Back from Scotland on Saturday I had little time to get my act together before making a middle of the night departure for Norfolk to catch up with the Spectacled Warbler that was making its home in the dunes near to Burnham Overy Staithe. I barely had two hours sleep before slipping quietly out of the house at just after midnight determined to get to Burnham by first light.
Three hours later I drew up in the tiny car park by the A149 North Norfolk coast road. Opposite was the entrance to the track that wound out across the saltmarshes for a couple of miles to the dunes by Gun Hill, the Spectacled Warbler's current home. At 3am it was already getting light but not enough to set off on the thirty minute walk to the dunes. I slept for forty five minutes and woke to find the sky now glowing a soft peach above the distant dark outline of the dunes. A Blackbird was already singing and shortly afterwards a Common Whitethroat issued his cheery warble. Another car arrived with a couple of birders who set off immediately for the dunes.
There was really no need to hurry. Although daylight was rapidly approaching the light was still subdued. I calculated that the half hour walk would get me to the dunes by 4.30 at which time the light would be much better. I set off down the track, initially winding through hedgerows, and now all the birds were awake and very vocal, with many Skylarks already in the sky proclaiming their existence from on high. The sky in the East over the still distant dunes was now a deeper flame orange as the sun slowly rose. It was going to be a good day weather wise.
Leaving the hedgerows behind I went up some steps and the track now traced its way along an elevated bund with tidal marshes on one side and marshy fields on the other. A cacophony of Sedge and Reed Warbler song came from both sides. Harsh in tone, you could hardly call their songs tuneful but they were extraordinarily loud in the still of early morning. I walked onwards coming to the boardwalk running up into the dunes. I was close now and I could see the two other birders walking west along the dunes.
In turn I followed them into the dunes some minutes later and could now hear the Spectacled Warbler singing. A thin warble similar in some respects to a Common Whitethroat but less throaty and weaker. I joined the two birders who were intent on photos, showing me some impressive lenses and cameras. We were now stood some metres in front of a large Wild Privet bush. The warbler was singing in the bush but invisible, seeming to be more to the other side of the bush. Giving the bush a wide berth I skirted round to the other side but still could not see the warbler. Frustratingly it sang on. Then it was suddenly visible popping out from cover and singing from an exposed perch before slipping back into the dense cover of the privet.
|Spectacled Warbler singing from Wild Privet|
|An 'ecstatic' Spectacled Warbler|
|With sheep's wool nest material which it eventually dropped in favour of singing|
So the morning wore on with the warbler singing, zipping through the Salicornia and nest building.
I had watched the warbler for two hours now and noted every so often it favoured one particular thorn bush half way up the dunes to sing from which would be ideal for a photo as the sun would be behind me. My two photographer friends were of like mind and our patient positioning by this bush bore fruit as the warbler gave us a couple of opportunities to get close up pictures of it singing.We were left alone as everyone else was concentrating on the other areas where the warbler was to be seen more frequently but every so often it would come to this particular bush and perch out in the open to sing for a minute or so. On arrival at the bush it would dive into the centre as if not too sure about its security but then slowly wend its way upwards to emerge onto the topmost bare twig and commence to announce its presence by singing loudly before diving down into the Salicornia below the dunes.
By now there were a lot more people present and I could see a steady procession of people coming out on the elevated track to see the warbler but everyone behaved themselves and did not get too close, although the warbler seemed quite oblivious to its many admirers. The sun was now warm but it was still only nine in the morning. I had been here five hours! It seemed to go very fast but why wouldn't it with a very rare bird such as this to look at? Only the eighth ever to be recorded in the UK and never before has one stayed this long.
|Salicornia - home to the Spectacled Warbler with the dune ridge on the right|
|The Salicornia bush (front centre) in which the Spectacled Warbler built a nest|
|Birders admiring the warbler. Don't think standing on the skyline helped though!|
The tiny car park was now crammed with cars as was the narrow lane next to it. I vacated my space which was occupied immediately by another anxious group of birders. It was now a beautiful day and I headed west to Titchwell RSPB to do some general birding and just to relax.
A reviving cold drink from the cafe and then following the main track out onto the reserve I came to the Freshmarsh which was alive with birds. Two Spoonbill were, as ever, asleep at the back of the marsh and Avocets were everywhere. A large mixed flock of Black tailed and Bar tailed Godwits were resting in the middle and on closer inspection hid a Ruff and a few Knot. A Greenshank, almost silver in the harsh bright sunlight waded by some distant reeds and a Marsh Harrier flew over. Just standing minding my own business, enjoying the day and at that moment finding a Little Gull, it happened. A birder sidled up to me and asked if I had anything good in my scope. I told him about the Little Gull. 'Oh yes' he said, 'I saw it earlier. First summer bird'. We have all met this sort before. They are not remotely interested in what you have seen but want to tell you everything they have seen. By asking you what you have seen this gives them the opportunity they are seeking to engage you in a one sided conversation. Theirs. Any bird you mention they will have already seen it or something better. Its really annoying as it ruins the excitement of finding your own birds and generally just birding quietly to oneself. To me its almost an invasion of one's privacy, like invading one's personal space. He was still reeling off everything on the reserve when I walked off. I did not look back.
Now where? Well first to Cley to get a reviving pasty, a coffee and walnut slice from the amazing but expensive delicatessen there. Cley is so very upmarket these days. Then onto Cley Spy at nearby Glanfield to get a new tripod strap. It's some time since I have been here and its variety of stock seems a lot less comprehensive than in former times which was a little disappointing.
During the day I had, at the back of my mind, formulated a vague plan to try and see Swallowtail butterflies as it was a sunny day in June, I was in Norfolk with the whole afternoon before me and now would be the ideal time to do it. I asked the assistant at Cley Spy where was the best place to see Swallowtail butterflies and he suggested Hickling NWT near Norwich. I entered the details in the Satnav and forty minutes later was traversing the sunlit, narrow lanes leading to the well hidden reserve car park. I had no idea where to go from here so just followed the signposted trails out towards Hickling Broad. I had no conception of how extensive this lovely reserve was, containing as it did huge reed beds and with obviously new boardwalks and trails made through the reed beds.
|Hickling NWT reed beds where I saw the Swallowtails|
At first I found nothing but undeterred wandered onwards towards the Broad. Turning on the path by the Broad I came to an area of reeds on my right. A flicker of movement, almost imperceptible but then it was gone. The flicker returned and flew fast and low with fluttering wing beats and short powerful glides over the top of the reeds. My first ever British Swallowtail!
A unique sub species of its continental cousins and found nowhere else but in Norfolk. Big, bold and looking more yellow than I assumed and surprisingly fast in flight, it was hard to follow amongst the similar coloured swaying reed tops. I moved further on and found another area with a loop of boardwalk specially cut into the reeds. Here I remained for a good hour and a half as many Swallowtails, always singly, came flying across the reeds, some stopping to feed on the scattered Yellow Iris and an unidentified pink flower growing in the reeds. It was difficult to get a good photo as the butterflies were always obscured by the swaying grasses and reeds but somehow it did not matter. It was such a pleasure to see them. Another long time desire fulfilled and a quite magical time with the wind caressing the reeds whose leaves, brittle and hard, rubbed against each other creating a soothing susurrus of sighs and sounds, infinitely restful, and all the time a regular procession of Swallowtails flew from all points to briefly feed on the iris before hurrying onwards to distant and inaccessible parts of the reed beds