Opening the curtains this morning it became apparent that overnight we had returned to a snowy landscape once again. It wasn't laying too deep so will hopefully not last too long and when the sun broke out during the morning I became aware of the dripping sounds of thawing. Out of the chill breeze the sun had some warmth and early this afternoon I came across two Little Owls obviously making the most of it. I already knew of one here and a couple of nights ago, as I walked Ossie out after dark, I could hear the eerie, almost childlike wailing of a pair calling to each other. Although Little Owls are widespread in Europe they were once a rare visitor to the UK, occasionally stopping to breed, but todays population traces back to a release of some birds towards the end of the Nineteenth century. Also enjoying the sunshine as I drove up the lane was a contented Chinese Water Deer, at least two of which are resident nearby. Whilst on the subject of small, introduced deer, a Muntjac was beside the A1151 at Sprowston early on Tuesday morning as I drove to work. I crossed my fingers as I passed that it wouldn't dash across in front of me as did a Water Deer a couple of years ago, a dash which led to it's untimely demise. Thankfully this time the deer stayed still.
Little Owl, Happisburgh - 30.01.2010
Chinese Water Deer, Happisburgh - 30.01.2010
The Pale-bellied Brent Geese were still present in the same field at Walcott last Sunday with 68 'Brents' feeding and loafing during the morning. It was difficult to accurately count the subspecific split but at least 35 of those present were hrota. One of them displayed an unusual paler stripe down both sides of it's neck which should render it individually identifiable should it be seen elsewhere. I'm not aware that they were present after this date but the same flock may account for a couple of small parties that have been seen a little further south along the coast. Four Dark-bellied Brents remained in the Walcott field until Friday 29th at least.
Having missed the small flock of Pale-bellied Brents on the 9th, I was pleased to hear that another party had taken a liking to a winter cereal field at Walcott, apparently arriving at the weekend. I managed to get over for a look on Tuesday afternoon, quite late in the day, and immediately saw them feeding quite close to the main coast road. There were 59 birds in the flock, 44 of which were pale-bellied hrota, the remaining 15 being of the dark-bellied race berniclawhich is the subspecies that visits Norfolk to spend the winter months feeding mostly on the saltmarshes of the North Norfolk coast where Eelgrass Zostera forms a favoured part of their diet. They are really quite charming geese and I couldn't resist a couple more visits, glad that they had chosen to hang around. Seemingly quite fearless of normal daily life along the coast road, they were unflustered by cars, dog walkers and the like. The only time I saw them upset was when a helicopter flew over on passage to an offshore rig, their reaction being to take to the air only to return after a brief fly-round. They remained all week although birds must have come and gone, for this afternoon there were circa 46 birds present with the dark to pale ratio roughly 50/50. Also at Walcott on Tuesday a Purple Sandpiper was on the slipway there.
Other than the geese it has been a quiet few days, a few sightings of Barn Owl on my travels and a largish flock of Fieldfares and Redwings around our home lane being most noteworthy. A few birds are also beginning to sound out their territories I've noticed, with Wren, Dunnock and Robin all heard singing towards dusk.
Having heard a calling Little Owl from the garden earlier in the month I decided to turn left instead of right out of my gate in the hope of seeing one today. Scanning the row of trees from whence I figured the calling may have originated I soon saw a grey blob perched close to the dense green Ivy of a prominent Oak. Gotcha! I moved further on, mainly to take advantage of the cover of a hedgerow as I didn't want to unnecessarily spook the bird, and looking across at the tree was surprised to see it had disappeared. Knowing it wouldn't have gone far, but may have buried itself amongst the thick, sheltering refuge of the Ivy, I watched and waited. A Carrion Crow flew low across at the base of the tree and I saw a momentary flash of short, rounded, quite well spotted wings; it was on the ground and behind a low bank where I couldn't see it. I walked on and turned right, for I knew that I would be better able to see it from further on, and sure enough there it was searching for invertebrates on the ground. It was probably 100 yards or so distant but as I walked the lane it must have seen me, for it suddenly looped up and vanished deep into the Ivy.
It had been a lovely day, really nice seeing some blue skies and sunshine for a change, although for the middle part of the day we were once again subjected to cold grey cloud. I was rather surprised when it cleared and we were once again bathed in vaguely warm winter sunshine, so I took a last minute decision to visit Stubb Mill in Hickling and relish the spectacle of the gathering raptor roost there.Visitors to this site should park in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust car park along Stubb Road and then walk, it's about a 15 minute walk, to the viewpoint by the old drainage mill. It's quite different now compared to back in the late 1970's and early 1980's when my father and I would visit with local birding friends and literally have the place to ourselves. The number of wintering Marsh Harriers coming in to roost back then was way lower than get seen nowadays, but the magic in standing hunched by the old railway wagon and having the show to yourself is long gone, as a purpose built, raised viewing area is very popular on winter weekend afternoons. It would be selfish though to wish for the return of the 'good old days' for it's a spectacular like on offer here that can stir something deep inside a persons soul and really help to drive conservation efforts forward. The afternoon didn't disappoint either and I'd hardly been walking for five minutes out of the car park when a familiar bugling was the alert to an inbound party of three Common Cranes; two adults and their browner headed offspring came in from my left and passed across in front of me with the afternoon sun behind me. I was at Hickling for a little over two hours, leaving the viewpoint at 4:45pm, and I wasn't disappointed. A sharp-eyed birder spotted two Cranes on the marsh, mostly obscured but still easy enough for all to see, and by the time I got back to the car park I'd noted 16 sightings of an estimated 11 different Cranes. Marsh Harriers, mostly immatures, were present perched on bushes and floating around from the outset and I estimated a total of c25 different birds. Much more prized was a male Hen Harrier which put on a close flypast to the click and whirr of some expensive camera gear. Judging from the amount of brown feathering remaining on his back I felt he was probably a bird reared in the 2008 breeding season. Another much more distant male Hen was seen later but at too great a distance to tell if it was the same bird.A ring-tail female or immature Hen Harrier which appeared was also very distant. Another raptor which birders hope to see here is the Merlin and at 4:00pm a bird atop a small bush caught my interest. As I was mulling over it's identity a Crow flew at it causing it to fly and my suspicions were confirmed; a male Merlin. Trying to follow it in my 'scope I lost it amongst the reeds and bushes, but I scanned back only to see it had returned to the same perch. A few people got onto it but the views weren't at all impressive. In fact there were some who probably even doubted it was a Merlin. After a while it again flew and perched in a more prominent position where slightly better views were afforded. It was all exciting stuff and I didn't realise how cold I was getting. With a supporting cast of Kestrel, three Sparrowhawks, three Barn Owls, three flyover Lesser Redpolls, Woodcock - I tallied four, several large skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in to roost and two Chinese Water Deer it had been a worthwhile and rewarding decision to visit and I'll hopefully return again next winter, if not before.
On to a neighbouring parish this morning to walk Ossie near some marshes where there is the chance of raptors, Owls, Swans and Geese. I hadn't walked too far when a familiar dark 'V' seen by the naked eye and dropping behind a ridge turned out to be an adult female Hen Harrier. I watched her for several minutes hunting just inside the dunes before she moved on. A couple of Marsh Harriers soon put in an appearance and just before I left for home I watched six of them together as they circled against the grey skies south of my viewpoint. A flock of six Swans appeared, flying from inland before turning and heading back, but they weren't the hoped for 'wild' Swans, just a group of young Mutes, the brown patches of their retained immature feathering contrasting strongly against the bright whiteness of the emerging adult plumage.
Nipping down the Cart Gap Road on the way home a charming Weasel scurried across the lane before leaping onto the grassy bank and into the hedge no doubt on the hunt for a meal but there were no Pink-footed Geese, my hoped for quarry, on the partly harvested sugar beet field there. Again I stopped on the way to work at Wroxham Broad noting that the Pintail was still present on the ice and the Greylags were accompanied by a rather dodgy looking Barnacle Goose.
I've taken advantage of working a late shift this week to drop in and check out the wildfowl at Wroxham Broad on the trip in to Norwich. There are still large areas of ice here but most of this is around the edge; there's plenty of open water in the centre of the Broad which enables easier viewing of the ducks present. As usual, there are Pochard and Tufted present but their numbers tend to vary as they are predisposed to using neighbouring Broads and perhaps the River Bure at times. A contrasty grey, white and chestnut headed female/immature Goosander was the best on offer here yesterday with up to three Goldeneye also on show. Amongst the 'dabblers' were a fine drake Pintail and a few Teal, the bulk being made up of Mallard and Gadwall. I didn't have time either day to attempt making a proper count but got the impression that the numbers of Gadwall were possibly quite significant in regards to nationally important numbers as a wintering site for the species. Other 'water fowl' present were the usual Egyptian, Greylag and Canada Geese as well as Great Crested and single Little Grebe. Incidentally, I spoke to Bob this evening and he told me that he had seen an Otter on the ice here late this morning.
Back on the home patch, I managed to drop in at Walcott seafront yesterday morning where there was quite a swell which was being roughened up by the obliquely onshore wind. Amongst the Black-headed Gulls feeding in the surf was the adult Mediterranean Gull which can often be seen here. In three months or so, when summer plumage has been acquired, this bird will be a real cracker although it is likely to disappear during the breeding season. A small party of Turnstones were feeding along the sea wall but their numbers were low today. Offshore three Red-throated Divers were fishing and a small party of duck heading west were six Tufted.Walking Ossie shortly after, a pair of Bullfinches put in an appearance near Moat Farm and a flock of 11 flyover Stock Doves were noteworthy. A midday Barn Owl was new for the year too.
Feeling much better today I returned to work. I'd seen a Woodcock along the lane as I walked the dog but nothing else to note. Lady Luck must have been smiling down on me as I drove through Norwich for as I approached the junction for the small retail park along Koblenz Avenue a lone bird perched in a bare roadside tree drew my attention. It was a Waxwing which quite surprised me as they have been rather scarce in the UK this winter. The lights changed and I drove off, pleased with my sighting. I phoned Rare Bird Alert with the news, for I knew that local birders would be keen to see it, and later found out that it had been independently found by another birder as he headed to Morrisons. I also heard that whilst in Morrisons he bought a bag of apples which he placed on the ground for it and some Redwings to feed on in the hope that it may stick around for a while.
I was ill over the weekend. Call it what you will; 'man flu', the common cold, the lurgi, I had an extremely nasty dose of the viral kind and other than taking the dog for short walks and riding shotgun "in case the weather gets really bad" to Norwich with my better half, I stayed indoors. It's a shame too, for I took a phone call whilst in Norwich informing me of a party of 12 - 13 Brent Geese of the race hrota which had decided to drop in to a field at Cart Gap. Pale-bellied Brents are quite a scarcity in Norfolk and had I been at home I daresay I would have struggled out to have a look at them, but a quick search from the car on our return home failed to find them. We usually see Dark-bellied Brents in the southern North Sea, but the population of Pale-bellies that breeds on Svalbard winters almost entirely in Denmark, and that is the likely origin of these birds, doubtless shifting to the south-west due to the harsh weather conditions.
I did manage to see Woodcocks each day as I walked Ossie, four birds on Sunday morning being the peak count, and Fieldfares made a return with 80 or so frequenting the meadows close to home, seen from the garden. I managed to add Sparrowhawk to the Happisburgh 2010 list as well. The only other sighting worthy of mention came as we were approaching Wroxham on the return from Norwich when a reasonably dark looking Common Buzzard appeared, circling low over the belt of pines to the north of the A1151. It wasn't totally unexpected as I have seen Buzzard here before.
We've endured the cold snap for about a month now and the flocks of Fieldfares and Redwings that have arrived from the continent in that time, and added different colour to the red berry laden hedgerows, have apparently moved further inland. A flock of c46 Fieldfare were at the paddocks near here on the 4th and I've noted none since, other than a couple of them in our garden. Freezing weather is always good for seeing the normally elusive Woodcock as they abandon their normally furtive, nocturnal behaviour and search more openly for food during daylight hours. I've seen them almost daily so far this year and this morning I recorded 8 different birds, including a group of 5 which were feeding in the copse that adjoins the garden of 'Laurel Lodge'. Snipe too, another bird which normally spends it's time in wetter habitat away from disturbance, have lost their inhibitions and can be watched feeding in more accessible situations. The small drain that runs from 'Thatch Dyke' and across the paddocks has attracted a handful of them of late and I enjoy stopping to watch them as they share the feeding here with a few Moorhens and two pairs of Mallard.
As well as birds, mammals struggle in harsh weather and we can often be treated to close views of usually shy species. The urban Fox has become quite at home living alongside man in towns and cities but their rural cousins are still generally rather shy creatures. Early Thursday morning saw one along the lane, starkly contrasted against the virgin snow, and it paused to look at me before fleeing away across the fields. It was a real beauty and appeared to have sustained an injury to a forepaw, an obvious limp to it's gait slowing it down perhaps a touch, and I hoped this wouldn't affect it's chances of survival. The rusty brown Bank Vole that our cat Polly brought home one day was probably easy for her to catch in the snow and elsewhere I saw Muntjac in my headlights at Hoveton and East Ruston, both on January 5th.
Our lovely Lurcher Ossie took me for a walk mid-afternoon and we headed for the village before turning left and taking a footpath that runs alongside some established meadows. The ground was dusted with snow still, but there was little to see in the way of birds. Perhaps most had seen out the active part of their day and had begun to settle down for the night. Two Fieldfares burst out of some scrubby hedgerow as I passed and an airborne Snipe appeared, calling, before dropping down like some kind of dumpy javelin into the rough grass of one of the meadows. Activity, and interest, picked up as I headed back towards the road, for some disturbance in an overgrown ditch transformed into a fleeing Woodcock which afforded me brief, end on flight views before dropping into the cover of a nearby garden. Looking back for a last scan towards Grubb Street, I glimpsed a large bird quartering which turned out to be a Marsh Harrier with a keen interest in something it had detected in some paddocks there. I guessed it's potential prey may have taken cover for the Harrier eventually drifted northwards in the direction of the water tower at Hill Sixty.My later than planned walk had been more worthwhile than I'd expected after all.
The New Year started icily cold but bright with developing showers of sleet and snow and my first bird of 2010 was Jackdaw. I managed to steal 40 minutes or so away from home to see if I could relocate the juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard I had seen over fields just north-west of Brumstead Church at 2:15pm on the last day of 2009. There was no sign of it, while I watched at least, but I did see a couple of distant Common Buzzards in the direction of East Ruston and Dilham. An immature male Marsh Harrier put in an appearance too before drifting south. Mr. Beck, who farms at Brumstead Hall, stopped to enquire what I was looking for, and during our conversation spoke of the proposed erection of two large wind turbines on adjacent farmland. Although a renewable, green source of energy, wind turbines can be an emotive subject and I wouldn't relish the thought of having them close to my own home but my real concern would be what impact they would have on our local population of Buzzards and Marsh Harriers, perhaps even Broadlands famous Cranes, as well as the skeins of Pink-footed Geese that visit us each winter. A really heart breaking example of the danger turbines can have to birds can be seen on Youtube. The document relating to the proposals at Brumstead can be viewed here.