before it drifted over onto Arnold’s. Offshore, several Red-throated Divers could be seen, but otherwise the sea was fairly quiet. Next up was the newly arrived Waxwing at Sea Lawn along the A149 in Cley village. This bird showed beautifully feeding on guelder rose in the gardens there – what’s more, there was a female Black Redstart on a rooftop a few doors down from it so we bagged up two for the price of one!
Waxwing – part of a small arrival last week of this charismatic visitor
Before lunch, we took a ride round the back of Cley to look for Brent Geese, and had fantastic close views of a flock of around 400 on winter wheat south of the village. There was a super adult Pale-bellied Brent Goose among the Russian throng, and with perfect light we were really able to appreciate the subtle plumage differences. We lunched down at the beach, as it was such a lovely day. A quick check of North Scrape after that, and then it was off west towards Wells.
North Point pools were another spot bathed in perfect afternoon sunlight, and thought there wasn’t a massive amount to see here we did get excellent views of 13 Grey Partridges in the fields, along with the usual selection of wildfowl. To end the day, we parked at nearby Stiffkey campsite car park and walked a short way west to view the saltmarsh as dusk closed in. In truth, it was a disappointment, with no Hen Harriers seen at all this evening. We did manage distant perched and flight views of a Merlin, several Marsh Harriers and lots more Brent Geese to end the day.
NORFOLK WILD GEESE TOUR DECEMBER 2021
SUNDAY 12TH DECEMBER – Light to mod SW winds and sunny spells, 11C
A superb days birding to cap off our short winter tour saw us start down at Wiveton to have a look for an unseasonal Barred Warbler which had been found a few days ago. This was the first record of the species in Norfolk in December (hot on the heels of the counties first December Redstart on Friday) and had been reported as showing extremely well for a species which is normally very skulking. Parking in the village and walking up Leatherpool Lane, the whole area was quite birdy with common species, and we added lots of species to the trip list – the best being three smart Bullfinches. As we approached the ivy clad trees favoured by the Barred, a female Blackcap popped out, and then almost right away we caught sight of a larger bulky bird flopping about high up in the dead branches – it was the Barred Warbler! Over the next half hour we had spectacular views of the bird as it came down periodically to feed on spindle berries. At one point, it was so close above our heads we could barely focus on it! A quite amazing encounter with a normally difficult bird.
Barred Warbler showing very well at Wiveton
Cley East Bank next, and a search for a young Iceland Gull which had taken up residence on the beach feeding on the many dead seal pups stranded by last weeks storms. There were plenty of wildfowl to be seen along Pope’s Marsh, plus several very good sightings of Marsh Harrier, and Arnold’s Marsh had a nice selection of waders – lots of Dunlin, Grey Plover and Turnstone. Off the shingle ridge, a Red-throated Diver was close in and looking east we could already see the distinctive pale blob of the Iceland Gull several hundred yards away sitting on the beach.
Juv Iceland Gull on Cley beach
We walked closer, ending up with excellent close views of the bird plus four bonus Snow Buntings shuffling around in a hollow in the shingle ridge. These too were very obliging and allowed those with cameras to get within a few feet of them. To cap off a brilliant morning, some of the group had brilliant views of two Otters in the dyke off East Bank on the walk back to the car park! And we weren’t quite done there either, as we lunched by Cley church in the company of a stunning male Black Redstart, which was flitting around the eastern gable end and perching up in the sunshine.
Black Redstart – a stunning male seen on Cley church
Next we drove down beach road and spent some time with the fabulous Dark-bellied Brent Goose flock in the Eye Field. They were really close to the road and we were able to study the subtle differences between the adults and goslings – fantastic birds. After a quick pitstop at the Visitor Centre, we drove west checking a few spots for more geese along the way, before dropping down onto the coast road at Burnham Overy Staithe. The sky had cleared and it was now a stunningly calm and sunny late afternoon. We took a walk out along the seawall to view the grazing marshes and harbour, and the whole area was absolutely teeming with birds. Pink-footed, Brent and Barnacle Geese, Wigeon and Lapwing and Golden Plover were the most numerous, in flocks hundreds strong, but there was also a liberal scattering of Black-tailed Godwits, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and a single Bar-tailed Godwit. Marsh Harriers were working the grazing marsh frequently sending the flocks of birds whirling skyward, and at least seven Red Kites could be seen. Nothing rare or unusual, but just a spectacle of numbers of birds and the most perfect light for viewing. From here it was back to base, then on to King’s Lynn, to conclude the tour.
SATURDAY 11TH DECEMBER – Calm and frosty day, rain later, 4C
A super days birding today centred around goose watching and of course the NNR at Holkham. With a beautiful start to the day being calm and crisp, we headed straight to the bay area to have a go for the Shorelarks and to check the sea which we hoped would be nice and flat. Heading out to the eastern end of the gap, we couldn’t see any sign of the Shorelarks in the cordon area so headed straight onto the dunes to scan the sea offshore. It was indeed good light and a calm sea, though there was still a lot of swell. A Common Eider was close in and three Red-breasted Mergansers were quickly added, but as we got our eye in more birds were picked out – a smart Red-necked Grebe being probably the rarest and one of at least two present. Two Long-tailed Ducks then popped up among the mergansers and a brace of Great Crested Grebes, and further out we could see a small raft of Common Scoters. Among them, at least five Velvet Scoters could just about be seen and picked out by their larger size, longer neck and more sloping forehead shape – but it wasn’t easy! Behind us, a quick check of the cordon area revealed that the Shorelarks had snuck in while we had been watching the sea, so we turned around and enjoyed some excellent views of the group of five, which were preening on a small marram mound in the marsh. Superb birds and always a highlight of any tour. We rounded off here with some nice views of a mixed flock of Meadow and Rock Pipits, and a chance to compare the plumage of the two at close range.
Grey Partridges at Lady Anne’s Drive
Pausing for a coffee back by the drive, a small covey of Grey Partridges were seen and a lovely flock of Black-tailed Godwits dropped in. More unusual was a Grey Wagtail which flew in calling and landed in one of the poplars above the van briefly. Rejuvenated and warmed up slightly, we headed out west now to go in search of Pink-footed Goose flocks around Docking and Choseley. We drew blanks completely at our first three sites checked, all of which were hosting good numbers two days previously. With no birds at all in the air to give any indication, we figured it must mean a large concentration in one spot feeding and we just had to keep looking. Finally, near Titchwell we were successful and we had a very enjoyable hour with a flock of around 7000 Pinkfeet on beet tops, which allowed us to position ourselves with good light and watch the birds filing in from a nearby resting field. Despite the good views we didn’t find anything among them other than a lovely ‘caffe latte’ leucistic bird, and a neck-collared bird paired to a satellite tagged female.
Tundra Bean Goose among the Pinkfeet in West Norfolk
With a bit more time before we wanted to head back to Holkham, we headed further inland after lunch and tried another beet field which had been pulling in birds recently. There were again 8000+ birds here and we manoevered ourselves into a gateway where we had good views of about half the flock. They were nervous so we had to be very careful, but they soon settled and we picked out a lovely young Tundra Bean Goose right at the front of the flock. With some patience, everyone had great views, especially when it eventually waddled up onto a ridge as though trying to make it as easy as possible for us to see it! It plain chocolate brown upperparts and orange bare parts were easy to see, as well as the narrow dirty white tail tips. Leaving the birds be, we dashed back to Holkham and wandered down to Washington Hide. Hoping for a Pinkfoot roost, we were not lucky as the birds didn’t come in until well after dark. But we did see eight Red Deer, two Great White Egrets and a massive Jackdaw roost of several thousand birds. A Woodcock whizzing past us as we listened to the late arriving Pinkfeet was the final addition of the day.
FRIDAY 10TH DECEMBER – Fresh NW winds and sunny spells. 5C
We headed East to the Norfolk Broads area today for the first day of our Wild Goose Winter Weekend. The Taiga Bean Geese had returned to Buckenham Marshes three days ago (all five of them!) so we were hopeful that we might finally get this species on one of the trips after a very long absence. With this in mind, we headed straight to the station at Buckenham and set out across the marsh to scan for geese of any kind – there were lots of Canada and Greylag here, plus five Barnacle Geese, but no sign at all of the Taiga’s. It was cold and windy along the river bank, but we were warmed by the spectacle of thousands of Wigeon and Teal near the hide, plus Shoveler and Gadwall and a couple of roosting Snipe. Walking east to the old windpump, we scanned again unsuccessfully for the geese – everything was flushed by an apache helicopter flying low across the marsh (insane and dangerous!), with geese going off in all directions but still no sign of anything Bean-like. We wandered back, and moved on to nearby Cantley instead.
Here we did slightly better, with a nice flock of Pink-feet dropping onto the marsh and at least seventy Russian White-fronted Geese grazing there too. While we were scanning across, an adult Peregrine was spotted sitting out on the marsh. It looked like a male given it’s small size, and eventually flew off towards the beet factory. A quick pitstop at a nearby garage, and then it was on to look for Cranes in the Billockby area.
Common Cranes and Pinkfeet – a classic East Norfolk scene
Our first couple of stops failed to produce our quarry but eventually in the Oby area we found a dozen Common Cranes feeding in stubbles north of the road, with a decent enough distance and good light meaning we could park up and scope the birds. We had great views of them striding around in the fields, with a flock of Pink-footed Geese behind them. One of the birds (which were all adults), was sporting red and yellow colour rings and was one which had been around for a few weeks. Originally ringed in Finland, this was quite an exciting sighting! Eventually some of them lifted and flew back to the field behind trumpeting as they went. From here, we drove around the coast road via Horsey to Waxham, and had lunch overlooking the area recently favoured by a wintering Great Grey Shrike.
With no sign of said shrike, and a very cold wind now blowing, we opted not to wander over to the beach! Instead, we drove towards Sea Palling and enjoyed some fantastic close roadside views of around two thousand Pink-footed Geese feeding on beet tops. We were nervous as we pulled up alongside them as they were so close, but they were obviously used to vehicles and didn’t lift off and we were able to sit and watch, and listen to them from the vehicle. A little further along the road towards Ingham, we were treated to a herd of Bewick’s Swans – around eighteen birds in total – mixed in with Mute’s on flooded roadside fields.
To end the day we rolled the dice and drove back up to the north coast – we had seen Cranes well and fancied our chances of connecting with Hen Harrier and maybe some goose flocks heading to roost from Stiffkey Campsite car park. We succeeded on the first front, with three Hen Harriers in to roost including an adult male – thought they were frustratingly distant today. Small numbers of Brent Geese did arrive to roost and a few Pinkfeet, but that was about it. A Barn Owl gliding alongside us on the way home was a nice way to round off the day against a burnt orange sky.
NORFOLK WILD GEESE TOUR NOVEMBER 2021
TUESDAY 30TH NOVEMBER – Moderate Westerly winds and sunny spells, 5C
We started our last day down at Wells Pinewoods to just have a wander round and check for tit flocks after the recent storms – a Pallas’s Warbler lurking here wouldn’t be a huge surprise! It was nice and sheltered among the birches by The Dell and we notched up our first Bullfinches here, plus Kingfisher perched by the edge of the boating lake. There were quite a lot of small birds about – tits, finches, Treecreeper and a Common Chiffchaff. Further west, it was quieter, and so we turned back near the drinking pool and heading back along the main track again. Two Woodcock flushed together from under some bushes and flew to the pines, and we put up two more singletons as we checked the sheltered southern edge of The Dell. Here we caught up with a tit flock, and saw a paler Chiffchaff with striking yellowy supercilium – most likely an abietinus/tristis intergrade type but we didn’t hear it call. The standard collybita Chiffchaff was with it and then while trying to get better views a third bird popped into view – an extremely pale bird with white underparts and stone grey-brown upperparts lacking yellow and green tones. There was perhaps the slightest green tinge in the remiges but otherwise this looked a fine candidate for Siberian Chiffchaff. It duly started singing, helping to confirm the ID beyond doubt!
Back at the van we warmed up with a brew and then struck a course for West Norfolk to have another try at goose flocks. Returning to one of the spots from two days ago, we found a super-flock of at least 20,000 Pink-footed Geese feeding on beet tops. Unfortunately, the field was very difficult to view and the best we could manage was a spot where we could at least see most of the field in good light, but we were two fields away from it. Nevertheless a Barnacle Goose was picked out either side of our lunch, and we watched in awe as a vehicle flushed the whole lot at one point – but thankfully they dropped back down again. We then took a beeline via Choseley towards Titchwell, where we would have a quick look before heading to King’s Lynn station.
Pink-footed Geese by tour participant Tony Jakeman
Titchwell freshmarsh was productive, with our first Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit of the tour, the odd Common Snipe and Dunlin, plus some beautiful Pintail. A ringtail Hen Harrier showed really well, seen initially distantly over the saltmarsh towards Thornham Point it eventually flew over the path and off to the east. The undoubted highlight here to round off the tour was a Jack Snipe snoozing among the reed edge of the new bank opposite Island Hide. It was initially tucked up facing us and hard to identify, but we thought we could make out a dark centre to the crown. Sure enough it lifted its head to reveal that classic face pattern and even gave us some bobbing to boot! A superb bird and a nice one to sign off with. From here it was straight to Lynn station, then back to Great Ryburgh to conclude.
Spot the Jack Snipe!
MONDAY 29TH NOVEMBER – Clear and crisp day in light winds, 5C
A superb day’s birding to continue to the excellent form of November and adding yet more top birds to this particular trip list! With the weekends pressure charts looking prime to entice an eastern passerine or two out of Siberia and straight down onto the Norfolk coast in the mega winds, we headed to Holkham Meals this morning to spend a few hours checking the coastal pine belt for any late autumn migrants. We didn’t have to wait long for our first waif from the east – a Siberian Chiffchaff was calling at the north end of Lady Anne’s Drive in the reeds along the ditch by The Lookout. We couldn’t see it initially, but we caught a movement in the reeds – two Chiffchaffs, one an obvious Common Chiffchaff and the other which we didn’t get a look at was presumably the ‘Sibe’. The mournful tristis call could then be heard a little further west of the drive, in the reeds south of the path. We waited patiently and eventually heard the bird again calling close to us in the reeds but didn’t see it. We guessed it must have been feeding on the ground under the reeds and scrub. A small tit flock appeared and in an oak beside the path, a flash of colour flagged up a beautiful Firecrest, flitting among the sparse autumn leaves before heading off into the trees with the tits.
Continuing west through the pines, we passed Salt’s Hole and it’s assortment of ducks, and heard a couple of Cetti’s Warblers along by Washington Hide. Just before Meal’s House, we noticed a small bird feeding in a sunlit oak by the path. It was a gorgeous brown and white Siberian Chiffchaff, showing brilliantly as it moved around the small oak and in and out of sunlight and shade. It was a superb tristis specimen, without a trace of green or yellow to be had in the plumage, a lovely tobacco flush on the cheeks and black bare parts. Even in the sun this bird lacked the green in the wings that so many show – in some ways the colour palette was more like a Lesser Whitethroat. This bird remained silent though, and we left it feeding in it’s favoured tree – it had to be a different bird to the one we’d left calling 700m back.
Siberian Chiffchaff at Holkham (all pics by tour participant Tony Jakeman).
The brown and grey plumage tones (lacking yellow or green hues) and gleaming white underparts made this a striking individual. The strong dark eyestripe, well marked supercilium (without yellow) and brown ear coverts can also be seen.
After enjoying the tristis we continued onto the ‘Warbler Trail’ where we caught up with another small tit flock with a couple of Treecreepers and several Goldcrests. Reaching crosstracks, we decided to carry on around the ‘Bluetail Trail’ before doubling back to the hide after. We flushed up a couple of Redwings and a Song Thrush as we walked round, and then along the southern edge, were stopped in our tracks by a tongue-clicking tacking call coming from the brambles and reeds – it was a Dusky Warbler! The terrain, and the light, were against us but we tried to move a bit closer through the vegetation. The bird called again right beside us and then flushed out and flew across an open area to another patch of reeds. Here it was seen briefly, nervously flicking its wings and sporting a long supercilium, before diving further into cover and not being seen or heard again. Exciting and frustrating in equal measure! While we were looking for the Dusky, a wonderful flock of 23 Russian White-fronted Geese flew past us calling – a great sight!
From Joe Jordan Hide, two Great White Egrets were seen on the marsh, and some large numbers of Teal. Several Marsh Harriers were about too, but there didn’t seem to be any livestock on the marsh and so no sign of any Cattle Egrets today. Another Common Chiffchaff, Grey Wagtail and flyover Brambling, plus a small covey of Grey Partridge, were other highlights.
Inland now for a change of scenery as we drove down to Lynford in the Brecks to try for Hawfinch. It was one of those days when the light seemed to fall of a cliff by 2pm and already as we were walking down to the paddocks, we wondered if we might be a little late to catch any roosting birds coming in. Pausing at the gate, we had super views of two or three Brambling, Nuthatches and Marsh Tits coming to feed on the ground, and by the bridge were at least one hundred Siskins feeding in the alders. Gazing across the paddocks, there were quite a few birds about – Redwings, more Brambling, and a few other common finches. A single Hawfinch then flew in, circling the paddocks twice before flying off south and appearing to land somewhere at the far end. We wandered down to try and relocate, but didn’t see it, or any others, again. We presumed after a good days feeding they must have gone to roost before 2.30pm today! Anyway, we had managed to see one, and add a nice selection of other woodland birds to our trip total and so wrapped things up and headed back to base around 4pm.
SUNDAY 28TH NOVEMBER – Strong NNW winds and heavy wintry showers, 5C
A bitingly cold day today as Storm Arwen passed through, saw us head back to Sheringham first thing for another go at seawatching. A better session than yesterday (rather predictably, as the second day of the storm is often the best) saw us chalk up eight Common Eider, good numbers of Red-throated Divers, Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannets and the odd Kittiwake. Two star birds came in the form of a super Little Auk bustling west through the surf, which everyone managed to get onto, and a Great Northern Diver lumbering through with slow wingbeats and massive feet trailing behind! A trickle of Common Scoter, a Great Crested Grebe and three Knot completed our watch, which was curtailed in welcome fashion with a hot cup of tea back at the van!
Little Auk ready for its release at Wells
Next we planned to head to Holkham, but took a detour en route down to Wells beach car park where a Little Auk was going to be released into the harbour having been taken into care overnight in Reepham in mid-Norfolk! While we waited, we saw lots of waders in the harbour – Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Ringed and Grey Plovers – and a real surprise in the form of an adult Puffin floating in the channel! This was the first one we’d ever seen ‘on the deck’ in Norfolk, a species normally only occasionally seen distantly on seawatches here. Sadly, the bird suffered a similar fate to many storm-blown auks – it was eaten by a Great Black-backed Gull! The Little Auk then arrived in a box, and we were able to see this wonderful little bird in the hand before its successful release. It seemed very perky and immediately started diving for food, so hopefully it would go on to make a full recovery.
White-fronted Goose among the Pinkfeet in West Norfolk
Next we headed inland, to go in search of Pink-footed Geese flocks in West Norfolk. The field of beet tops we had worked two days ago had around five thousand birds on and the light was good. We set the scopes up and soon picked out a young Russian White-fronted Goose from the throng, enjoying some good views among the Pinkfeet. Happy we’d worked the flock pretty well, we drove on to another spot and my goodness, what a spectacle – fifteen thousand Pinkfeet feeding in one spot. The birds were extremely nervous and soon lifted and dropped out of sight over the brow, not giving us chance to work them thoroughly – still a fantastic sight to see. We rounded off the day in fading light and snow flurries, down at Stiffkey saltmarsh. A ringtail Hen Harrier appeared briefly but the highlight was some 2000 Brent Geese heading directly over our heads to roost, in several burbling flocks. A magical way to end any winter day’s birding!
SATURDAY 27TH NOVEMBER – Storm Arwen!
A tough day today with some very tumultuous weather, which had been well forecast and we were braced for! Storm Arwen bought gale force Northerly winds down the East coast of Britain, though the day did actually start in a rather benign fashion and as we headed across to Sheringham for a seawatch, it really wasn’t all that windy. The light was very good for the first hour or so of our watch, and we enjoyed a pretty good selection of birds in between squalls coming ‘in off’. Red-throated Diver, Guillemot, Razorbill and Gannet were numerous, and there were also good numbers of Kittiwakes, the odd Fulmar, two Manx Shearwaters and three Great Skuas past in the two hours we were watching. A scattering of Common Scoter were also seen plus two Great Northern Divers, one of which flew past nice and close. A superb Purple Sandpiper, which had earlier flew past us calling, was relocated at the east end of the promenade pottering about by the beach huts before going to roost on the rocks.
Bewick’s Swan family by Andrew Kinghorn
For the rest of the day, we would head East to the Norfolk Broads to try and catch up with one or two speciality birds there in between the heavy downpours and increasing winds. Reaching Stalham, we took the coastal route round to Ingham and on towards Sea Palling. By Heath Farm, a lovely mixed herd of swans included all three species – 21 Whooper Swans, and 7 Bewick’s Swans among them being the first of autumn (with three cygnets to boot). We lunched at nearby Waxham, in torrential rain. We abandoned our thoughts of walking south through the dunes and instead went in search of Cranes around the coast road towards Winterton. None were found, but we did see a nice flock of Pinkfeet near Horsey Corner. At Winterton itself, the Grey Seal colony on the beach was as impressive as ever, and a short seawatch produced a few Red-throated Divers, auks and Kittiwakes. We then continued on our Crane quest, driving around to Hickling and checking a couple of spots (the weather prevented us from watching from Stubb’s Mill) and eventually ending up back at Horsey south of the windpump. Three Common Cranes were seen distantly in flight from here, but they dropped out of sight behind a copse. We decided to stick it out until dusk knowing they would eventually fly past us and indeed they did – a great sight to see against the stormy sky and to round off the day.
FRIDAY 26TH NOVEMBER – Fresh SW winds veering NW, sunny spells. 8C
Today turned into something of a red-letter day that we were definitely not expecting! With a day of rain forecast, and strong winds, we thought it was going to be pretty tough going! Kicking off down at Cley though, we got off to a good start along the Beach Road with superb views of the adult Black Brant among the bustling hordes of Dark-bellied Brent Geese around Eye Field pool. The birds dark chocolate upperparts and chalky white flank contrasted well with the almost lavender grey-washed Brents in the overcast morning light. A quick look at the sea yielded a couple of Red-throated Divers, Guillemot and Razorbill, plus five lovely close fly-by Common Scoter (with a Teal in tow for size comparison!).
From here, we then headed along the coast to Holkham, walking out into the bay to look for the wintering group of five Shorelarks. Checking the cordon area, we couldn’t find the birds, so continued to the dunes where we met Marcus with his tour group – he looked a little flustered as he hurried down the dune towards us. We soon found out why, as he’d just had a Brunnich’s Guillemot drift past them close inshore!! A quick exchange saw us marching briskly east along the shore towards the mouth of Wells harbour channel, as Marcus had last seen the bird drifting very fast that way with both wind and tide behind it. Right from the off it looked like our chances of seeing the bird in the rough sea were very slim, but we were going to give it our best shot!
We scanned as carefully as we could along the shore as the bird had been close in, but there was no sign. We checked the harbour entrance (not well enough!) and there was no sign here either. We were just about to give up when a call from a friend who was watching from the Lifeboat station came in – he’d relocated the Brunnich’s Guillemot on the far side of the harbour and we should be able to see it! We scanned harder and there it was, a very black and white auk looking quite hunkered down and floating in on the wind. We could see a dark throat and a short, stubby bill. Gradually the views got better and with the scope lowered down to protect it from the wind, we all ended up getting some good views as it began preening and moving its head around showing the bill better. Eventually, it climbed out of the water and sat on the mud bank, which is where we left this first accepted record for Norfolk. A quite amazing series of events, though sadly it did not have a happy ending – the bird became moribund after it’s long journey from the Arctic, was eventually picked up but soon died.
Heading back the trudge into the wind felt a lot harder than it had done going out! Nevertheless we were buoyed on by this super sighting and soon we were watching the bird we had come out for too, as the five Shorelarks flew past us along the dunes and landed in the cordon. We had some really good views of the feeding on the saltings – normally, this would have been bird of the day! Other birds noted out here included several Rock Pipits, and a lumbering Great Northern Diver flying out east (which almost got forgotten about in the excitement of the Brunnich’s). Back at the van, lunch beckoned before we planned our next move – a belated drive out west to look for Pink-footed Geese flocks.
Reaching an area in West Norfolk where a very large congregation of Pinkfeet had been gathering in recent days to feed on beet tops, we arrived (admittedly about an hour later than planned) to find the flock largely dispersed. Still, there were about three thousand birds feeding here and we had some nice views of the birds. Another spot we had hoped would be decent had been flushed and the birds had all dropped on winter wheat in dead ground and were not possible to view. So we cut our losses and headed north up to Choseley and had a quick drive around there looking for farmland birds. A biblical hailstorm though with hailstones the size of marbles soon cut this, and the day, short. We did end though at Burnham Overy with a small roost flight of Pinkfeet against a lovely orange sunset to round off the day – plus good scope views of Venus and Jupiter!
NOVEMBER – THE NEW OCTOBER!
October was something of a difficult month with far from ideal conditions for migrant birds arriving from Scandinavia. November, however, seems to have arrived with a bit of a bang and our sorties out on the coast have produced some excellent birding this last few days. A surprise run of three Norfolk November Red-breasted Flycatchers included the smart and very confiding bird shown below, from the west end of Holkham pines on 4th.
This was followed the next day by a Siberian Chiffchaff and this superb Dusky Warbler (below) found at Wells by Ashley on 5th. The bird was very vocal and showed well on and off in the bottoms of the hawthorns along the ditch bordering the open area west of The Dell. These arrivals coincided with high pressure over Scandinavia finally encouraging birds to set off across the North Sea, and a column of northerly winds bringing them down to the Norfolk coast the previous day. There was a scattering of thrushes, finches and woodcocks too, and finally a few Goldcrests!
The 8th turned into a red letter day with the discovery of a Melodious Warbler in the Wells/Holkham pines by Ashley, Norfolk birder Richard Saunders (no relation!) and his friend Jon Prowse. The bird was pretty elusive but eventually showed really well in the afternoon sunshine as it fed sluggishly among the autumn leaves of an oak on the south side of the main track. The birds short primary projection, plain wing lacking silvery secondary panel or greater covert fringes, and distinctly reddish-brown legs, identified it as a first for Holkham and only 6th Norfolk record of the species. This makes it much, much rarer here than the likes of Red-flanked Bluetail! It also goes to show that you never quite know what is going to turn up – though perhaps the fine weather and light Southerly winds hinted that something from the near continent, rather than the east, was on the cards.
With an interesting chart developing for the coming weekend and some more easterly winds, will we experience more arrivals of thrushes and other species perhaps held back on their migrations by marginal weather conditions during October? Watch this space!
NORFOLK LATE AUTUMN TOUR 24TH – 29TH OCTOBER 2021
FRIDAY 29TH OCTOBER – Strong Southerly winds and rain showers, 12C
Our final day morning of the trip was spent on a wild goose chase in West Norfolk, trying to get to grips with some of the feeding Pinkfeet. With around 20,000 birds in the Holkham roost at the moment, we were hoping to find some decent numbers on the deck and headed to a spot where we’d seen beet being loaded a couple of days prior. Sure enough there were about 2500 Pink-footed Geese visible here, with doubtless more over the brow of the field. We found a good spot and spent a while scanning through them. We didn’t find anything unusual, but it was good to practice separating the young birds – some still very small and dinky, with soft, almost fluffy belly plumage – from their attendant parents. At one point something flushed the flock from over the hill and a mass of birds came in and settled in front of us at our end of the field – a really spectacular sight and sound! Next we headed a bit further west to another field of beet tops, getting a quick look through around 4000 birds before they were flushed by the farmer. This sent them to join more birds resting on winter wheat about a mile away and we knew they wouldn’t be allowed to settle there for very long! Sure enough we just got there and got ourselves set up when another farmer appeared and flushed the whole lot. Spectacular to see, but frustrating that the birds can’t settle anywhere to feed. We returned to the beet field and had another go at those birds, but gave up when they too took to the air – the joys of goose watching in the early part of the season, when beet tops are still at a premium and farmers are trying to keep the birds off other crops!
Pink-footed Geese lift-off, 29th October
Dropping down to the coast we headed along to Wells, and had a short walk in the woods which were predictably very quite in the strong winds. Wells harbour channel was more productive though with a really close Red-throated Diver, and large numbers of Brent Geese feeding there. Waders included hundreds of Oystercatchers, and a few Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlew, Redshank, Turnstone, Dunlin, Knot, Grey Plover, Sanderling and Ringed Plover too. From here it was lunch, then back to Great Ryburgh and on to King’s Lynn for drop-offs.
THURSDAY 28TH OCTOBER – Strong Southerly winds and sunshine, 15C
We mixed things up today and headed south into Breckland for some forest birding. It was a beautiful sunny day despite the strong wind, which we managed to keep fairly sheltered from throughout. Our first stop was an area we know well for gathering Stone Curlews prior to their autumn migration, and we were not to be disappointed! Pulling up to scan the fields, the hedgerow beside us was bustling with the hard chirrups of Tree Sparrows, an increasingly rare sight and sound in the Norfolk countryside and now finding their main stronghold in the county down in the Brecks. At least twenty were seen and provided a side show for the main event, which was brilliant views of 34 Stone Curlews sitting in the middle of the field in full view! We found another position where we had better light and spent some time scoping and photographing these brilliant birds from a safe distance. They weren’t even bothered when the farmer drove past within 50yds of them in a huge tractor and trailer! A good start to the day, but could we match it?
Onto the forest next and a speculative hour scanning the treetops for raptors. Buzzards were quite active, and we even spotted the tiny distant dot of a song-flighting Woodlark above the trees. It was very pleasant in the warm sunshine out of the wind, and things got even better when a large flat-winged raptor suddenly floated up on a thermal above the woods – it was a young Goshawk, and the light was superb as we scoped the bird for a minute circling round, before it closed its wings and plummeted into the forest again. On to Swaffham Forest next and we walked a couple of rides to check clearings for Woodlark and Great Grey Shrike, without success. A handful of Brambling were all we had to show for our efforts here.
Lunch was enjoyed at Lynford where we utilised one of the picnic tables in the beautifully sheltered car park. We could hear lots of Siskins about and afterwards we took a walk down to the lake where we found the flock of at least 200 birds feeding on small cones on the conifer trees. As we scanned through them, one or two Lesser Redpolls were seen including a lovely raspberry red male. Down at the paddocks, we didn’t find any Hawfinch but did see plenty of other birds – about twenty nice Redwings perching up in the trees in the sunshine, and 18 Brambling coming out in dribs and drabs from the hornbeams and calling. A Marsh Tit showed very well briefly in the hedge beside us too, and we also noted Goldcrest, Coal Tit, Mistle Thrush and Great-spotted Woodpecker.
We ended the day all the way back up on the coast at Holkham, where we wanted to capitalise on the fine evening to watch for Pinkfeet coming to roost. We walked to Washington Hide and positioned ourselves there around 5pm, and waited. The sky briefly went orange to the west as the sun began to set, and we noted two Great White Egrets, huge flocks of Starlings, a perched Green Woodpecker and then, eventually, geese! Around 7-8k Pink-footed Geese arrived to roost from the south-west, providing a spectacle that was backed up by Venus, Jupiter and four of its moons, and then Saturn complete with rings! A fantastic way to end any day!
WEDNESDAY 27TH OCTOBER – Strong SW winds and sunshine, 14C
Its fair to say that 2021 hasn’t been a stellar autumn for east coast birders, and we did start to feel the brunt of it a bit today with a tough day – though in fairness this did still include a couple of nice highlights! We had planned to make Holkham Bay our first stop, as the sea had been reasonably productive there over recent days. As we walked out across the beach under the relative calm of the pines, we talked about what we might find and discussed Shorelark as a potential possibility to raise hope that we might get some spending the winter here again this year after a blank season last time out. As we reached the furthest dunes at the east end of the gap, we stopped to scan some Meadow Pipits which had a Reed Bunting in tow, and then spotted two passerines flying in towards us over the marram dunes – they were Shorelarks! They flipped over the dune ridge and appeared to land on the beach, so we scurried round with the wind up our tails to see if we could see them. Two dark shapes were sat on the beach, blasted by sand and only just visible through the resultant haze. It was indeed the two Shorelarks and we had some decent scope views before they flew out of sight round the side of the dunes and we weren’t able to find them again. An exciting encounter!
Shorelark at Holkham, 27th October
We then scanned the sea for a while, noting relatively few birds – some auks, a close Red-throated Diver, three Great Crested Grebes, single Red-breasted Merganser and a few Common Scoter. Heading back, seven small birds flew over us and landed on the beach some distance away – Snow Buntings! Thankfully the light was good and we watched them lift and settle several times before they eventually continued on. What would have been the icing on the cake was a Short-eared Owl which flushed out of the dunes at point blank range, but sadly flipped over the blind side and we couldn’t see it for more than a few seconds. Still, it had been a decent morning despite the difficult weather conditions.
After a coffee back at the van, and a Great White Egret beside Lady Anne’s Drive, we headed east to Cley reserve where we would spend the afternoon. Pat’s Pool was quite birdy, with lost of Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwits, Ruff and wildfowl. But not a great deal else! We lunched at the beach car park, where about 300 Brent Geese were grazing in the Eye Field and providing a lovely sight and sound. The sea was likewise quiet, other than Red-throated Diver, Gannet and Razorbill. Back at the Visitor Centre, we took a walk out to the central hides and saw more of the same species, plus a few Golden Plovers and a close male Marsh Harrier.
Our plan was to end the day with a watch over the Stiffkey saltmarsh for raptors, but we had a bit of time before that and so popped down to Wells North Point. There were lots of wildfowl here, plus a nice covey of Grey Partridge in the fields and a Rock Pipit or two coming in to bathe with the Meadow Pipits on the west pool. As the afternoon drew to a close, we relocated to Stiffkey Greenway and scanned the saltmarsh – no Hen Harriers for us tonight but a few skeins of geese, a lovely close Barn Owl and then four Ravens which flew right past us cronking – still a great sighting in a Norfolk context! A Little Owl near Wighton closed the day, as we headed for home.
TUESDAY 26TH OCTOBER – Light Southerly winds and sunshine, 14C
We headed East today and enjoyed a productive day exploring the Broads area, starting at Winterton which has been something of a seawatch hotspot of late. The regular White-billed Diver failed to fly by while we were there, but we still had an excellent hour gazing out with the scopes in excellent morning light. Razorbills and Red-throated Divers were dotted around, with one of the latter extremely close in to the beach and showing brilliantly well. Further out, a small flock of Common Scoter were being escorted along by a lone female Velvet Scoter, which was tricky to view looking south and more into the sunlight. It was certainly easier to see when it went solo than when it got buried in among the rest of the flock! Various gulls were moving in and dip feeding over the water before continuing on and this constant turnover included a fine first-winter Caspian Gull which also flew in and briefly landed on the beach before heading south right past us. Its white ‘hood’ and striking tail pattern were very noticeable features in flight. Several Mediterranean Gulls were also drifting in and out, including two lovely snowy adults and a boldly marked first-winter. . As we scanned the sea, we picked up some distant goings-on to the north of us and when focussing in with the scope, could see a Short-eared Owl arriving in off the sea, mobbed by Great Black-backed Gulls! The owl made a fairly laboured landfall, circling high to evade its suitors, and we lost sight of it in the end as it crossed Horsey dunes. Two Swallows flew south over the sea and two Redpolls chattered in and landed briefly in the car park before continuing on their way. A hybrid Carrion x Hooded Crow was also seen before we took a break for coffee and moved on towards Waxham.
A Great Grey Shrike had been very mobile and elusive in the area over the last day and we decided to have a go for it from the dunes south of the Shangri-La chalet. No-one had seen the bird for over an hour and it had seemingly disappeared into Poplar Farm and so we weren’t lucky with a sighting. Around 1000 Pink-footed Geese were in the fields though and three Common Cranes were seen distantly in flight over the woods beyond. Heading back south around the coastal route to Somerton, we then had superb views of perhaps the same three Common Cranes feeding in a roadside field by Burley Hall Farm. We watched this small family group for about half an hour and they didn’t even move when the farmer drove past them in his truck – though they did spook briefly into the air when a Hare ran past them!
Potter Heigham Marshes was our last port of call in the afternoon and we enjoyed a decent spread here, with lots of wildfowl plus a scattering of waders – two Green Sandpipers, two Dunlin, two Spotted Redshanks, several each of Ruff, Snipe and Black-tailed Godwit and a lovely juvenile Little Stint were the best of it. A Water Pipit was feeding furtively at the edge of the reeds at the north end, giving some tricky views as it weaved in and out of the vegetation, and two more Cranes flew silhouetted against the sky over the woods towards the Hickling tree tower. A super evening, with Bearded Tits and Cetti’s Warblers calling in the reeds and a Marsh Harrier quartering beside us as we headed back out along the track. A solid late autumn days birdwatching all round!
MONDAY 25TH OCTOBER – Mod SW winds and sunny spells, 14C
Day one of our five day late autumn Norfolk tour saw us enjoy a great cross-section of species, despite set-in westerly winds for the week offering little promise for us of migrant arrivals from the continent. We started off at Holkham and walked west through the pines towards Overy dunes, noting our first flocks of Pink-footed Geese by Lady Anne’s Drive and a westerly passage of Starlings ongoing, including some big flocks of several thousand birds. Jays were also on the move, and small numbers of Skylarks and Lapwings were also moving west too. Passerines were few, but there was a few Blackbirds dropping in, one or two Redwings and Song Thrushes, single Brambling and a couple of groups of Siskin buzzing west. Among the shelter of the pines, we found one or two tit flocks containing Goldcrest, Chiffchaff, Treecreeper and Great-spotted Woodpecker, but not the usual ‘nailed on’ Yellow-browed Warbler that late October would typically produce! Red Kites were very much in evidence, drifting over the pines and gathering in the dunes – they seem to become particularly conspicuous now as they forage along the shore and over the coastal marshes. A single Redpoll flew west over the end of the pines, and dropped in briefly in the bushes, and from our vantage point looking inland we could see two Great White Egrets. This soon became four from the Joe Jordan hide, where we also saw Marsh Harrier and an assortment of wildfowl. Heading back through the meals, a surprise came in the form of a female Mandarin – very scarce on the north coast – hiding among the Mallard on Salt’s Hole pond.
Inland next to take a drive around beyond Burnham Market to look for foraging Pink-footed Goose flocks. We saw around 800 in stubble on the Burnham-Docking road, and a further 700 near Choseley, but generally the flocks seemed to be splintered and we couldn’t locate any real concentrations of birds. With the sugarbeet harvest in full swing though, this could well change in the coming days. Reaching Titchwell, we had a late lunch before spending the rest of the day on the reserve. The recent works that have taken place on the freshmarsh have certainly rejuvenated the place, and we could have stared at the main lagoon all afternoon and probably not seen everything! There were thousands of Teal here in particular, plus a good assortment of waders – Ruff, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Avocet and Golden Plover which were present in large numbers. A gorgeous first-winter Grey Phalarope stole the show, spinning around at point black range close to the path and present here now for about a week or more. We opted to push on to the shore though, and come back to the freshmarsh later.
The beach was also a hive of activity, with the exposed mussel beds swarming with gulls, Brent Geese and waders. Turnstone, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey Plover could be seen, while offshore many Great Crested Grebes and Red-throated Divers could be seen. Two Red-breasted Mergansers appeared briefly too, and careful checking of the Brent revealed a superb adult Pale-bellied Brent Goose (race hrota). A rather sad looking Common Guillemot was on tidal pool, in line with the recent wreck of this species along the east coast of Britain. Back at freshmarsh, we enjoyed the ‘golden hour’ as the sun began to set, bathing the hundreds of Golden Plover in warm evening light and creating quite a spectacle of birds for us. Gulls were arriving to roost, and we saw at least four adult Yellow-legged Gulls among the burgeoning throng. Soon a lovely second-winter Caspian Gull appeared too, later joined in the semi-dark by a dark-eyed adult showing a typically greenish tinged bill and wholly white tip to the outermost primary. Starlings whirled in to bathe pre-roost, numbering many thousands, and a Spotted Redshank ‘chu-wit’-ed past us over the west bank path. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away, and we left the Grey Phalarope still spinning around in the half light as we headed off for home around 6pm.
Golden Plovers and 2cy Caspian Gull, Titchwell freshmarsh
NORTH RONALDSAY OCTOBER 2021
For the full tour report and photos please visit the tour page HERE
MONDAY 18TH OCTOBER – Strong SE winds and rain. 10C
We had a fairly leisurely start to our final day as the weather was once again not great! The strong winds and horizontal rain were due to give way to fog, but they had been blowing strongly from the south-east and at least there was some prospect of an arrival of migrants. We headed south onto South Ronaldsay to start with a look at Olav’s Wood, a plantation along a burn which we knew would at least be sheltered from the worst of the elements. As we walked into the wood, Redwings began exploding out of every bush and we flushed up a Woodcock which went off with a clatter of wings – clearly, there had been an arrival. Working our way slowly through the bushes and trees resonated to the calls of Redwings, and there must have been hundreds here bursting out ahead of us in small groups. Eight Brambling wheezed over and a few Goldcrests were also noted, but not much else. As we wandered back up, about thirty Brambling came out of the rosa bushes, having presumably just dropped in. Knowing there were migrants about helped us craft our day, but the weather was now awful and we would probably need to bide our time before searching any more likely spots. After a quick check of the sea loch at Herston, we decided to push on to the west mainland for a bit. Echna Bay was once again full of Long-tailed Ducks and a very close Great Northern Diver. Loch of Ayre near St Mary’s was decent and hosted lots of Wigeon, Goldeneye, Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Gadwall and a drake Goosander which isn’t an especially common bird in Orkney. The flock of c100 Black-tailed Godwits were still just east of St Mary’s village too.
West Mainland didn’t offer us too much, but after grabbing some lunch at Dounby we headed for the hide at The Loons to eat our sandwiches in the dry overlooking the marshes. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew across the road as we approached and then we saw a superb male from the hide itself. There wasn’t much else on offer though, so we cut our losses and headed back east to Kirkwall and on to the Toab plantation. This was in the wind, and so hard to work, and we pushed on to Deerness. The plantation at East Denwick was nice and sheltered and full of Redwings – we counted 150 here, hinting at the numbers which must have been scattered across the whole of the islands. Goldcrests were also very much in evidence, with several exhausted birds feeding almost at our feet at times. A single Brambling was also seen and we flushed two Woodcock, including one which flew out right past us at close quarters. The Sandside willows were predictably very hard to work, but we saw more Goldcrests and Redwings here, plus a couple of Robins. From here we headed slowly back towards Burray, where we pitched up at the Sand’s Hotel again and sorted all our gear out and got changed before enjoying an excellent dinner in the restaurant there. We then trundled up to Kirkwall, with about ninety minutes to kill before the ferry arrived and we were able to board and head for our cabins. The crossing back was pretty smooth, and we arrived in Aberdeen at 0700 the next morning ready for our onward journeys home.
SUNDAY 17TH OCTOBER – Light winds, picking up from East later. 11C
Our final few hours on North Ronaldsay this morning saw us out at dawn, as light wafting easterly winds off a ridge of high pressure over Scandinavia had us worried that we would be jumping onto the plane just as all sorts would be arriving! Thankfully this wasn’t the case, but there was clearly a small arrival of migrants with 23 Redwing around the Obs (Scandinavian birds of race iliacus rather than the swarthy coburnii from Iceland that we had been seeing). A Great Northern Diver heading east over Nouster was the only other highlight of pre-breakfast, and once we’d packed our gear and left it ready to be collected for the flight, we headed off to the north end of the island for a couple of hours birding. Ancum willows was first stop, and while the first circuit of the bushes produced just two Redwing and a few sparrows, we then noticed a pipit perched low down in the sunny edge of the willows. It dropped into the grass and began feeding in the open along little tracks through the vegetation, pumping its tail as it went. A lovely Tree Pipit, our first of the week and finally an indication of something new! Westness next and two Purple Sandpipers greeted us on the beach here, one of our favourite spots of our time on North Ron. Hen Harrier and Merlin were typically added too, and we saw two flocks of Twite numbering seven and eight birds. Snow Buntings were about too, their calls really carrying on the still air this morning. No other migrants to speak of here though other than another couple of Redwing, so we doubled back to Nether Linnay. A loop of the abandoned croft didn’t produce anything at all, and with half an hour to play with before the flight, we pressed on to Senness. It really was very quite, and more Redwings, Reed Bunting and another group of Twite was about the best of it. Meanwhile Dante had been ripping it up at the seawatch hide with a Fea’s Petrel among other things, but we just didn’t have time for that today. Back to the airstrip, and away we went on the 1110 flight to Kirkwall enjoying fabulous views of the islands as we made our way south.
After sorting our gear out at Kirkwall, we headed into the town to get some lunch before taking a quick look at the Peedie Sea, a small lake at the edge of the town. Two cracking Long-tailed Duck were here, plus we saw two Goldeneye among the Tufted Ducks. Out to Deerness next, and we spent time carefully working the Sandside Willows where we managed to eke out two Robin, a Wren, two Dunnock and a probable Blackcap! It was not easy working the narrow strip of bushes as the birds would dash along the burn underneath and be seen only as quick glimpses or silhouettes. It took three goes to identify those species and we still left some sort of phyllosc unobtained! Another Long-tailed Duck was close inshore here too. Nearby at East Denwick plantation we did not better, with a Robin, two Redwing and Song Thrush. It felt like there were birds in there, but again it was so difficult to work as a group. On our way back to Burray we saw an impressive flock of at least 100 Black-tailed Godwits on a small lochan, and then at Echna Bay at least five Slavonian Grebes, Black Guillemot and absolutely stunning views of many Long-tailed Ducks – we even heard them calling! A great way to end the day.
SATURDAY 16TH OCTOBER – Fresh Westerly wind, heavy showers, calmer later. 10C
Perhaps our quietest day so far despite working the island pretty extensively and eventually, getting a drop off in the relentless wind. We enjoyed an adult female Hen Harrier again ridiculously close from the observatory window over breakfast, to kick off the day – we’ve certainly had some insane views of this species during the course of our stay! Heading off on foot with a view to wending our way all the way to the lighthouse, we clocked three Reed Bunting by the traps, and two separate flocks of Snow Buntings totalling around 60 birds. Holland House was dead apart from perhaps the same Blackcap that has been there on and off all week, and two Robins! Continuing north, we zig-zagged around Philisgar seeing a single whisp of 43 Snipe, another Hen Harrier, a scattering of Icelandic Redwings and a few waders. The links added more of the same, plus two Long-tailed Ducks and a Great Northern Diver in Linklet Bay. Working our way north up the beach checking the waders, we found a darvic ringed Bar-tailed Godwit among the seaweed and saw another 17 Snow Buntings too. Everything was flushed by a passing young Merlin, which flew right along the beach below us. The walk from Nevan at the top of the links, to Bewan loch, was very quiet indeed and we didn’t see much along this part of the route. A drake Pintail was part of a group of ten now present here, among the various Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler.
A seawatch from the hide over lunch produced some good scope views of Black Guillemots and Red-throated Divers, plus a good passage of Kittiwakes and auks. Being so close, it was then rude not to pop into the café for some more coffee and cake! As we came back out, the wind had just died right off – at last! It was now beautiful as we wandered back towards Senness, noting several Redwings along the way. Looking into Garso, an adult Great Northern Diver flew west over us and then six trumpeting Whooper Swans came low right over our heads – superb! Passerines were still pretty much non existent though and other than another Hen Harrier, we saw nothing more as we walked to the Westness junction to meet George and the van, newly repaired and back from the mainland on todays ferry! We were very glad of a lift home to the obs, having done a good shift today, and especially as it was now raining!
FRIDAY 15TH OCTOBER – Strong Westerly winds and showers, 10C
Breakfast was quite entertaining this morning, with a stunning juv Hen Harrier hunting the crop right outside the observatory windows only a few metres away, followed by a telephone call to the obs from Tom saying he’s found an egret sp down in Nouster! Given the weather patterns, this had us exiting the table pretty sharpish and heading down there, just in time to see the bird, which had by this time been identified as a Little Egret, flying off strongly towards Bride’s. This south-east corner of the island would actually be our destination for the morning, heading via the large Golden Plover flock at Standing Stone Field and the Chiffchaff which was still lingering at Holland. Another bird intrigued us in the west end of the gardens there, flushing twice from the same area but not being identified as anything other than probable phyllosc! Near the school, we had excellent views of the Lesser Yellowlegs again giving everyone a much longer and closer scope view – though sadly the bird appeared to have picked up an injury overnight to its right wing. The good news was that it could still fly, as it later moved down towards the links again. Continuing on, we saw a few more smart Icelandic Redwings, and our first Little Grebe of the trip down on Bride’s Loch. The beach held five Purple Sandpipers, and 14 Snow Buntings flew in and landed in front of us briefly before being flushed by a marauding Merlin. Five Barnacle Geese flew north calling, and the loch held 35 Teal and 2 Coot.
On our way back we took a route along the coast and up through the crofts before rejoining the road back to Holland House. We flushed our mystery phyllosc again from the same patch, but still couldn’t get anything on it. Back down towards the Obs, Dante came to tell us he’d found a Siberian Chiffchaff on the cliff below the cattle grid at Nouster beach He thought it might still be there and it was apparently very confiding – this was confirmed when he refound it for us and it almost landed on his boot! We went down onto the beach and had superb views of the bird – a lovely thing with pale underparts and lacking green or yellow in the crown or upper mantle, but with plenty of green in the scapulars and wing feathers, yellow wing bend and a little smidge of yellow in the fore supercilium. Probably best classed as an intergrade type, from the contact zone between abietinus and tristis, but without DNA or vocalisations, hard to be sure. Three Twite wheezed over and during lunch, the same Hen Harrier did the exact same circuit bringing it right past the obs windows!
The afternoon was a bit of a damp squib due to increasing strong westerly winds and more rain moving in. We checked Holland again, flushing the phyllosc from the same place once more but it was so ridiculously elusive, it was just impossible to get anything on it so we left it as probable Chiffchaff! The group ended up separating as some wanted to visit the museum, but collectively we noted six Whooper Swans, a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver and another superb Merlin. Let’s hope the winds finally die down tomorrow!
THURSDAY 14TH OCTOBER – Strong SW then NW winds, heavy rain giving way to showers, 10C
A rough days weather meant a late start for us today as we opted to forgo the gales and heavy rain for the first couple of hours of the day in favour of the warm, dry Obs! George then gave us a lift up to the seawatching hide at 1100, and we got ourselves bedded in there for a 2.5hr vigil which produced a scattering of seabirds and other migrants from the dry refuge of the hide! Probably the best of these were ten Sooty Shearwaters, including a single group of five which passed slowly by quite close in and gave superb scope views. Other highlights included Black Guillemot, three Long-tailed Duck, Great Northern Diver, 63 Kittiwake, 12 Pink-footed Geese, 21 Teal and 7 Barnacle Geese in off. A Collared Dove sheltering on the rocks below us in the torrential rain was a bit out of place to say the least, while two Purple Sandpipers were much more at home, feeding on the algae on the rocks and lifting into the air each time the surf swept over their chosen dining spot. One or two Redwings came in off the sea, and it was no great surprise given the origin of the wind that at least one was a beautiful dark coburnii race bird. The lochan at Bewan hosted a single Knot and 25 Ringed Plover, while wildfowl were well represented with 15 Shoveler, 33 Wigeon and a Pintail here too.
We then retired to the nearby lighthouse café, and indulged in some rather fantastic cakes and pastries over a coffee, providing yet more respite from the weather. The front had now passed us though, and despite one heavy shower our four mile walk back to the Obs was mainly in the dry and even some sunshine. 11 Snow Buntings were seen, plus two Raven, a few more Redwings and Golden Plovers. Cutting through the sheep dyke at Nevan and dropping onto the Links, we thought it might be wise to re-check the area where the Yellowlegs had been seen yesterday. An impressive 65 Ringed Plover and 13 Dunlin were scattered across the short grass, plus a single Wheatear, but nothing more. Reaching Gravity, we began the slog up the road into the wind, checking the various fields full of waders as we went. A call from George though alerted us that Dante had just re-found the Lesser Yellowlegs by the school! We hot-footed it there, and found the field in question which was full of Redshank, Golden Plover, Turnstone and a single Grey Plover. We soon found the Lesser Yellowlegs, being obviously smaller, slighter and paler than the Redshanks. The sun came out for just a moment, and illuminated it’s bright yellow legs wonderfully, just in time for everyone to get a decent scope view before the whole lot were flushed by a Hen Harrier! The rest of our walk back produced 14 Bar-tailed Godwit, 6 more Redwing and a Brambling.
WEDNESDAY 13TH OCTOBER – Fresh WSW winds and overcast, 12C
Island birding can be tough when the weather god’s aren’t shining down on you, and we were reminded of how slow the autumn has been for the Obs team today with what could best be described as a bit of a slog! A male Merlin in the ringing hut was a great way to start any day though – a stunning bird and surely the same individual we had seen the previous afternoon on the sheep dyke out in the west of the isle. After breakfast, we headed towards the links, where we planned to spend the morning checking for waders – surely there was a chance of a ‘yank’ given the weather pattern?! A good start saw us notch three Twite, Great Northern Diver, another Merlin (a lovely juv which flew in and perched on a muck heap), 70 Snow Buntings and two ringtail Hen Harriers before we’d even turned the corner at Nouster. As we walked north, a skein of Pink-footed Geese arrived, around fifty birds, and departed east with the wind up their tails at quite a pace. Two Ruff were with the Redshanks at the memorial, and a whisp of 30 Snipe flew over. Down towards Gravity, we got stuck into a nice flock of Golden Plovers, but couldn’t find anything with them. On the links itself, a scattering of waders included about 20 Ringed Plover, 11 Dunlin, single Bar-tailed Godwit and a few Sanderling. Not much to report really so we headed onto the beach and sat down for a seawatch. A female Long-tailed Duck was close in, along with a Razorbill, and five Great Northern Divers together included two in full summer plumage. As we walked south along the beach, 18 Snow Buntings flurried past us, and a few Wigeon and Red-breasted Mergansers were seen at the end of the beach. The walk back to the obs from here was hard work, into a strong wind, but we did have superb views of another Hen Harrier – this one a juvenile – at close range near Hooking.
After an excellent lunch, we were just getting togged up to go back out when George rang to let us know that Tom had found a Lesser Yellowlegs at the North end of the links!! We’d just been there! After cadging a welcome lift back there from Alison, we were soon on site but discovered that the bird had flown, having only been present 30 seconds! We joined the search to try and relocate the bird,, checking various small water bodies in the vicinity, plus the larger Ancum loch, but there was no further sign. We battled back to the obs in the wind, picking up a nice family party of Whooper Swans which arrived from the south and dropped onto Hooking Loch. We almost reached the point where we’d stopped mentioning Hen Harriers too – another one flew by here, and another was seen near the kirk too. Back at the obs, we decided to walk round to Gretchen Loch to check for the Yellowlegs there – it wasn’t present, so we just had a few Wigeon and Teal, plus 49 Oystercatcher, to show for our efforts. Another 33 Pinkfeet flew south to close the day.
TUESDAY 12TH OCTOBER – Light N breeze, overcast, 12C
Our first morning on North Ronaldsay dawned fine and calm as we met up at 0730 for an hours birding around the obs before breakfast. There wasn’t too much in the way of passerines, though that would be the order of the day generally (and apparently the theme for the autumn!) – just two Reed Buntings, Wheatear and Redwing. In Nouster Bay, a Grey Plover, three Bar-tailed Godwits and single Red-throated Diver and Razorbill were noted. We planned a full day on foot today given the fine weather, and so set off from the Obs with a packed lunch and a view to heading all the way to the north end of the island. Holland House was quiet, though a Chiffchaff ringed there earlier was still about, and nearby at the surgery we saw three more Redwing and three Greenfinch in the Rosa bushes. A ringtail Hen Harrier showed brilliantly over the iris beds around Hooking Loch, and we saw it several times during the day along that side of the island. Three Pink-footed Geese were also noted here and a constant backdrop to our days birding was the squelching call of Common Snipe flushing off as we walked along.
We then cut through the sheep dyke onto the west side of the island, where we saw ots of Golden Plovers and best of all, a superb male Merlin. The bird was perched low by the stone dyke and gave us some superb scope views, before flushing off north scattering all the waders. On the rocks, a Purple Sandpiper was found among the Turnstones, and another Red-throated Diver was offshore. Reaching the derelict croft at Nether Linnay, we had a good look around seeing a few Meadow Pipits and a Reed Bunting, plus twelve Skylark over the stubble field. Westness would be the ideal place for lunch, on the beach overlooking the bay where the Common Seals were keeping an eye on us! Three more Purple Sandpipers were here and gave superb close views, and up along the stone walls we saw another Redwing and a few Blackbirds. The trilling call of Snow Buntings drew our attention and we saw first a three and then a two flying over. Thankfully the three relocated to the beach and eventually gave us some superb views as they scurried among the rocks. A juvenile Hen Harrier breezed past us here too, giving our best views of the day as it stalled in the air and fanned its wings and tail as it dropped to the ground – a superb bird to see so close. Our walk back to Ancum didn’t produce much else until we reached the willows, and the cattle flushed a Jack Snipe for us. The bird bizarrely then proceeded to make three or four circuits of us at low level, and we could see its head markings clearly in the now stunning evening light. A Fieldfare without a tail then flew south too – we were notching up a decent list for the day! Walking back via Holland House we saw the Chiffchaff again, now in the company of a female Blackcap, and we rounded things off with a female Pintail at Gretchen. A quiet, but very enjoyable day.
MONDAY 11TH OCTOBER – Showers, overcast and fresh W winds, 9C
Pretty much a full days birding on Orkney Mainland today, began with a leisurely breakfast after a very late night last night. Echna Bay and loch were our first port of call, close to our accommodation on the island of Burray. The rain was a nuisance and squalls kept blowing in from Scapa Flow and soaking our optics, but we still saw a lovely flock of c50 Long-tailed Ducks and at least three Slavonian Grebes including one still almost in plumage. A Great Northern Diver, lots of Red-breasted Mergansers and a scattering of common wildfowl on the loch were also seen. With the weather worsening, we decided to head out to the West Mainland to try some sites there, starting at Aikernees. Here it was very quiet, other than the odd Eider and Kittiwake, so we pressed on to the west coast and the Bay of Skaill. This impressive spot produced a Great Skua in the surf which then flew inland, and a few waders on the beach – Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Turnstone. Just inland, a cracking Merlin flew right across the road in front of the van and off low over the fields. Heading round to The Loons reserve, we had lunch in the hide and enjoyed a great showing from Hen Harriers, with two ringtails and a fine male seen quartering the marsh. Several Snipe were also seen, but a big surprise was two very distant adult white morph Snow Geese which we picked up flying west. They had been seen in the area in recent days but seemingly very mobile. We opted to try and relocate them, wondering if they could be the same pair that wintered in Norfolk (and were previously also on Orkney). Luckily a couple of miles away we found them flying with Greylag, and everyone had a good view this time – but sadly they vanished behind a hill and we never saw them on the deck. Another Merlin flew by, and a close female Hen Harrier was seen as we drove around looking for the geese.
Next we dropped down towards Stromness and called in at the Ring of Brodgar, so that folk could take a walk up to the impressive standing stones. Seven Whooper Swans flew over here, and on Stenness Loch we enjoyed a mixed flock of aythya ducks which included 25 Greater Scaup. With the afternoon wearing on, we drove back east to Kirkwall and on to Toab, to check a nice mixed plantation which we knew would be sheltered from the wind. Redwing, Song Thrush and Goldcrest were seen here, plus another superb ringtail Hen Harrier which flew low overhead. As we were leaving, a skein of Greylag went over containing a single Barnacle Goose. We arrived at Kirkwall airport for the 1730 flight over to North Ron, which everyone enjoyed! Around 50 miles visibility allowed us to see Fair Isle and Sumburgh Head in the distance as we flew north, and we landed on the isle that would be our home for the next week with just enough light to walk back to the obs. A couple of Redwing and a big flock of Golden Plover greeted us – we were excited to be here and to see what the next few days might hold!
SUNDAY 10TH OCTOBER – Feshening westerly winds, fine and dry, 11C
We departed Carlisle this morning around 8.15am and set off for Dundee, where we would meet our last two clients before pushing on to Aberdeen. As usual, we had worked in a bit of birding time before the ferry and this would see us head to the Ythan Estuary. It was a lovely afternoon, especially when out of the wind, and we enjoyed some great birding to kick us off along the outer reaches of the estuary by the golf course. Eiders were the stars of the show, with fabulous close views of several hundred birds. The males were in full display mode, and we could hear their coo-ing calls echoing round the whole area. Goosander and Red-breasted Merganser could be observed cheek-by-jowl, and we had plenty of waders too – Turnstone, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Sanderling and Bar-tailed Godwit. We enjoyed the general spectacle and numbers of birds for a bit before relocating to the spit a bit further north where we saw two Greenshanks and had more views of the Eiders – at least 200 were loafing in the bay here at close range. Leaving the area about 3pm we headed down to Aberdeen and caught the Northlink ferry to Kirkwall, departing under clear skies and calm winds but the North Sea soon had a surprise for us, whipping up into a real storm mid way through the journey! In the opening hour though we saw lots of Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannet, Kittiwake and a single Arctic Skua before retiring for an evening meal.
SATURDAY 9TH OCTOBER – Calm and fine, 18C
Our travel day from Norfolk to Carlisle doesn’t normally include any birding, but today was something of an exception! News had broken late the previous evening of an adult Long-toed Stint in Yorkshire, the first British record since 1982 of this much wanted denizen of the Eastern Palearctic. This mega rarity was just 14 minutes off our route along the A1, so we didn’t have to think too hard about whether or not to make the diversion! St Aidan’s RSPB (Swillington) was a new site for all of us, and as we left a packed car park and viewed the area from the elevated position by the visitor centre we were impressed by the vista – it certainly looked like a cracking area but we didn’t have time to work it all today, and instead joined the army of folks coming and going along the half hour long trail to where the bird was showing. It was in truth a bit of a scrum trying to get a view of the small island, about 150m away, on the scrape where the bird was showing. But with patience the LONG-TOED STINT showed beautifully well for us and became yet another fantastic rarity to add to the mad list of sightings on tour in 2021!
SHETLAND 24TH SEPTEMBER – 5TH OCTOBER 2021
MONDAY 4TH OCTOBER – Moderate SW winds and sunshine, 14C
A decent day for our final hurrah on the islands, though it did end with a slightly painful ‘dip’ as we ran out of time before the ferry to catch up with one last goodie. For our pre-breakfast walk we headed down to Scatness, an area close by which we’d not yet had chance to work. On the passerine front it was pretty dead apart from a single Redwing, but we did OK on waterbirds with four Whooper Swans, a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and eight lovely Barnacle Geese, the latter flying south into the wind down the peninsula. Waders were represented by a flock of Dunlin, a nice Grey Plover and 24 Black-tailed Godwits which flew in. A Redpoll flew past us, and we saw our first Linnets of the trip here too. Best of all, down in the valley south of the lochan we found four Shorelarks, which were typically confiding and gave really good close views. A Merlin dashed by and perched on a rock too, giving us a pretty decent start to the day.
Shorelark at Scatness 4th October
Packing up and heading north up the island we called first at Hestingott, where a Garden Warbler was in the large garden by the playground. Detouring up to Mossy Hill, we enjoyed spectacular views south to Sumburgh and Fair Isle, and back up the west coast of Shetland across East Burra. A flock of Redwings were at the summit, and three Snow Buntings were flushed out of the second quarry. On to Channerwick next and the large finch flock was still present and seemed to contain a larger proportion of Brambling than previously, and a Yellow-browed Warbler was in the large sycamore below the house. At Ocraquoy, we checked around a couple of gardens for yesterdays OBP without any luck, finding a Pied Flycatcher instead, and then at nearby Fladdabister we picked up two grey geese coming in from the sea. We could see large, triangular heads on them in flight and what appeared to be a dark upperwing, especially the coverts which seemed brown with white tips (so juveniles). We rattled off some shots as we thought the were probably Tundra Bean Geese, but the views weren’t the best.
Tundra Bean Geese, Quarff 4th October. Dark brown upperwing coverts with pale tips, bright orange legs, large triangular heads and diagnostic tail pattern (dark uppertail coverts and narrow white tail tip)
Quarff next and another (third!) try for the elusive Bluethroat below the road junction. Once again it failed to show for us but as we waited the two geese flew back over us again coming east up the valley. They were indeed Tundra Bean Geese, and we could now see the diagnostic tail pattern and orange legs. WE were just planning our final approach to Lerwick when in typical Shetland fashion a message flashed up with a rarity – Red-eyed Vireo at Sandwick!! We did some quick calculations and estimated we would have twenty minutes there to look for the bird, so rolled the dice and went for it. We were there pretty sharpish, but there was no sign of the bird. Sadly, we had to leave before it was seen again, and so a slightly painful dip to end on! We headed up to Lerwick, fuelled up and headed onto the ferry.
SUNDAY 3RD OCTOBER – Gale force SSE winds, patchy heavy rain, 12C
Today had been billed as a complete write-off due to the passage of an intense low pressure system across Shetland, that was due to bring fiercely strong winds and heavy rain and make birding next to impossible. In truth, what we got was a very good days birdwatching! We had breakfast a bit later than usual to miss the worst of the rain, then headed straight round to Virkie as last nights Semipalmated Sandpiper had been seen again, on a small pool in the fields east of the boat club. We arrived to find a small crowd already watching the bird, which was feeding along the near edge of the pool in the company of a juvenile Little Stint and a few Dunlin. Despite the high winds, we had some good scope views – it was great to compare its more truncated, dumpy and slightly larger structure to the slightly smaller and more slender/long winged Little Stint. Its centre of gravity somehow appeared further forward, and it was clearly much greyer with not rusty feather fringes, a dark cap and lack of obvious white tramlines on the back. While we were watching, an all-white gull floated in which was initially thought to be Iceland. However, it was structurally identical to the adjacent Herrings, and of similar size, so didn’t quite fit either ‘white-winger’ properly. Being fully adult (due to bill colour) it seemed odd that it had quite variegated wings, with some blotchiness to it and sandy feather shafts in the primaries. We concluded it was probably most likely an odd leucistic Herring Gull.
Checking Grutness Voe next, and we had superb views of an Otter fishing close in to the stone jetty. A couple of Purple Sandpipers were also on the beach here, and then as we were heading back to the hotel, news popped up of two Shorelarks near the pier. We turned round, and were there within moments, but the birds had flown back to the massive boulder field and we didn’t see them. We opted to come back later, and so headed back to the hotel and set off on foot for a walk around the stone walls between the hotel and Sumburgh Farm. The weather was pretty biblical, but we did see the odd Wheatear, Redwing and a couple more Purple Sandpipers at close range.
Purple Sandpiper by Tony Jakeman
Taking a drive then north up the islands, Levenwick was checked, but the conditions were pretty awful and we saw nothing here other than some spectacular surf and a nice rainbow! The rain returned so we decided to head on to Lerwick, grab some sandwiches and then check out the sheltered gardens at Helendale. Two Grey Wagtails and a couple of Song Thrush were all we could find, but then a text came in that a Bonelli’s Warbler had been found at Quarff, only a few minutes drive away! We headed straight there, and already about 100 birders had assembled and were looking into a small copse down in the burn at Easter Quarff. We joined the throng, and right away had superb close views of the Bonelli’s Warbler feeding along the sheltered edge of the pines. It then became more elusive, but we stuck around for an hour or so and had some more really nice views of the bird – no calls heard, so it would remain either Eastern or Western for now!
Bonelli’s Warbler sp by Tony Jakeman
With an hour of decent weather left in the day before more rain arrived, we headed back to Grutness to try again for the Shorelark which had been seen out on the boulder beach towards the cairn on the headland. The light was fantastic and we found the bird feeding at the top of the beach, enjoying some really lovely views of it in the brief spell of sunshine before the heavens opened again. A drake Long-tailed Duck and two Common Terns were in the voe, and the odd Wheatear was about too. With a bit more daylight to play with, we drove back round to Virkie – seeing Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and 6 Pale-bellied Brent Geese – before popping in for another look at the Semipalmated Sandpiper. We had the bird to ourselves, in good evening light, and it was nice to see it again to round off a pretty decent day.
Shorelark at Grutness by Tony Jakeman
SATURDAY 2ND OCTOBER – Freshening SE winds, fine, 13C
A very good days birding today started with our final pre-breakfast wander around Hillswick. It was pretty windy after a very rough and wet night, and there wasn’t too much about other than the same Yellow-browed Warbler which we could hear calling in the main garden, a brief Garden Warbler and a very obliging Whinchat which was at least new in. After breakfast we set off for the South, calling first at Voe to try again for the Red-breasted Flycatcher which we had dipped on in poor weather at last knockings yesterday. Given the overnight conditions, we didn’t think it would have gone anywhere, and sure enough we soon found the bird sallying along the edge of the sycamores by the muck pile, in the big garden up behind the Pierhead. We ended up getting superb views of the bird, as it flew down and perched on a wall right in front of us. Always a crowd pleaser!
Red-breasted Flycatcher by Tony Jakeman
Next we headed directly south to Spiggie, to try and catch up with an Eastern Yellow Wagtail which had been found a couple of days earlier. The bird was showing in the grassy field by Noss Farm as we arrived in the sunshine, and over the next 45 minutes or so we had some really good views of it. At one point it flew and dropped into the closer field, before flying off past us calling. Having heard Citrine while we were up in Unst, it was really good to clearly hear and compare the calls. The EYW had an abrupt, sharp call with a Grey Wagtail quality to it almost. To the ear it lacked the hoarse raspy edge of Citrine and was nothing like the sweet call of a Western Yellow Wagtail. While in the vicinity, we checked Spiggie beach noting a very nice Purple Sandpiper and a few alba wagtails on the rotting seaweed bank at the far end. The loch, as well as a fantastic showing of Whooper Swans, held a single female Scaup among the raft of Tufted Duck, Wigeon and a couple of Goldeneye.
Eastern Yellow Wagtail at Noss Farm
Maywick for lunch, and a search of the furthest houses and gardens yielded a very elusive Pied Flycatcher, and singles of Siskin and Blackcap. It was otherwise fairly quiet though, so we continued on up to Quarff next, for a quick unsuccessful look for a Bluethroat which had been frequenting a field edge and garden at the split in the road at Wester Quarff. There was nobody about, and no sign of the bird, so we didn’t give it too long, as we wanted to get on to East Burra while we still had some good light to try and see the Red-backed Shrike. It was a bit of a twitching day for sure, but we were doing pretty well and enjoyed fantastic views of the shrike at close quarters, feeding along the edge of a copse and drystone wall in the afternoon sunshine. While we were watching the bird, a Red-throated Diver came flying straight into the voe behind us, flushed by a speedboat. It was clearly spooked by a passing speedboat and made an emergency landing, hitting the water so hard it bounced! Thankfully it was unscathed and flew off again soon afterwards.
Red-backed Shrike, East Burra
We had to head eventually south to Sumburgh this evening, so we decided to try Quarff again on our way past. At the end of the upper road, we had fantastic views of a Barred Warbler which we had actually looked for a week ago and not seen! It was catching flies in some willows along the roadside egde of one of the gardens, and for a Barred Warbler it showed just brilliantly well. We could easily see its silver-edge wing feathers, heavy bill and dark chevron markings on its undertail. Heading back out of the valley, we saw two birders by the Bluethroat garden so stopped to see if they’d had any luck and they had literally just seen it! We bundled out for another look, but the light was already starting to go and we wondered if it had gone to roost. We gave it half an hour, but the best we could manage was our first Stonechat of the trip. We thought that would be the end of our day, but then news broke of a Semipalmated Sandpiper at Virkie! We had to drive past here on our way to the hotel, so stopped and had a go for it. We had to walk right round to the far side of the pool, by which time it was getting dusk. We could see the roosting small waders among the rocks, but no stint-sized birds and nobody present had managed to see it. We figured that this would have to hopefully be one for tomorrow! On to the hotel, for check in about 1830. A busy day!
Barred Warbler by Tony Jakeman
FRIDAY 1ST OCTOBER – Calm and fine start, then strong SE winds and rain later. 12C
Another decent day with birds in most places we looked, although never big numbers of anything. We started at 0715 for a pre-breakfast walk around Hillswick, and it was a superb calm morning with yet again a rare feel in the air! We wandered down to the large wooded garden by the wick, and a Yellow-browed Warbler was still there working up and down the willows, plus we saw a new Willow Warbler there too. As we walked along the road, our acro from two days previously flicked up out of the irises and flew a short way before dropping in – exactly the same spot where we had first found it! We decided this time to try a different tactic, and creep up to where it had gone in and stand and wait. We could see the irises twitching, but not the bird! It then started calling though – a continuous soft ‘tcheck’ note which it carried on with for a couple of minutes. Quite unlike the Lesser Whitethroat type ‘tack’ of a Blyth’s Reed, which is normally delivered very intermittently. We had heard this contact call from autumn Marsh Warbler before and it confirmed our suspicions about the birds ID from the first day. We then had a couple of decent flight views, again with the bird looking creamy white underneath, quite sandy grey-brown above and with the rump the same tone as the mantle and tail. Flight shots confirmed a prominent eye ring but not much of a supercilium. We were happy!
After breakfast we checked the large garden on the way out to Urafirth, and the Redstart and Yellow-browed Warbler were still both present. On then to North Roe, and the last house at Isbister at the very end of the road. Here the small copse held a few birds, but they were hard to see! Eventually a Pied Flycatcher gave itself up, and we had fantastic views of a Yellow-browed Warbler. Goldcrest, two Blackcap and a few Twite were other species noted, plus a large flock of Golden Plovers. Heading back to North Collafirth, we checked the plantation-cum-garden by the road and had another Pied Flycatcher and Yellow-browed Warbler, plus a couple of the group saw a Spotted Flycatcher. Two Merlin chasing each other over the hillside behind us were also great to see. We decided to work the burn, getting a single Reed Bunting but nothing else. Olaberry for lunch, and we picked up a few bits here including Blackcap, Redwing, Common Redpoll and a Slavonian Grebe, which was our first of the trip. The weather was starting to close in, but we wanted to head across to Aith to try and see a first-winter Woodchat Shrike which had been found there yesterday. Amazingly the bird had turned up in a birding crews accommodation garden, and we had to hop the fence and go round the back of a small housing estate into the fields at the back to view. The rain and wind worsened, but the Woodchat Shrike showed well for us, sallying out into the field and perching on the fence along the lee of some willows. Fifty Siskin breezed in on the wind briefly too. We ended the day trying for a Red-breasted Fly at nearby Voe, but for the second day running we were scuppered on this species by the wind and rain closing in, so we headed back for an ‘early bath’.
Woodchat Shrike at Aith, 1st October
THURSDAY 30TH SEPTEMBER – Sunny spells and light winds, becoming strong SE and heavy rain later, 12C
We skipped the pre-breakfast walk this morning in order to get an early ferry across to Yell and then on to Unst, where we would spend the day trying to catch up with one or two good birds from yesterday. Norwick was the centre of our birding day, and it was predictably already busy with birders here when we arrived. As we drove into Norwick, a Redstart flicked up onto a fence and a Willow Warbler was seen, both good omens that not everything had departed on the clear night. The first-winter Citrine Wagtail which had been around yesterday was on the beach as we arrived, and we had some good scope views of the bird feeding with a couple of alba wagtails. It then flew towards us, landing on the beach at close quarters before flying again, calling, and off inland up the valley. We took a wander down to Valyie, where a large flock of Bramblings was in the crop, perhaps 20-30 birds, and a male Blackcap was seen. We decided to leave the area though as it was getting really busy, and we wanted to go and check around a ruined croft on the Skaw road where a Little Bunting had been seen earlier. We couldn’t find it, but another derelict croft with some fuschias in the garden held a Yellow-browed Warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap. The willows down in the burn held another Yellow-browed Warbler, showing brilliantly on the topmost branches, and another Chiffchaff was present.
Citrine Wagtail, Norwick, Unst 30th September
We continued on the road into Skaw, and as we came down the hill towards the croft, we noticed a Lesser Whitethroat on the fence along the roadside. A very brown and sandy bird, with the brown of the mantle washing right across the crown, making it most likely a Siberian bird of the race blythi. While we were parked in the road watching this bird, two or three other birds caught our eye in the middle of the road ahead of us. Two were Meadow Pipits, but one was a Little Bunting! We rolled down the hill towards it and got some decent views from the van, but it then flew with the pipits and despite watching where it had dropped into the burn, we couldn’t relocate it. We took a walk up across the headland to the geo, where we found three Siskins and a few Twite feeding on the sunny slope. Walking south along the clifftop, we then found presumably the same Little Bunting, among the thrift right on the cliff edge. We had some cracking views of it including one great moment when it perched on the edge with the sea behind it – a classic Shetland scene! Back at the croft, we piled back in the van and drove back to Norwick for lunch by the beach – seeing the Citrine Wagtail again briefly as it came off a roadside pool calling, down by the burn.
Heading up towards Valyie, the finch flock had now increased and the Bramblings had been joined by around 150 Chaffinches. As we walked slowly up the road, a pipit came out of the conifers and flew to the burn – it was long-winged, and obviously a Tree/Olive-backed but despite seeing it once again in flight, we lost it somewhere up behind Valyie. A Bluethroat had been seen earlier in the day in the crop, but despite walking the edges, we didn’t see it. A Yellow-browed Warbler was present though, plus a Spotted Flycatcher, Chiffchaff and Blackcap. Walking back to the beach, we then picked up the Citrine Wagtail again, but this time it was right beside the small bridge on the flood by the road and we had superb views of it. While we were watching, we heard a Little Bunting calling 3-4 times and picked it up as it flew from the beach area, over our heads and off towards Valyie. Either all the same bird from earlier (doubtful!) or our third of the day! The Long-tailed Duck was still in the bay, rounding off our day as we now had to head off for the 1600 ferry, which got us back to base at 1745.
WEDNESDAY 29TH SEPTEMBER – Calm and fine day, light NW breeze later, 15C
We rose to a totally calm morning, with a bit of thin cloud and a ‘rare’ feel in the air. Sure enough, we had our best days birding of the trip for variety of commoner migrants, and lots of scarce and rare birds appeared throughout the whole archipelago. We met at 0715 for our first birding walk around Hillswick, our base for four days. We were very pleasantly surprised by what an excellent birding spot it appeared to be, and in the first garden we looked in, our first Yellow-browed Warbler of the trip popped out for us. Further down, a large iris bed by the cemetery looked like it ought to hold something, and sure enough as we reached the far end, a very pale and quiet grey-brown warbler sallied up out of the rushes. We managed two short flight views, and could see it was an acrocephalus warbler, but quite obviously not a Reed – it was long-looking in flight, with consistently greyish upperparts with the rump the same tone as the mantle. It dived into the adjacent manse garden, and became very elusive. We had it back in the irises again briefly, and then back in the bushes where a couple of us did manage some views as it skulked around inside. Tis was enough to see pale underparts and pale tipped primaries on a longish looking wing. Everything we’d seen pointed to most likely a Marsh Warbler, but the views were never conclusive enough. We had another quick look for the bird after breakfast but there was no sign – though we did see a flock of about fifty Chaffinch and twenty Bramblings, a Common Whitethroat and Garden Warbler.
Esha Ness was our destination for the bulk of the day, only a ten minute drive from the hotel. We started off with a nice flock of Golden Plovers at Stenness, which contained a Bar-tailed Godwit, and then a Merlin dashed through and perched on a wire, flushing up ten Twite. Down at the lighthouse, we checked the sheltered geo and had Song Thrush and Redwing, but not a great deal else. We then worked our way back along the peninsula checking various gardens as we went, and notching a Redstart and Blackcap, and six Whooper Swans. Heading round to Orbister to check a large wooded garden, we had another Yellow-browed Warbler, plus great views of a smart Common Redpoll perched on the perimeter fence. Then it was back round to Hillswick to end the day – we stopped on the way in to check a large garden opposite the village hall, picking up a Yellow-browed Warbler, Redstart and Blackcap. Clearly there were birds arriving still and this was confirmed further back down at the manse garden where a female Hawfinch popped out and was feeding on the garden path! We saw this superb bird again twice more in flight and it was very vocal, so clearly freshly arrived. There were at least two Yellow-browed Warblers here now, perhaps three, plus Blackcap and lots of Bramblings again. It was now a stunning evening too, and we could see Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Red-throated Divers and Red-breasted Mergansers in the bay. A much better day in the field!
TUESDAY 28TH SEPTEMBER – Strong SW winds & sunshine, 15C
Another slow day by Shetland standards, despite much improved weather. The strong South-easterlies had sadly only been coming from within the North Sea and not really having any great reach to them, so despite the torrential rain yesterday and a few bits arriving in the evening, most of it seemed to be short range migrants such as Song Thrushes and the odd Blackcap. This was borne out in our birding today, starting pre-breakfast at Sumburgh Head where we worked the lighthouse garden and then the stone dykes below the head. A few Wheatear and Song Thrush were all we had for our troubles. After breakfast, we departed the Sumburgh Hotel and headed north to our next base at Hillswick in North Mainland, birding along the way. Channerwick was first stop, a lovely spot down by a beach with tumbledown crofts, thistle beds and a burn. A flock of about forty Chaffinch were feeding at the top of the beach, and held at least four dapper Bramblings which gave some nice views. Another handful of Song Thrushes ‘sipped’ out of cover as we wandered round but the dearth of phylloscs (in particular Yellow-brows) continued.
Our next stop was Quarff, where a couple of Barred Warblers had been seen again. There were a lot of birders here, and no sign of the Barred – though a couple of us may have glimpsed it at the back of some willows against the sun. Three Blackcap were seen, and a very brief Whinchat, in about an hours search here. Continuing North, we reached Brae in time for lunch, and then had a wander through the community woodland. Three Common Redpolls were seen, plus a couple of unidentified things flashing off through the bushes in the wind – not easy! We did add a calling Goldcrest too though. Seeking shelter, we headed round to Sandgarth, the fantastic woodland and garden at the head of the voe on the way up to the Toft ferry terminal. It was sheltered here, and we saw a couple of Blackcaps, Siskin, Song Thrush, Willow Warbler and another Goldcrest. The bay below held a Knot, and a few Red-breasted Mergansers, and a Sparrowhawk flew over. As we were leaving, we picked up a nice Redstart, feeding along the leeward edge of an adjacent garden.
Mid afternoon and we headed on to Ollaberry, an excellent site with a track record of rarities. It was super quiet in a short wander around in the wind today though, with virtually nothing at all to show for our efforts. It was only a ten minute hop from here, to our accommodation base for the next four nights in Hillswick, where we arrived about 1730.
MONDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER – Strong SE winds and heavy rain, 14C
A tough day, with some horrendous weather to contend with making any birding at all pretty difficult. We opted out of a pre-breakfast walk and instead set out around 0830, making our way north up the islands and heading to Hoswick. Here we hoped to find some shelter in the Swinister Burn, and we did partly achieve this, with the bushes being out of the worst of the wind but still not escaping the deluges of rain! We worked the main part of the burn 2-3 times and managed to get out a Robin, Reed Bunting, Song Thrush and two Brambling. Mostly these were little glimpses of birds whizzing past or ahead of us and nothing giving satisfactory views. Back by the fire station, a Spotted Flycatcher was perched on a roll of wire and gave some lovely views, and at least got us properly off the mark with a migrant! Sandwick beach was quiet, other than a couple of Ringed Plover and a handful of Twite around a muck heap behind Sand Lodge.
A roll of the dice next, and we decided to drive half an hour north to Voe to check the lochside plantation, again hoping this might give us some respite from the relentless weather. In truth it was more exposed here than we’d hoped, but on top of that there were virtually no birds – single Song Thrush being the only passerine migrant to be found! Back down to Cunningsburgh, and a long lunch break at McKenzie’s gave us chance to dry out a bit and regroup. When we headed back out, the rain had abated somewhat, and allowed us to slip down to Levenwick and check a few gardens. A frustratingly fleeting small bird in the first big garden as we dropped down to the cove, was probably a Willow Warbler. A couple of Kittiwakes were in the bay but again, slim pickings. We rounded off at Grutness Voe with superb views of ten Purple Sandpipers on the beach in the near corner, pushed up by the tide. It was great to watch them scurrying around in the seaweed with Dunlin and Sanderling. A Red-throated Diver was also in the bay, with it or another flying over the dunes, and a Common Tern was in the bay too. A really tough gig, so we called it a day about 3.30pm.
SUNDAY 26TH SEPTEMBER – Dry day but with some thick fog and strong SSE winds
A quiet day today with very migrants around, but we still managed to see a couple of decent birds and a thin scattering of commoner stuff. Our pre-breakfast wander around the Sumburgh quarries and Grutness yielded a few Chaffinches, a single Brambling, two Snipe, a few Swallows and several Wheatears. Bar-tailed Godwit and Sanderling were among the waders in the voe but that was about it. After breakfast, we headed north up the island and made our way down to Quendale, which was surprisingly sheltered and warm in the only sunshine of the day. We didn’t see much around the watermill, but a walk up the burn produced a Reed Warbler out of the irises which we managed some unsatisfactory flight views of (a warm toned rump was seen pretty well, nudging our ID towards that species). A couple of Whooper Swans were on Hillwell Loch, and as we left a Merlin was sat in the middle of a roadside field. Another Merlin was seen briefly down at Boddam, where there were a few Teal, Dunlin and Common Seals in the voe.
We then headed up the west side of the island to Geosetter and here a big flock of Greylag included a neck collared bird, plus two Pink-footed Geese and lots of Starlings, Hooded Crows and Ravens. The walk up the burn produced virtually nothing, but there was a Chiffchaff at the top end and a single Redwing flew over. Lerwick next, for a lunch stop and to get some fuel, and then we headed a bit further north to Girlsta where a 2.w drake King Eider had been present for several days in Waddbister Voe. It was hellishly windy here, but we managed to use the van as a bit of a shield and thankfully the Common Eider flock was quite close in around the salmon farm. The King Eider was present, though not always easy for everyone to see! It eventually showed pretty well though, its orange frontal lobe being the easiest way to pick it out among its commoner congeners.
King Eider at Girlsta, photo by tour participant Sean O’Hara
Lerwick had been shrouded in thick fog, but Girlsta was just out if it and the further north we went the clearer the visibility became. So we headed to Aith, to try and see an adult Rose-coloured Starling, and it was quite pleasant here with a bit of sunshine and shelter from the wind. We had a walk round the village checking the spots where the bird had been seen, but despite seeing plenty of Starlings we couldn’t initially find it. Extending the search to the fields and beach below the Old School House, we did then find the Rose-coloured Starling on its own feeding in the grass just above the beach. It was initially flighty and disappeared on us, but we refound it on the track above the beach again and got some excellent views as it fed along the edge of the grass. The day then fizzled out a bit with a stop at Quarff for a Barred Warbler proving fruitless on our way back south (we did add five Siskin and a male Blackcap) and then a quick check of Grutness Voe on the high tide just produced the same selection of common waders as earlier in the day. Back to base then, ready for some proper Shetland weather to hit us tomorrow!!
SATURDAY 25TH SEPTEMBER – Fresh Southerly winds, light rain giving way to sunny spells, 14C
After a reasonable crossing from Aberdeen and a good breakfast to set us up for the day, we pulled off the ferry and parked up to sort out our gear ready for the first days birding. A leisurely affair, mopping up on a few decent birds that had been around over recent days and getting gently bedded into birding on Shetland – wrong!! Within a minute of disembarking the ferry, a message pinged along with a gripping photo, of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak which had just been found at first light on Unst! A quick discussion and we swung North onto the A970 and began putting plans in place for the journey north, which involves two ferries, to get straight to the bird. The ferry phone line was already engaged, but we just kept driving north hoping we could get things sorted. We eventually got through to find the next two ferries were already fully booked, but we knew they never booked them to 100% capacity and so once onto Yell, we opted to head straight to Gutcher and try and get on the first ‘full’ ferry. As it happens, we weren’t quite first in the ‘un-booked’ queue and so didn’t make it on, but we decided to hang around at the terminal and wait for the next one. An Otter was fishing in the harbour and brought a crab out to eat on the shore, giving us a nice distraction while we waited for the boat. The next ferry arrived and we were able to squeeze on, meaning we were soon onto Unst and on our way up to Norwick and the garden at Valyie where the bird had been seen – normally our ‘local patch’ in tours past, when we’ve stayed on the island. Already a decent crowd had assembled but the bird was not showing, and was thought to be in the first large garden behind Norwick beach. A tense wait of around forty minutes ensued, but there were lots of birds here – big flocks of Chaffinches utilising the oat crop held a juv Common Rosefinch too, which we were able to get some scope views of. A Tree Pipit was picked up in the grass below the garden, and then perched nicely on a fence next to a Meadow Pipit, but there was still no sing of the star prize.
Just then, a shout went up from further along the road – the Grosbeak had been relocated up by the Valyie garden! We rushed up the hill, just in time to see the bird fly quickly over the path and into the dense cover of the garden. Thankfully, it only remained there for a minute or two before flying back out calling, and landed in a fucshia bush on the edge of the burn in full view. A stunning first-winter male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, just a few metres away and in good light too! It then flew up onto a fencepost, and started singing! The bird then flew off over the hill, presumably back towards the first garden, and we followed it. A little later we had it again perched up on a wire, and then in flight showing its dazzling raspberry red underwings (along with the white primary patch, this denoted male even without the singing!). Wandering back to the van, we enjoyed a cracking drake Long-tailed Duck in the bay, with an Otter swimming behind it for good measure, and some nice views of Sanderling, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Turnstone on the shore. A Great Northern Diver was also seen, and then two Wheatear on the rocks were joined by a young male Redstart, flitting along the base of a low cliff catching insects out of the wind. Norwick village added two Willow Warblers and a Brambling, before we decided it was lunchtime!
Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Valyie, Unst 25th September
Stopping at the Final Checkout, we grabbed a toasted sandwich and cup of tea before slowly making our way back to the south end of the island to check a couple more spots before our ferry. Uyeasound was quiet, so we tried Westing where another fine Long-tailed Duck was in the small bay, and there were a few waders on the shore. Down to the ferry then, and everything worked out nicely to get all the way back down south to Sumburgh by 6pm for check in and a shower before dinner. It had been a hectic start to the tour, but that’s what Shetland is all about!
FRIDAY 24TH SEPTEMBER – Strong Westerly winds and sunshine, 21C
After travelling as far as Carlisle yesterday afternoon, we had an early breakfast and set off for Aberdeenshire today, to leave ourselves plenty of birding time en route to the 1900 ferry sailing to Lerwick from Aberdeen. Our first stop would be a new one for us, at Montrose Basin – a regular migratory stop-off point for up to 80,000 Norfolk-bound Pinkfeet during September and October and we had heard that previous day had seen the first decent arrivals of the autumn. Sure enough we arrived to find large numbers of Pink-footed Geese sleeping on the sand flats, the remnants of a morning roost count here of some 30,000 birds. It was hellishly windy though, and we had to find what shelter we could by the screen on the east side of the basin. From here we were able to scope a few waders too, including Knot and Black-tailed Godwit, plus Little Egret (most likely the only one of the trip!).
Continuing North, we aimed next for the Ythan Estuary, a favourite stop for us as it is only half an hour from the ferry terminal at Aberdeen. We had plenty of time, so started at the seaward end of the Sands of Forvie where the rising tide meant there were plenty of birds to see. The Eider flock was ridiculously close off the end of the golf links, and in the balmy afternoon sunshine the drakes were ‘coo-ing’ to the females. Twenty or so Red-breasted Mergansers and a single redhead Goosander were scattered among them, and the flowing tide was bring lots of Guillemots and the odd Razorbill sweeping past us. Checking the waders revealed Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Knot and a flock of Turnstone, while among the gulls feeding along the tidal race were several Sandwich Terns, but also two lovely juv Little Gulls. A herd of a dozen adult Whooper Swans trumpeting in the sunshine rounded off a very pleasant walk along the beach here, before we headed back to the van and moved on to the bridge.
Roosting waders were quite hard to get at around the grassy edges to the estuary but we saw large numbers of Redshank and Lapwing, a few Dunlin and fifteen Pale-bellied Brent Geese. The Waulkmill Hide was more productive though, with 500 Pink-footed Geese in the stubble fields here and a decent selection of other bits and bobs. These included Goldeneye, three Greenshank and a large flock of Ruff, which we could see wheeling around looking for somewhere to settle as the water reached its zenith. Several Tree Sparrows were a nice bonus in the hedge behind the hide, and best of all was a large raptor which we spotted sitting in a distant stubble field. The bird took flight, seen off by Lapwings, and the penny dropped as we saw its very long tail and powerful jizz – it was a juvenile Goshawk! The impressive bird landed on a fence post, two along from a Buzzard, flashing its barred tail and big supercilium as well as comparing nicely against its similarly sized relative. A really cool surprise to round off the afternoon! From here we trundled on down to Aberdeen, joining the ferry for a 1900 departure. Thousands of Kittiwakes and a single Great Skua were about the highlight of our seawatch in the gathering gloom as the lights of Aberdeen twinkled away behind us. Bring on Shetland!
NORTH-EAST ENGLAND CUSTOM TOUR 14TH – 18TH SEPTEMBER 2021
SATURDAY 18TH SEPTEMBER – Warm and overcast, light SE breeze 20C
An excellent final morning in Northumberland to wrap up what had been a pretty exciting trip overall! We planned to bird our way around the Druridge Bay reserves, only a short drive from our base, and started off at the bird-filled East Chevington lagoon. There were lots of ducks here, mainly Teal but with plenty of Gadwall, Shoveler and Pintail too. Waders were fairly limited with Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff and Common Snipe noted. The light was great though and with so many birds it was quite hard to tear ourselves away. But Druridge Pools beckoned next, and as we parked up we noticed a mass of Swallows going into a panic over the dunes. We jumped out of the van to scan for an expected raptor but couldn’t see one – a suspicious looking blob on a bush caught the eye though and a scope was quickly scrambled, confirming the culprit as a young Red-backed Shrike! A very nice surprise and we enjoyed some great views of the bird catching bees along the dune ridge, being quite active and mobile and showing really nicely. At one point it flew right across to the roadside and perched in a hawthorn – our good run of finding rare and scarce birds continues! There wasn’t too much on the pools themselves other than a few Shelduck and a Ruff, plus a Sparrowhawk perched up and our first Chiffchaff of the trip in the copse.
Cresswell Pond next, and as usual an excellent spread of birds on view from the hide.. This included the young Spoonbill which was present on our last visit but today was sleeping, then feeding, right in front of the hide. A small group of Dunlin was present, plus a great ‘shank comparison at close quarters with all three species lined up together. There were four Spotted Redshanks present, including a group of moulting adults right in front of the hide feeding voraciously at the reed edge in phalarope-fashion. Three Greenshanks were also present, plus Common Sand, Snipe and Knot. A quick look on the beach to round off gave us some superb views of Red-throated Divers, including an adult just beyond the surfline. Hundreds of Common Scoter, Razorbills and three drake Eiders were also seen. Back to Norfolk then, with a five hour trip home seeing us back around 1830.
FRIDAY 17TH SEPTEMBER – Overcast with light SE winds, 18C
Holy Island is always a special place to visit but it served us up a great day full of excitement today! We headed straight there after breakfast this morning so we could cross the causeway and be in position for the rising tide and check the wader flocks. First checking the beach, we saw lots of Razorbills, a juv Kittiwake and several Red-throated Divers offshore. Then on the estuary, an excellent numbers and variety of birds included at least 500 Pale-bellied Brent Geese, arriving here for the winter from their Svalbard breeding outpost – we were pleased to see some nice sized groups of goslings among them already too. Waders were not to disappoint, with hundreds of Dunlin bustling in and feeding just in front of us, peppered with a few Sanderling and Ringed Plover but not much else save for three Knot. Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers were mostly clustered up the east end of the bay, closest to the village, and passerines included Stonechat, Reed Bunting, our first Skylark of the week and a single migrant Siskin going south.
Up to the village car park next and we opted to head out along the Crooked Lonnen first as we could see hundreds of Golden Plover feeding in a short grass field north of the track. Arriving at a gate where we could easily view the birds, we were delighted to find that the light was superb and the birds were close and seemingly not bothered by our presence. On the first scan through, we picked a striking bird out that was well marked, small and pale. It showed a prominent white supercilium extending down along the flanks, black peppering on the undertail, a long, heavy bill and long tibia. It didn’t, however, look especially grey. Clearly something interesting, we focussed in on it to see if we could check the underwing. It duly lifted with all the Golden Plover, and showed grey underwings. This was confirmed again a few minutes later when we were able to follow it in flight for a short while in the scope – dusky grey auxillaries. So a ‘Lesser’ Golden Plover – but which one? The bird began to feed actively and scurried closer towards us with each burst. It was strikingly small when seen next to Golden Plover, and had very long legs. The upperparts were coarsely marked with lots of yellow notching to the feathers, and also a lot of white especially in the small coverts. The tertials looked new and fresh, with yellow notches, and there was a fair bit of retained black on the underparts. It looked a best fit for Pacific Golden Plover, given its structure (especially bill and legs) and the upperpart colour and pattern. The primaries, however, looked rather long and caused some concern that it was perhaps an American. This didn’t fit with the rest of the ID though, and subsequently these fears were allayed by the fact that the new tertials were presumably growing and in fact it only had two on each wing, with the other feathers having been dropped. The length of primaries beyond the tail was well within the ball park for Pacific too so we settled on this as the correct ID. A tremendously smart bird, which continued to show superbly for us and eventually became the closest bird in the flock only a few metres away from us. Time was against us thought as we needed to get back into the village for lunch before the café closed, and so we left the bird hoping to return and loom again afterwards.
Pacific Golden Plover, moulting adult, Holy Island 17th September
After an excellent lunch we went down to the Vicar’s garden to check the shore, noting three nice Goosander, a few Eider, a Common Sandpiper and Red-throated Diver. We then returned to Crooked Lonnen, but found the Golden Plovers had all left their field and were now down on the rocks on the beach bathing and sleeping. Clearly, we weren’t going to get any further views of the ‘PGP’. We returned to the car park, and departed the island around 1630 on the ebb tide, heading back to base. A quick stop at the Coquet rivermouth produced some ridiculous views of Razorbills feeding by the weir, a Common Sandpiper and a close female Eider.
THURSDAY 16TH SEPTEMBER – Hot and sunny with light W winds, 20C
A tough day today with some bad luck with the Albatross and pretty quiet on the migrant front in hot and calm weather. We planned to shape our day around Bempton and the Black-browed Albatross which has been in residence on and off for the last couple of months. The only problem is, it’s behaviour is totally random and while some days it spends the entire day on the cliffs, other days it goes out to sea for many hours. It had been missing for most of the previous day so normally that is a decent indicator that it will be around, and we were fairly relaxed! En route to Flamborough we called at Hornsea Mere, a super site especially early in the morning with the sun behind. We soon notched up some nice groups of Little Gulls (surely this is the premier site for this species in Britain?) including a gorgeous adult sat on a buoy just off Kirkholme Point. Among the hordes of ducks we picked out two Goldeneye, and then found the juvenile Red-necked Grebe which had been present the last few days. This was a really smart bird, with striking black and white face pattern, and we saw it really well.
Red-necked Grebe, Hornsea Mere 16th September
On to Bempton, and we arrived to hear that the Albatross had been on the cliffs earlier, but had now flown out to sea – not the news we wanted to be greeted with. We headed down to Staple Neuk anyway, too enjoy the spectacle of the breeding Gannets which were now in the last throes of the breeding season – in fact one youngster fledged onto the sea while we were there. The views, sights and sounds were as fantastic as ever, but there was sadly no more sign of the Albatross which had been seen to fly way out and not return. With no way of knowing how long it would be before it came back, we put a time limit on it and then headed back. A Peregrine showed well in front of the viewpoint and our first Wheatear of the week bounced in off the sea too.
Flamborough Head was our next stop, and it was very busy here in the now baking hot afternoon. We did a circular walk of the outer head, which was devoid of migrants but the clifftop route allowed us to scan the sea which was busy with flocks of Razorbills, and lots of Red-throated Divers migrating south. Another Wheatear (a lovely male) was perched on the cliffs below us and a Rock Pipit flew in too. Back too Bempton then to eat our lunch, and give ourselves chance to dash back down to the cliffs ‘on news’ – sadly though it wasn’t to be and the Albatross had not returned. From here we had just over three hours of driving to reach our next destination for two nights at Amble in Northumberland, where we arrived around 1830.
WEDNESDAY 15TH SEPTEMBER – Sunny spells and light N-NW winds, 18C
An excellent and varied days birdwatching at Spurn today, on what would be described as a ‘quiet day’ for the peninsula, despite yesterdays excellent looking weather chart that seemingly failed to materialise any East coast grounded migrants of any quality or number. We kicked off with a gentle amble from the Bluebell to Cliff Farm, to get a feel for the day. A Lesser Whitethroat in one of the hedges, and then a lovely Spotted Flycatcher in the garden of Cliff Farm showed a bit of promise but in truth it already felt like it would be very quiet for grounded migrants. Along the canal, a Hobby flew in and circled over the Triangle before continuing south, and six Pale-bellied Brent Geese were on the Humber. We also saw four Greenshanks here and several hundred Golden Plover, and the tide was rising fast and beginning to concentrate lots of waders towards The Warren. We headed back to the van and drove down there to get into position and enjoy the spectacle of birds on the rising water. Grey Plovers were perhaps the stars of the show, with many hundreds present including lots in summer plumage – the light was just fantastic! Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Golden Plover made up the bulk of the numbers otherwise, but we picked two lovely juv Curlew Sandpipers out too, feeding on the closest mud. Our vantage point at the start of the breach was ideal with the sun behind us and more and more birds dropping in close to us all the time. At one point everything flushed into the air leaving one wader behind on its own – a juvenile Little Stint! Overhead passage was minimal but included a trickle of Meadow Pipits and Swallows, half a dozen Yellow Wagtails and two Grey Wagtails. There were a few raptors moving too, with 2-3 Sparrowhawks seen, plus a Marsh Harrier.
Grey Plovers & Knot on The Humber
After checking the bushes around The Warren, we popped into Canal Scrape where we saw a couple of Water Rails and a Willow Warbler, with a Garden Warbler flashing past us near the Discovery Centre. We lunched here, before driving back out of the village to Kilnsea Wetlands to catch the end of the high tide roost. A Spoonbill was resting among the large numbers of birds present, and a lovely 1cy Caspian Gull (German ringed) was at the back among numerous other large gulls. Mediterranean Gulls were also very much in evidence here with scores of them resting on the edge of the scrape, mainly adults but with lots of first-winters too. Other species noted from the hide here included a crop of juvenile islandica Black-tailed Godwits, eight Ruff, a juvenile Spotted Redshank, two Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, juv Little-ringed Plover, six Avocets and several Pintail. Back near the car park, two juv Little Stints showed well with a scattering of Dunlin, Ruff and Ringed Plover.
Spotted Redshank on Kilnsea Wetlands
Caspian Gull (German-ringed) on Kilnsea Wetlands
Heading back down to The Warren, we headed up to the seawatch hide for a short session as the light was now excellent for looking out to sea. We had a decent watch, with a trickle of auks and Red-throated Divers passing, a couple of sightings of Arctic Skuas chasing Sandwich Terns, two Common Scoter, and a flock of sixteen Little Gulls. The best bird was a pale/intermediate type juv Pomarine Skua, which appeared on the horizon line shortly after a group of thirty Kittiwakes had moved north. Its chunky appearance was obvious from the off, and in the initial view we thought it might be a bonxie. Better views revealed a massive silver underwing flash, but paler area on the belly and then as it turned and dropped to the water, an obvious pale barred uppertail. It then continued to power on south – distant, but clear-cut views. Heading back to The Warren bushes, the sun was shining on them beautifully and we wondered if something might pop out in the last warm rays of the day. Sure enough, a Pied Flycatcher obliged and gave us some lovely views in the scattering of small oaks and sycamores along the embankment. A Common Whitethroat joined the flycatcher briefly too. A super day!
TUESDAY 14TH SEPTEMBER – Heavy rain and light E winds, 15C
It was back to the North-east of England this week for a custom tour for Wensum Valley Birdwatching Society, and with east winds and rain for most of the day, we departed Norfolk rather wide-eyed at the prospect of a day’s birding tomorrow at Spurn. But, we had birds to see on the way too as we made a bee-line for Blacktoft Sands again and it’s long-staying White-tailed Plover. Little did we know that during our drive, a Bluethroat had been found here too and this was very exciting and welcome news when we arrived at the Visitor Centre (via the Tree Sparrows on the feeders)! Thinking the plover would be the easier of the two highlight birds to see, we opted to head straight to Xerox Hide where the Bluethroat had been seen twenty minutes previously, but arrived there to a hide full of people who’d not seen it nor knew exactly where it was. There were two shouts though of quick flight views of it over the reeds – this clearly wasn’t going to be easy! A great show of other birds here though included four Water Rails on view at one time, and they were pretty much constantly on show during our whole visit. Common Snipe, at least three Green Sandpipers, twenty Ruff and a lovely juv Spotted Redshank which flew in calling, were other highlights here. With no further sign of the Bluethroat though, we decided to take a walk east towards Townend Hide to see if the plover was about.
We checked First Hide, where it had been seen earlier, but there was no sign. However, a Glossy Ibis was seen in flight, fairly distantly to the east of us and going away – clearly heading back to Alkborough where it has spent much of the late summer. A Sparrowhawk breezed in and landed in front of us, and a Weasel was also seen, but no plover. On to Townend and there were plenty of birds again here – Black-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets, plenty of duck and another Green Sand. We were told the plover had been here half an hour previously, but had walked behind the small island and might still be there. De ja vu from our last visit here when something similar had happened! We waited for a bit, and then decided instead to go back and try again for the Bluethroat, returning here to check later.
Bluethroat at Blacktoft Sands, 14th September
At Xerox Hide, the Bluethroat was showing, and we managed to get one scope onto it as it sat motionless at the base of the reeds. It shot back into cover though before any of the group could see it, so a tense wait followed until it reappeared.. This time it played ball, and we watched it for ten minutes running in and out of the reeds and often standing in the open on the mud cocking it’s tail. It was a male too, with plenty of blue on the bib – though being an autumn bird we couldn’t see if it was white or red-spotted. A superb bird to kick off our tour though, and we added some Bearded Tits to boot. The rain was coming down heavily, but we had half an hour to play with – back to Townend Hide!
The visibility from the hide was grim and nothing on the scrape seemed to have moved an inch since we were last in the hide. We weren’t hopeful, but just then the White-tailed Plover wandered out from behind the small island and stood on the mud among the Teal, facing away from us! Its long yellow legs were the best way to spot it, as otherwise it blended in surprisingly well. Everyone got a scope view, just, before it took flight and headed back west over the reedbed and out of sight. We checked First Hide and Xerox Hide again, but there was no sign, so it must have gone down somewhere else in the reedbed. Still, a fantastic rarity to get on the tour lists again! From here we had just over an hour to run to our accommodation, where we arrived damp and weary about 1845.
NORTH-EAST ENGLAND CUSTOM TOUR 3RD – 9TH SEPTEMBER 2021
THURSDAY 9TH SEPTEMBER – Hot and sunny in light S winds, 24C
We departed East Yorkshire this morning to head homewards, but with a birding stop planned on the way at Frampton Marsh. Here we hoped to connect with the Black Stork recently present around the reserve, and as we arrived we learned that the bird was on the deck south of the road to the seawall car park. We headed straight there, and had great views of the stork wandering around in the field with the cattle before disappearing down into a ditch. As we headed back towards reedbed, the Black Stork flew up and we had it circling overhead mobbed by a crowd of corvids – fantastic views!
Black Stork at Frampton, 9th September
Reedbed scrape was the most lively area of the reserve, with most of the area from 360 hide being bone dry. 26 Spoonbills were a great sight, including many juveniles no doubt from the Norfolk breeding colony. A few Snipe, single Knot, the odd Ruff and two Common Sandpipers were also seen here and as we wandered back to the Visitor Centre three juv Little Stints flew and landed right in front of us. A lovely view and nice way to cap off a successful stop off. We had another ninety minutes to drive back to Norfolk from here, where the tour concluded.
WEDNESDAY 8TH SEPTEMBER – Hot and sunny in light SE winds, 24C
A very warm day today meant it was a bit of a struggle to see anything much new for the list, but we still had a nice day and saw a few bits and pieces up at Flamborough. Starting at the lighthouse car park we completed a circular walk of the outer head and Old Fall, picking up a nice Whinchat in the fields by the foghorn and a Yellowhammer in Long Hedge to kick us off. The rest of the walk round to Old Fall though was very quiet, with just a Common Whitethroat for our trouble, but there were clearly a few migrants in the Old Fall hedge – though they weren’t easy to dig out in the baking heat! Two Redstarts and a Pied Flycatcher were glimpsed as we worked our way slowly north up the hedge, each of them heading out into the broad bean field as we moved them out of the hedge bottom. The plantation produced two more Pied Flycatchers and a Willow Warbler were seen, and then as we worked our way further up towards Old Fall steps a Blackcap and Whitethroat were added. We were very hot and weary though by the time we got back to the car park!
South Landing next, and a quick check of the wooded ravine that runs down towards the beach. Another Pied Flycatcher was here, along with amazingly our first Chiffchaff of the trip, and a Bullfinch. We then headed across to Bempton and had a fairly improvised lunch before wandering down to the cliffs to see if the albatross had been seen again. We learned that it had flown out to sea early morning and not returned, so we were left feeling grateful that we had bagged it up two days previously and instead just enjoyed the spectacle of the nesting Gannets.
Our final roll of the dice today was to go back via Hornsea Mere just to mix things up and add a few waterbirds. A young Hobby hunting along the southern edge of the lake showed really well, and of course there were several Little Gulls dotted around – both swimming on the water and in flight – at what is surely one of the UK hotspots for the species. A scattering of other interesting birds included Pintail, Common Sandpiper and a raft of about one hundred Barnacle Geese! Back to base a bit earlier than usual, to give time for some packing ready to head home tomorrow.
TUESDAY 7TH SEPTEMBER – Hot day in light SE winds and sunshine, 24C
A full days birding at Spurn today produced a fairly typical day for this legendary migratory watchpoint – plenty of common migrants, a couple of really decent birds thrown in but a dip or two as well for good measure! You can’t be everywhere at once at Spurn, it’s a big site, but we were a little unfortunate not to connect with an Arctic Warbler, found yesterday and seen in the Crown & Anchor car park just moments before we arrived, only to be an absolute sod for the rest of the day and not show again until the evening (when we also missed it by a few minutes!). That aside, we had an excellent day and there was plenty to see, starting there in the Crown car park with a Pied Flycatcher and quickly followed up by four more between there and Westmere Farm as we wandered down that way to follow up on a reported Wood Warbler at Cliff View. Reaching the sycamores, we saw two lemony juv Willow Warblers, and watched one of the Pied Flycatchers perching on the wire over the road and dropping down onto the grass verge. A Redstart flicked across the road and into one of the larger trees and then the Wood Warbler appeared, flying towards us and landing in one of the roadside sycamores. Over the next fifteen minutes, we had some super views of it as it fed among the thick foliage – quite a pale one with striking white underparts and yellow only on the throat, plus the trademark lime green edging to the wing feathers.
Down to The Warren next (after another quick look for the Arctic), and we saw a nice Redstart and another Willow Warbler by the canal, then another Redstart at the Heligoland which was perching on the wooden cross beam. With patience, we had really good views of this one as it came out to perch on the dead elders in the trap mouth. There was no sign of a Common Rosefinch which had been seen earlier, so after a short seawatch (lots of Arctic Terns and Sandwich Terns heading south but not much else over the flat calm sea) we headed into the Discovery Centre café for lunch. We sat outside in the very warm sunshine, listening to groups of Yellow Wagtails moving south overhead.
Kilnsea Wetlands was first stop after lunch, and a great mix of birds here included a superb juv Little Stint with Ruff viewed from the first gate. A second one was seen later as the rising tide began to push more birds onto the pools, and there was a constant coming and going of gulls. Mediterranean Gulls were very prevalent, and we also saw Pintail, Wigeon, a few Sandwich Terns, Ringed Plovers and fifteen Greenshank. Round the top by the path overlooking Beacon Ponds, we had another lovely Redstart along the fenceline and a skulking Lesser Whitethroat in the hedgerow. A roosting Little Owl was also a nice bonus, roosting on the edge of some wooden pallets.
The day was wearing on now but we wanted to head back down to The Warren to try and view the waders on the rising tide. In truth, this was a bit hopeless as the light was just terrible, despite many thousands of birds being present. We did see a lot of Grey Plovers, which was nice, but then decided to give the Rosefinch some more time as there was a report it had been seen again. We stood around for a bit but despite seeing the Redstart again, there was nothing else doing. As we started walking north back towards the van though, we picked up a passerine flying south which dropped into the elders by Warren cottage and it looked suspiciously good for the Rosefinch. A quick scan and sure enough, there was the bird, a lovely juv Common Rosefinch perched in the open and feeding on berries! We scoped the bird in really good light for ten minutes or so, until it eventually dropped down out of view. A shout then went up that the Arctic Warbler was showing again so we dashed there – it had slunk away back into the copse though by the time we arrived and it wasn’t to be. Still a great Spurn day!
MONDAY 6TH SEPTEMBER – Warm day with plenty of sunshine later, 25C
Today was mainly a travelling day as we headed south to our next base in Yorkshire, but we made the most of the time we did have in the field with some top birding! Firstly in the Durham fells, we had some great views of roadside Red Grouse en route to one of our favourite birding spots in Teesdale, where we hoped to find its scarcer cousin. Sure enough, we were scoping up eighteen cock Black Grouse within moments of pulling up at our first stop – one of them was even in display on a stone wall and we could hear it’s bubbling calls! Repositioning a bit closer we had some really superb views as they casually wandered around feeding in a meadow – superb birds! Another short stop by the river yielded our other target species, which was Dipper. We watched one feeding in the water along the edge of a small tributary close to the road and had some great views – Sparrowhawk, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Mistle Thrush and Siskin were also seen.
Next we had a two hour run (after a quick stop to pick up lunch in Middleton-in-Teesdale) to the East Yorkshire coast, where we hoped and prayed that the long-staying Black-browed Albatross would do the right thing for us at Bempton Cliffs. We arrived there just after 4pm and it was a stunning evening – perfectly still and really warm. The bird was present so we yomped straight down towards Staple Newk, but before we got that far we were able to scope up the Black-browed Albatross sitting on the cliffs among the Gannets! An amazing bird, and we watched it for about half an hour in the scope as it wandered around on the cliff showing us it’s massive blue-grey feet, pinkish bill and black mascara lines. Eventually, it took flight and made three or four circuits of the cliff face before settling out of view. A tremendous bird and yet another top rarity to add to our 2021 roll call! From here we had a forty minute drive on to our next accommodation in Brandesburton.
SUNDAY 5TH SEPTEMBER – Sunny spells and light SSE winds, 18C
A solid days birding today saw us concentrate our efforts around the Druridge Bay area, but starting first with a seawatch at Newbiggin – the new Fea’s Petrel capital of the UK! The conditions were sub-optimal, but we knew we would still see plenty of birds here both over the sea and on the rocky shore. We kicked off with several groups of Arctic Skuas totalling nine birds moving north, a mix of juveniles and a couple of adults including a pale phase bird. They were attracted close inshore by the large numbers of feeding and resting Common and Arctic Terns, and we were treated to some great comparative views of these two species side by side over the inlet on the north side of the point. Here there was also a fantastic flock of Golden Plover numbering several hundred, and in beautiful light on the seaweed covered rocks. Other waders included Dunlin, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, and a juv Curlew Sandpiper which flew high south calling. Auks were also constantly on view both flying and on the water, but many were really close in at the mouth of the inlet and again giving good comparison views. A juv Little Gull appeared briefly over the sea, and Red-throated Divers, Common Scoter and Teal were all passing regularly in good numbers, the latter mainly moving north in flocks of 50-100 birds at a time. We rounded off with three Mediterranean Gulls in the south bay, and another in the car park which came to share our fruit cake!
Cresswell Pond, only ten minutes up the road, was our next stop and we ended up spending longer here than planned as there were a lot of birds on view from the hide, and with the light behind us the views of everything were really good. Around fifty Dunlin were close to the hide, along with an adult Bar-tailed Godwit, three juv Knot, a Turnstone and Ringed Plover. A juvenile Spoonbill was feeding along the west side of the pool, where there were also large numbers of loafing gulls including lots of Mediterranean Gulls. Two Greenshank, four Black-tailed Godwits, Barnacle Goose and Stock Dove were also seen, with a lovely female Scaup rounding things off nicely. The north end of the pond held a few more Dunlin, but nothing new so we called time on the morning and headed back into Cresswell to the café for an excellent al fresco lunch.
Spotted Redshank, East Chevington 5th September
The afternoon started at Druridge Pools, but the wet grassland here was surprisingly devoid of birds and we didn’t linger long before relocating further north to the excellent East Chevington. We did well here, with the light again very much in our favour looking north from the hide at the south end of the main lagoon. The low water levels in the near corner meant lots of waders at close quarters – and this included two beautiful juvenile Spotted Redshanks. Common Snipe, a score of Ruff, lots of Lapwing and Golden Plover, a few Black-tailed Godwits and a juvenile Water Rail were also seen well from this end. Further out in the distance, Little and Great Crested Grebes, two Goldeneye and about half a dozen Pintail were also added to the growing list! We ended the day with a walk through the dunes and scrub to the beach, where we had excellent views of two Red-throated Diver close in on the sea, a couple of flocks of Eider, a gorgeous juv Kittiwake and hundreds of distant Gannets.
SATURDAY 4TH SEPTEMBER – Overcast day with light SE winds and drizzle
Today was spent largely exploring Holy Island, a fantastic bird migration hotspot and with a very promising looking chart (high pressure now dominating over Norway and Sweden) and light winds coming off the North Sea, we felt it could produce a drift migrant or two. We started our day though with a check of Monks House Pool by Seahouses, where we saw seven juv islandica Black-tailed Godwits, a couple of Dunlin, Ruff, Wheatear, Shoveler and Teal. The beach was more productive, with a steady passage of seabirds passing in both directions offshore. This included lots of auks from the nearby breeding colonies, and we had good close comparisons of Guillemot and Razorbill. Shags were also seen on the sea, and there was a constant flow of Gannets and the odd Fulmar. In the surfline, we watched several juv Arctic Terns feeding, along with one or two Sandwich Terns, and some nice adult Red-throated Divers were moving south quite close in. Red-breasted Merganser and Common Scoter were also seen, with Bar-tailed Godwit and Sanderling on the beach.
Half an hour North and we were crossing onto Holy Island, with our first stop along the causeway to scan the mudflats for waders. There was a scattering of Dunlin and Ringed Plover here, plus further out we could see Bar-tailed Godwits and a massive flock of Golden Plover which came in high over the village and settled in the bay. A group of about a dozen Pale-bellied Brent Geese were nice to see, no doubt some of the first returning birds of the season. Moving on to Chare Ends car park, we geared ourselves up for a long circular walk around the ‘lonnens’ where we hoped to find a few passerine migrants. The first part of the walk was deathly quiet though, with barely a bird seen in the hedges. The Golden Plover flock came in though and settled in a grass field by the track – a fantastic sight and sound to have them drop in close to us. The grass was too long to scan through them properly though, and most of them disappeared on landing! The drizzle picked up as we continued north along the straight lonnen and reached the big willow clump at the far end. Inside, a Pied Flycatcher was calling and we managed some views of it in the canopy of the trees. Another bird slinked through, giving very brief views – some sort of warbler, but it looked intriguing. A couple of minutes later and we saw the bird very briefly again in the small willows at the back, keeping very low and skulking but looking big with a long tail – surely a Barred Warbler! With patience, we were able to work the bird out for all of the group to see it – it was indeed a young Barred Warbler with silver-edged wing feathers and dark chevrons on the undertail. Over the next half hour we saw it a few times, including good flight views right across the clearing in front of us. It eventually worked its way out into a hawthorn on the road and then flew high north to the dunes where we saw it drop into another berry-laden hawthorn. Great stuff!
A very elusive Barred Warbler in the straight lonnen willows today
Continuing around the coast path, we found a Garden Warbler in the same bush the Barred had headed to, and then by Emmanuel Head a small arrival of Wheatear had taken place with five hopping along the top of a stone wall. The rest of the route around the east side of the island was quiet, apart from Eider, Turnstone, and some more Golden Plovers. We lunched in the village (more like afternoon tea by this time as it was 3pm!) and then two local birders kindly alerted us to some Roseate Terns on the rocks down by the Vicar’s Garden. Hot-footing it there, we didn’t see the big numbers they had witnessed but had excellent views of at least six Roseate Terns, including two scaly juveniles. Their ghostly pale plumage, all black bills and loud ‘cherr-itt!’ calls easily identified them from the many Arctic Terns also present. A female Goldeneye was seen among a group of Eider, and then a female Goosander came out onto the rocks too. Back in the village, we headed down to the willows towards the harbour and had superb views of a showy Pied Flycatcher there, feeding along the sheltered edge and often in the company of a lemon juv Willow Warbler.
With the afternoon ticking away we just had time now to drive to The Snook and have a wander around the sycamores there to check for migrants. It was really quiet here, but on the way back out we did have one more bit of excitement as a Great White Egret lumbered in across the estuary and flew North-west over the dunes – a rare bird in this part of the world and apparently the first ever record for the island! Half an hour’s drive saw us back at base for 6.40pm, at the end of a long and excellent day.
FRIDAY 3RD SEPTEMBER – Light Easterly winds and overcast, 16C
Our custom tour to North-east England kicked off from Norfolk this morning, and with a slight amendment to our planned itinerary for the drive up, we headed not to Frampton as planned, but to Blacktoft Sands. The reason – a WHITE-TAILED PLOVER, a very rare species in Britain and the first ‘twitchable’ one for many years, had been in residence for the last week or more on the reserve and with a good chance of a decent supporting cast of other waders, we were hopeful of a good session. We arrived just after noon, and opted to head straight for the Xerox Hide where the lapwing had been seen, being greeted by the news that a Marsh Harrier had just flushed it out of view towards the Visitor Centre. While we waited patiently for the bird to reappear, there was a fantastic array of other birds to be seen – a couple of Green Sandpipers, a Greenshank, lots of young Ruff in various shades of cinnamon, Reed & Sedge Warblers, Water Rail and a clutch of pristine juv islandica Black-tailed Godwits. After about an hour, the WHITE-TAILED PLOVER flew from behind the reedy island and landed along the muddy fringe at the back of the scrape – a quite stunning bird in flight, with its gaudy wing pattern and long trailing yellow legs! We had the bird in perfect view feeding for five minutes or so, until it gradually
worked its way back behind the island out of sight. A top bird and just in the nick of time for us! We had ten minutes to pop along to the Marshland Hide, where we added two beautiful juv Little Stints, five Yellow Wagtails, more Common Snipe, Greenshank, Green Sand, Little-ringed Plover and a party of Bearded Tits working their way along the reed edge. Not a bad haul before lunch!
The afternoon was taken up with the drive north to Alnwick in Northumberland where we would be based for the next three nights. The A1 on a Friday afternoon was not good though, and the journey took about an hour longer than scheduled. Still, we arrived about 1830 in time to freshen up before heading into the town for dinner.
NORFOLK SHOREBIRDS TOUR 23RD – 26TH AUGUST 2021
THURSDAY 26TH AUGUST – Strong NNE winds, rain showers, 14C
An earlier start today as we took a packed breakfast and headed for Snettisham to catch the high tide. With a fresh Northerly behind it, we knew there would already be a lot of water in by the time we arrived about an hour before high tide, and in fact almost the entire mud area was covered as we trundled down the shingle. Huge flocks of Knot could of course be seen wheeling around over the estuary, and the shingle beaches were thronged with Sanderling, Dunlin and Ringed Plover. An Arctic Skua powered north into the wind (the first of three seen) and then a Peregrine blazed in and had a go at the swirling Knot flocks. A shower of rain was bustling in off The Wash though so we dived straight into Shore Hide, trying to beat the inevitable crowds. To begin with, there weren’t any birds roosting on the closer islands, with just a few thousand godwits (!) on the furthest island to the north and large numbers of Oystercatcher on the slope to the south. Ten Spotted Redshanks were seen (one juv,, the rest all grey winter adults), and a Little Tern flew past, supplementing the many Common Terns present. Eventually large numbers of Knot came piling in, flying right past the hide in long rippling ribbons and crowding onto the godwit island first, but then filling the closer island giving some fantastic views. There were good numbers of Dunlin with them too but we weren’t able to pick anything out among them. A fabulous russet and gold juvenile Black-tailed Godwit of the race islandica and a great comparison of streak-backed Bar-tailed Godwit with the plainer Black-tails, was great to see.
Heading back out into the elements, the tide was reluctant to ebb with the wind behind it, but we walked north to check the roosting beaches where there were some stunning fresh juv Sanderling among the sleeping Dunlin and Ringed Plovers. Three Turnstones were shovelling the rotting seaweed at the top of the beach, and three Spoonbills flew north. Large flocks of Shelducks were on the water, and a single Great Crested Grebe was also seen. A decent haul, but with more rain coming ‘in off’ we opted to head back to the van and head off to Titchwell.
With the works ongoing on the freshmarsh, we knew things would be disturbed to a degree but there were still lots of birds to see and we enjoyed more great wader watching here. The closest compartment was mainly full of gulls and common ducks, but a flock of Golden Plover wheeled in and there were plenty of young Ruffs about. A subadult Caspian Gull, probably 4th calendar year, was preening at the back before flying out towards the beach – its combination of black eye, sloping head, long and slender greenish toned bill and mid-grey back being useful pointers. From Parrinder, we fared better on waders with a flock of about 150 Dunlin visible, along with a juv Curlew Sandpiper and at least one Little Stint. A Turtle Dove flying north sadly didn’t hang about, and other species noted included Greenshank and Yellow Wagtail. A decent end to the tour, which we wrapped up then at around 3pm.
WEDNESDAY 25TH AUGUST – Overcast day with light Northerly winds, 18C
A tougher day today, with six miles walked but relatively few migrants noted despite a drizzly start to the morning bringing plenty of promise! We headed down to Burnham Overy to walk out to the dunes, hoping for one or two migrants in the scrub. The walk out was fairly quiet, other than a Yellow Wagtail flying low over us, but once we reached the seawall the big marsh tide had covered everything and so there was plenty of activity of displaced birds. Several flocks of Golden Plover where wheeling about, looking superb in the gin-clear light. Two smart summer Grey Plovers dropped in too, and a Whimbrel flew up calling from the Sea Lavendar. Once we reached the dunes, a Whinchat on the fence was a nice addition, but other than that the boardwalk bushes were very quiet. Heading east, we notched five each of Common and Lesser Whitethroat, a Blackcap, a single Wheatear and a couple of Chiffchaff. Gazing across from the west end of the pines, we saw a juvenile Spoonbill in flight, but that was about it. The long walk back was punctuated though by five Whinchats now together on the new fence east of boardwalk – new arrivals, or just a gathering together of birds spread across the area, we weren’t sure.
Next up was Wells North Point, an excellent wetland where after lunch, we enjoyed some superb close up views of waders. This included loads of Snipe, probing away in the wet grassy margins in fantastic light. Several Ruffs included lots of dapper fresh juveniles, and a Green Sandpiper (one of three present) bobbed beautifully in the open only a few yards away. Black-tailed Godwits remained further back, where a single Spoonbill slept, and we saw a superb male Marsh Harrier quartering a wheat field. The now semi-resident Common Crane showed very well, wandering around in the field among the Greylags!
Wells Woods rounded off our day, as we got stuck into the large tit flock roving around the edge of the dell. The light was tricky as it was very dull, and the birds were not very obliging! They wouldn’t really settle anywhere where we could get any prolonged views, but several Willow Warblers were seen, looking bright yellow against the scruffy, khaki Chiffchaffs. A Pied Flycatcher was seen a couple of times by Ashley but wouldn’t sit for the group, and we also saw a few Blackcaps. A quiet day, but one or two nice highlights and again lovely warm weather for being out and about!
Brown Hare at Wells North Point today
TUESDAY 24TH AUGUST – Warm day in moderate North-easterly winds, 20C
With excellent meteorological conditions over the weekend for an arrival of Scandinavian migrants, we had high hopes for the tour in continuing North-easterly winds that passerines could be very much on the agenda, as well as waders! With this in mind we started down at Stiffkey Greenway and spent a couple of hours walking west along Warham Greens to look for migrants. With a big tide the saltmarsh was flooded and so there were plenty of birds to see on this side too, including several large flocks of Golden Plovers, six Greenshank and two very smart Whimbrel. A small group of juvenile Bar-tailed Godwits flew in low calling too, and then headed off west towards Wells. The bushes were fairly quiet, though we were moving small numbers of Common Whitethroats ahead of us as we walked slowly along. By the time we reached the whirligig, everything had gathered up in the roses and elders there and we had six Lesser Whitethroats in one bush! Watching the back of the scrub quietly we had some good views of the two whitethroat species together, plus several Blackcap. Two Yellow Wagtails flew low over us calling and a Sparrowhawk gave superb views as it flushed out of the main pit and circled up in front of us, scattering a huge flock of Starlings.
Red-backed Shrike at Gramborough Hill
Salthouse was our next stop, where a juvenile Red-backed Shrike had been found the previous afternoon on Gramborough Hill. A small crowd of birders were gathered but reported the shrike was elusive – though we actually saw it within seconds of walking up, perched in the open in an elder bush. True to form though it did then disappear for a while, but soon showed again and then gave itself up by perching close to us on a buddleia. Over the next half hour, we saw the bird really well as it sallied after bees and other insect prey from the scattered bushes. A beautiful bird and classic August drift migrant on the north-easterly airflow. Two Hobby came powering in from the sea, sending the local Sand Martins towering up into the sky – they came in over our heads and quickly off inland at a terrific speed. A Wasp Spider was also seen here, quite a spectacular beast!
The shrike eyes up a bee (top left in left image!) then expertly dispatches it
Cley next, and after lunch we headed out to the main hides to get stuck into some waders. It was really excellent, with cattle having churned up Simmond’s Scrape and seemingly having improved its appeal for birds. Three juvenile Little Stints were picking around on the mud, and two flocks of Dunlin, almost all juveniles, totalled about forty birds. Green Sandpiper, juvenile Ruff and a single Golden Plover were also on this pool but the best of the birding was to be had on neighbouring Pat’s. Along the reed edge here we had a gorgeous juvenile Wood Sandpiper, picking along the edge with several young Ruffs of various sizes and levels of colour intensity. A peachy juvenile Curlew Sandpiper then wandered into view and there were more Dunlin and hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits too. This included some beautiful fresh juveniles, looking really immaculate in their orange and gold garb. While watching along the reed edge at the myriad waders, it was almost inevitable that we would see some Bearded Tits, and indeed two bright ginger juveniles appeared and were hopping around on the mud at the base of the reeds. A moulting adult Spotted Redshank was also seen, and a Marsh Harrier drifted by – not a bad haul!
East bank wrapped things up for us today, and there were plenty more birds to see here. A Little Gull on The Serpentine was still lingering, having been hanging around here for a week or so. Two each of Green and Common Sandpiper were also seen, plus there were Snipe everywhere – really fantastic to see. On nearby Arnold’s Marsh, we enjoyed listening to the Sandwich Terns still with their scaly backed young in tow, and more waders here included about thirty Dunlin, four pristine juv Bar-tailed Godwits and a Greenshank. We had to take shelter in the hide as a squall of rain hurried in off the North Sea, dropping a salmon-fronted juvenile Knot in the process. Better still, two adult Arctic Skuas then cruised in off the sea and flew off west over the marsh, providing a fantastic finale to a great day!
THURSDAY 12TH AUGUST 2021
A great day focussing on waders today saw us start down at Snettisham for the ebbing tide. We arrived pretty much on high water, to the spectacle of thousands of shorebirds, mainly Knot, wheeling over The Wash. It was a perfect morning with great light and not too much wind, and we were keen to get stuck into the wader flocks in the roost to see if we could spot anything different. A superb adult Curlew Sandpiper was jostling for position among the Dunlin from Shore Hide, where we also saw ten or so Spotted Redshanks. As the tide began to drop, the exposed mud opposite Shore Hide was the chosen resting place for hundreds of terns – it was fantastic to see so many Little Terns, including many juveniles, no doubt from colonies further north. Among them was a fine juv Black Tern too!
We followed the ebbing tide back towards the chalets, as Dunlin and Ringed Plover started to appear on the freshly exposed feeding areas. A lovely Little Stint was picked out, scurrying among the Dunlin, and then a call went up that the adult White-rumped Sandpiper had been relocated. We enjoyed some pretty good views of this Nearctic wanderer, being distinctively long-winged and low-slung compared to its commoner relatives.
The afternoon was spent enjoying more waterbirds on the North Norfolk coast at Wells and then Cley. Ruffs, Green and Common Sandpipers, Black-tailed Godwits, Little-ringed Plovers and lots of Common Snipe were seen at both locations. A superb juv Wood Sandpiper was a highlight on the Cley Serpentine, where we also saw a 2cy Little Gull. A great day!