15th June 2024 – Summer Tour, Day 2 & Nightjar Evening


Day 2 of a 3-day Summer Tour, including a Nightjar Evening. It was originally meant to be a nicer day today, but it started very grey and damp and was much windier still than forecast. After a brighter hour or so mid-morning when the sun broke through, it clouded over again and then rained for most of the afternoon. We spent most of the day down in the Norfolk Broads. There were still one or two unforecast showers around in the evening, when we went out again to look for Nightjars.

It was stubbornly very grey and gloomy as we drove down to the Broads, but at least it wasn’t raining and it was showing signs of brightening up a little by the time we arrived in the car park at Hickling Broad. By the Visitor Centre, as we stopped to use the facilities, we heard a brief snatch of Garden Warbler song and a Willow Warbler was singing as we walked down the track behind, towards Stubb Mill.

Scanning Brendan’s Marsh from the corner, there were lots of moulting ducks loafing on the islands, mainly Gadwall and a few Mallard. In with them though was a smart drake Wigeon, very scarce here in the summer months, as most of the one which spent the winter here fly off to Russia for the breeding season. Our first Hobby of the morning was hawking for insects low over the water and the reeds beyond and landed in the dead trees behind.

Hobby – landed in the dead trees

Looking out over the next compartment from the first platform, Egyptian Goose was an addition to the weekend’s list. There were also four Black-tailed Godwits here and a single Little Ringed Plover. You can only fit two people at a time on this one, so we moved on to the next platform which is bigger. There were two more Little Ringed Plovers from here, a couple of Marsh Harriers over and Common Terns flying in and out from the islands.

Waders – Black-tailed Godwits & Little Ringed Plover

We had just started to descend the steps when a Common Crane came up from the reeds further back. It flew up, turned and came straight towards us, flying right past us over the track before disappearing over the trees behind. Great views, and the first of several this morning.

Common Crane
Common Crane – flew over

There are usually lots of dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies along the track here but it was worryingly quiet this morning. The weather has been so persistently cool and windy recently that there seems to be a dearth of insects at the moment. We did eventually find a single Common Darter briefly in the grass.

From up on the bank at the far end of Brendan’s Marsh, we turned our attention back to birds. A Spoonbill was dozing on the last compartment with some Little Egrets but they spooked as we walked up onto the bank and flew off. Two Common Cranes flew over the reedbed beyond and disappeared behind the trees, and then one flew in over the trees, across Brendan’s and dropped down in the reedbed beyond.

Spoonbill – flew off

We picked up a Hobby coming out of the dead trees in the reedbed. It flew up and we watched it catching insects and eating them on the wing, bringing its feet up to its bill. It came right up towards us and did a great swoop round in front, before turning and dropping fast and low over the reeds away to our left. There were Marsh Harriers everywhere. One female came in over the reeds at one point and circled round right above us, giving us come lovely close views.

Marsh Harrier
Marsh Harrier – a female

Another Crane came in over the trees and dropped down into the reedbed, where we heard it bugling briefly. It was hard to tell whether this one or the previous one were the same as the bird we had seen flying off the other way earlier, but we were not short on Crane activity this morning.

Common Crane
Common Crane – another one flew over

We were hoping for some Bitterns too this morning, but we had to be patient. A tantalising glimpse of one flying over the reeds dropped down too quickly for anyone else to get on it. Then a second appeared and this time went on a much longer flight, low over the reeds from right to left across in front of us giving us plenty of time to get onto it before it eventually disappearing back into the reeds. We could still hear one or two male Bitterns booming too – it is getting late in the season for hearing them now, so this was an unexpected bonus.

Bittern – flew across

There were a couple of Little Ringed Plovers on the pool now. We were just turning to leave, when a Green Sandpiper dropped in briefly too. Another wader returning already for the autumn – when it barely feels like summer has even started here!

Green Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper – a returning migrant already

Walking back along the path, there seemed to be a few more blue damselflies out, and we managed to find a single Variable Damselfly among the more common Azure and Common Blue Damselflies. Turning onto the Whiteslea track, we found a couple of Speckled Wood butterflies and a Four-spotted Chaser out of the wind in the lee of the wood.

Variable Damselfly
Variable Damselfly – warming up

From up on the bank overlooking Brendan’s Marsh, we found the first Hobby we had seen earlier still in the back of the dead trees in front. We got it in the scope and had a really good close-up view of it now. Eventually it took off and flew round catching insects above our heads. Another Crane flew in from over the trees at the back and dropped down into the reedbed.

Hobby – hawking overhead

Continuing along the top of the bank, we were out in the wind now and it quickly clouded over. Not what we wanted, as we had hoped we might be in with a chance of finding a Swallowtail despite the weather. A Bearded Tit zipped across over the reeds. Checking the ditches in the reedbed, we found a couple of Norfolk Hawker dragonflies hawking up and down, out of the wind.

Along the path beside the Broad, we stopped by a small area on the edge of the path which has been fenced off. Several Fen Mason Wasps were flying around the bare patches of earth and trying to warm up on the grass.

Fen Mason Wasp
Fen Mason Wasp – on the path

It was windy and cool here, and it was no surprise there were no butterflies out. We did find several caterpillars on the path – two or three Garden Tiger and a single Drinker moth. Another couple of Bearded Tits flew past over the reeds and several Willow Warblers and Blackcaps were calling in the willows.

Garden Tiger caterpillar
Garden Tiger caterpillar – by the path

We had a quick look out at the Broad itself, where there were lots of Mute Swans out on the water. Then we cut back on the path to the Visitor Centre, stopping briefly to look at a Cetti’s Warbler which was unusually visible in the sallows as it shouted at us as we passed.

While we sat out on the picnic tables eating lunch, we could see dark clouds approaching and it started to rain. It was fairly light at first, and we had thankfully managed to finish eating and get into the Visitor Centre before it got much heavier. There was no point looking for butterflies now, so we decided to move on.

As we drove back north, the rain fell heavily. We stopped on a ridge and scanned the fields beyond from the shelter of the minibus. There were brighter skies to the west and we didn’t have to wait too long before the rain stopped.

We got out for a walk but the low grey cloud was still slow to clear through and it was cool now. A couple of Skylarks fluttered up and there were Greenfinches and Linnets on the wires. A Blackcap was singing from the bushes behind us and a Common Whitethroat in the damp vegetation on the bank in front. When the sun finally came out, a flock of hirundines including several Sand Martins flew over and several Buzzards started to circle up.

The weather wasn’t done though and we could see more dark clouds beyond now, and heard a rumble of thunder. We headed over to Cromer for a quick look at the Peregrines. When we arrived at the church, we could see one of the adults perched high on the tower. Looking through the scope, we could see its feathers ruffled by the wind.

Peregrine – an adult on the tower

We hadn’t been at Cromer long when the rain caught up with us again. We were going out again later, so we decided to stay dry and head back for tea and cake. By the time we got back to Hindolveston, the sun was shining now.

Nightjar Evening

After a break for something to eat, we met again in the evening. As we drove out of the village, we caught a glimpse of a Barn Owl as it flew round the back of what used to be some barns (where the Barn Owls used to breed!) but have been converted into more second homes and holiday houses. When we got up to where it had disappeared, there was no sign initially but then we saw it come out of an owl box hidden behind a tree further back. It perched at the entrance for a minute, before flying off and we lost sight of it round the back of the barns. A good start!

As we made our way down towards the coast, we had a brief glimpse of another Barn Owl, so we had high hopes for more being out hunting this evening after all the rain and wind recently. We drove round past some fields where they have been hunting recently but there didn’t seem to be any sign of these ones now, disappointingly.

Having parked and got out, we walked up onto the bank to scan the grazing marshes to see if we could find one there. Again, it looked deserted here at first but then we spotted a very distant owl out hunting. However, it wasn’t a Barn Owl – to our surprise, it was a Short-eared Owl! It was hard to see at times, a long way off and it kept disappearing behind the trees and low over the ground in the fading light, but we could see its distinctive rowing flight action.

One of the group was looking the other way while the rest of us were watching the Short-eared Owl, and picked up a Barn Owl now flying across. It was high up in the sky and its white plumage contrasted with some very black and threatening clouds beyond. We could see it had food in its talons, so was flying determinedly back to the nest rather than hunting, and probably flying so high up would help it to avoid the attentions of the local Kestrels, which would happily steal its prey.

Barn Owl
Barn Owl – taking prey back

The Barn Owl disappeared into the trees and very shortly came back out again the other way empty-taloned. This time it flew low, over the grass and the reeds behind us, crossed the road and disappeared off over the houses beyond. We tried to follow it, but we arrived the other side of the village just in time to see it flying back the other way towards the nest with food again.

It was time to move on for the evening’s main event. As we drove inland, it started to rain again – this definitely wasn’t in the forecast – but thankfully it was only localised and had stopped by the time we arrived. As we walked out onto the heath it was cool and damp now though, and very wet underfoot.

After arriving at our regular spot, we didn’t have long to wait before we heard the first Nightjar churring in the distance. It was still early and as is typical at first, it gave a couple of short bursts and then stopped again. Then we heard a Nightjar calling and looked over to see one flying straight towards us. It flew right over our heads and the light was still good so we could see it was a male, with white bars across its wings. It dropped down out across the heath and disappeared behind the gorse.

So far, so normal, but from then on it went surprisingly quiet. There was no more churring and we heard no flight calls, in fact worryingly there was no sign of any Nightjar activity at all for the next 45 minutes or so. Presumably the recent cold, wet and windy weather means they have been struggling to find food. There were a few moths around here, but generally moth trapping has been woefully poor so far this June.

The light was starting to go now, so we walked a short distance back and stopped on the path by another Nightjar territory. After a few seconds, one flew in calling. It circled around in front of us calling quietly before flying out and dropping into the heather. Then it came in again and did the same – we had some nice silhouetted views against the sky.

Finally a single male Nightjar started to chur properly – already over an hour after sunset. It provided a nice backing track as we made our way back – we had another day out tomorrow, so it was time to head back to bed. A successful evening out watching and listening to the Nightjars, but a concerning one.

If you like what you read here, you can find more on our regular News page here. To see what other tours we have coming up, check the list here.

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