20th November 2015 – The Calm Before The Storm


The first of two days of tours based in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was cloudy and breezy with the chance of wintry showers later on – it was mostly right today for once, but we were surprised to find some pleasant sunshine at times this morning.

We met in Wells and spent a brief moment looking at the harbour. There were some large groups of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh or flying across to the main channel to bathe. One lone Brent Goose was swimming around in the water just in front of us, which gave us chance for a good look up close. It was one of our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese, which come in from Russia to spend the winter here in good numbers.

IMG_3018Brent Goose – a regular Dark-bellied bird in the harbour this morning

There were several Marsh Harriers quartering out over the saltmarsh too. A few Little Egrets were fishing along the channel and a nice selection of waders were along the muddy edges – plenty of Redshank, a few Curlew, a Lapwing and a smart Grey Plover.

IMG_3025Grey Plover – feeding on the mud in Wells Harbour

We made our way east along the coast to Cley, which was our first proper destination for the morning. We had a quick look at the fields along Beach Road, but there was no sign of the flock of Brent Geese along there yet today. So we headed onto the reserve instead.

A Cetti’s Warbler sang half-heartedly from the bushes but wouldn’t how itself. Along the path to Bishop Hide, we could hear Bearded Tits calling. We thought it was a bit too windy to see them perched out on the tops, but we managed to find a female feeding on a seed head, though it wasn’t easy to see through the reed stems even in the scope.

As we walked out to the hide, a Merlin whisked past and powered away inland along the hedgeline. A little while later, from the hide, we saw a second Merlin chasing what was presumably a Meadow Pipit over towards the beach. They towered high into the sky, the pipit at first climbing steeply, then swerving wildly as the Merlin dived at it repeatedly, at times missing it by fractions. Finally the pipit dropped vertically towards the cover of the beach. The Merlin, presumably realising it might be about to lose its target, plunged down after it, and we lost sight of them behind the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers put on a good display too. There were at least six of them up at one point. One of the resident females perched nicely in the top of one of the bushes in the reedbed in the morning sun, so we could get her in the scope. Later, she quartered over the reeds right in front of the hide.

P1120664Marsh Harrier – this female flew right past the hide

There was a good selection of other birds out on Pat’s Pool. A small party of Dunlin were feeding feverishly on the mud round the edges of the islands. Further over, a group of Black-tailed Godwit were mostly asleep. Five hardy Avocets were easy to overlook, also asleep amongst the gulls – most of them have gone south for the winter, but a few choose to hang on here.

There are lots of ducks in now for the winter. A good number of Wigeon were grazing on the islands. There were fewer Teal out on the water here than in recent days, but a group of four smart drakes were quite close. Four Shoveler were asleep further over. But the prize for the smartest of all goes to the pair of Pintail – although the male was still not in full breeding plumage, with a few brown feathers still to be moulted and his long pin-shaped tail feathers a bit shorter than full length.

IMG_3033Pintail – this pair were on Pat’s Pool this morning

As we walked out of the hide, a male Stonechat was perched briefly on a dead stem by the reed screen but flew off as soon as it saw us. There are a few around the reserve at the moment and, when we got to the start of the East Bank, we found another pair along the edge of the path below. The male disappeared off along the reedy channel, but the female stayed put and spent some time flycatching from the bushes.

IMG_3052Stonechat – this female was one of several around Cley today

We could hear more Bearded Tits calling here but couldn’t see any at first. Again, it seemed unlikely they would come out given the wind. But then we spotted some movement along the mud at the bottom of the reeds opposite and realised there was a group of Bearded Tits feeding there. They didn’t hang around, and quickly disappeared out of view, but thankfully a few more followed along behind and we managed to get a cracking male in the scope. A Water Pipit was more elusive. It flew up calling from the mud as we first got up onto the bank and disappeared behind some reeds. It had found a sheltered spot and we only had another quick glimpse of it as it disappeared round a corner of the mud further along.

There were lots more ducks and a few Brent Geese on Pope’s Marsh. Scanning through them, the one addition to the day’s list we managed was a single Common Snipe feeding in the wet grass. Out on Arnold’s Marsh, we could see another big group of Dunlin and more Redshank, with a single Ringed Plover and Turnstone on one of the islands.

As we walked out towards the beach, a small falcon came flying towards us chasing something. As it got alongside us, we could see it was a Kestrel and it was chasing an exhausted Blackbird. The Blackbird dived into the reeds and the Kestrel hovered briefly overhead, before flying off. Out here, we assumed the Blackbird had probably just arrived in over the North Sea, coming here for the winter from Northern Europe. This was confirmed by what we saw on the beach. We were looking out to sea when we spotted another five Blackbirds battling in low over the waves into the wind – they made it safely in and over the beach.

It was windy out on the beach and the sea had quite a swell, but there was quite a lot of activity out there. A few Guillemots and Razorbills were riding out the waves offshore and more auks were whirring past over the waves left and right in ones and twos. Several Gannets were fishing offshore, folding back their wings and plunging into the water, both slate-grey juveniles and adults with black-tipped white wings. While we were watching one Gannet fly past, we spotted a Red-throated Diver riding the surf below it. Further out, a melee of gulls contained three darker shapes and a look through the scope revealed three Great Skuas harrying them.

There were a few ducks and geese battling in over the sea, presumably fresh in from the continent – a little party of four Teal, a pair of Gadwall, a couple of Brent Geese. However, the highlight was a single young Velvet Scoter which flew past, flashing white trailing edges to its wings and two bright white face spots as it went.

We were on our way back along the East Bank when we saw a large flock of Brent Geese come overhead and disappear off east, before circling back round and dropping down behind Walsey  Hills. We took a short detour along the road and down the footpath up to the fields behind there. We couldn’t see the Brent Geese at first, although a very noisy group of Pink-footed Geese were in the field further over behind the wood.

We climbed up to the top of the hill to get a better look and could see a few Brent Geese feeding on the winter wheat, but nothing like the number we had seen fly in. The ground here undulates and it was quickly clear that the flock had managed to hide themselves in a dip in the ground! We walked back down and then further along the footpath and the rest of the flock magically appeared. Even better, there on the front edge was our target – a Black Brant. Its brighter white flank patch positively glowed in the sunshine and we could see its better marked white collar when it raised its head.

IMG_3060Black Brant – the whiter collar and flanks give it away

We were edging our way along the path trying not to flush the flock. The birds had seen us, but seemed to start to settle. Then suddenly they panicked and all took to the air. The Black Brant came right over our heads, but also in the flock we saw another Brent Goose with a much paler belly than any of the others – a Pale-bellied Brent Goose. We thought at first we might actually have disturbed the geese, but then a man appeared over the hill, a walker coming along another footpath which ran right through the field where the geese were feeding. Typical timing! It would have been great to get a better view of all the subspecies of Brent Goose together.

We made our way back to the Visitor Centre for lunch. No sooner had we arrived than the Brent Goose flock flew in overhead from the fields behind and dropped down onto the reserve. We could see the Black Brant and the Pale-bellied Brent Goose in with them. While we were eating our sandwiches a Peregrine flew off the reserve and inland, carrying its own lunch! It had clearly just caught some unsuspecting bird out over the reserve.

After lunch, we had thought we might go out onto the new part of the reserve, ‘Salthouse Marshes’. We drove along to Iron Road, but the wind had picked up and was whistling across and there were people pounding in new fenceposts out along the track past Babcock Hide. We could see there were very few birds in front of the hide today. There were a few Ruff in with the Lapwing on the marshes by Iron Road though.

We drove back to Cley and down Beach Road again, as we had first thing this morning. While we were having lunch, it had looked like some of the Brent Geese had headed this way. Sure enough, about half way down Beach Road, we spotted a small flock of about 30 Brent Geese out on the grazing marshes. We pulled into the side and scanned with binoculars and once again the Black Brant immediately stood out from the throng, so we parked up and got the scope out. There was the Black Brant but, even better, there was the Pale-bellied Brent as well – the three (main?) subspecies of Brent Goose together in one small flock. What a treat!

IMG_3066Brent Geese – 3 subspecies togther: Black Brant, Pale- & Dark-bellied

Brent Geese of the various forms are found breeding all around the arctic, with Dark-bellied Brents breeding in central and west Siberia, Pale-bellied Brents breeding in Franz Josef Land, Svalbard, Greenland and the Canadian high arctic and Black Brants breeding in NE Canada, Alaska and far eastern Siberia. Dark-bellied Brent Geese winter commonly here – an estimated half the population winters in southern England. Black Brants are rare stragglers which should winter along the coasts of the Pacific.

A few Golden Plover were in the same field as the geese, but were very nervous and after circling around a couple of times and landing again, they flew off. After enjoying the geese, we drove on to the beach car park to turn around. An even larger flock of Golden Plover had now gathered in the Eye Field, hunched down in the grass face on into the wind. Their gold-spangled backs shone in the sunshine.

Next, we drove back west past Wells to Holkham. As we did so, we could see some very dark clouds being pushed past on the gusty wind. It was clearly raining hard out over the sea. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see we were just about to catch the back edge of it. Rather than walk out to Washington Hide immediately , we decided to drive a little further west and scan the marshes.

We were pleased we did. Our first stop only yielded a few Greylags and a couple more Pink-footed Geese. However, on our next scan a tall white shape was apparent on the edge of one of the ditches – a Great White Egret. This bird has been present here since the end of August, but can be very elusive, particularly in the last few weeks, so it was great to catch up with it again today.

IMG_3077Great White Egret – in one of the ditches out on the grazing marsh

The Great White Egret flew across and landed on the grass next to a Grey Heron, a great side-by-side comparison. If anything, it was actually a little larger than the heron! The Grey Herons seemed to object to its presence and actually chased it off a couple of times, but it seemed to like the area and kept returning to the ditches here.

We had hoped to see some White-fronted Geese from here – that was the main reason for coming this way, and the egret was a surprise bonus. We were not disappointed as there were at least 30 scattered across the grass in front of the Great White Egret, once we had taken our eyes off it. Most of the White-fronted Geese were adults, with white blaze around the base of the bill and black belly bars, but there were also several plainer juveniles which lacked these diagnostic features. Nearby, a lone Barnacle Goose was accompanied by a rather odd looking hybrid – local feral geese.

IMG_3084White-fronted Geese – we could see at least 30 here today

The clouds moved through quickly and the skies cleared again while we were scanning the marshes, so we drove back down to Lady Anne’s Drive, stopping on the way to admire a little group of Pink-footed Geese in the field nearby. It was great to be able to look at them up close, and see the differences from all the other geese we had seen through the day.

IMG_3100Pink-footed Geese – nice close-up views along Lady Anne’s Drive

We set off to walk west along the edge of the pines to Washington Hide. However, we hadn’t gone very far before we heard the yelping of Pink-footed Geese behind us and turned to see several hundred flying in from the fields. They turned and dropped down onto the grazing marshes where we had been watching the others earlier. Just before we got to the pines, we heard a Chiffchaff calling and could just see it flicking around in the low brambles. Most of the Chiffchaffs have departed south for the winter, but in mild years there is often one or two which lingers in the pines.

We were just past Salts Hole when we heard Long-tailed Tits calling from the trees. We stopped to look at them and realised there were a few Goldcrests with them. Then a sharper call alerted us to the presence of a Firecrest as well, in fact two Firecrests. They were in the trees south of the track, looking towards the evening sky and the sun had already set, which meant it was harder to make them out clearly. Then they flew across and landed in a Holm Oak the other side of the track. They only stopped in there briefly, but this time we could see one of them more clearly. The male Firecrest flashed his orange crown stripe before disappearing back towards the pines.

We continued on to Washington Hide and could already see quite a few Pink-footed Geese already out on the grass. Unfortunately, the clouds were building once more and the light was starting to fade fast now. We decided to call it a day and make our way home. And a very nice day it had been, too!

P1120702Sunset – over Salts Hole at Holkham

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