Friday 17 January 2014

Six go to Norfolk 10-12th January 2014

Friday 10th January

What better way to drive away the blues than go to the Norfolk coast with five Oxonbirder friends and have three days dawn to dusk (well almost) birding? Myself, Andy and Badger joined Terry in his car whilst Mark and Geoff conveniently took all the birding equipment, of which there seems to be so much these days, plus the food and drink  for self catering, in Geoff's white van. The journey as usual was fairly tedious, but we whiled away the time chatting whilst Terry coped admirably with the rush hour traffic at all points East.

Our first stop was to be Buckenham Marshes in the east of the county and where we planned to remain in the general area all day, and finish by watching the famous corvid roost at dusk. Around about nine am on a bright, cold and sunlit morning we parked in Buckenham Marshes car park, crossed the railway and set off down the track to view the vast area of marsh and grassland that comprises the reserve.

Buckenham Marshes with Cantley Beet Factory in the far distance
Wigeon were everywhere. Parties of them were feeding adjacent to the track and untroubled by our close proximity. The drakes were resplendent in their pastel shades of grey and pink, almost rotund with fluffed out feathers to insulate themselves against the cold.

They were the epitomy of contentment as they basked or fed in the sun. At this time of the year they are looking at their best and surely are one of the most beautiful ducks to be found in this country. Gone are the drab browns of eclipse plumage to be replaced by colours of subtle beauty and patterned complexity, gloriously harmonious as the colours merge into each other. The reserve rang with their evocative whistles as we progressed up the muddy track. Huge numbers of Wigeon were also on the River Yare which borders the reserve and two canooists put them to flight as they paddled downriver. The birds rose in a frenzy of whistling  and panicked rush of wings, and gaining height turned to fly over the cause of their anxiety.  

Smaller numbers of Teal floated, tiny and dainty in comparison to the Wigeon, on the water filled drains running across the marsh, moving across the water like clockwork toys, unexpectedly darting and changing direction on virtually their own axis.

Further out on the marsh a huge flock of Golden Plover, forever restless and fidgety, stood and then flew and then settled again, along with a similar large number of Lapwing. The reason for their nervousness was all too apparent when we located two Peregrines perched together on some gate posts far out on the marsh. A few Ruff, small headed and hump backed, were easily discernible as they constantly moved in their endless quest for food through the vigilant but motionless Golden Plover flock.

Male Ruff c Andy Last
There was today, sadly, no sign of the Buckenham specialities, the Taiga Bean Geese. They had been seen a couple of days prior but today we had to accept they were absent. Geese were present in the form of around 130 Greater White-fronted Geese plus a few Greylag and Canada Geese, the latter two appearing clumsy and coarsely raucous in comparison to their wilder cousins. Some twenty Barnacle Geese were also of dubious origin but good to see nevertheless.  In amongst the whitefronts was a lone Pink footed Goose and another two hundred flew over the reserve, calling to one another in that querulous squealing voice of theirs as they passed overhead.

We retraced our steps and made our way to Great Yarmouth where two Shore Larks were residing in the dunes north of the town, but not before diverting to nearby Acle to find two Common Cranes feeding in a stubble field by the road. We found the cranes but unfortunately they decided, as we got out of the cars, we were just that bit too close for comfort and they took to the air, running ponderously to take off before rising slowly and with huge grey wings slowly beating  moved further away to land in a more distant field.

Common Crane c Terry Sherlock
We pressed on to Great Yarmouth, a town rightly condemned in my opinion for it's tacky and dated seaside ghastliness. Luckily for us the shorelarks were north of the main town so we were spared the dubious pleasure of driving through Great Yarmouth. Out of season the dunes were virtually deserted although a number of decrepit looking coffee bars along the promenade, now closed for the winter, foretold of the hordes that will descend on the town in summer.

Shorelarks can be difficult to find at the best of times, scuttling as they are wont to do around, in and amongst the marram grass and sandy wastes of the dunes but we were lucky in that we espied some birders intently looking at the ground. Surely they had them in their sights and it duly turned out that they did. 

We spent almost two hours watching and taking photos of them. Relatively fearless, as they always seem to be, they fed together, moving in unison over the sand with little runs and if you had the patience to stand still they would come quite close. 

Shorelark sandbathing  c Terry Sherlock
One stopped for a sand bath, adopting strange convoluted shapes as it sought to immerse it's plumage with sand grains, presumably to get rid of feather mites or some other parasite. Then it was on with their incessant search for food, their constant movement a nightmare for a photographer.

Reluctantly we left them and returned to the cars, deciding to head for nearby Ludham before returning to Buckenham to view the corvid roost in the evening. Ludham allegedly is or was a small landing strip complete with wind sock but appeared to me to be just a vast area of flat green fields. Our interest was in the flock of a hundred or so wild swans sat or stood in the middle of it. Distant from the road their white forms stuck out like the proverbial thumb as we drove  along.

A track led off the road and would get us much nearer so we followed this, stopping at a discrete distance as all the swan's necks shot up, no doubt worried about our intentions. A tense minute passed as we got out of the vehicles but then they relaxed, as did we and we surveyed the flock. There were eighty five Bewick's and twenty two Whooper Swans with about twenty Egyptian Geese, all together in the field. We looked at and admired them for half an hour but frankly there is not much more you can get enthused about so we left them to make our return visit to Buckenham Marshes. 

The daylight was slowly fading into a desolate winter landscape of grey, brown and dull green as we arrived at Buckenham. A lone Goldcrest scuttled along a hedgerow on it's way to roost. Not a corvid was to be seen but I was confident from past experience that the spectacle would materialise and the others, none of whom had seen this amazing event would not feel let down. Slowly Rooks started to appear, mainly silent and settling in the topmost bare branches of the larger trees.

Jackdaws, in contrast, noisy, loud and conversational with their explosive calls, followed the Rooks and slowly the numbers of both built until there was a black stain of corvids, like spilt ink, motionless in the middle of the huge bare field adjacent to the road we were standing on. Yet other corvids in their hundreds perched side by side on the telephone wires crossing the field. A veritable Hitchcockian homage. Other birds constantly arrived, mixed flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws or just single species flocks, landing in the field or perching in the tops of the surrounding large oaks. They just kept coming, flock after flock after flock until almost dusk. The light was now no good for photos so I put the camera away and just stood, quietly watching. Then suddenly for no apparent reason they all took to the air, a spectacle of nature right up there with anything in the world. The noise was incredible as thousands of these most sociable of species, Rooks and Jackdaws, passed over us as we stood on the road in mute awe, and flew the short distance to the wood on the other side of the road where they roosted. Where had they all come from, how far away and what made them come here? Questions, questions but just for now we enjoyed this nightly winter wonder. The sky over the wood was a kaleidoscope of milling black shapes, constantly changing in eye straining patterns, fifty thousand birds with yet others coming from the opposite direction to join the roost. Fifteen minutes of seemingly winged bedlam and disorder and they had settled, albeit still in full voice, into the wood. 

It was over for another night.

Now it was a long drive to Burnham Deepdale on the north Norfolk Coast where we were booked into a hostel in a six bunk bedroom. Nice and cosy chaps! Geoff's van was loaded with all the food and drink we required for self catering and after we had checked in to the hostel it was duly carried to the kitchen where Terry was going to prepare a spaghetti extravaganza for us with even a vegetarian option. The rest of us assisted or probably hindered where we could or just set about making inroads into the red wine, beer or tequila, whatever was your fancy. 

The meal courtesy of Terry was terrific and his wife had even made a sponge cake. Delicious! Excellent!  Once finished we retired to the lounge, pulling up the comfortable sofas close to the wood burning stove, shutting out the night and as more and more alcohol was consumed so the volume of debate and friendly argument rose. The bottle of tequila diminished rapidly as did the red wine and then it was time for bed.

Saturday 11th January

The day dawned bright, icy from the overnight rain and cold with a biting northeastly airflow. I  had arranged to meet Hugh who is another birding friend, at Kelling Marsh. Badger had a tequila face and I was a bit woozy from the red wine but the fresh air soon sorted us out. We were late getting on the road but finally set off on icy but thankfully almost car free roads. The sky was pink and yellow as the sun rose and skeins of geese like scribbled writing drew long lined patterns across the bright sky as they headed inland to feed. A huge detour was required around Cley due to the fatal helicopter crash on the marshes the week before and this served to delay us yet further. Hugh sent a text advising me that he would see us there and was already birding the shingle ridges at Kelling. 

Finally making the small car park at Kelling we made good time getting down the muddy track to the seashore. The sole reason for visiting Kelling was to attempt to see the presumably wintering Richard's Pipit that was frequenting the landward side of the shingle ridge by the sea. A female Bullfinch piped it's melancholy note as we went down the track and flew to a garden tree. On getting to the shingle ridge the devastation from the huge tidal surge of a few weeks ago greeted us. Part of the boardwalk from Cley, five miles west, was washed up on the huge mounds of dead reeds and vegetation pushed in by the tidal surge and the contours of the landscape had drastically changed since last I was here. 

I could see a line of ten or so birders looking along to the wet grassy area running inside the shingle ridge. I also saw Hugh standing on his own on the grass and scoping further along this area and then waving to the crowd who seemed to ignore him. I passed the line of birders and headed straight for Hugh. The other birders followed me. 

"Morning Hugh, sorry we are late"."

"That's OK. I am looking at the Richard's Pipit. It took me ages to find it"


"It's feeding in that brown band of detritus running along the base of the shingle ridge"

I looked and there was the Richard's Pipit feeding unconcernedly and right out in the open. It's not often you see this grassland skulker so clearly. The best you can usually hope for is a calling flyover, or a head briefly raised above the grasses it prefers to hide in. This behaviour was truly exceptional and we savoured the extended views. It was always wary of us, so we kept a good distance from it but the scope views were good as it worked it's way down the strip before stopping to preen in the shelter of some overhanging grasses. Then it flew. We followed but it had gone some way and we only saw it briefly and distantly on a distant mound of vegetation, before it finally disappeared. A lifer for Andy,Terry, Geoff and Mark so a good start to the morning and well done to Hugh for locating it in the first place. A brief, very brief seawatch  due to the biting wind coming in off the sea, produced a number of Red throated Divers moving mainly East and the surprise of a distant Great Skua also moving East with the huge wind turbines far out to sea, shining white in the sunlight and forming a backdrop to its progress. 

Mark and Geoff now left us and headed off for Titchwell to take photos. Badger and Andy went with Terry whilst I joined Hugh in his car for our next  venture to Edgefield to try and locate a Glaucous Gull that was frequenting the local landfill. There is no public access to the landfill but the gulls after feeding loaf in nearby fields and by scoping the flock in their chosen field we hoped to locate the Glaucous Gull. Gulls were constantly coming and going in the field but there was no sign of the Glaucous Gull. We gave it an hour but we were out of luck.

We heard later the gull showed up about thirty minutes after we left. That's birding.

Winter days are short on daylight, so having decided to cut our losses at Edgefield we set off for Titchwell making a brief stop at Burnham Overy on the way to try and find a Black Brant which would be a lifer for Terry and Andy. Parking beside the road we scanned the huge panoramic area that is Burnham Overy marshes. Geese and ducks were everywhere, mainly Pinkfeet and Wigeon but including some Dark bellied Brent Geese. A Marsh Harrier put up all the ducks and a Sparrowhawk flew down a distant hedgeline. I scanned the brent geese and thought I saw our target through a gap in the hedgeline but I was wrong. I tried again and bingo, this time I found the Black Brant as it wandered past a gap in the distant hedgeline. Andy saw it briefly but sadly Terry did not before it disappeared behind the bushes. Hugh and myself set off for Titchwell determined to get there and get out to the beach and do some seawatching before the light went. The others remained to see if the Black Brant would come back into view but said they would follow soon after.

Titchwell on a Saturday afternoon was, as expected, heaving with birders of all shapes, sizes and competence as we made our way out towards the beach and the sea. The wind was now very cold and blowing hard so we sought shelter in what was left of the dunes, noting the trashed boardwalk and various other damage caused by the tidal surge. Virtually the first birds we set our eyes on were a nice flock of seven Velvet Scoters, a mixture of immatures and females riding the waves not very far offshore, the white in their wings prominent, with a male Common Goldeneye tagging along with them. 

Velvet Scoter c Andy Last
A few Red throated Divers passed offshore but there was little else to get excited about. Hugh spoke to a young guy who had just come along the beach from the west and he told us that there were three Snow Buntings a long way off, back along the beach. We shrugged off the daunting prospect of a tiring walk along the now deserted beach and set off in the direction he had indicated. The dunes had taken a real hammering courtesy of the extremes of wind and wave and the sand was littered with millions of razor clam shells crunching like egg shells beneath our feet as we walked west. On and on we went, Hugh storming ahead while I went into old lag mode and tarried a bit. Just as well, as with Hugh some hundred yards ahead I flushed a small bird from virtually under my feet in the wreck and tangle of weed and shells. It was a Snow Bunting. I called Hugh with no response as the wind was obviously in his ears. I yelled at the top of my voice, once, twice, thrice until he heard and came back to join me. The bunting had by now disappeared in amongst the tangle of weed on the beach but we soon relocated it together with another and then another. This must be the three the young birder had mentioned. Two were females but the other was much whiter overall and presumably was a male. We watched them for an hour or so, being joined by other birders who came along the beach unsuspecting of the treat in store for them. The Snow Buntings fed on tiny seeds they found in the mass of weed and vegetation, their golden yellow bills dexterously cracking open the seeds as they shuffled along. We looked to our right and found two more quietly going about their business. So now there were five Snow Buntings.

The sea rolling onto the sand sang it's timeless surf melody as the winter sun dropped lower to the horizon. The tide was ebbing and as the wet sand was exposed so came hordes of waders big and small to take advantage of the feeding opportunity.Grey Plover, Knot, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Bar tailed Godwit and Oystercatcher all scattered over the sand, their calls carried away on the wind. Out to sea a huge and distant flock of in excess of two thousand Common Scoter wheeled  above the waves in the sunlight before the ducks crashed breast first back down onto the sea. We had alerted Andy and Badger to the Snow Buntings but as they had not shown up we assumed they had baulked at the long trudge across the sand so we made our own way back and spent what little remained of the rest of the afternoon looking at the birds on the scrapes. Waders were everywhere, Black tailed Godwit, Ruff, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Avocet, Common Redshank and a Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Turnstone, Common Snipe and Dunlin all shared the scrapes. We lingered near to the Visitor  Centre boardwalk  to see if a Barn Owl would come to cap the day but it was not to be. Instead we were rewarded with a Marsh Harrier and best of all a ring tail Hen Harrier came to patrol the reeds almost in front of us. The setting sun infused a golden glow to the dead reeds and as the Hen Harrier passed over you could see the harrier's bulging crop, a distinct bump in it's profile,  as it turned side on against the sun. We made our way back to the hostel and joined the others in the kitchen.The wine and beer was already flowing and Andy produced a bottle of Polish vodka from an ex girlfriend.

Another exceptional meal of curry then followed courtesy of Geoff and his wife who does the catering at one of the Oxford Colleges. She had given Geoff all sorts of goodies and all we had to do was cook the rice. This time, on retiring there was no animated discussion as we all settled down instead to a Paul Docherty DVD about birds in various countries. A couple more glasses of the red infuriator and some vodka finished me and I retired to bed to be followed shortly after by the others.

Sunday 12th January

Our last day and the weather was much as yesterday. Bright and cold, still with  a biting wind from the northeast. We set off on a long drive back to the east of the county as our target was two Rough legged Buzzards on Haddiscoe Marshes. A Barn Owl, perched low down in a roadside tree got the day off to a good start and we amused ourselves by arguing about lists both county and national. It was pretty juvenile stuff but who wants an intellectual debate on an early Sunday morning? We arrived at the vast area of Haddiscoe Marshes with frankly not much idea of where to start. 

Haddiscoe Marshes c Andy Last
The fields were white with frost, the churned earth of the rutted tracks frozen solid with ice puddles and the sun shone through a blue haze of still, cold air. We stopped first in a layby on the road and found distant Chinese Water Deer in the reedy ditches and Common Buzzards perched on the electricity wires. A Marsh Harrier and a Barn Owl floated along the far side of the marshes. All was quiet and still in the frosty air. No sign however of any Rough legged Buzzards.

We had a second option which was to go to the traditional viewing point in nearby Waveney Forest, which is no more than a mound at the edge of the wood but giving a panoramic view over the marshes. A text came from Hugh telling me that there were now two Parrot Crossbills, a male and a female in the forest with a flock of Common Crossbills. They had just been reported that very moment. This was tempting as Parrot Crossbills are my kind of bird but first we had to see the Rough legged Buzzards, yet another lifer for Geoff and Mark. We made our way down the forest tracks to the viewing area. There were some other birders already there and one young local birder directed us immediately to the two Rough legged Buzzards, perched miles out on some wooden fence posts. You could just about see the dark brown plumage and pale heads but according to the local birder this was about as close as they ever came. I asked him about the Parrot Crossbills and he said it was him that had reported them earlier. He gave me directions and told me the location where he had last seen them which was not very far away, but  cautioned that the birds themselves were elusive in the mainly conifer forest. I set off immediately and Geoff and Mark joined me. We headed in the general direction we had been given and came to a track with some twenty or so birders looking intently at a line of conifers. They had to be looking at crossbills and I was pretty sure this flock would contain the Parrot Crossbills. After what seemed an age we joined them and I set up my scope on the tree in question. My first view was of a Common Crossbill, as was my second and my third and so on. Very frustrating.

Male Common Crossbill c Terry Sherlock
Someone in the crowd claimed to have found the Parrot Crossbill and following their general directions I finally focused on a definite female Parrot Crossbill. Bull headed and bull beaked. There was no doubt about it.

Female Parrot Crossbill c Mark Chivers
It's bill was huge, no mistaking this brutish bird for anything else and she remained out on an exposed twig for some minutes giving one and all excellent views. Geoff and Mark looked through my scope as this was a lifer for them. There then ensued frustration and elation in equal measure as the female Parrot Crossbill would at one moment be in plain view and then the next disappear behind clumps of pine needles and cones but in the end we all had excellent views and she was even joined by the male for a minute or so. I called Badger and told him to get up here fast. Mark went to wave to show him where we were and flushed a Woodcock! Badger and the others joined us and they too got great views of the Parrot Crossbill. It remained like this for half an hour or so until the entire flock, comprising around twenty birds, calling loudly, left the tree and moved fifty metres down the track to another conifer, perching prominently at the top and then descending in small groups to a partly frozen puddle to drink. The female Parrot Crossbill sat a few inches from a Common Crossbill in a conifer tree and in profile she looked huge and bulky compared to her more demure cousin.

Parrot Crossbill on the left and Common Crossbill on the right c Andy Last
The crossbills flew down, a few birds at a time, to drink from the puddle which was no more than a few metres from us and the male Parrot Crossbill landed on the ice right in front of us but almost instantly took off again. I noted how with their crossed mandibles they had to drink holding their bills laterally to the water. Another burst of calling and the flock flew back to their original tree to resume feeding. 

It was time to go to our final destination. Stubb Mill near Hickling Broad for the Marsh Harrier roost.

We arrived about ninety minutes before dusk and walked the mile down to the viewing point along a waterlogged and icy lane. The viewing point, which is a raised bank is now no longer just a pile of mud but gentrified with hardcore and two benches.Whatever next! Andy almost immediately found three Common Cranes feeding off to our right, their heads appearing sporadically, periscopic like above the reeds. A Marsh Harrier did a close pass with others floating around in the distance. The wind was achingly cold and my feet started to go numb. More and more Marsh Harriers started to arrive until they were present in double figures, some perched and others flying slowly above the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew fast and low above the reeds and pitched into a hawthorn bush. I could not feel my feet anymore. The wind seemed to get stronger and even colder as the sun disappeared. Marsh Harriers appeared from all directions, immatures, females, including an old female with a huge amount of cream on her brown head and forewings, like splashed paint, and males beautifully patterned in grey, brown and cream. There must have been in the region of thirty to forty Marsh Harriers floating around pre-roost. The light was fading fast now but three more Common Cranes came flying from Horsey, crossing the reeds in line, their outstretched necks and extended legs making them even more outlandish looking as their broad wings flapped slowly in between stately glides. They landed far out of sight to our right but we could hear their bugling calls echoing around the dank, increasingly dark and stilled marshland right up until we left. A final flourish as two separate ringtail Hen Harriers came into roost, hardly visible against the dark bushes way off to our left, to be followed by a ghostly grey male sinking ever earthwards to his roost behind the hawthorn bushes over towards Horsey. Then all was quiet apart from the distant cries of the cranes.

Birds seen

Common Buzzard/ Rough legged Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Eurasian Sparrowhawk/ Peregrine Falcon/ Marsh Harrier/ Hen Harrier/ Barn Owl/ Tawny Owl (heard only)/ Carrion Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Jay/ Great Crested Grebe/ Little Grebe/ Common Moorhen/ Common Coot/ Water Rail/ Whooper Swan/ Bewick's Swan/ Mute Swan/ Pink footed Goose/ Greater White-fronted Goose/ Black Brant/ Dark bellied Brent Goose/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Barnacle Goose/ Egyptian Goose/ Common Shelduck/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Gadwall/ Mallard/ Northern Pintail/ Common Teal/ Northern Shoveler/ Common Scoter/ Velvet Scoter/ Common Goldeneye/ Tufted Duck/ Common Pochard/ Red breasted Merganser/ Great Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Herring Gull/ Yellow legged Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Great Skua/ Fulmar Petrel/ Razorbill/ Guillemot/ Great Cormorant/ Red throated Diver/ Common Crane/ Little Egret/ Grey Heron/ Eurasian Curlew/ Oystercatcher/ Avocet/ Black tailed Godwit/ Bar tailed Godwit/ Lapwing/ Golden Plover/ Grey Plover/ Common Redshank/ Spotted Redshank/ Ruff/ Common Greenshank/ Woodcock/ Common Snipe/ Knot/ Turnstone/ Ringed Plover/ Sanderling/ Dunlin/ Common Pheasant/ Grey Partridge/ Red legged Partridge/ Woodpigeon/ European Nuthatch/ Tree Creeper/ Common  Starling/ Shorelark/ Eurasian Skylark/ Richard's Pipit/ Meadow Pipit/ Mistle Thrush/ Blackbird/ Fieldfare/ Redwing/ European Stonechat/ Robin/ Dunnock/ House Sparrow/ / Common Crossbill/ Parrot Crossbill/ Chaffinch/ Common Bullfinch/ Goldfinch/ Greenfinch/ Linnet/ Cetti's Warbler (heard only)/ Bearded Tit/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit/ Long tailed Tit/ Reed Bunting/ Snow Bunting/ Yellowhammer/ Wren/ Goldcrest [115]

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