Monday 24 February 2020

Three Days in Norfolk 19th-21st February 2020

Mark, a birding friend, has been getting increasingly fed up convalescing from an attack of shingles which has kept him hors de combat and he has not been out birding for weeks. Finally, although not completely better he felt well enough to contemplate getting out of the house and re-commencing birding and indulging in his favourite pastime, bird photography. A change of environment would do him good mentally and contribute to the ongoing process of recovery from the virus. I suffer to a degree from periods of anxiety and depression so this would be therapy for me as well.

I agreed to drive and we set a date, Wednesday 19th February, to go birding for three days in a favourite location - North Norfolk.

For me and I am sure Mark, winter birding in Norfolk is consistently rewarding as there is always something to see even if there are no rarities. It is simply nice to have the prospect of being out and about with good company, in a beautiful part of the country and seeing birds that I would not see in Oxfordshire and Mark in Bedfordshire.

Mark booked us in for the nights of Wednesday 19th and Thursday 20th at the hostel in Burnham Deepdale which is, for the price of £25.00 per night for each of us very good value. We were given a very comfortable three bedded en suite room, free use of a large kitchen come dining area and a pleasant lounge. 

Burnham Deepdale like all the villages that extend along the coast from Cley in the east to Brancaster in the west have been commandeered by the relatively wealthy and many houses are second homes or holiday lets, the price of the properties inflated as a result and virtually every house front presents a pristine well cared for appearance. Burnham Deepdale is no exception to this, with a number of expensive shops centred around a petrol station. Even the NISA store, similar I suppose to a small Co-op, that lies next to the hostel,  reflects the clientel hereabouts, in that it sells amongst other things Bollinger Champagne and Quail's eggs. We resisted as Mark had brought a very nice bottle of malt whisky for the evenings in the hostel and that would do nicely.  

I collected Mark at 6.30am from his home and we made good time to Norfolk. Our first destination was Sedgeford to renew our acquaintance with the only really rare bird we expected to see on the trip, a male Eastern Yellow Wagtail that has spent the winter on various dung heaps, situated on farmland half a mile outside the unremarkable village of Sedgeford 

Today, Wednesday, of the three days we had chosen, looked from the forecast to be the best day  weather wise for birding, with a promise of partial sun, although it would still be made uncomfortable by a very strong northwest wind. The dung heap in question at Sedgeford is situated right by the road and when we arrived currently had an audience of two or three birders. We stepped out of the car and I shuddered as an icy blast of wind caught me unawares. Two hours in a heated car was no preparation for standing on a rising slope surrounded by vast, bleak, farm fields with nothing to hinder a wind blowing hard and strong, directly, it felt, from the Arctic. The wagtail was on the dung heap but as we approached it flew up and was instantly caught by the wind and hurled, a tiny speck of feathers against the sky, for what seemed miles across the farmland.

We settled to wait as, sooner or later it always comes back to here. Half an hour having passed and with no sign of the wagtail I was cowering in the lee of a ragged hedge by the road which afforded blessed sanctuary from the wind and even allowed the sun to feel warm on my face. A Marsh Harrier flew across a distant field of growing beet, scaring pheasants, its flight low, the bird constantly tilting to adjust to the varying gusts of wind and currents of air. To my left two Brown Hares were boxing on the skyline of a fallow field and Skylarks were singing above  me despite the wind. Spring will soon be here although it did not feel like it today.

The wagtail returned, announcing its arrival, as it always does, with a distinctive buzzy call, and landed at the very top of the heap. Holding myself and the camera as steady as possible against the wind blowing straight into my face, I took pictures of it, illuminated by the sun against a pale blue sky, as it stood on top of the heap. 

Slowly adopting breeding plumage it is becoming a very pretty bird, with lemon meringue coloured underparts and a bold head pattern, showing behind each eye a large white gash across its grey head. The wagtail was reluctant to come lower, let alone to the ground, using the contours of the dung heap to provide shelter from the ever present and forceful wind. Only once did it descend to the ground, emboldened by a male Pied Wagtail that was not so circumspect but it did not remain long and flew up and was carried away once more on the wind.

It was obvious the wind was preventing the wagtail from remaining for any period of time as the heap was too exposed to the wind. Where it went in the meantime no one knew and reluctantly we conceded to the conditions and left it at that.We had both seen the wagtail on other days so it was hardly necessary to prolong the torture of waiting in the cold for its return.

Our next destination could hardly have provided a greater contrast. The RSPB's Titchwell Reserve is rightly famed for its wealth of wetland birds and as a result attracts birders of all capabilities from far and wide.This week, being half term, it was also providing entertainment for young families.There were a lot of people and the car park was already full. We found a space just outside and made for the Visitor Centre. Our early start had given us an appetite and we succumbed to a coffee and two huge freshly baked scones from the Visitor Centre cafe and felt much better as a result.

My main objective on our visit here was to try and see a Woodcock that has been partially visible, roosting on a bed of wet and very dead leaves amongst a tangle of moss covered branches, a little way in from the boardwalk that leads to the Fenland Hide. It has been seen virtually every day and indeed video of it feeding was posted on social media only yesterday but today, disappointingly it was not to be found. I spent a long time looking into the dark depths of the leaf litter and tangle of mossy branches but if it was there it was invisible to me. A volunteer warden who had seen it every day tried to re-assure us it was unusual not to be able to see it half hidden but even he could not locate it today  We gave up. We could try again tomorrow.

We made for The Island Hide that looks out onto a large shallow lagoon. Mark, being a serious photographer was keen to test his skills in what he informed me was 'very good light'. Who was I, a rank amateur to argue and so we sat in the Island Hide and photographed male Eurasian Teal that swam right in front of the hide and I tried to understand a little more about the dark arts of apertures, shutter speeds and exposure compensation.

A drake Eurasian Teal is a wonderful combination of colours and patterns. Diminutive, plump ducks with that perky presence that all small beings possess, we watched  the drakes displaying and preening, admiring the attitudes they adopted and shapes they contrived as they preened and swam around, their contortions reflecting sunlight off their plumage, changing the colour of their speculum from emerald green to a deep purple blue. I always feel a sense of privilege at being in the close presence of such creatures, their beauty a product of evolution, their lives so short due to a multitude of ever present dangers. Why people persist in hunting and killing such innocent things for pleasure is forever beyond me.

Time however still passed pleasantly.

Eurasian Teal
There are only so many images you can take of a teal and although the respite from the wind in the hide was welcome we decided to leave and head to a well known holiday destination in Norfolk, Wells next the Sea, where a Rough legged Buzzard was spending its winter on fields and marshland to the west of the town. On the way we stopped to look over Holkham Freshmarsh with the weather now having taken a definite turn for the worse, the sun, a while ago, disappearing behind rain threatening clouds. A scan with the telescope revealed a Great White Egret feeding on the huge area of desolate looking flooded marsh that was spread out before us. A first for Norfolk for both of us. A Spoonbill flew past, far out over the  flooded fields, and three Russian White-fronted Geese were a pleasant find amongst the inevitable Greylag Geese. Closer to the road three Marsh Harriers were having a territorial dispute, two circling and diving on another, presumably an intruder to their territory, the three circling to gain height before diving down into another inconclusive confrontation. Masters of the air they soared, swooped and glided with the persistent intruder unwilling to move on.

We drove onwards to Wells and soon found the layby from where the Rough legged Buzzard was usually to be seen. It had been here this morning but then disappeared. A quick enquiry from a departing birder told us the buzzard was again visible but it was probably best to walk a half mile out along a track into the marshland and look at it from there. We set off, the wind and specks of rain now making matters far from pleasant but a Rough legged Buzzard, an uncommon visitor to Britain from Scandinavia or northern Russia is a very good bird to see, so we were undeterred. 

Walking along the track a flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese flew in to land on the marsh. I checked the flock for anything unusual, such as a Black Brant or Pale bellied Brent Goose, but there was nothing to excite us and we moved on. Ragged lines of Pink footed Geese were coming in, high, off the marsh, and heading inland over the town. In flight they maintain a constant bickering conversation of querulous squealing calls. A sound regularly heard all over the huge skies on this part of the coast and for me the epitomy of winter birding in North Norfolk.

We reached the suggested viewpoint and a couple of birders already there pointed out the buzzard, perched relatively close to us on the top of a small hawthorn tree.They told us they had seen a Merlin a few minutes ago.That would have been a nice bird to see but you cannot have it all. 

In the telescope we had really good views of the buzzard, its white head and breast and rich chocolate belly distinctive. It sat there quite content on its bush and I turned to look the other way at some gulls and geese out on a flooded field. A small raptor was perched on a fence post. It was a female or immature Merlin and presumably the one the two birders had mentioned earlier. It flew off soon afterwards and that was the last we saw of it.

Turning back to the buzzard I saw it fly from its tree, circling out over the fields beyond before it settled on a distant fence post.

Rough legged Buzzard
The day was done and we returned to Burnham Deepdale. Tomorrow's forecast was dire with even stronger winds and heavy rain forecast. Two fellow birders in the hostel kitchen were very pessimistic but I counselled that it might not be that bad as weather forecasting is not an exact science and often things can turn out for the better.

We decided to forgo breakfast tomorrow and make an early start as we had a specific target. A first winter Caspian Gull at Sheringham.

The next morning confounded the forecast as it was initially sunny but very windy. There was no sign of the rain which apparently would now arrive at lunchtime so we set off for Sheringham in good heart and progressed along the deserted coast road, finally coming to rest in a car park near to the seafront in the busy seaside town.

Armed with a loaf we walked to the seafront and looked down onto a stretch of beach below, that the Caspian Gull was said to favour, according to earlier reports Mark had read. We were sheltered from the wind here  but the few large gulls on the beach were just Herring Gulls of various ages. They were wary but the Black headed Gulls and Turnstones, obviously all too familiar with the sight of people bearing loaves knew an opportunity when they saw one and approached us closely, expectant of being rewarded with some bread.


Black headed Gull
Mark cast the bread and a blizzard of Black headed Gulls amazed us with their acrobatic feats in seizing the scraps of bread before they fell to the ground. One of the flock was already in full breeding plumage. The larger gulls flew around but kept their distance and some others came to investigate but none were the desired first winter Caspian Gull. We walked along the concrete promenade looking down on the groynes and sandy stretches in between but there was no sign of the gull we most wanted to see.

We met two local birders who told us the Caspian Gull had not been reported for several days. 

We decided to head for Holkham before the rain arrived which was looking ever more imminent. The attraction at Holkham was a flock of Snow Buntings and a small group of Shorelarks, both of which were to be found in a roped off area to protect them from any disturbance by the many visitors that come to walk on this huge area of sand dunes and saltmarsh by the sea.

I rather like Holkham as it manages, despite the crowds and disturbance, to just about maintain a sense of wildness and abandon to the elements although you can never really be alone in this ever popular location.

We took a brief interlude to photograph some Eurasian Wigeon that were feeding very close by the entrance road and then we found a parking space.

Eurasian Wigeon
The car park, with its extortionate charges is not to my taste but we paid for two hours and made our way out along the boardwalk to the saltmarsh. The weather was now rapidly deteriorating, the wind whipping in ferocious blasts across the open sands and clouds threatening rain at any moment.A fairly long trudge out along the sand brought us to the roped off area and we soon located the Snow Buntings, feeding in a strung out flock on the saltmarsh. There were around forty of them, busily scuttling amongst the sparse  vegetation or what was left of it, picking seeds from the plants or ground, the flock progressing in a constant forward shuffle of feeding birds,  the adult males distinctively white amongst the duller females and first year birds.

Snow Buntings
At intervals the flock would take alarm and rise, to swirl around in the wind before landing once more and commence their hyperactive feeding. A male Kestrel stood unsteadily on the saltmarsh, perhaps the cause of the Snow Buntings alarm and faced into the wind, it could hardly stand, defeated and discomfited by the force of the wind.

Common Kestrel
Locating the Shorelarks was much more difficult and frankly the only success we had was sighting two on the far side of the roped off area, so distant they were only shapes. We never saw them again despite searching. The weather had now gone from bad to worse and a light rain began to arrive on the wind. We turned to make our way back to the car, reluctant to get wet and we just about made it before the rain really set in.

I drove back towards Burnham Deepdale not quite sure how we would deal with the rain this afternoon. It was lunchtime. 'Fancy a visit to the cafe Mark?' 'Funny you should say that but I was just thinking the same.' he replied. We entered the cafe and despite the inevitably overpriced menu, we each tucked into a hearty meal and coffee as the rain hurled down outside.

Birding anywhere in the open was now obviously out of the question so I suggested we return to the Island Hide at Titchwell and sit there where we would be out of the rain and at least we would be able to watch whatever birdlife passed before us in relative comfort. The hide was almost empty when we got there and we sat and looked out over the lagoon to the large reed bed beyond. A couple of Marsh Harriers appeared and quickly settled into the reeds.There is a well known roost of the harriers here and it was obvious that the birds, like us, had given up on the weather and were coming into Titchwell to roost. For the next hour and a half Marsh Harriers in one's, two's, often more, arrived regularly to settle in the roost. You could pick them up from afar, their distinctive shape and flight action betraying them in the sky, even at a long distance and a great height. They never looked to be in a hurry but languidly made their way towards the reed bed, occasionally diverting to investigate something but then resuming their inexorable course to the reeds. Here they would circle low above the reeds, checking where they might like to spend the night. The dark brown plumage of the females and immatures made them almost invisible against the darker background of the winter trees so their cream heads appeared as  disembodied entities but at least allowed you to follow the birds progress until they became more visible. The adult males were a different matter, the pale grey, black tipped wings and rust coloured bodies making them much more distinctive and obvious.

After circling for a short while each harrier drops into the particular spot in the reeds that has taken its fancy and is seen no more. Yet all the while others are arriving, coming from the east in a constant procession. Some come very close to the hide but seem reluctant to fly over the lagoon between the hide and the reed bed. A larger, paler brown bird got up from the reeds and flew just above the reed tops for a short distance before dropping back into the reedbed. A Bittern. As the afternoon began to settle into early evening hordes of gulls arrived to roost and wash in the cold waters of the lagoon, the occasional yodelling Mediterranean Gull amongst them. A third winter Caspian Gull joined the bathing gulls on a sandbar in the middle of the lagoon. Restless Avocets flew around calling and some settled to begin wading and feeding in the shallow water of the lagoon. A Barn Owl flew along the far bank of the reserve and a large flock of Golden Plover, wheeled in the wild sky above, before heading inland.There was never a dull moment as the prolific birdlife acted out their lives in front of us. By now we had the hide to ourselves, most people having sensibly abandoned the day to the ferocious wind and rain.

The rain ceased and sunlight permeated the cloud, turning the reed bed to gold, a shining brilliant luminescence against the dark grey sky beyond and still the Marsh Harriers came. 

I counted one hundred and eight Marsh Harriers in all, although I may well have duplicated some but not many. We were told a count by the RSPB had also recently recorded over a hundred.  Whatever the true number it was a wonderful experience to see so many and watch them coming into the roost for the night. It must be quite sheltered in the depths of the reeds and the harriers would have welcome protection from the strong wind.

I was getting very cold, almost chilled and by mutual agreement we left the hide to walk back to the car. Another Barn Owl was patrolling the path in front of us. Wraith like in the gloom, it hovered for a brief spell and then flew away through the trees.

We had an early evening dinner in the Jolly Sailors. It was very busy at this early hour with parents and young children having dinner before presumably the children's bedtime and it brought on an unexpected feeling of mild melancholy, a fond remembrance of those days when my daughter was a similar age. We returned to the hostel and I was in bed by nine, very tired but pleased with our experiences today. North Norfolk and its unique atmosphere was working its gentle magic on me once more.

Tomorrow was our last day and we determined to get to Titchwell at first light, our last chance to see if we could find the elusive Woodcock.

We were both awake at six, packed and ready to go by six forty five and by seven am had arrived in the almost deserted RSPB car park at Titchwell. It was a dull, cold and very overcast morning. Nothing was open at this hour and we made our way around the back of the Visitor Centre to the now familiar boardwalk. The Woodcock is usually to be found below an area of willow carr where wet leaves and fallen branches are spread haphazardly across the ground at a junction in the boardwalk. The best place to look for it, we had been told was ten paces along on the right hand fork.

Tentatively I walked  for ten or so paces and looked down to my left. The light was improving and I scanned the tangle of broken branches and leaves for the Woodcock but all I could see were broken branches covered with bright green moss, twigs, bits of straw and dead leaves. It takes a little while to get one's eye in so I was not particularly worried, yet. I stared at the branches that were haphazardly lying horizontally above the leaves, allowing my eyes to go into a kind of freefall, half focused, half not. As I did I discerned a brown mottled lump hardly distinguishable in the dull light from the background of dark leaves. I looked closer, not needing my bins and the lump transformed into a Woodcock. I could hardly believe it. The Woodcock was standing motionless. It had frozen into immobility, seeing me before I saw it and was relying on its marvel of cryptic plumage to conceal its presence  amongst the tangle of branches and  dead vegetation

You may wonder why I place such emphasis on seeing this Woodcock but usually my views are of them flying, either roding over a wood in early summer or fleeing from me as I inadvertently flush one from its hiding place in a winter wood. To be able to observe one on the ground and at length is a novelty for me and I was determined to make the most of this opportunity.

I silently gestured to Mark who joined me

The fact the Woodcock thought we could not see it worked to our favour as it just stood there and allowed us to study it for minutes on end. At rest they become almost spherical, a portly looking tail-less bird with a curiously domed head, supported on short but sturdy legs.

I noted its large eyes set well back in its head and the alternate black and buff bands on the crown of its head. Its upperparts were a mazy puzzle of buff, chestnut, brown and black irregular markings, with parallel buff 'tramlines' running down each side of the mantle. 

A view from the rear showing the distinctive tramlines either side of
the mantle and also the bright  rufous uppertail coverts
Its plumage mimicked the colours and shades of the woodland floor it spends so much of its time inhabiting, all contributing to its camouflage. The underparts were paler buff marked with many wavy, narrow, horizontal lines of black. The whole effect designed to break up the bird's form and render it inconspicuous

Eventually it relaxed and commenced to feed, shoving its long bill with ultrasensitive tips to the mandibles, deep into the soft wet ground, probing with a sewing machine action, burying the bill right to its base. Now you could see the benefit of the eyes being placed so far back in its head as it could still detect any danger whilst at its most vulnerable.

Note the flexible upper mandible that can be bent upwards

It was regularly finding small worms below the surface, methodically probing the soft ground around  it with its long and flexible bill.

The Woodcock with a worm
It stopped feeding and stood slightly off the ground, on a log, content and relaxing back into a plumper more rounded shape but suddenly it was alert with head held high on extended neck. I was at a loss to understand why it was alarmed. Surely a nearby Blackbird, turning over the leaves could not be bothering it?

The answer came as a tiny brown animal, hardly longer than my finger insinuated itself at speed through the sedge just below where I stood on the boardwalk. It was a hunting Weasel, a scrap of hyperactive violence, an insatiable killer, that disappeared in the tangle of sedge as quickly as it had appeared. It took the Woodcock some while to settle, as thoroughly alarmed it remained alert with head extended for some minutes but eventually it sunk its head down into its shoulders and relaxed.The danger gone for now.

Note the domed head, short legs, round body, rufous orange uppertail coverts and tailess appearance
For half an hour we saw no one but then a birder appeared and much to his delight we showed him the Woodcock. He left soon afterwards but we elected to remain as this was something that does not happen every day. In fact, in my case, it has only happened once before, in The New Forest. The Woodcock recommenced feeding, moving slowly in a small area under the branches, probing constantly for food. It was never completely in the open, always and frustratingly managing to put twigs, branches or dead stems between it and me.

Another birder arrived and I pointed out the Woodcock to her. Like us she had been trying to see it for three days, so naturally was highly delighted to encounter it now as she had never seen one before in her life.

We shared the moment. We were in no hurry as Mark, who wanted to go and see the Eastern Yellow Wagtail again said it was still too early to go there. He mentioned something about the light and the unlikely possibility of getting a good photograph. I was more than happy to remain here and indulge myself with the Woodcock.

By eight am no other birder had appeared. I could not believe it as the Woodcock is, by all accounts very popular and everyone wants to see it, so logic suggests your best chance is to get to the reserve early before it becomes too busy. Obviously this was not to other's way of thinking. The Woodcock finally came to rest, almost invisible under some branches and we decided we had seen the best of it.

Mark was now ready to go and see if we could get a second chance at the Eastern Yellow Wagtail but this ended in failure as the wind was still gale force, it was cloudy and very dull and the wagtail was incredibly flighty.

Our next stop was to a place called Cockley Cley to look for displaying Goshawks. We drove up a narrow lane where, years ago, I had seen my first ever White tailed Eagle. We found the layby that looks over a specific wood and stood for quite some time, getting progressively colder as the wind battered us with freezing blasts. When a Goshawk finally flew above the wood it was only very briefly as the wind was just too strong for any prolonged display. We too gave up and headed for Lynford Aboretum where there was the promise of Hawfinches.

Lynford Aboretum is another birding hotspot and there was no shortage of birders today, some like us coming to see the famous Hawfinches and others to photograph tits and nuthatches at the feeders scattered around the grounds. We walked a third of a mile to the paddocks where the Hawfinches are to be found perched in the surrounding trees. Up to twenty Hawfinches, maybe more, have been seen here this winter. Often there is a long wait until one or more of these secretive finches appear in the trees but today, by good fortune, there were at least six already perched in a bare hawthorn tree and we had no wait at all. Hawfinches are obliging in that once perched in a tree they are often reluctant to move for some time and this gives ample opportunity to watch them at your leisure.

And so our three days in Norfolk came to an end. We had seen almost everything that was on offer, many being good birds to see and ones we would be unlikely to encounter in our home counties.We did not go all out for a long species list but relaxed and rather targetted the birds we really wanted to see and then watched them at length, whilst at the same time indulging ourselves by finding time to visit various tea rooms and cafes en route. It was all very civilised.

Bird List

Mute Swan/ Canada Goose/ Greylag Goose/ Russian White-fronted Goose/ Pink footed Goose/ Dark bellied Brent Goose/ Egyptian Goose/ Great Cormorant/ Common Shelduck/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Mallard/ Eurasian Teal/ Common Pochard/ Northern Shoveler/ Northern Pintail/ Common Coot/ Moorhen/ Little Grebe/ Eurasian Spoonbill/ Grey Heron/ Great White Egret/ Little Egret/ Bittern/ Red Kite/ Marsh Harrier/ Common Buzzard/ Rough legged Buzzard/ Northern Goshawk/ Common Kestrel/ MerlinGrey Partridge/ Common Pheasant/ Great Spotted Woodpecker/ Caspian Gull/ Herring Gull/ Greater Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Mediterranean Gull/ Woodpigeon/ Magpie/ Jay/  Carrion Crow/ Jackdaw/ Rook/ Tawny Owl/ Barn Owl/ Woodcock/ Turnstone/ Avocet/ Eurasian Curlew/ Golden Plover/ Lapwing/ Dunlin/ Kingfisher/ Skylark/ Woodlark/ Meadow Pipit/ Pied Wagtail/ Eastern Yellow Wagtail/ Dunnock/ Robin/ Common Chiffchaff/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Marsh Tit/ Starling/ Blackbird/ Song Thrush/ Snow Bunting/ Shorelark/  Hawfinch/ Chaffinch/ Greenfinch/ Siskin/ Linnet/ Goldfinch/ House Sparrow/ Reed Bunting/ (79)

1 comment:

  1. What an great blog, very interesting as we probably following you around. Same bird sightings except we missed the woodcock on each visit to Titchwell.
    David & Sallie