winter owls and other magic moments.

This week has seen me brave the biting winds and winter cold to get out in some wildlife friendly farmland locally to check on the winter visitors. As I set out, on a fresh wintry morning I wished I’d remembered my woolly hat. I very soon forgot the inconvenience and was lost in wonder as my first bird was a hunting barn owl quartering a field just in front of me.


The silent hunting Barn owl

Photo Credit: Simon Stobart Flickr via Compfight cc

Soon after my barn owl and in amongst the expected crows. rooks and jackdaws came the next surprise as a single skylark flying up from some winter stubble heralding a further dozen which flew up and then washed away with the wind. A little further on in the lea of an overgrown farm garden and feeding on a winter seed patch another flock this time of chaffinches bobbed backwards and forwards in the wind,


Difficult not to love a flock of chaffinch 

Whilst I watched the chaffinch busy in their search for seeds there were a few fieldfare over head, The recent mixed weather seems to be keeping these winter thrushes on the move and you never know if you will see a hundred or two or three. Recent flocks seem to be shadowed by small charms of goldfinches with anything up to thirty in tow. Fortunately in the cold I managed to blag a lift back to my car with a  local who apologized for not  mentioning a few days before, the short eared owl which had been where I had watched the barn owl.

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Short Eared owl hunting

Photo Credit: Simon Stobart Flickr via Compfight cc

The short eared owl, a good candidate for my favourite owl, is rarely seen inland but up to four have been previously seen together hunting in winter south of Norwich but I guess I will have to wait to add it to the Birds of Hethersett. This posts video comes from the local badger sett which has been very active recently and judging by the video should have cubs in the new year.


Fifty shades of Grey

It has been a very long time since the last blog post which included the last half of September which didn’t really seem to produce much locally in terms of bird life. Whilst the early Autumn migrants started coming in over the coast whenever the weather was kind to them all I saw of note was the very regular flyovers by grey herons and cormorants. The latter presumably heading out to Hethersett Hall lake to fish  and the herons drifting in at all times of day to terrorize the ponds of the village.


Grey heron, arguably villain of the ponds but spectacular as they drop in around the village.

In the last week or so the Autumn birds are drifting in to the area in good numbers and the local tawny owls are certainly making themselves heard with the females twit-ing and the males woo wooing back at them,  The BTO have just opened their tawny owl survey so if you fancy  helping them click here to find out how.

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Tawny Owl the only UK owl to hoot.

I have been doing some some farmland surveying over the last week which has been very pleasant in the Autumn sunshine and one afternoon I took a couple of young assistants who needed stick to make brooms for forthcoming celebrations. As we approached the farm area we were treated with some very close views of the local Pheasants closely followed by some partridges. Normally I would expect to see a couple of pairs of red legged partridges running wild but these birds were in a full covey with more and more appearing out of the long grass and best of all they weren’t the usual fare.


A record shot of 1 of 15 Grey partridge.

It was truly heartening to see these UK birds doing well locally as they are red listed bird in serious decline. The birds have done very well as most of the ‘covey’ were this years young and seem to have avoided the local goshawk, which fortunately appears to prefer wood pigeons which are definitely not red listed. We also got to see the first flocks of fieldfare and redwing fresh in from Northern Europe and the first small flock of wintering lapwing sitting it out with a flock of stock doves. Coming soon another Autumn post as local treats keep arriving and in the mean time this posts’ video of another local partridge eater caught out in the daylight.


RSPB Lakenheath Fen

With July drawing to a close the night of the RSPB’s big wild sleep out was fast approaching. This a once a year opportunity to visit one of many RSPB reserves for an overnight visit and experience the after dark magic of the reserves as well as the usual day time stuff. The weekend before I had taken another annual trip to Brundall, on the broads which was a bit quiet with all the visiting warblers now silent and only a token handful of last swifts and a few swallows filling the sky. Something much bigger did give us a spectacular fly over though.

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The unmistakable sight and sound of a Lancaster bomber. (I wasn’t expecting that)

  The weekend of the sleepover approached and our places were booked at RSPB Lakenheath only some 50 minutes from home. With weeks of baking temperatures and still nights it was perfect for camping. Of course weather watchers will have spotted the only two windy rainy days for weeks fast approaching but we set off  undaunted. Tents were quickly pitched on sandy ground with the only obvious neighbours the very vocal green woodpeckers.


Green woodpecker posing nicely (as opposed to the Lakenheath Birds).

Photo Credit: conrad_hanchett Flickr via Compfight cc

First on the agenda, post tent setting, was a quick trip round the reserve before any rain joined the winds. We were on the look out for the Lakenheath Big 5 which if memory serves me correctly are marsh harrier, bearded tit, bittern, crane and kingfisher. We saw none of these but were treated to some arial acrobatics from a hobby hawking for dragonflies.


Scenic Lakenheath from one of several great vantage points

The viewpoint over joist fen is a great place to practice a little mindfulness and wait for good things to turn up and so we did. The livelier of my two nine year old assistants for the weekend chased butterflies, dragonflies, crickets and anything else that crawled whilst the other assisted me in spotting the bird life.


Ruddy darter dragonfly trying to avoid being caught by hobby and my assistants.

There were the usual collection of moorhens and coots feeding young accompanied by some drab mallards. There were arial flyovers by little egrets and black-headed gulls but no sign of the big five although bitterns had been seen during the week. Next on the tour was the photographic hide which was new to me and a welcome shade from the early sunshine.


The photographic Hide with a couple of keen occupiers

The hide looks promising for winter and there had been some early use and close ups of water rail but our midday visitors were young blue and great tits.

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Young great tit in the mid day sun

The evening entertainment after an afternoon of bug hunting and watching the fish in the visitors centre was to be dusk walks with bats and barn owls. The barn owls did put in an appearance quartering the marshes if a little delayed bu t the planned bat detecting was thwarted by heavy rain showers. A feast of marshmallows and hot chocolate by the camp fire was fine with my assistants after the rain had passed and they  have detected enough bats previously not to be disappointed. A dusk hobby and views of the late waders and other waterbirds completed a good day and the rain did not try to hard to keep us awake.


Garden Tiger Moth one of my favourites.

Photo Credit: Nick Dobbs Flickr via Compfight cc

The next morning after a hearty breakfast was filled with pond dipping and moth traps with a good variety of crowd pleasers including my favourite the tiger moth. Having been to engaged to get the camera out I opted instead for some butterfly action which was tricky in the high winds. Despite the rain dampening some activities the weekend was enjoyed by all in no small part to the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff.

DSC_0060.JPGSlightly worn Red Admiral enjoying the buddleia by the visitors centre.

The  week saw the last of the village swifts disappearing as migration gets under way and we already start to look for Autumn on the horizon. Several mini migrant explosions have already started to occur and I found an opportunity to dash out to Great Yarmouth to check out a number of pied flycatchers that dropped into the cemetery. Alas my late dash was only good enough for the briefest glimpse of a female and certainly not the classic view of the male bird shown below.


Male pied flycatcher

Photo Credit: Simon Stobart Flickr via Compfight cc

In non avian related news the editor in chief of Hethersett Birdlife was caught on camera this week on another splendid pied creation so look out for him around the village and at local birding hot-spots.


Hethersett Birdlife gains some new wheels for local birding trips.

Video for the post comes from the Badger sett and my photographic hide and is in keeping with the black and white theme for the latter part of the post.

White Spring Waders.

Spring is finally here. My last local WEBS count of February heralded fine weather with the return of one of my favourite local waders the ever noisy oystercatcher to its breeding territory. There were still a few winter ducks around with tufted ducks, gadwall and whistling wigeon in reasonable numbers. As I left the site I came upon a pair of Roe deer. I was just down wind of them so was only a few feet away whilst they fed. It certainly felt very like spring as the daffodils poked their heads out and the Greater spotted woodpeckers drummed the season in.


Spring Herald, the Oystercatcher

Then in swept a healthy dose of the #BeastfromtheEast and suddenly Spring disappeared overnight under several feet of snow. This was met  with whoops of joy from my eight year old assistant. After hours of snow filled fun we set off with what seemed like most of the village to check out the local countryside which now looked like this.


A view from the west Hethersett Loop

The weather appeared to have driven the birds from the countryside into local gardens where any filled feeders or refreshed water bowls are soon being visited by regulars and some not so regulars. Birds such as fieldfare are now visiting gardens so worth sticking out some fruit along with the usual bird food to help feed these and other thrushes. The best I managed to find whilst sledge pulling was this festive spring friend.


Fluffed up to try and stay warm a distinctly grumpy looking robin.

Later on I retraced my steps  to recover a trail camera and whilst it was after dark a nearly full moon on the snow made a torch unnecessary. I made the most of snow to see what animals had been out before me. There were several roe deer tracks which were usually two animals side by side. A rabbit appeared to have come out from some brambles gone a few feet spun around in the snow (probably its first) and gone back into warmer cover. Then steadily through the meadow a bushy tailed fox had strolled through purposefully. The night also brought a nocturnal fly past of a woodcock which was startled to see me. These birds which feed on damp soil have also been turning up in large gardens in the cold weather again trying to find enough food to survive.

The well camouflaged woodcock.

Photo Credit: Chris J Upson Flickr via Compfight cc

Video for this post gives an idea of how this rarely seen bird goes about feeding when it’s not so cold and highlights those amazing evolved eyes high up on its head to give it almost 360 degree range of vision to spot predators before they spot it.

February Goshawk and other highlights

February has kicked off sporting as much grey as January. Fortunately the cold weather is pushing the garden feeders to bursting point and its difficult to feel down when half a dozen green finches are seeing off  four goldfinches and a couple of long tailed tits only to be muscled out by a pair of bullfinch and a couple of starlings, whilst three male chaffinches whirl around in a burst of testosterone charged activity.


Snowdrops out showing Winter is here but fear not Spring is coming

Locally I have finally been catching up with some outstanding birds for 2018 around the village including an unexpected pair of fly over cormorants a lesser black backed gull calling away in the main street with its sound of the coast It has also been good to catch up with some slightly smaller common gulls floating about and keeping the occasional ridge tile warm.


A somewhat summery version of the Humble Common Gull

Last week I took a brief, day off, opportunity to catch up with Great Melton Heronry whilst the trees are still leafless in an attempt to count the nests which will hopefully be full of grey herons in the spring. The January storms had made a couple of nests look a bit worse for wear but there were still seven nests and that was the successful score last year. No sign of herons just a pair of noisy Egyptian geese and some woodpigeons to keep me company.  However I then had the good fortune to meet the local falconer and his male goshawk.

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Very scary eyes of a male Goshawk look closely and you will see the reflection of the nervous camera man under those distinctive white eyebrows

Goshawks were like a number other birds of prey driven close to extinction at the end of the 19th century but were ‘reintroduced’ probably by the falconers including some no doubt who lost their birds to the wild. Come the spring warm mornings in the Brecks will be the best place to see the displaying males although they occasionally turn up around Norwich .

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Bird and handler comfortable in each others trusted company, giving an idea of the scale of this most adept of hunting birds.

As well as treasured time with the killer goshawk I also got the chance to set out some cameras at a small pond which is being fed for wildfowl. The pond was empty at the time of feeding which involves spreading out grain on the banks but has held large numbers of teal and a few greylag geese which were joined recently by a wild pink footed goose which hang around for a couple of days and had perhaps become separated in the fog from one of the flocks that have been traveling the Wensum valley


Pink Footed Goose out of his comfort zone and far from his arctic summer haunts.

Pink footed goose Credit: Whistling Joe Flickr via Compfight cc

Various stars on the latest video which was a montage of a week of night time footage at my local WEBS site. None of the videos on their own seemed ideal so with the help of some simple editing software called Video Pad the passing nightlife has been condensed. Look out for Muntjac deer, woodmouse, Roe deer, badger, fox and rabbit.

Autumn Highlights to date.

With tropical hurricane Ophelia pushing up warm fine weather every spare moment has been spent pretending it’s summer whilst watching the distinctly autumnal fare over the last few days. One of my personal highlights was the first of the winter thrushes appearing over the village. Redwings with their ‘seep seep’ calls were the first ones flying low over the village centre late last week looking a bit tired after their trip over the North Sea from summer breeding in Northern Europe and Russia. This year they turned up on exactly the same as last year.


Redwings now spreading out locally and throughout the county

Photo Credit: Daniel.Pettersson Flickr via Compfight cc

Having seen the Autumn migrants over the village it seemed like a good time to check out my local WEBS site at Marlingford and see what else had flown in. My count soon included the first of the seasons whistling ducks the wigeon and also a number of teal and a small flock of gadwall both also increased in numbers this month. Other birds in good numbers were the local fish catching cormorant population with 30 birds and left over from last month a pair of greater black-backed gulls.


Iridescent Cormorant preparing for take off and doubtless some fishing.

I got to work on the slightly arduous task of counting the hundreds of geese and as ever at this time of year realised that the Canada geese and the greylags have not been entirely faithful to their own species. One of this years progeny was in company with mum who was a canada goose but I am not entirely clear on dad but would welcome opinions particularly where those spectacular yellow legs come from.


Standard Canada goose left and centre

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Young hybrid (centre) with his mixed family?

As well as checking out migrants locally I was lured to the East coast to see what might have been blown in on the local hurricanes. First off was a trip to Caister and Hemsby which allowed me to catch up with most of the local gull species as well as some fishing gannets which are always impressive if a little distant in the ‘summer’ heat haze.


Acrobatic Gannet proving you don’t have to be rare to be special.

Photo Credit: normanwest4tography Flickr via Compfight cc

Having taken in the beach and the nearby amusements to ensure the total eight year old accomplice experience I decided that my next port of call would wait until I was alone to check it out. Next on the seasonal East coast hotlist was the less obvious hotspot Great Yarmouth cemetery. The cemetery whilst not an obvious birdwatching mecca to many is to migrant birds attracting a surprising number of rarities. Whilst tiptoeing between the gravestones I had the good fortune to bump into local aficionado @wryneck and he quickly put me onto a flock of great tits, blue tits, long tailed-tits and goldcrests which were in company with a yellow browed warbler which although calling didn’t show itself. Other graveside highlights which were easier to photograph were as follows.


Gravestone topping young herring gull which had it been named in the current Great Yarmouth, post herring fleet demise, might have been the fast-food gull.


Red Admiral enjoying the weather and the late blooming ivy flowers along with a host of other insects


Local monument in amongst the birds and notable for its damage inflicted on it by the Luftwaffe whilst carrying out one of their many wartime attacks on the port.


More local history adjacent to the graveyard is this cafe not famous for its tea and scones bu for being the birthplace of Anna Sewell


Close up in case it was required.

Having drifted away from the avian may I further present one of Strumpshaws finest from my journey home albeit that he may not make it past the shooting season…


Cock Pheasant

 Lastly this post is thevideo highlight which marks the end of my Badger Sett survey.

A MEGA, a patch first and a LIFER.

Wow a busy few days around the village but I will start with the one I missed and only found out about today. In Birdwatching a Mega is a real rarity and if you are familiar with The Birds of Hethersett we are talking Golden Oriole. On Sunday morning Facebook posts appeared of a rare visitor to the UK let alone the Hethersett Recreation Ground. A white stork had arrived on the football pitches just in time for Sunday League kick off.

The Hethersett stork courtesy of Carol Gardiner and with small children in the back ground to add scale as this bird can stand at well over a meter tall.

Apparently this was not a vagrant European bird attracted by the local footballing talent but an escapee captured by the RSPCA and returned to Earsham in Suffolk from where he had drifted. Most sightings in Norfolk are of escapees from the likes of Thrigby Hall but they are none the less stunning birds.

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Slightly more photogenic bird which I had prepared earlier for just such a story.

The previous Friday in search of something just as rare and stunning I went out to nearby Marlingford for the monthly survey of waterbirds. It is now September so whilst the singing birds and locals are still quiet there is a real chance of something migrating through. I was hoping perhaps for a rare wading bird but after much scanning found the delightful yet common sandpiper picking at lakeside insects. The lake was quiet with the summer common terns now well on route back to Africa and other noisy visitors such as the oystercatcher also gone to coastal climes. There were good numbers of geese brown ducks and cormorants but my eye was drawn to a couple of monster gulls.


Greater Blackbacked Gulls.

Photo Credit: JRochester Flickr via Compfight cc  These gulls dwarfed the lesser black backed gulls, herring gulls and black headed gulls and stood nearly shoulder to shoulder with the local canada geese. This was the first time I had seen them locally and they are often out at sea or on a mud flat and the true majesty of the birds is not always apparent. If seagulls really ate babies or small dogs it would be these that did it.

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Also present on my count the tiny cousin of the big boys a black-headed gull.

After the excitement of my local ‘Patch’ first and a rarity in itself I was to be given an exclusive guided tour of a site not too far from the village which was for me a life time first. Like most my experience of badgers is seeing them dead by the side of the road and on one very unfortunate occasion adding to the death toll as a large boar was chased  another in front of my own car to the significant detriment of the car and badger.  This was my first non vehicle related badger sighting:

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Now the more observant viewers will notice this is a tree not a badger

There are a number of key features that you are near a badger sett not least of which is their scratch tree which they use to sharpen their claws and this one shows scratches up to about 4 and a half feet (in old money). For a great site with details of badger setts and how to identify them and other interesting facts badger related  (click here) .Having never seen one before I was amazed at the size and structure.

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Big badger sized hole with claw marks around. They tend to be badger shaped and are clearly not any other animal when seen in the flesh.

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Big earth works. Unusually this sett is straight down rather than cut into a slope. It is six foot across and on the right is my camera bag which is where the following camera footage was taken from.

The first video is as expected a badger emerging from the main sett entrance. Badgers emerged either at the beginning or end of the day with little exception but they were not alone as the camera trap also caught grey squirrel and blackbird as well as the following passer by the entrance.

Having watched a few badger videos as they got used to the trail cam and its infra red light it was nice to capture the next video which hints at more to come.

So at least two badgers at this site and lots more likey, but I will have  to wait until late spring for some photographic opportunities as although badgers do not hibernate they are a late riser so only long summer days offer the best photo opportunities. Contact me via the website email if you are interested in in photographing these amazing creatures in the wild.