17th Feb 2024 – Owl Tour

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A single-day Owl Tour in North Norfolk today. After some sunny spells early on, it was a rather grey and cloudy day but very mild. There were a couple of thankfully very brief spells of light drizzle, which were not in the forecast, but we largely managed to dodge them.

There was no sign of any Barn Owls still out hunting on our way down to the meeting point this morning, which was not an auspicious start. Having picked everyone up, we drove back round all the usual fields where we might expect to find them hunting before they head in to roost, but all was quiet. After a couple of very mild and dry nights, the Barn Owls had presumably been catching enough food in the hours of darkness and were not hungry enough to be out in the daylight now.

We stopped again where we had seen one going off to roost last week, just in case it might do a repeat fly past. A Song Thrush was singing from the trees as we got out of the minibus and a flock of Curlews was feeding out in the wet grass. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled up out over the marshes and a male perched on a post where we could get it in the scope. Two Great White Egrets flew across in the distance followed by an untidy looking flock of Brent Geese. As we looked inland, we picked up a small flock of Pink-footed Geese in a more ordered skein heading off to find a suitable feed to feed in. A lone Greylag circled low over us honking.

We decided to cut our losses and head on to try for Tawny Owl instead. As we walked up the footpath, the sun was shining over the trees and we could make out the Tawny Owl at the entrance to its usual hole, but we were looking into the light from here. It looked settled today though, so we continued straight up to the corner where we had a great view now, looking straight at it with the sun behind us. The Tawny Owl was mostly dozing, with its eyes half closed and it seemed to completely ignore us where we were on the path. When several Jackdaws appeared in the tree and seemed to be checking out the hole, the Tawny Owl opened its eyes at one point but it didn’t seem overly concerned and after a while the Jackdaws flew off.

Tawny Owl – in its usual hole

It gradually clouded over and then after a while started to spit very lightly with rain, which was not in the forecast, so we walked back down the footpath to minibus. From where we were parked, we could see some distant Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh and one of the group spotted a juvenile Peregrine standing in the middle of a stubble field, where we got it in the scope for a closer look. A Chaffinch was singing from the branches of a bush above the minibus, another bird getting ready for spring.

We headed inland next, checking a succession of barns on the way to see if we could find any Little Owls. The drizzle had eased but it was still rather grey and not ideal weather for owls to be perched out – they normally like a bit of morning sun. We were almost not going to stop as we passed one regular set of barns, but we slowed down and looked across to see a Little Owl right on the top of the roof of one of them. We pulled up in a nearby layby and got out, so we could get it in the scope. After a while, it dropped down behind the gable it had been perched on, but we could still just see it looking round from behind. Two male Pheasants were fighting in the field beyond, one white one which had presumably been released by the local shoot, and a Skylark was singing over the stubble field in front.

Little Owl – perched on the barn roof

After watching the Little Owl for a while, we carried on our journey west. We checked out some more barns on the way and found no more owls, but we did pass a couple of Red Kites perched in the trees. Eventually, we dropped back down to the coast and drove on to Titchwell. We still had time for a look around Fen Trail and Patsy’s before lunch and as we walked in from the car park, we scanned the wet ground under the sallows and found a Woodcock lurking. Despite being very close to the path it was very well camouflaged and surprisingly hard to see, so we got it in the scope.

Woodcock – hiding by the path

After traversing the Welcome Hub, we had a quick look at the feeders the other side of the Visitor Centre and found two female Bramblings with the Chaffinches on the ground underneath. A very tame Muntjac stared at us as we passed, before walking slowly into the undergrowth. Out on Fen Trail, a birder coming back said there was no obvious sign of the Tawny Owl where it usually has been, but we eventually managed to find it, albeit very well hidden today. We could just see its eyes from one angle, a complete contrast with the the views of the Tawny Owl we had seen earlier and the reason why it is normally so hard to find them at roost – they are very good at concealing themselves!

Bramblings – under the feeders

On to Patsy’s, and there were lots of Gadwall and Coot out on the water. Several Common Snipe were fairly obvious dozing in the cut reeds or feeding on the edge of the water, but another snipe of some description was very tightly tucked in so that we could only see a few feathers. We tried various angles from the viewing screen to get a better look, but eventually had to admit defeat. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled low over the reeds beyond, and when we heard one calling we looked up to see it displaying high over the reedbed. Spring is definitely coming! Three Mediterranean Gulls flew past calling and a Stonechat appeared briefly in the reeds.

Common Snipe – in the reeds

We walked back round to the picnic area for lunch and afterwards headed out onto the reserve again. A Chiffchaff was flitting around in the sallows by the path from the car park, but there was no sign of any Water Rails in the ditches today and a lot of water after all the recent rain. A couple of Little Grebes were out on the reedbed pool.

Out on the Freshmarsh, the Avocet numbers are continuing to creep back up after the winter, several feeding up to their bellies in the deep water. There were lots of gulls on the newly reprofiled islands too, with some of the Black-headed Gulls displaying, and several Mediterranean Gulls loafing, including one already sporting its jet black summer hood. Two pairs of Pintail were upending out on the water, the drakes showing off their pin tails, along with lots of Teal and a couple of Gadwall, a flock of Brent Geese and a few Canada Geese further back. A small flock of Dunlin flew in and whirled round over the Freshmarsh.

Redshank – on Volunteer Marsh

We had a bit of time, so we continued on out past Volunteer Marsh. The tide was out, and a close Redshank was on the channel next to the path, with more Redshank and Curlew in the wider part of the channel beyond, along with a couple of Grey Plover. At the Tidal Pool, there were several Black-tailed Godwits feeding, a couple of Wigeon and more Shoveler. A nice pair of Pintail were feeding quite close to the path, so we got the scope on the male when it stopped swimming and stayed still with its head raised. Looking back towards the Freshmarsh, a large flock of Golden Plover circled round now but then turned and headed back off inland.

Pintail – on Tidal Pool

A flock of Linnets and a few Reed Buntings were feeding on the short grass in the edge of the dunes. Out on the beach, we got the scope on some Bar-tailed Godwits which were down on the shoreline. A small group of Turnstones were on the sand too, and a busy flock of Sanderling further up towards Thornham Point. We could see a few Common Scoter fairly close in on the sea, and more much more distantly beyond. Looking behind us, we could see the sky had turned dark and rather threatening inland, so we decided to head back in case it started to rain. A group of Ruff were out on the Freshmarsh now, as we passed.

Back to the minibus and we drove back east. We checked some sites for Barn Owls on the way, but despite being around the time when they will sometimes come out again to feed, all was quiet. We drove back round the fields where we had looked earlier this morning, and all was quiet there too, as it was when we stopped and scanned the grazing marshes. We figured our best chance for a Barn Owl was to head inland to the box where we had seen one last week – we had checked again yesterday and it had still been there. When we arrived, there was no sign of it on the outside of the box so we waited to see when it emerged.

A Grey Heron flew up from the pools as we walked up, there were several Brown Hares in the field beyond and a couple of Muntjac at the back of the water meadows. As dusk descended, a lone Cattle Egret flew north, followed by a Little Egret, both heading up towards the coast to roost. The Tawny Owls started hooting in the woods beyond, an evocative backdrop to finish the day, but there was no sign of the Barn Owl tonight. It was not entirely clear whether it might just come out later or it was roosting elsewhere today, but as it was starting to get dark we eventually had to give up. A shame about the lack of Barn Owls today, normally the easiest to find of our commoner owls, but we had enjoyed a very good day out otherwise today, with lots of birds and a few of the harder to find owls!

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