A diary of my birding activity covering highlights and photos from my birding adventures. Mainly Norfolk (UK), occasionally beyond. I might mention the odd thing that isn't avian, but for moth and other insect news check out my mothing diary.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Pallid Harrier

I wanted to bird Burnham Overy on Saturday morning but I also wanted to catch up with the Pallid Harrier.  Knowing how long I take at Burnham Overy and knowing the forecast was for the weather to get worse as the day went on, I figured I could only manage one or the other, so headed to Snettisham first thing.  Or rather I planned to head there first thing, but actually overslept and rocked up around 9.00 am.

The Pallid Harrier had showed well first thing, but I didn't get down to the south end until 9.45, despite hardly stopping to bird on the way down (though I couldn't resist snapping these Sanderling).

Sanderling, Snettisham, 28th November

There was already a bitterly cold wing blowing but I joined a small crowd looking for the harrier.  A male Hen Harrier was nice to watch, a Merlin sped by, a Barn Owl or two were hunting and an Eared Owl sp. flew beyond the sea wall.  I only got the briefest view of the latter which had possibly been put up by shooters on nearby farmland; it looked dark to me and others wondered if it might have been Long-eared.  All good stuff, but not a Pallid Harrier.

By now my hands were frozen and I wandered away from the crowd to the sea wall, partly to check the farmland inland of the sea wall and partly to try and get out of the wind.  Sitting down I managed to warm my hands up but I wasn't out of the wind and it was freezing!  This Roe Deer almost ran into me coming up over the sea wall right next to where I was sitting.  It didn't stop long before legging it the other way.

Roe Deer, Snettisham, 28th November

After spending far too long searching from here I was frozen to the core.  Eventually, after what must have been a few hours in the cold wind, I had no choice but to abandon the search and seek the relative warmth of a hide.  First attempt at what used to be South Hide (I think) was no good as it was destroyed in the storm surge and the temporary replacement structure did little to shelter me from the cold wind (though a couple of Goldeneye were visible).  So round to Shore Hide where I slowly warmed up while enjoying conversation with Midlands birder Dean and his partner.  Dean's partner kept an eye on the crowd and after a while she alerted us to the fact that they seemed to be watching something.  We hurried round to find they'd had a "candidate" for the Pallid Harrier, but it was now out of view.

The weather was now even worse and it had started raining, long before that had been forecast.  Fortunately the rain didn't last too long and after a while the Pallid Harrier appeared briefly.  The structure was really distinctive with its very narrow pointed hand but relatively broad hand, and its really long tail.  Plumage details were hard to discern at this range, but we could just make out the more obvious features.  It soon went down again and the wait was on once again.  At one point it popped up briefly as a Marsh Harrier passed over it: the tiny size compared to the Marsh Harrier was clear to see - it looked about half the size.  A ringtail Hen Harrier appeared at a similar distance and it was good to watch that for comparison - an incredibly different-looking bird structurally.  The Pallid Harrier appeared again, perching on top of a post for a while, and then flying across the saltmarsh taking a very similar line to that which the Hen Harrier had taken but looking quite a different beast.

It disappeared over the sea wall and, with the wind getting stronger and the threatened rain looming, we decided we weren't likely to get better views today and started back towards the car park.  The Pallid Harrier had disappeared well to the south of where we had been standing, not long ago, and we were now walking back north.  So when a bird appeared over Shore Hide a few yards in front of us, coming from the north, I did not expect it to be the Pallid Harrier.  My first thought was Kestrel but was immediately struck by how much it resembled the Pallid Harrier we'd just been watching... hang on, it IS the Pallid Harrier!  Flying towards us from the north!  How weird.  It was close, but quick, and in my haste I failed to get any shots that were sharp and exposed correctly, and its head was turned away so you couldn't see any of the details of the head/neck on it.

Pallid Harrier, Snettisham, 28th November

Had it gone back across the saltmarsh and up the Wash coast before turning round and coming back over the pits, or had it gone north over the fields inland and then crossed the pits as it turned back south?  Probably the latter, as a bit later what was probably it did the same thing again.  We'd last seen the Pallid Harrier heading across the south end of the pit so headed up the east side of the pits.  Dean picked up what he thought was the Pallid Harrier over the fields.  It didn't show well, moving behind a copse most of the time, but in the views we got we started to doubt whether this was the right bird.  The wing tip didn't look nearly as narrow and pointed as it had earlier.  But it did look good, and it wasn't as broad and round-winged as Hen Harrier, so we were pretty sure it was the right bird.  Interesting how different it looked though under the different conditions - in a less exposed location.  It crossed the sea wall and the pits turning to head south over Shore Hide, just as it, presumably, had done when we saw it earlier.

It had been an educational bird and I was glad I'd braved the cold to see it.  I'd still like to see it better so if it sticks around I'll probably go back, but in some ways, with the comparison with Hen Harrier and the change in appearance under different conditions, it was as good as getting good close views on its own.

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