Sunday 27 February 2022

One Day in Norfolk 24th February 2022

Mark, my twitching pal, was desperate to get out of the house and go birding.It had been that sort of a week so we reviewed the bird news for what it was worth and settled on a day out on the north Norfolk coast as there was a good chance of seeing a rare Red breasted Goose that was consorting with the regular flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese that spend the winter on the saltmarshes around Cley and Salthouse. To add spice to the mix there was also a long staying Iceland Gull nearby, on the beach at Salthouse.

I relish winter birding in Norfolk, especially the northern coast where we were headed. At this time of year the crowds of summer are absent and the whole area imparts a very different atmosphere, not without its own idiosyncratic allure, redolent of times past when this stretch of the coast was wilder, desolate even. For me it is no hardship to have the opportunity to stand for as long as you desire on a windswept shingle beach, devoid of human life with the wind blowing wildly across the saltmarsh, the sea crashing into white surf against the shingle, the sky a wide blank canvas of blue and grey and to feel that you could be the only person in the world.

Mind you the day we chose was one that promised rain until noon but it did not matter, we were out birding, all cares put in abeyance while we visited one of the top counties for birds in winter and that was all that mattered. Rain that had been falling all night accompanied us on our two hour, early morning journey to the Norfolk coast and was probably the cause of a Barn Owl being out hunting in daylight, patrolling the roadside verge as we traversed the coast road, giving us a grandstand flypast, its white face an inverted triangle with two coal black eyes looking straight at us as we passed in opposite directions.

The rain had all but ceased earlier than expected as we arrived at Burnham Deepdale and the sky took on a less ominous shade, a pale yellow suffusion coming from the west, following on the heels of the grey rain clouds that were now rapidly dispersing on the westerly wind.

We made a call at the One Stop Nature Shop to get the latest gen on the goose and gull and where best to see them, chatting with the owner who was known to Mark and then had a reviving coffee and quick breakfast in the cafe next door, prior to setting off towards Salthouse Marshes in search of the Red breasted Goose. The information we had gleaned  suggested the goose provided the best views in the afternoon, when the brent goose flock came from more distant areas around Salthouse to feed on Cley Marshes and in particular the Eye Field, which lies by the road to the Coastguards lookout and where one could sit in the car and watch the goose with its pals, feeding close to the road, without fear of disturbing them.

Rather than waste time driving around looking for the goose we decided to go in search of the Iceland Gull, a first winter bird that had been tucking into dead seals washed up on the vast stretch of shingle  that runs for several miles between Cley and Salthouse.

We drove up the partially flooded track to the Coastguards lookout and leaving the car set off on a yomp across the unforgiving shingle.There is no solid ground here and one's feet slip on the countless small multi coloured pebbles that provide such an uncertain purchase, making any progress arduous and tiring. We walked for a quarter of a mile, to reach a ruined hide, destroyed in the storms of some years ago. The clouds had dispersed to such an extent that the sun was now shining bright and although very cold in the ceaseless wind, it was refreshing to be out alone in a vastness of shingle and sky with the sea pounding onto the shore, creating a rhythmic chorus of protesting rattling pebbles, dragged seawards by each retreating wave.

As we stood looking out from the ruined hide the brent flock came flying on the wind to settle on a flash of water and amongst them was the Red breasted Goose. Unfortunately  it required looking into the sun to see it but it most definitely was  the goose although most of its colour and pattern were lost in the glare. It was, however, a start and a good one at that and we would hopefully see it much better later in the day.

Of the Iceland Gull there was no sign. We had been told it could be anywhere along the miles of shingle. Find the dead seal we had been told but there was no dead seal anywhere.Surveying the shingle and absorbing the prospect of yet more shingle to cross, there was now a choice. Carry on in the hope of finding the gull or retreat defeated. We decided on the former having come all this way it would never do to concede before we had hardly begun.

Well at least I did whilst Mark decided to stand his ground and see if the Iceland Gull would fly along the shore line. I walked another mile with just two Herring Gulls and a Turnstone to show for my efforts but there was one more gull, about another quarter of a mile further, that I felt should be investigated and if this was not the gull I sought I would return to Mark.

I trudged ever onwards, the wind mercifully blowing at my back but conscious it would be right in my face on the return journey. I walked for another ten minutes until close enough to see some detail on the gull. It looked good for the Iceland Gull, very pale and the wing tips were lacking any dark pigmentation but maybe it was the bright sunlight deceiving me?

Moving closer, another five minutes brought me in range and yes, through my bins I could clearly see it was the Iceland Gull, wandering around at the edge of the shore.There was no sign of the dead seal that it had been feeding on for weeks and it was now surveying the pebbles on the surfline looking for food.

In the dazzling sunlight it appeared very white but closer inspection showed small brown markings on its wings and upperbody. It was not particularly wary and for five minutes I watched and took its photograph, glad of an opportunity to rest after my endurance test on the shingle. The gull carried on with its leisurely perambulation along the shore and then facing into the wind lifted off and flew along the shoreline back towards Mark and from where I had so laboriously come from.

Mark saw it coming  but it did not stop and carried on flying along the shore heading towards Cley.Oh well we had both seen it, me very well and Mark, well enough. I felt my five minutes alone with the gull on the shore was just reward for all the effort I had made

With the departure of the gull we set off to walk the remaining quarter of a mile of shingle back to the Coastguards car park but as we crossed the shingle,  passing the emerging patches of crinkled  grey green leaves of Yellow horned Poppy, a small bird, a bunting, flew up. Its plumage of grey, brown, buff and black upperparts had provided the perfect camouflage, rendering the bird virtually invisible in the multi coloured pebbles. The large flash of white in the wings and white underparts identified it as a Snow Bunting.It did not fly far and landed amongst at least three more of its kind, assiduously shuffling amongst the pebbles, poppy leaves and withered stalks, searching for seeds.

This habitat is the one I most closely associate with these charming but hardy birds.It is as if the many hued pebbles were made to replicate their plumage or is it the other way around.The flash of white on the wings betrays them as they fly low to the ground but as soon as they land and close their wings it is as if they have vanished, so well do they blend into their surroundings.

We followed and sat on the shingle, slowly edging our way forward towards the feeding buntings. Closer and closer we moved until we knelt low on the shingle, our profile to a degree disguised and waited for the buntings to come to us.We could now see there were at least eight or nine, a mixture of dull, greyer looking young birds and paler, whiter adults, scuttling around in the small pebbles, patches of withered grass and poppies. It became clear that they were feeding on the seeds of last year's poppies, sometimes picking up a whole stalk and working it through their corn yellow bills to remove the attached seeds.

In loose communion they roved across the shingle, individual buntings running to join others as if not wanting to be too far removed from company. Every so often  they would rise as one flock and sweep around but always came back to the same spot.The feeding must have been good here and they were loathe to leave.

We took many photos. probably too many but it is a difficult task to get a good image of the buntings for they are either constantly moving in that peculiar crouching way they adopt  or partially hidden by stalks or leaves, even sometimes the pebbles, when there was a small depression they could hunker down in, out of the wind.

We did our best and for me this interlude brought an extra pleasure, as my world was constrained to that of the buntings as our immediate surrounds were, for a time, one and the same.For an hour I sat with them, inhabiting their world in both body and spirit, one of endless wind and the sound of the sea, under a huge blue sky and limitless horizons. Tired of photographing them I sat musing on the buntings winter life in coastal Norfolk, one of almost constant searching for food and then at night roosting in the shingle, forever in the open, the desolate banks of shingle and sky their only  home.

Our unexpected but nonetheless welcome diversion with the Snow Buntings had brought us to early afternoon and as we had been advised, we should now really go and look for the Red breasted Goose in The Eye Field, as that was the pattern of its behaviour for the last week or so, the rare goose arriving with around a hundred and fifty brent geese to feed in the field.

The brent flock were distantly visible in the fields but not in the Eye Field which was the one, if we wished to see it close.Not sure what to do we wavered and as we did the flock rose from the more distant fields and landed closer but still rather too far away. Nonetheless we positioned the car where we could see the flock and lowering the car window, scanned the flock. It was not easy to pick out the similar sized Red breasted Goose from the closely packed feeding flock of brent, constantly on the move as they plucked at the grass.

Eventually I found it but just as I was about to position the camera, a Black headed Gull perched on a fencepost right by the car window. I could have leant out and touched it

It stood looking at us, obviously accustomed to receive food but we had none.It was not about to give up and it was only when another car drew up behind us that it moved to try its luck there and I could resume looking at the Red breasted Goose.

A Marsh Harrier then did us a favour as it passed over the goose flock, causing them to rise up with much calling and as they did so, the flock fragmented. The largest number flew away, further back into the saltmarsh but a small group of around thirty flew towards us and then settled in a field right by the road. Perfect but would the Red breasted Goose be amongst them?

Mark drove back a little way down the road to get in line with them and a lady birder told us the Red breasted Goose was at the left end of the group. And so it was.  Much advice about remaining in one's car to avoid flushing the geese has been touted on social media but our fellow birders, including the lady who had given us the information about the goose, apparently felt no compunction to heed this advice and had got out of their cars to stand in the road or on the skyline, in the case of the lady birder! 

I feared the worst and a confronation was looming but the geese were not alarmed and, after a brief necks up survey of our ranks lined up in the road, settled to feed, the Red breasted Goose, as advised, amongst them.

Much conjecture has been bandied about as to the provenance of this and other individuals of this species. Most people consider this one to be wild as were two others in Essex, also associating with a brent flock but two that arrived in January on the RSPB's Otmoor reserve in my home county of Oxfordshire were looked at askance. 

My opinion?

Who can tell where they are from. It seems perverse to suggest that at least four individual Red breasted Geese should have escaped from one or more wild fowl collections, all at roughly the same time, so I tend to opt for a wild origin, along with most other people I have spoken to.

Whatever one may think they are undoubtedly a beautiful goose, possibly the most attractive goose to be seen in Britain, albeit rarely, the combination of glossy black feathering and white stripes contrasting with a bright rufous neck and breast is both striking and appealing.

So we watched the goose feeding happily with its brent goose companions and for half an hour they fed contentedly in the field before once more rising and flying further out onto the saltmarsh.This signalled a natural conclusion to our Norfolk odyssey and we left for home, more than content with what Nelson's county had granted us.

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