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March 30th

Yesterday had been really rather disappointing and a morning walk down to Cart Gap, up Doggetts Lane and along the cliffs to the village was unproductive. All I noted was a 26 strong party of Linnets feeding in some rank grasses along a field edge. The weather has turned somewhat cooler and this has had an effect on bird movement. I carried on to the Coast Watch, following the track inland to Blacksmiths Lane then walked the churchyard, onto Whimpwell Street and Lighthouse Lane before tracking across the fields and home. South of the lighthouse were six more Linnets but not a single summer migrant was to be found. Even Sunday's Sand Martins appeared to have deserted. Taking a different tack this morning, I decided to stick to walking Ossie along our home lane, as far as the paddocks to see if the cover here was sheltering anything interesting. Birds that stop actively migrating because of poor weather, tiredness and hunger, or because they find themselves confronted by a natural barrier such as the North Sea, will seek out cover to provide shelter and a source of nourishment - somewhere to rest. From the air, the paddocks and surrounds must appear as a small oasis on the edge of the rather barren looking fields with no more than grassy banks separating them, and this morning I soon chanced upon a cracking male Firecrest busily feeding in a Hawthorn hedge, occasionally giving out short snatches of it's high pitched song. A real jewel of a bird, I missed out on seeing one last year, so was pleased to once again catch up with what is often a favourite amongst birders. If you don't know what a Firecrest looks like, Google Image search it and you'll soon see why!


March 28th

With the clement weather continuing, I drove slowly past East Ruston Common this morning, window down listening for birdsong, noting the song of at least two Chiffchaffs. I did the same at Briggate where I could hear another. A Common Buzzard overhead, low down, was no doubt as local as I to this part of Norfolk. My good lady and I walked Ossie along the beach later in the morning but little appeared to be passing through, save for a couple of Cormorants and a few groups of Gulls, many of which were immature Commons. It was nice, however, to hear once again the buzzing calls of a Sand Martin as three of them were back prospecting the nesting burrows at the clifftop colony. A birding friend, Jim, who often visits the area, contacted me during the evening to say he had seen three Swallows along the cliffs here this afternoon and that two female Black Redstarts were once again flycatching close to the Beach Road pay & display. Incidentally, it was on this date in 1999 that a Great Spotted Cuckoo made it on to the Happisburgh list when one, which had originally been found at Waxham and was tracked northwards, was watched in the gardens along Rollesby Way and near the Decca site.


March 27th

Spring marches on and there come continued sightings of many summer species from around Norfolk and with Swallow, House Martin, Willow Warbler, Ring Ouzel and Osprey all being reported. Many fortunate observers had also been enjoying two or three of a mini UK invasion of several Alpine Swifts that have stopped off in the county in recent days. Work committments meant that Ossie's walk had to wait until later in the afternoon, so we headed out across Rollesby Way towards the lighthouse sometime after 4pm. Not long after heading out along the grassy track I was treated to a surprise reminder that Spring isn't all about summer migrants arriving as two large, brown birds suddenly sprang up from behind the low bank and flew out over a barren field; they were both Short-eared Owls. I tracked one to my right and it dropped down on the bank surrounding another field where it sat, turning it's large round head, checking for danger with large, yellow eyes. Scanning back, the second bird was soon relocated sitting 150 yards or so distant, in the open of the big field. It too sat there just looking around so after a while I left it undisturbed. A Sand Martin was over the fields a little further on and a small party of resting birds just south of Upton Way were 11 Golden Plovers, one of which was a handsome, black-bellied male. As we headed back, I could see neither Owl but then, just as we reached the place from where they had originally erupted, one flew out from behind the bank again. It obviously preferred the cover offered by the emergent vegetation to sitting in an open field, and I followed this one until it dropped out of sight close to where the other had landed. As with most Owls, the Short-eared hunts mostly at night, but it is one of the more regular of our native Owls to be seen hunting in daylight hours. Short-eared Owl's usually occur as a passage migrant within Happisburgh, most often in the Autumn when they can sometimes be seen flying in from the sea, and I've no doubt that todays birds were two outbound birds waiting for the right time to head back out across the North Sea.


March 26th

I walked out to the Coast Watch this afternoon in the hope that there may possibly be a Black Redstart there. The remains of the old wartime radar and coastal battery sometimes hosts them, and the semi-permanent muck heap no doubt helps with the attraction. Two had been reported from the car park in the village two days previously but I'd had no luck with them there yesterday. On reaching the clifftop, I had to turn back somewhat disappointed as there was nothing of note to see. On the way out, the paddock I'd passed had appeared empty, but on my return a small bird atop the stables looked interesting. It was my hoped for quarry; a female Black Redstart. She sat quite still for a while before flitting down to the grass to seize a hapless insect and then moved on to the wooden railings that border the paddock. Another movement just beyond was, pleasingly, another Black Redstart in an almost identical plumage and both contentedly fed by dropping to the grass and flying back up to the fence to eat their capture before, with quivering rusty tails, seeking out more. Black Redstarts are now a very limited breeding species in the UK with perhaps less than 30 confirmed breeding pairs, and most that are seen are migrant birds passing through. In the early 1940's the species found that the huge number of bomb damaged buildings, left behind in the aftermath of WW2, were ideal nesting sites, and numbers significantly increased, only to fall again as our towns and cities were rebuilt. More info on the species' history in the UK can be found by following this link.

Black Redstart, Happisburgh - 26th March 2010


March 20th

After a brilliantly sunny start cloud cover soon increased and although remaining quite temperate, the weather tried to catch us out at times with some showers that became more frequent towards the days end. Ossie and I had a nice long walk today taking in Doggetts Lane, up along the cliffs and then through the village, returning to take the track across the fields south of the lighthouse via Lighthouse Lane. I'm sure an earlier start would have produced much more in the way of visible migration but even late morning it was apparent that a few Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits were heading west. Heading for the village from the Decca site the wide grassy strip is always worth a careful scan and this morning it had attracted, as I was hoping for, a male Wheatear. In recent days there have been a few sightings of this summer visitor at watchpoints around the coast and mid-March is prime time for seeing the first returning birds. I watched him closely for a while, as I always do with the first one of the year, relishing the feeling that better birding days are not too far away now. Pressing on, we reached the village and I was a little surprised to see a Stoat scurrying along the cliff edge, it's black-tipped tail held aloft as it raced for cover. In the background a Chiffchaff gave a brief burst of song to further enhance the 'Spring is in the air' feel.

I'd taken some video of the Wheatear but, due to a technical hitch, had wiped the file so I returned in the afternoon to try again.
Heading up Doggetts Lane a male Reed Bunting dropped onto the path where he rested for a few minutes before strongly flying off west. Also present, which hadn't been there on my earlier passage, was a flock of 20 or so Meadow Pipits, avidly feeding on the turf and marram in one of the gardens. On arrival at my destination, a Wheatear immediately showed, but it was a female. A couple of people walking the beach disturbed her and she flew to one of the huge boulders where the original male suddenly appeared on the sand, and over the next half hour I managed to take some more footage from the top of the cliff.


March 19th

A relatively mild - for March anyway - south-westerly had me hoping for something to indicate that the winter was inevitably losing it's grip on us and I was rewarded with three Sand Martins hawking westwards as I strolled along the clifftop by the Coast Watch. A few were reported around the county yesterday, but I'd had to wait a little longer for a bird that often marks a watershed in the birding year; the first summer migrant. Little else was apparently moving. Offshore, Gulls were 'milling around' at best and a couple of Red-throated Divers passed westwards. Interestingly, a single Cormorant flying to the east was the first I had seen in Happisburgh this year. Familiar garden birds are often forgotten when it comes to talk of migrants, but six Great Tits which flew out of the hedges near The Forge and gained height as they flew off west were no doubt just that. Mechanised farming operations were underway in the fields just behind the Coast Watch and four Pied Wagtails attracted to the resultant disturbed soil were accompanied by two male White Wagtails which, like the male Pied, had yet to acquire absolutely full summer plumage.

I almost had a collision with a Sparrowhawk this afternoon as I drove a narrow back road into Ingham. It shot through a gap in the hedge to my left and, with a deft wing flick, missed my nearside and continued flying very low to the road only three or four feet in front of me, totally unperturbed it seemed. For those few privileged seconds it almost felt as though I was riding on the little hunters back...


March 17th

Early this afternoon I latched onto two interesting raptors as they soared high, just east of our garden. I was washing up at the time and got a funny look from the other half as I exclaimed "They're Buzzards!", grabbed my 'bins' and ran outside. They were Buzzards, two Commons, and they continued to spiral for a while before levelling out and heading inland, slowly losing altitude. Ten minutes or so later a male Sparrowhawk gained height over the gardens and drifted off to the north.


March 16th

Today was simply glorious. The temperature reached double figures, a T-shirt was enough whilst working in the garden and a Peacock butterfly was on the wing in the village. I'd not been out to the Coast Watch side of the village for what felt like months so, bundling Ossie into the car, I headed over that way. I love this piece of Happisburgh and it always has a 'birdy' feel to it. Most of the fields out here remain as bare ploughland and I contemplated what may be grown this year; potatoes would be good perhaps for nesting Yellow Wagtails, sugar beet for Ringed Plover or even Oystercatcher and peas are always worth a scan later in the Spring for migrant Dotterel. Today though, an early Martin or the first Wheatear was far more likely. As it happened, I didn't see any proper Summer visitors but my walk was still most rewarding. Peering over the cliff, a Meadow Pipit flitted from the grassy face onto a bare ridge. Two other small birds joined it; another Meadow and a drab grey, more heavily under-streaked Rock Pipit, not yet showing any trace of a pink flush to it's breast, a feature of the Scandinavian race 'littoralis' often passing through coastal Norfolk at this time of year. It may even be that this race is the most regular wintering form of Rock Pipit in east Norfolk.

A few Corvids over on a westerly bearing were Rooks, and shortly after another passed through with a Jackdaw for company. I felt there ought to be a raptor or two on the move in such weather conditions and a searching scan back towards Walcott soon turned up a high passing Sparrowhawk following the coast south. Scanning back another, larger, bird had me thinking 'raptor' as it approached on motionless wings. Very quickly I was thinking Peregrine and, sure enough, that's what it was. It remained high as it got closer but then turned and headed inland, perhaps to cause havoc with the wildfowl at East Ruston.


March 15th

As I walked back towards the house from feeding our Bantams at around 07:50 I heard the soft murmurings of a Goose. I looked up and had a naked eye, rear on view of two smallish grey Geese heading north-westwards, but such views were too inconclusive to enable their identification. They were most likely a couple of Pink-feet, but the call could also have belonged to White-fronted Goose and I went indoors rather annoyed at myself for not having my binoculars within easy reach at that moment.

Things did pick up though, for I gave the dog a good walk out and we headed across the track to the Decca site, along the cliffs to the village and back via Lighthouse Lane. Spring was in the air and several Skylarks were announcing it to the world as they sang high above their invisible territories. Two Meadow Pipits were each staking out their own claim to a piece of Happisburgh with their much shorter song-flighting display. Few birds seemed to be actively moving through, although this may have been largely down to the fact that my walk wasn't exactly an early one. Despite this, a party of eight Siskins bounced low across a field as they progressed northwards. A clifftop field held two, perhaps a pair, of Ringed Plover and turning to scan the sea I noticed a distant adult Gannet slowly passing. The most notable sighting of the days was close to where I had left my car, for shortly after leaving for home I stopped to check out an interesting Partridge which turned out to be a male Grey. Even more notable was the fact that his mate was contentedly crouched beside him...


March 12th

Walking homeward along School Common Road this morning I was pleased to find a Woodcock in the emergent undergrowth in the more wooded section adjacent to Laurel Lodge. Upon seeing me it ran, only to stop after a few feet and still in full view. Having had good views of many already this year I didn't hang around and risk disturbing it further. I'm not sure what size of territory Woodcocks need for breeding, but I would imagine it is probably considerably more than is on offer here. This bird is probably one that is re-orientating back towards continental Europe and is no doubt increasing it's fat score before facing the gruelling flight ahead.


March 10th

On Sunday afternoon I took a phone call from my Mum and Robin who were in Witton Woods. They had been walking through the woods, enjoying the sunshine, in the hope of finding some Crossbills when they were lucky enough to come across a party of 10-12 feeding in a stand of Larches; the tree of choice, it seems, whenever Crossbills turn up at this site. Speaking to Robin that evening, he talked of one he had seen with white wing bars, and although unlikely, the possibility of it being a Two-barred Crossbill meant it warranted further investigation. Anyway, even if it wasn't one, the Crossbills, along with several Siskins and some Redpolls, would be worth seeing on their own merit. Some local birders spent the next few days looking at them and I managed to visit on Wednesday for about an hour. Walking up the track towards the favoured trees I heard the excited 'chip, chip, chip' calls of several birds as they took flight and on looking up, I could see a group of 25-30 quite bulky finches flying away. Positioning myself so as to be able to watch any returning birds, I waited. There was movement amongst the high branches but viewing against the cold grey sky, trying to get a clear view of small birds in the thick tangle of Larch twigs and clusters of small cones, wasn't easy. A male Siskin was atop one tree, singing his heart out, and a general twittering from other Siskins and at least one Lesser Redpoll filled the air. It was wonderful to experience but standing around, I felt rather cold. Two Goldcrests were noteworthy, they were almost absent from the coast last autumn and my first of the year, and Coal Tits were best described as abundant. Eventually a couple of larger birds drew my eye and I was pleased that some Crossbills had returned to feed. They remained silent as they fed and getting good clear views was difficult, but this small group were all Common Crossbills, males and females. All the finches occasionally took flight, seemingly spooked by something unseen by me, but they soon returned. I watched a couple of Siskins and a Coal Tit come to drink at a small puddle and had time been on my side, I would have staked out the puddle for longer as Finches, being seed eaters, need to drink regularly and in doing so they usually give good views. I didn't see the flock of 25-30 birds anymore but speaking this evening to another birder who visited today, I learned that perhaps as many as 40-50 Crossbills may be present.

A male (top) and female Common Crossbill, Witton Woods,
March 2010 © Bob Cobbold


March 7th

Sheringham was my destination this morning. I had to drop the girls off at the Little Theatre for the day and whilst there I thought it would be rude not to stop at the seafront and see if the juvenile Glaucous Gull was still around. It had already been reported from early on and a scan from the clifftop near the Esplanade enabled me to quickly locate it on the sea in the company of a few Herring Gulls, probably somewhere opposite The Crown PH. I spent a short while watching it on the sea and flying around a few times before it landed on a groyne post. Back in the 1970's-1980's an individual returned each winter for many years, scavenging the shoreline between Blakeney Point and Weybourne and earning the affections of locals who knew him either as 'Weybourne Willie' or, more latterly, 'George'. It would be nice to think that today's bird will return to this piece of coast in winters to come and earn it's place in birding lore.

This 1st winter Glaucous Gull is a popular attraction at Sheringham. © Bob Cobbold

Seeing scarce or rare visitors is always hugely enjoyable, but a greater thrill comes from finding your own good birds. As I was approaching Happisburgh on my homeward drive a movement over the 'allotment' at Whittletons Farm caught my eye. It was instantly recognisable as a male Hen Harrier and judging by its full adult plumage, a different bird to the one I saw at Cart Gap in February. For birding enjoyment, it just edged the Glaucous for me...


March 2nd

Following Sunday's miserable, grey rain we're now enjoying a welcome spell of sunny, more clement weather. The nights may be icily cold, and there's a layer of frost on the screen to contend with each morning, but the thought of Spring just around the corner lifts the spirits. Walking out beyond Moat Farm this morning I caught a snatch of song from a Reed Bunting. It was a male, singing from a low down bush adjacent to a reed filled dyke, and he had yet to fully develop his black head and bib of summer plumage. I paused for a short while, for although not a particularly awe inspiring bird in this guise, and with a rather monotonous song, Reed Buntings are never very plentiful in Happisburgh. One was present not too far from here in December, before disappearing on December 31st, and I wondered if it was possibly the same individual.

This Reed Bunting is beginning to show the black head feathering and white collar of summer plumage.
© Arthur Grosset

Yesterday, mid-morning, I happened to be in the garden, discussing some planned work on the house with a tradesman. The sky bore a sense of expectation; bright and mostly sunny but with enough billowy clouds as a background against which to pick out a passing raptor. I can't help sky-gazing on days like this and I suddenly found myself with an adrenaline flutter of excitement in my stomach that most seasoned birders feel as they spot a larger 'bop' ~ bird of prey. Soaring at a fair height just south of our garden was a larger, broad winged bird and I ran for my nearby binoculars. I'd already guessed what it probably was and, raising my glasses, I could see it was a Common Buzzard. It continued circling at height for a few minutes before abandoning it's thermal and gliding towards Eccles and the coast on fixed wings. March and April are prime months for Buzzards to pass through the county and several are recorded each year at this time. Separating true migrating birds from more local wanderers isn't easy, for the species benefits from a healthy population in east Norfolk. I have, however, often watched these birds soaring over and away from their territories, but they invariably return home after a short while. With today's bird heading for the coast, there was a reasonable chance it was a migrant...