Saturday, 5 February 2011

Norfolk - In Search of Winter Birds - 28th - 31st January 2011

Winter visits to Norfolk in search of birds has been a feature of January for many years now, and each time four mates and I get the chance to catch up, eat some good food, drink whiskey and wine and spend a few days birding. Because most of us come from the south coast, we start our weekend at a convenient meeting point enroute to the north Norfolk coast. This year was no different and we began our trip with a visit to the RSPB reserve of Lakenheath Fen.

Lakenheath Fen has been a good starting point for us in the past as we have seen bittern, common crane and great grey shrike, but the highlight must be the penduline tit that we found in 2009.

Penduline Tit Lakenheath Fen 26th January 2009 

This year the reserve seemed fairly quiet except for a selection of tits and finches on the feeders, including brambling and lesser redpoll. A stroll around the reserve produced the usual marsh harriers, little egret and a couple of Egyptian geese and then we heard common cranes calling. We usually hear them during our visits, but despite their large size, they can be a difficult species to locate. This time though, five birds were present, a pair with their offspring of last year and two other birds which we presumed to be another pair.

Family Party of Common Cranes at Lakenheath Fen January 2011

We continued our journey north, with our next stop being the Wildlife and Wetland Trust reserve of Welney. Welney guarantees whooper swans and the surrounding fields usually guarantee Bewick's; this year large numbers of both species were present, on the reserve and the surrounding fields.

Whooper Swan at Welney January 2011

A quick scan from the hide produced more Egyptian geese and loads of tufted ducks and pochards; other ducks included goldeneye and single long-tailed duck, which apparently is only the fifth for the reserve. We were quite surprised to learn that it was only the fifth record, but went you think about it, long-tailed duck is more of a coastal species, and therefore does not venture to inland lakes that often......probably utter rubbish but we were happy with that theory.

Drake Pochard at Welney January 2011

Hiding amongst the other ducks, with their heads tucked back, were three ruddy ducks. The cull of this species as protection for the white headed duck in Spain, has made it a difficult species to catch up with in recent years, I wonder how long these three have left?

With time moving on we headed north to the village of East Beckham, where we had booked a cottage for the weekend. After unloading the cars we settled down to discuss our plans for the weekend, wearing our new BTO beanie hats.

The team sporting our new BTO beanie hats January 2011

Saturday 29th began with a quick trip to Sheringham in search of purple sandpipers, our search was in vain but we did see several red throated divers on the sea and flying past. The stubble fields at Weybourne were our next stop, in search of lapland buntings. After trudging around for about half an hour a flock of lappys flew over us and landed in the field right next to the car.....unfortunately due to the height of the stubble and the size of the birds we never did manage to relocate them. 

The RSPB reserve of Titchwell proved to be a much more rewarding place; the sea was full of divers and sea duck. Common scoters were present in their thousands along with red-breasted mergansers and goldeneyes, but viewing was difficult due to the choppy seas and moderate north-easterly was freezing looking out to sea. 

One of our target birds for this trip was the northern harrier which has been present for much of the winter, we were lucky enough to get prolonged views of this bird on two occasions as it hunted over the freshwater marsh to the west of the reserve. The reserve itself hosted a selection of finches and wading birds; a very obliging spotted redshank fed next to the path providing an ideal photo opportunity.

Spotted Redshank at Titchwell January 2011

Amongst the dry weedy areas on the scrape a mixed flock of skylarks and twite were feeding. In previous years we have seen twite at Thornham, so it was nice to catch up with them here and save on travelling time. As I was watching the twite feeding I noticed that one bird had been ringed with a single metal ring and three colour rings (one on the right tarsus and two on the left). I quickly took down the colour combination, and passed it onto a friend who works for the BTO. This bird was first ringed as a chick on 4th June 2010 in The Pennines, it was sighted again in on 8th August 2010 at a quarry 3 kilometres to the north-east of the original ringing site, and has not been seen subsequently. Our sighting was 195 kilometres south-east of the ringing site and 239 days later. I think this is an excellent example of the value of ringing/colour ringing birds; I will certainly be looking out for this individual next year!

Burham Overy Staithe was our next stop in search of rough legged buzzards, three had been reported in the area but with the light fading fast we didn't hold out much hope of seeing one. However a scan of the tops of the bushes rewarded us with distant views of an absolutely classic rough leg. As we were watching this bird a second flew past, before both birds headed into the nearby wood to roost. We ended the day at Lady Anne's Drive, Holkham to watch the pink-footed geese come in, which is always a spectacle worth seeing. As we waited barn owls hunted over the marsh and woodcocks emerged from the woods to feed.

Pink feet falling from the skies at Holkham

Sunday 30th was a calmer, brighter but colder day. After a brief stop at Sheringham in search of the purple sands, no luck again, we headed off the Cley and Salthouse. The snow buntings in the car park at Salthouse proved to be easy, as once again they were being fed...I never tire of seeing these cracking birds.......

Snow Bunting Salthouse

........the excellent light provided me with the opportunity to practice my photography and take some more turnstone shots.

Roosting Turnstone at Salthouse January 2011

It was the east bank at Cley which produced the best birds of the day, 10 stunning shore larks. These birds are another species which are one of the reasons we come to Norfolk in the winter since they are very unusual on the south coast of England.

Shore Lark on the Beach at Cley ©T. D. Codlin

At least four of these birds had very bright black and yellow heads, others were much duller. Apparently the sexes are similar, therefore it is probable that the duller birds were juveniles...

Shore Lark on the Beach at Cley ©T. D. Codlin one point the whole flock crouched down low to the ground and were clearly looking up, I looked up to see what was bothering them and soaring overhead was a peregrine falcon. As we wandered back to the car we were greeted with views of a fly-by spoonbill, four ruff and five pied avocet, the sea was extremely calm, in stark contrast to the previous day. A single eider duck was just off shore along with over 40 red throated divers and a single fly-by black throated diver. Along the east bank, enroute back to the car, a single drake American wigeon fed with its Eurasian counterparts.

Choseley Farm was our next stop, in search of corn buntings and a single waxwing. There have been so many waxwings around this winter, and in such large flocks, that it was sad to see this lone individual surveying its surroundings.

Lone Waxwing at along road to Choseley Farm

The day ended with a visit to Warham Greens to see the harrier roost. As we pulled up in the car park a large flock of dark-bellied brent geese, with at least 15 light-bellied's were feeding in the adjacent field. The harrier roost was the best we had seen for years with at least 10 hen harriers,  three marsh harriers and single peregrine and merlin; a chorus of singing grey partridge rounded off the evening.

Monday 31st and time to head home. We started again at Sheringham where three of us finally caught up with a purple sandpipier, before it disappeared. We then headed south to Cantley Marshes in the hope of catching up with the lesser white-fronted goose that had been there. No such luck with this bird but we did catch up with around 30 Taiga bean geese, three white-fronted....which got us going for a few minutes, and another ringtail hen harrier. But the most surprising bird for me was the hooded crow, this species used to winter more on the east coast, but in recent years they have been few and far between.

Well that thats all folks! The end of another great weekends birding in Norfolk where we saw 123 species in four days, which we thought was a reasonable total given our laid back approach. Lets hope the weather and the birds are as good next year.

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