Tuesday 1 February 2011

Two days birding in North Norfolk 1st-2nd February 2011

I took two days off from work and as the family were away on a week’s cultural tour of Florence the early hours of Tuesday morning found me wending my way to the north Norfolk coast in the rush hour traffic heading for Kings Lynn. 

At this early time, tired of driving and in the half light, the bleak desolation of the surrounding countryside seems to permeate one’s soul with a suitably depressing effect. I was headed for Titchwell RSPB Reserve, as my first location to go birding, and arriving at eight found it totally deserted, even of staff! This was good news for me and to my liking as at this time in the morning after a long drive I would hardly call myself sociable. In fact it takes about thirty minutes for me to find some sort of emotional equilibrium and purpose after such a tiring and often boring early hours drive. 

I checked the feeders for Bramblings and the alders for Redpolls but there was nothing of interest apart from five Siskins, so I made my way along the seaward path to the newly opened and I have to admit, wondrously modernist Parrinder Hide. The weather was grey, windy and miserable and it looked like rain, so gloriously alone I ensconced myself in the hide. I had the place to myself for over an hour. 

Just before I got to the hide I had peeped over the wall and found myself looking at an adult male Snow Bunting literally a few metres below me on the saltmarsh and in the company of another six. A good start and now, much encouraged, I entered the hide and started to look for the Twite which had been reported from here. At first all I kept seeing were the seven Snow Buntings and various other passerines such as Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, feeding on the saltmarsh. 

After some time a flock of small birds suddenly flew up and landed again. These must surely be the Twite and on locating them in the scope that is what they were. Now feeling I was getting into the swing of things I watched them feeding in the saltmarsh vegetation and then suddenly they took alarm and off they went but soon returned and settled right in front of me. They were close enough that I could discern that two were colour ringed and I made a careful note of the colour combinations with a view to reporting them on the relevant web site www.cr-birding.be when I got home* 

I carried on watching them and then noticed a party of birders coming along the approach path. Like me they could not resist looking over the wall at the saltmarsh and in the process scared a pipit into flight which flew up fast, and calling a single loud peep, dashed around the marsh. I followed it as best I could. Would it carry on flying far away or land on the saltmarsh? 

It landed on the saltmarsh and getting the scope on it I found myself looking at a Water Pipit. This was the other main target species for me here. I was joined shortly after by the others and pointed out the Twite and Snow Buntings and mentioned the by now out of sight Water Pipit. Intriguingly they had not heard or seen it when they inadvertently flushed it. It took a long time to locate the Water Pipit again but eventually one showed itself but was not the same bird as before. It was slightly darker and not so white on the underparts. So there were two present, at least. 

A Marsh Harrier flew over and a male Ruff joined the passerines in front of the Hide. There were now severe rain squalls passing over so I remained in the Hide until they ceased and then left. Still, to my surprise, there was no one else on the Reserve and looking over Thornham Marsh I found a dark harrier with a white rump hovering for a long time over one particular spot. Surely this was the Northern Harrier? I was pretty certain it was but then it flew away from me towards Thornham, the biting wind made my eyes water and a positive identification became impossible. 

I carried on towards the sea flushing a Spotted Redshank and a slightly groggy Avocet which wobbled away on unsteady wings into the strong wind. I arrived at the shore and soon located the huge flock of around 2500 Common Scoter offshore, looking like a black stain on the grey sea. There were undoubtedly Velvet Scoter in the flock but unless they flew I would never be able to locate them and that looked unlikely. After a cursory scan, finding Common Goldeneye, a selection of the commoner waders on the deserted sands and a Snow Bunting flying over my head, I decided to head back to the car, make my way to Thornham and look over the adjacent marsh from that side in the hope of seeing the Northern Harrier. The wind was strong and getting tiresome, the light hardly brilliant and my bones were getting chilled. 

On getting to Thornham I sought shelter in the lee of the coal barn at Thornham Harbour and stuck it out for around an hour with no sign of the Northern Harrier but did have the luck to see a ringtail Hen Harrier pass close to me whilst two Spotted Redshank waded up the creek in front of me.

Spotted Redshank

I was now in a bit of a quandary as to where to go, finally deciding on heading east for Burnham Overy to look for Rough legged Buzzards and Black Brant. I drove along the A149, through those quaint, picturesque but horrifically expensive Norfolk villages that have been taken over by the chattering classes, or so I suppose, and turned into little echoes of exclusive middle class city suburbs with expensively renovated pubs and restaurants. Cley is probably the extreme example of this with an upmarket delicatessen full of wealthy people with clipped and loud public school accents who think everything is frightfully jolly and then pop over to the equally pretentious and expensive Pinkfoot Gallery to wave their cash around. Personally I find it all quite dreadful. 

Eventually, as I progressed along the A149 I noticed huge numbers of Pink-footed Geese flying off the saltmarsh and landing in a fallow field by the road near to Burnham Norton. Initially all I could see was wave after wave of geese crossing in front of me, making a tremendous noise. I drove the car down into a dip in the road and pulled off slightly beyond where they were coming down and looked across to what appeared to be a fallow field but was in fact brown from the huge numbers of geese feeding on it. It was an incredible sight and sound as skein after skein descended onto what was an already seething mass of geese, all feeding and vocalising frantically. I then noticed there were just as many geese in an adjacent grass field but these had obviously fed and many were squatting on the grass, wings resting 'akimbo' on the ground which so many geese seem to do when they are replete and at ease. I got out of the car and scanned the feeding flock with my binoculars and with much excitement discovered the adult Ross’s Goose feeding at the far side of the flock. 

However, having just landed, many of the geese were still not settled and my movements, although distant, alarmed them and with a tumultuous roar of wings and staccato calls they all took off leaving the field empty. The sight of so many geese in the air at once was one of those moments I will treasure for the rest of my life. Like a mushrooming cloud they burst skywards and then levelled out at no great height. I have never seen anything quite like it as five thousand geese passed over me and headed back towards the saltmarsh. Strangely the geese in the nearby grass field remained unperturbed by my presence and were in fact joined by quite a number from the fallow field. I prayed that the Ross’s Goose had joined them but was disappointed, though in a way its disappearance lent it an air of mystique and romance.,

Having watched where the geese had gone I drove down Marsh Lane to the back of Holkham NNR to see if I could relocate the Ross’s Goose. I parked and getting out of the car I could hear them but they were invisible beyond a rise in the ground with no access to allow me to get closer. There were some Dark bellied Brent Geese mixed in with some Greylag and Canada Geese which were visible and on checking through them I had the pleasant surprise of finding an adult Pale bellied Brent Goose with them. 

So now it was on to Burnham Overy where I found a group of fellow birders scanning from the road across the marshes to the dunes. An enquiry elicited the fact that there was a Rough legged Buzzard perched atop a bush just below the distant dunes. Eventually it revealed itself, its white head and breast standing out and contrasting with its dark chocolate brown underparts. The inordinately long walk required to get closer to it did not appeal to me so I left it at long distance views and made my way to Cley. 

Near the Three Swallows Pub a waterlogged field harboured four Mute Swans and another swan on its own which to my surprise was an adult Bewick’s Swan. I carried on through the village and made my way to the East Bank, just getting the last place in the tiny car park by the road. A longish walk along the track towards the sea eventually brought me to within range of the small and distant Eurasian Wigeon flock in which there was an adult male American Wigeon. A couple of scans through the flock and the American Wigeon revealed itself. A pleasingly attractive bird more subtly patterned than its European cousin, with plum coloured flanks, pale cream blaze on its forehead and green eye patch. It was easy to relocate after taking my eye off it as I noticed it displayed a large square white patch on the wing which really stood out whereas the Eurasian Wigeon only showed a white line between wing and flank. 

A pleasant forty five minutes passed watching this and then I made a brief visit to nearby Salthouse to view the flock of Snow Buntings frequenting the car park by the shingle bank. Many photographers come to take their picture, all bringing some seed with them, so the buntings are always present and sure enough a flock of around fifty were flitting around the car park and shingle. 

Male Snow Bunting

I got some good photos of them as they crouched in depressions in the shingle. They would take alarm frequently and always land on the shingle, hiding themselves in the small depressions and remaining motionless and watchful until, relaxing, they would begin to feed by shuffling over the stones. They are incredibly well camouflaged in the multi coloured shingle. Such attractive and appealing birds, the old males with so much white in their plumage really stand out as the twittering flock sweeps across the shingle. 

My final destination on this fabulous day was Warham Greens where I hoped to see the Hen Harriers coming into their traditional winter roost. The roost is out on the huge area of saltmarsh east of Holkham which entails a very tricky drive down a long, unmade and rutted track to a tiny car park with room for three to four cars, if that. I and the car made it unscathed and immediately found a Barn Owl perched on the National Nature Reserve sign before I was even through the gate. 

I walked off to my right out of sight of the gate which is where most people watch from as I wanted to be alone. It was now a sunny although still cold and windy day and finding a sheltered spot I settled down to wait. After the inevitable excitements and anxieties of the preceding hours it was a pleasure to relax and look out over the evocative wildness of the saltmarshes with Holkham away to my left and skeins of geese flighting out to sea. There were a number of scattered and small Brent Goose parties feeding on the saltmarsh and to while away the time I checked through them. Most were Dark bellied Brent Geese but then I found two families of Pale bellied Brent Geese, one pair with an incredible six young and the other with three young. Everywhere I have seen Brent Geese this winter there have been good numbers of young present so it has been a good breeding season for them in their Arctic breeding grounds. 

Over to my right a Barn Owl appeared and on checking I found I could still see the other one by the gate to my left. This was the ninth Barn Owl I had seen today in various locations in Norfolk, all hunting in broad daylight. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew close by me and inland. As evening approached Grey Partridges started their creaking calls in the field behind but remained invisible in the long stubble. 

The Hen Harriers started to appear as the visibility faded and I found that fortuitously I had positioned myself almost opposite where the roost was located. It is very difficult to estimate how many harriers were coming into roost as they have the habit of making many false landings, on each occasion after a short time on the ground, flying up and circling around before finally becoming settled. It is almost as if such an aerial bird has great difficulty in accepting that it has to be earthbound for the night hours. A rough estimate put the number coming in to roost at between eight to ten individuals and all were ringtails. There was also a Marsh Harrier roost close by and here there appeared to be around five birds. So ended what had been a quite superlative day of winter birding in north Norfolk. 

I drove gently back up the track to rejoin the road and headed east to the unpretentious and welcoming Dun Cow at Salthouse to reward myself with a home made fish pie, fresh vegetables, a bowl of chips and a pint of superbly clear and well kept Adnam’s ale. The perfect end to the day. 

I made my way to my accommodation in Gayton, which although quite a way inland is worth the trip as the rooms are huge and so are the bathrooms. A long and reviving soak in a hot bath and then blessed sleep. Next morning, revived and taking a leisurely breakfast I was away by eight but the weather was very misty as I drove to the coast. However as I approached the coast visibility became clearer although the wind had strengthened. On the drive I encountered my one and only Red legged Partridge wandering across the lane. 

I had decided to visit Choseley Barns first as there was a report of a Waxwing in a hedge in the vicinity. I failed to find it but had the pleasure by the Barns of a mixed flock of twenty five Corn Buntings and fifteen Yellowhammers, the male’s yellow plumage almost glowing in the sunlight. A quick scan of the field by the lane revealed a male Grey Partridge by the hedgeside which then joined a female in one of the furrows out in the field. Now where to go? 

I tried Holme Dunes for a bit of sea-watching but the wind was ferocious and the visibility poor. All I managed to see were a lot of roosting Oystercatchers. Giving up I returned to the car thankful to get out of the wind. I retraced my route to yesterday’s site of the Pink-footed Geese and found that my arrival was obviously coinciding with theirs. I parked the car in the same location as yesterday and just enjoyed the sight of skein after skein of Pink-footed Geese flighting in to the field.

They just kept coming and coming. I scanned each group to try and see if the Ross’s Goose was among them as I could not see it in the geese settled on the field. No luck but then another look at the field and there was the Ross’s Goose in exactly the same position in the field as yesterday! I took my time and gave myself extended views through the scope of it feeding with the other geese. 

I now had a choice of going to Burnham Overy to walk out to the dunes to see if I could get close views of the Rough legged Buzzards. There are usually good flocks of Dark bellied Brent Geese here often containing Pale bellied Brent Geese and even Black Brant to enliven the walk. Today, maybe because of the almost gale conditions there were no geese and scans of the dunes from the road showed no sign of any Rough legged Buzzards. It was just not worth the time and effort so I made my way east to Salthouse to try and find the first year Spoonbill that had been present for some time on one of the pools between Salthouse and Cley, called Sea Pool. Parking in the car park I did my best to ignore the Snow Buntings still flitting around on the shingle and walked west for some 300 yards and looked through my scope, finding the Spoonbill at some distance in the company of a Little Egret. I did not go any further as I just could not face another tiring slog across the energy sapping shingle and I really was anxious to find the nine Shorelarks reported from Cley at the far end of the East Bank. When I got to the East Bank I could see birders obviously looking at them but they had moved a long way east of the end of the Bank and the walk was considerable from the road. However the fact that it was such a long walk obviously deterred others so when I got to the location I was on my own. 

But could I find them? 


I walked east looking, with no luck, over the shingle, then walked back retracing my steps and a brown bird flew up with a thin seep call and promptly disappeared again into the shingle and stunted grasses. Eventually I found it again and there were the Shorelarks, all nine of them but quite flighty. 

I took a lot of photos and by standing quite still the birds became less wary. It is unusual for this species to be so wary. Normally they are quite confiding and I surmised that maybe they had been frequently disturbed by photographers and birders getting too close so I kept my distance and was duly rewarded. It is always a delight to encounter these attractive and scarce birds and I took my time watching them scuttling through the pebbles and grass, only leaving when some other birders arrived. 

Watching birds on one’s own is entirely different to watching with others. On your own you are so much more aware of other lives and beings, their totally different place in and sense of our world. I like to imagine their life here on the shingle, exposed to the elements night and day, never really able to rest in the sense that we sleep at night. How do they view the world around them through their eyes?

Satisfied with my encounter I now walked back to the car and drove back towards Holkham. On my way to Cley just beyond Holkham I had noticed a large flock of Brent Geese feeding in a field right by the road. The A149 is a difficult road to park on but luckily, on my return, there was an area to pull off onto, adjacent to the field, and getting out of the car I was pleased to find the flock remained tolerant of my presence. It was not long before I found an adult Black Brant amongst the Dark bellied Brent. In fact it was one of the closest birds to me. They are always a pleasure to find and looking through the flock I had the extra pleasure of finding another adult Black Brant at the far side of the flock. I also located two adult Pale bellied Brent Geese in this flock.

Content with these finds I now set off for my final birding destination which was Roydon Common just east of Kings Lynn. This is a site that I had not visited before but was meant to be the location of another Hen Harrier roost. I duly arrived a couple of hours before dusk on a deserted, cold and windswept moor. I found a viewing point where I could see over most of the Common and waited. 

After about half an hour a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared as if by magic and flew from east to west the length of the Common and disappeared but not before giving me really good views - much better than I had at Warham Greens. Time then passed slowly with only a flock of around fifty Fieldfare coming to roost to relieve the monotony. Then, on yet another scan, I located a fabulous adult male Hen Harrier floating over the Common. The excitement of seeing this lovely creature so well was intense and I watched it flying effortlessly back and fore over what I presumed was the roosting area. As I followed it in the scope I noticed another male had joined it plus presumably the ringtail I had seen earlier. All three harriers then flew around making false landings but always rising up again to fly in circles around the roost site. Eventually the ringtail landed and did not rise again but the males persisted in still landing briefly then rising again. Finally one landed and remained hidden and it was not long before the third bird also landed in the grass and heather for the final time. 

I must have watched them for around forty five minutes and it was a tremendous boost to my morale to see them, especially the beautiful adult males. Now spiritually fortified for the long tedious drive home I made my way from the bleak and now almost dark Common, putting up five Grey Partridge with others calling from around the Common as I left.

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