Spotting a merlin provides some magic on the Norfolk coast
We recently returned from a splendid few days on the north Norfolk coast where the weather was predictably mixed, but surprisingly pleasant for the time of year. After a hot summer and a rainy autumn, the pastures and saltmarshes were unusually wet. The grazed fields that had hosted herds of cattle were now awash with pools and shallow lagoons, ideal for the thousands of wintering wildfowl that arrive here each autumn and stay through the winter before returning to their breeding grounds further north.
Skeins of pink-footed and Brent geese were constantly circling and gliding down to feed on the fields during the day, then returning in the evening to roost in relative safety on the saltmarshes. Amongst the geese were thousands of ducks including mallard, wigeon and teal, all in splendid breeding plumage and starting to display and pair up ahead of the spring, hints of which were foretold in the unusually mild air.
After a blustery day, one late afternoon the wind dropped and the showers cleared, so we walked out along a raised bank overlooking the marsh to seaward, and the fields, reedbeds and pools to landward, hoping to spot a barn owl out hunting in the gathering dusk. We were not to be disappointed. Soon we spotted the ghostly pale brown and white form of an owl, its broad wings carrying it close to the ground as it listened out for any rustle that might betray a scuttling rodent. As I watched the owl, a small, dark bird with narrow, pointed wings sped past, scarcely deviating from a straight line and settled into a bush near the reeds. There it sat upright and still for several minutes, before gliding along the reeds fringing a lagoon. My first merlin for many a year!
A female or juvenile bird, it was mainly dull brown, with characteristic banding on the tail. Merlins are rare breeders in Scotland and northern England and Wales, but regularly spend the winter further south, especially at the coast where flocks of small birds provide easy prey. After watching the merlin, we noticed two more barn owls in the distance, so perhaps we had seen a pair and one offspring? I have never watched three barn owls at once before and this habitat is clearly a perfect feeding ground for these beautifully skilled hunters. The owls would be after small rodents including voles, mice or rats, while the merlin is a specialist hunter of small birds such as finches, pipits or skylarks. As we trudged back in the dusk, we were astonished to see a bat whirling above us, frantically hunting for any remaining insects.
Buzzards, red kites and marsh harriers dipped and soared over the fields and marshes. At this time of year it is always worth checking buzzards, especially if they are hovering, as coastal heaths and marshes attract the occasional wintering rough-legged buzzard, a much rarer bird which habitually hovers when hunting over open country, while common buzzards hover much less frequently. Only a handful of rough-legged buzzards turn up each year, mainly along the east coast. These rare visitors breed across the Arctic tundra, wintering south, especially after their numbers have increased following a breeding season fuelled by plentiful prey, notably lemmings. From the number of records published in the past few weeks, it seems this may be one such winter.
Starlings, goldfinches, linnets and many other small birds gather in flocks at this time of the year. I noticed a small group of active small brown birds feeding amongst the weedy vegetation around the saltmarsh. Drab in plumage and daintier than sparrows, at first I dismissed them as ‘mere’ linnets, but on closer inspection they turned out to be twites. A twite is your classic ‘little brown job’ with few striking features, but a welcome and somewhat unusual find nevertheless. In the UK they breed mainly in the north and west of Scotland and Ireland and northern England, wintering to coastal fields and saltmarshes.