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Thanks for taking time to visit the 2008 Happisburgh Bird Diary, we hope you enjoyed reading it. To find out what Ossie and I see this year please visit the Happisburgh Parish Bird List 2009 ...

20th – 26th January

Weather-wise the week started in a similar vein to last week with blustery westerlies and showers. The 22nd dawned with a beautiful pink mackerel sky and a light northerly breeze and we enjoyed a couple of calmer days before the clouds and wind returned.

The high point of the week for me came early, on Monday 21st. As I drove past the old Victoria public house on the morning school run, a large white bird in flight caught my eye. It was my first sighting in the parish of a Little Egret, a bird I have seen 2-3 times since moving here but always in Lessingham. 25 years ago this would have been an event to set birders pulses racing but this species has spread northward from the continent to such an extent that small breeding colonies have become established in more southern counties. Indeed, breeding even occurs at at least 2 sites in Norfolk.

A trip to the bottle bank may seem like a mundane to task to most but our nearest, at the Wenn Evans Centre, gives me the chance to have a look over the fields to the west of the village. Today a bird on top of the old shelter warranted closer investigation. Bringing my telescope into play I could see it was a male Stonechat, doubtless one of the birds I had seen earlier in the month. Scanning the fringe of vegetation along the cliff edge, back towards the village, I saw 2 more. These soon worked their way to the rough area next to the Coast Watch where all 3 fed alongside some Blackbirds, a Robin and a Wren. Stonechats regularly turn up at coastal locations in late winter/early spring; indeed this could be seen as an early migration. Another pair, seen just south of East Ruston church the next day and subsequently, perhaps supports this idea.

A pair of local Stonechats. Thanks again to Bob Cobbold.

Reports from other birders this week included 3 tundra race Bean Geese and 2 Lapland Buntings SE of the lighthouse. The latter were probably flyovers, picked up on call; a distinctive ‘chu’ followed by a rapid, dry rattle, ‘ptt, ptt, prrrtt’. Wintering mostly in southern Russia it seems, small numbers of ‘Laps’ regularly spend the winter in coastal fields around the southern North sea coasts.

Other sightings through the week were limited but Fieldfares, a large, winter visiting thrush, once again made an appearance in fields close to home: there were 17 opposite my house on the 22nd and 19 on the meadows below Lower Farm on the 25th. Nearby, a flock of 30 Chaffinches fed on some weathered ploughed land, seeking cover in some tall Poplars as Oswald and I walked past. The week finished up rather bright and a male Greenfinch ‘songflighting’ at the end of my lane gave a hint of springtime activity to come...

13th – 19th January

This was another week of blustery showers with a predominantly westerly bias to the wind direction, although it did touch SSE on the 15th and NW on the 16th. The same dates saw some heavy overnight rain too, resulting in many areas of standing water in some of the fields around the parish.

Small birds in these conditions are often hard to find, so attention is more easily drawn to larger species. And this week my local bird focus was around geese. A call from a birder friend alerted me to the presence of lots of geese in a field between the lighthouse and Cart Gap. As luck would have it they returned daily for the good feeding, sugar beet, so over the next few days I made several short visits to enjoy the spectacle. Amongst the hordes of Pink-footed Geese (the most numerous wintering goose seen in Happisburgh) are often some individuals that have been marked with easily visible neck collars as part of a study into their lifespan and migratory movements. I hoped to find some of these and perhaps some of the less regular geese that may be accompanying them.

In total, the numbers of birds present each day was estimated to be in the region of 6,000; the majority of which were Pink-feet. On Sunday 13th there was a single Greylag amongst the throng and the chances are high that this was a genuine wild bird as opposed to being one of the feral birds that are present in the county all year. A few other local birders saw 9 here the following weekend; the feeling with them too is that they were wild birds. The following day there were only about 3,000 geese in the field and within a short time of my arriving they had flown, disturbed by some dog walkers. Before their departure however, I had seen 2 Bean Geese of the tundra breeding race rossicus. A close relative to the Pink-foot, the Bean Goose used to be classed as conspecific. Now a full species in its own right the Bean is subtly different but easy to differentiate given good views, having bright orange legs and feet and with an orange band on the bill. The Yare valley annually hosts a relatively small wintering population of the larger, taiga breeding race fabalis. Much more readily identifiable amongst the flock were the 8 Barnacle Geese. Contrastingly black and white within all the ‘grey’ geese, these too were likely wild birds, probably from the wintering flocks in the Netherlands. Two other goose representatives were seen during the week, these being 1 or 2 Eurasian White-fronted Geese and a single Ross’s Goose. The former are a regular winter visitor to the grassier marshes of North Norfolk and Broadland but are less frequent in the Happisburgh area. My favourite goose, they are an attractive, neat looking bird with orangey legs and a pink bill. Adults have a distinct white blaze to the forehead and variable black bars on the belly. Lastly was the Ross’s Goose, one of the ‘snow’ geese. A New World species they are, like many exotic fowl, kept in captivity and the escape potential is always there. For this reason it has not yet been officially accepted as a wild occurring species on the British list, although they have been seen more regularly in recent years and arrive with the Pink-feet. As the Pinks nest in Greenland it is a possibility that the Ross’s are wild birds that have found themselves with the ‘wrong crowd’ and continued with them to their wintering grounds.

The top photo shows 2 tundra race Bean Geese taken at East Ruston by my good friend and top birder Bob Cobbold. Although structurally classic examples of this race, the bill on the right hand bird displays a more extensive orange area than usual, rather recalling the bill pattern of a taiga race Bean Goose. The bill of the individual on the left is more typical. The lower photo is a White-fronted Goose taken at Holkham on the North Norfolk coast. (Click on photos to enlarge)

Walking Oswald through this area on the afternoon of Saturday 19th the fields were devoid of the geese, their places taken by over 600 Lapwings, a few Turnstones, lots of Woodpigeons and some Black-headed and Common Gulls. Scanning inland my eye caught a whitish twinkling in the sky. Raising my binoculars I could see it was a distant flock of swans, 35 or so. They were flying northward somewhere over East Ruston and for a moment I thought they might land in fields beyond the water tower, but they turned and continued flying back into Broadland. Probably Bewick’s Swans, they were too distant for me to positively identify them…

6th - 12th January

The week was rather breezy with the wind variable between south and west, occasional heavy showers and several hours of heavier, more persistent rain on Friday. Saturday 6th however, dawned bright and sunny. I walked Oswald up the lane mid morning taking in the Barn Owl and noting c.80 Lapwing heading from the direction of the village towards Lessingham and perhaps the marshes beyond. Approaching the first bend I decided to head along the path that leads through an interesting area of grassy fields and a very weedy field of cabbages. This could hold some finches or buntings I thought. As I approached the weedy area two small birds took flight and landed in a nearby Oak; Lesser Redpolls. This diminutive finch is more often associated with Alder Carr and heathland but they're not unknown as visitors to more open farmland, and I was nonetheless pleased to see them looking settled so close to home.

I fully understand the benefit to farmers in autumn ploughing of fields but it is always pleasing for a birder to see stubbles and pasture left untouched as they are a valuable source of food and shelter for smaller bird species. I was therefore pleased that a nearby field had only been riffled with a cultivator and held a small flock of Skylark and Meadow Pipits, a dozen or so of each. More special though were the half dozen or so Common Snipe that flew up individually and further into the field as we passed, each giving its distinctive rasping call similar to a wellington boot being slowly pulled from wet mud. I have seen up to ten of these together in flight from my garden so I now know where they sometimes spend their time feeding.

The week continued, cold and mostly windy, and nothing of much note was seen. The Lesser Redpolls were seen again, on the Friday and Saturday, so it seems that they are happily settled here and there was a single Yellowhammer close to Lower Farm. One day a Sparrowhawk flew over at dusk having obviously been feeding as it had a very pronounced, extended crop bulging from its chest. I hate these short winter days with the seemingly dark mornings and am happy that they are getting longer, albeit slowly.

Following a wet Friday night, Saturday 12th was much brighter and less chilly. I paid a brief visit to Walcott seafront and it wasn’t long before the adult Mediterranean Gull appeared. On a global scale this is a rare bird but the species has undergone something of a westward expansion in recent years and even breeds in Norfolk now. Between the piers at Great Yarmouth is one of the best places locally to see this handsome Larid, well over 25 often being reported together on the sands here. I have seen up to five together at Walcott and the adults are a distinctive bird with their icy grey wings and blood red, yellower tipped bill. Some dark flecking behind the eye and on the nape area gives but a small clue to the jet black hood and white eye crescents that this gull will sport in its breeding plumage. Immature Med Gulls (as birders often refer to them) have much more black in their flight feathers in their 1st winter plumage and show a black tail band, a very dark bill and long, dark legs. As they age the blacker feathers disappear, a 2nd winter bird having just a few blacker streaks to its outer primaries; the longest wing feathers. Adult plumage (such as the bird I photographed at Caister in 2005) is attained by the 3rd winter.

1st - 5th January

The New Year started off cold, very grey and soon turning damp. I went no further than taking our dog for his daily walk. From Wednesday 2nd things brightened up and the airflow arriving from the continent got much colder. Thursday was bitter but the cold snap was short lived as the winds eased and veered to a milder, SW origin. Nothing of much note was seen during these early days of 2008 save for the regular Barn Owl along our lane and the regular skeins of Pink-footed Geese overhead as they traversed between favoured feeding and roosting sites in north Norfolk and Broadland/east Norfolk. This goose is a familiar sight over Happisburgh from mid September when the first birds arrive here from their breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland. They can be seen almost daily as they commute back and forth and their distinctive ‘wink-wink, wink-wink’ calls can often be heard well before they are sighted. It is estimated that 192,000 Pink-feet spend the winter months in the UK (per. RSPB) and Norfolk is the most important county for them with well over 100,000 each winter (147,000 in 2004) Most birds will have left on the northward journey to their nesting grounds by the end of March – early April.

Saturday 5th dawned bright and sunny but still quite breezy. Once everyone was breakfasted and the morning chores done I helped the dog into the car and headed for the cricket ground. Oswald is still a young dog and not yet 100% happy with travelling on four wheels, so I like to give him short journeys with something fun at the end of each trip. A bit further along Blacksmiths Lane from the cricket ground is a public footpath that heads out past a couple of cottages and some horse paddocks and onwards to the clifftop, this being a favourite walk of ours. Near to the start of this track are some weedy bulb fields and this morning as I passed good numbers of small birds took flight, inadvertently disturbed from their feeding. Present were c.70 Chaffinches, c.45 Linnets, c.35 Skylarks and a single Meadow Pipit. It was pleasing to find such an assembly given the reduction in bird numbers generally over the past couple of decades.

Further along I stopped by the Coast Watch station and looking westward was delighted to see 2 Stonechats feeding in the rank, grassy strip along the cliff edge. Superficially similar to the Robin, Stonechats aren’t exactly rare here but are always pleasing to find and these birds may well linger until the early spring before moving on. A quick scan over the sea didn’t reveal much at all, although 3 Red-throated Divers kept disappearing as they dived for fish well offshore. The bulb fields stretch almost to the cliff edge, and as I walked along some more Linnets (7) and Skylarks (6) appeared and a lone Reed Bunting called ‘seeu’ from atop a small bush. I saw one here in November last and presumed it to be the same bird.

Heading back to the car a rather sad find was the remains of a Barn Owl. How it met its death was unknown (and the actual remains were few) but it was away from the road, so was almost certainly not a traffic casualty. It may have been predated – indeed Sparrowhawks have been seen to kill them, suffered poisoning or simply have reached old age; a sad end whichever way for one of our most treasured birds. Back at the car a small party of Blue and Great Tits moved along the hedgerow as we left for home…