2nd Jan 2023 – New Year’s Birding Day

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A Private Tour today in North Norfolk, a chance to catch up with some of the rarities which are still lingering here and some of our other winter specialities and kick off the New Year’s birding. The weather gods were in our favour – it was a mostly bright & sunny glorious winter’s day, with the wind having dropped from the last couple of days too.

We met in Wells and headed straight for Holkham, hoping to avoid the worst of the bank holiday crowds. The first thing we saw as we got out of the minibus was a White-tailed Eagle! It was rather distant, perched in the dead trees in Decoy Wood, but a good view through the scope. This is one of the released birds from the Isle of Wight and has been hanging around here for some time now. A great start to the day!

There were lots of Wigeon and Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes and flocks of Lapwings flying over. The Grey Partridges were back in their favoured field today and looked great in the morning sunshine.

Grey Partridge – in the sunshine

We made our way through the pines and out along the edge of the saltmarsh, stopped only to admire a small mixed group of Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits feeding in the vegetation close to the path. There were a couple of people already out at the cordon admiring the Shorelarks and the flock of around 50 Snow Buntings on the edge of the dunes beyond. We didn’t know where to look first. The Shorelarks were close to the fence at first, giving some stunning views, the low winter sun causing their yellow faces to glow so we concentrated on those.

Shorelark – a photo from here yesterday

By the time we had finished admiring the Shorelarks, the Snow Buntings had flown further down. We found them again as we walked round towards the beach and now we picked up the orange colour-ringed bird which is in the flock at the moment. They were so close, we could read the code through the scope – ‘FD’. It turns out this individual had been ringed in France at Dunkirk just on 10th December, and it is very unusual that it should be in Norfolk just three weeks later in mid-winter. Fascinating what you can learn from colour-rings – and thanks to the ringer, Quentin Dupriez, for getting back to me with the details straight away. The Snow Buntings looked stunning too, as they whirled round in the low winter light.

Snow Buntings – whirling round

We made our way out onto the beach and looked out at the sea next. We quickly found several Slavonian Grebes, at least three, and a single Red-necked Grebe which helpfully spent some time sitting on the water next to a winter Great Crested Grebe for comparison. There were three Long-tailed Ducks diving just offshore, some gorgeous Red-breasted Mergansers, a Goldeneye and a scattering of Common Scoter too. A Red-throated Diver completed the set. Out on the beach were a few Sanderling and Oystercatchers. Someone further along the beach messaged to say he had relocated the Black Guillemot offshore, which we had found here yesterday, but as we had other things to do today we decided not to walk up to try to see it. Good call, as it had already disappeared when others did walk over to look for it.

As we walked back through the pines, a Chiffchaff was flicking around in the edge of the holm oaks the other side. With a short break to use the facilities, we stopped to scan through the flocks of Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marsh and found two Russian White-fronted Geese with them. While we were admiring them through the scope, we looked over to Decoy Wood to see the White-tailed Eagle flying round before heading off up into the pines.

White-fronted Goose – one of two with the Pinkfeet

We particularly wanted to see the Hume’s Warbler at Brancaster today, so we headed over there next. Beach Road was very busy and there were lots of people out for a walk on the seawall. The Hume’s Warbler was flicking around in the back of the trees below the seawall when we arrived, but quickly disappeared further back across the pool. We could still hear it calling on and off, and we didn’t have to wait too long before it appeared in the top of the one of the bushes. We had a good view of it flicking around in the sunshine through the scope.

It was time for lunch already now, so we made our way round to Titchwell for a quick bite to eat. We wouldn’t have long here, as we wanted to get back to look for the Pallid Harrier this afternoon, but we did have enough time for a quick look at the Freshmarsh. On our way out, we scanned the ditches and found the Water Rail again – giving fantastic views out in the open at times.

Water Rail – showing well

The Freshmarsh held a nice selection of waders – the colour of the Golden Plovers and Lapwings on the bank also accentuated by the lovely light, a few Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin, and the small hardy band of over-wintering Avocets. The ducks were looking stunning too – Pintail, Teal, Wigeon, Mallard and Shelduck. A couple of small groups of Shoveler spinning round in the water below the bank were each closely accompanied by a Black-headed Gull picking at the surface for any food the ducks had stirred up. A female Goldeneye was diving continually at the back and three Tufted Ducks were hiding on the back of one of the islands.

Then it was back east past Wells and a walk out to the edge of the saltmarsh at Warham Greens. There were a few people already there scanning, but they hadn’t picked up the Pallid Harrier yet. They had seen a couple of Merlin and scanning we quickly found one of them chasing something out on the marsh. It disappeared behind a bush and when we walked down for a change of angle we found it again chasing and then catching a pipit. It landed out on a bush where we could get a good look at it in the scope.

A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier patrolled up and down the back of the saltmarsh and while we were admiring it through the scope it flushed a slimmer harrier with rich orangey underparts from the vegetation below – the Pallid Harrier! The two circled together for a minute or so, a nice comparison, the Pallid Harrier clearly slimmer than the Hen Harrier which drifted off out of view.

Pallid Harrier – over the back of the saltmarsh

We followed the Pallid Harrier as it flew slowly up and down over the back of the saltmarsh. A juvenile female, very different from the male from which it gets its name, we could see its distinctive pale collar and dark ‘boa’. Eventually it dropped down into the vegetation out of view.

There were other things to see here too – a distant Great White Egret and flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing out on the saltmarsh, a big flock of Knot over the beach beyond, a pair of Stonechats on the suaeda in front of us. The Pink-footed Geese started to fly in to roost, a huge flock flying out over the saltmarsh away to the east and whiffling down onto the sands. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in from the west and out towards East Hills. Then the male Hen Harrier flew back in from the other direction not far out over the saltmarsh, lovely close views.

Hen Harrier – the ghostly grey male

Mission accomplished and with the sun starting to set, we decided to call it a day and walk back. And what a great day it had been!

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