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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 ...

23rd – 29th March

The wintry theme continued; it remained cold with a NW wind and we saw some light snow showers. Indeed the 24th dawned to reveal 1” – 2” of snow lying on the ground. More occurred over the next couple of days but didn’t settle to any significant depth. From the 26th the wind turned through SE to SW and as a consequence the milder temperatures ensured any precipitation fell as rain or drizzle.

My neighbours keenly feed the birds in their garden and, whilst looking out of the kitchen window at the snow scene one morning, a female Reed Bunting appeared on the fence. Although not generally a ‘garden bird’ they will visit gardens in snowy weather, even in quite urban areas. This one stayed for most of the week and may have been the same individual I’d noticed previously in the weedy cabbage field just along the lane.

While many of our winter visiting birds are doubtless beginning to get the urge to leave our shores and find their breeding grounds, the weather conditions we saw at the beginning of the week will usually force them to prolong their stay here. As a result, c.30 Redwings and c. 45 Fieldfares were around the paddocks on my dog walk. Starling numbers were increasing on last week’s counts too as birds that wish to get back to Eastern Europe are also getting held up. It was a spectacular sight as an estimated 10,000+ headed westward over the village on the 26th. These, I later discovered, were feeding on fields NW of the church as one noisy rabble.

With a light E’ly and milder air on the 27th some visible migration was evident as Oswald and I wandered around the fields by the lighthouse and along Doggetts Lane to Cart Gap. In two hours around noon I logged c.120 Chaffinches and Greenfinches following the coast SE as well as almost an almost continuous passage of Starlings, from small groups to larger, ribbon like flocks several hundred strong. A flock of 6 Stock Doves also headed purposefully in the same direction. Two Chinese Water Deer were also close to the lighthouse. They had probably seen us well before I saw them and they lay low in the grass margin nervously watching, looking like two lost teddy bears.

Light rain coupled with a SE’ly on the 28th delivered some Goldcrests to the hedges along the lane and around the paddocks. Unfortunately they weren’t accompanied by one of their brighter cousins, the Firecrest. The time and weather were ideal for one to appear but it wasn’t to be today. A ringing ’piu’ call overhead caught my attention as a single Siskin flew northward. Often common as winter visitors, they have been rather thin on the ground so far this year.

In neighbouring parishes during the week I was fortunate enough to see 3 different Common Buzzards and at Lessingham a male Marsh Harrier quartered the damp meadows while a Barn Owl hunted nearby. A Little Owl at Hempstead, my first for some time, flew across the road in front of my car and glared down at me indignantly from an oak. Whether a mate was nearby I didn’t know but I’ll be checking next time I pass that way…

16th – 22nd March

The fog had cleared by the morning of 16th and the day progressed with a windy NE’ly and rain which eased for a while late morning. With the exception of Thursday, when it went W’ly, the wind was from the north or north-east all week, increasing to about force 6 by the 21st. It became bitterly cold too by this time, and following a generally dry midweek spell, we saw some wintry showers at the end of the period.

The paddocks at the top of the lane continued to prove an attraction for thrushes with 3 Mistle Thrushes, 4 Song Thrushes, 12 Blackbirds and 5+ Redwings faring well amongst the hoof-churned grass all week. 5 Fieldfares had rejoined the throng by the end of the week and Blackbird and Redwing numbers had increased to 20 and 15 respectively. 14 Yellowhammers found the area to their liking and 60 or so finches there were fairly equally represented by Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Chaffinch. A male House Sparrow there for one day may have been a refuelling migrant bird.

A Chiffchaff was again at the same sheltered privet on 16th although not subsequently. Whether it was a different individual from last week I couldn’t say, although at the time, that bird did head off purposefully towards the village. The same afternoon I briefly looked over the sea from Walcott where 2 adult Gannets and a summer plumage Guillemot were additions to the 2008 parish tally. 20 Turnstones on the wall were typically fearless; I wondered how many visitors had marvelled at their antics during the day.

Gannets can be seen all year round, most numerously on autumn migration.

Photo © Arthur Grosset

I took a different route home from there, choosing to return via Rookery Farm which lies on the western edge of the parish. There’s some good habitat here including some mature deciduous trees and a large lawn at the farmhouse, some tall, thick hedgerows and a couple of long established grazing meadows. There is also a nice pond not too far from the main Stalham road but this is, unfortunately, no longer easily viewable from the public highway. Taking the narrow lane that runs alongside the pasture to the Ridlington road I came across 4 Stonechats, 3 of which were resplendent males, feeding from the fence and hedge and by dropping down on to the road.

I became aware on the 17th of a decent flock of Starlings in my home area. Over 200 were gathering to feed in the meadows opposite and over the next few days more flocks were noted passing eastward. The flock nearby slowly grew until well over 1,000 birds could be seen wheeling around the meadows and still birds flew to the east.

Tuesday 18th morning saw Oswald and I trek off northward and across to the fields by the lighthouse, along Doggett’s Lane and back along the Cart Gap road. There was a westward trickle of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls riding the updraught from the cliff and yet more Stonechats (5, including 2 males) were along the track close to Larkfield. Since late January I’ve seen at least 19 Stonechats locally, good numbers indeed and comparable to good counts elsewhere in Norfolk over this period. Two parties of Pied Wagtail, 3 and 9, were likely grounded migrants but ‘bird of the day’ goes to the female Merlin that sped low across the road and off towards Lessingham.

Not having looked there for several days, I checked out the weedy cabbage field late in the week to find 8 Linnets and 6 Goldfinches taking advantage of the variety of seed-heads on offer. The long staying female Reed Bunting would have passed un-noticed had she not been flicking open her tail, the clean white outer tail feathers catching my eye as she sat in some camouflaging brambles.

At the weeks end it seemed that Robins were making an appearance as 6+ were dotted around hedgerows on the usual dog walk where none had been noticed previously. These may well have been birds that spent the winter here, putting on fat reserves before continuing their journey to breeding haunts in Europe or further east…

9th – 15th March

Variable cloud and a light SW’ly started things off but in the early hours of the 10th the wind started to shift SE’ly and by first light we were again in the grip of gale force winds and rain. Following a brief and sunny respite, their strength increased by dawn on the 11th but this time from the west. We were back to a light W’ly from the 13th and the week ended with a cold, fog laden E’ly.

There were more Blackbirds than usual around the paddocks at the top of the lane and 18 Meadow Pipits were noted as I walked the dog out on the 9th. Just prior to this at about 3pm, having parked my car on the drive, I glanced up to see a large dark bird flapping slowly south, low across the meadows opposite. It was a Marsh Harrier and although I only saw it from rear on, I could see it was a female or immature bird. Adult males are quite striking birds in flight with pale heads and shoulders, black, grey and brown upper wings, a grey tail and a quite rufous brown underbelly. This bird had the all dark wings and body typical of young or females of the species. East Anglia is a Marsh Harrier stronghold with birds breeding not only in the once favoured reed beds but now also choosing to nest in arable crops. Although at one time a winter scarcity, they are now a familiar sight all year round. They can also sometimes be seen in the spring passing quite high westward during periods of favourable weather, these birds having most likely drifted over from continental Europe.

Hunting Marsh Harriers are a frequent sight whilst travelling around East Norfolk.

Photo © Arthur Grosset

A day I look forward to each year turned out to be March 11th this year. Walking up the lane with Oswald leading the way I heard a familiar, thin, inflected “tu-ee”. It was my first Chiffchaff of the spring, an event that to me always seems to herald the passing of winter. I soon located it in some sheltered privet and watched for a while with a smile on my face. Walking further on, it flew past me calling, heading toward the village. Although traditionally a summer visiting warbler, several Chiffchaffs spend the winter in the UK. This bird was most likely to be a new arrival or perhaps a UK wintering bird making its way back to mainland Europe. By the horse paddocks at the top of the lane were 7 Redwings, 3+ of which remained a couple of days later.

Quite late in the day on the 11th, another (or perhaps the same) Marsh Harrier flew low southwards over our garden. I drove to Stalham via Lessingham shortly afterwards and enjoyed views of it and a Barn Owl over the fields by Water Lane.

Driving by Walcott seafront on Sunday 15th the adult Mediterranean Gull was instantly obvious preening on one of the groynes. It wasn’t so much his jet black hood (with just a few flecks of white now) but his brilliant white wing tips that made him stand out from amongst the Black-headed Gulls. 3 Turnstones shared the groyne space but they were busily feeding rather than resting. With the wind now in the east I was hoping to get to the clifftop to see what was around. I got there but not until quite late on and by now the fog had reduced good visibility to perhaps 20 yards. A Snipe flushed out of a roadside drain on the way there and 18 Linnets and single Reed Bunting were on wires by the weedy cabbage field. It’s a good trek to Cart Gap, along Doggett’s Lane and back over the fields but there’s always the chance of seeing something interesting. In some brambles at the old Decca site sat a female Stonechat (no male so perhaps a migrant) and nearby a male Linnet gave his pretty, twittering song. Walking homeward the regular Barn Owl put in an appearance looking somewhat ghostly in the evening gloom…

2nd – 8th March

With the wind easing from the gales of the 1st we enjoyed a few days of cold but bright, occasionally sunny days. Having been W’ly, the wind shifted to a brisk N’ly on the 4th becoming rather gusty after dark. It felt less cold from 6th and a spell of rain after dark saw the week out.

Birding opportunities were very limited this week but 5 male Blackbirds chasing noisily through the garden on 3rd really startled Oswald. Interestingly, and rather sadly, I saw a recently fledged Blackbird floating drowned in the Wensum in Norwich on 6th. It could only have been out of the nest for about a week having hatched from an egg that could conceivably have been laid at the end of January.

24th February - 1st March

The 24th was an absolutely glorious spring like day with a mild SW’ly breeze and high cloud. Overnight rain cleared to leave us with a frost by dawn. The winds continued to veer and settled at WNW for a couple of days before backing W’ly. After another overnight frost on 28th -29th, frontal rain reached us by early afternoon and the wind strength noticeably increased. By late evening we found ourselves in a severe W’ly gale which raged throughout the night and into the following morning; March had certainly come in like a Lion.

The dawn chorus was quite spectacular from my back doorstep at the weekend, participants shortly after first light comprising Song Thrush, Blackbird, Dunnock, Wren, Robin, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Skylark all in and over my garden. I took Oswald in the car just out of the parish into Lessingham and walked him along the footpath around what was heathland at Hempstead many years ago. Sadly this rare habitat is now all gone, the odd piece of Gorse serving as a reminder of what once existed. One wonders at what specialist birds of heathland used to live here and what would return if it was restored to its former glory. Wishful thinking and unlikely to ever happen, at least some healthy hedgerows have been maintained and the nearby Hempstead Marshes remain largely undrained and undisturbed. 4 Stonechats fed vigorously in some rough pasture nearby, this species being one which would doubtless have bred on the heathland here in days gone by.

The fine, sunny conditions on 27th were ideal for enticing birds of prey onto the wing and following the morning school run, I returned home through Honing and East Ruston. I wasn’t disappointed as a Sparrowhawk and Common Buzzard both circled lazily over woodland there. Another much darker Buzzard glided across the road at treetop height near the waterworks and once back into Happisburgh, a Sparrowhawk, almost certainly out hunting, dashed across the road in front of my car. Both of these species have prospered in recent years and are a regular sight in many parts of the county. As upsetting as it may be to see a Sparrowhawk take a songbird from the garden, the only reason that they are so numerous is because the food supply is sufficient to sustain the population at that level. Certainly the food supply was there, and probably even more plentiful, in the 1950’s and 60’s but years of pesticide use had caused the eggs of many of Britain’s native raptors to be thin shelled or infertile and their numbers were decimated. It took decades, but with the noxious chemicals removed from the ecosystem, our hawks and falcons recovered. I can remember birding with my late father at Crostwight in the mid 1970’s when we came across a pair of Sparrowhawks. His excitement was enormous; to see just one Sparrowhawk was something but here was a potential breeding pair! It was a wondrous moment for a small boy; the memory is one I cherish. Buzzards too are doing well in wild Norfolk now, their eastward spread across the UK supplemented in the not too distant past by small scale re-introductions with help from sympathetic landowners.

Common Buzzards show much variation of plumage. This is a typical view of a typical Buzzard.