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January 17th

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.

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