I usually endeavour to fit in a trip to Norfolk just before Christmas and the combination of my wife being involved with a craft show in Chipping Norton all weekend and my good friend Hugh Wright also having the same weekend free for birding proved remarkably fortuitous.
Friday evening found me negotiating the rush hour traffic to Hugh's house in Yaxley near Peterborough to spend the night there before setting off pre-dawn for Norfolk. A very palatable bottle of Chilean red wine, a lovely meal provided by Emma, some convivial conversation about our respective recent trips to South America, me to Ecuador, Emma and Hugh to Chile, and then it was bedtime.
Next morning the Black Audi belied its name and presented an apparition of sparkling white, its heavily frosted paintwork twinkling festively in the street lights. The cold as I left the house shocked any tiredness from my system and I sat shivering in the driver's seat waiting for the heater to thaw the abstract ice images from the windscreen.
Five minutes later and we headed off on the hour or so journey to Norfolk. The dawn slowly rose as we headed southeast and the all enveloping night sky morphed from black to pastel shades of deep blue, pink and then orange as the sun rose on what was forecast to be a sunny and cold day
Winter in Norfolk is the time for geese. Setting ourselves a notional target of seeing as many species of goose as possible at this time of year brought high expectations.
We had decided to start from the southern end of Norfolk at the RSPB's reserve at Buckenham Marshes, following a report of the wintering flock of Taiga Bean Geese being seen there recently. This is the only wintering flock of Taiga Bean Geese in England but their appearance at Buckenham has become increasingly uncertain in recent years so this would undoubtedly be one of our greatest challenges of the weekend.
Instead of going to the usual western entrance to Buckenham Marshes, located by the tiny railway halt we decided on the less popular eastern side, going to Cantley, parking the car and crossing the railway line there and thence out onto the marshes.We duly made our way over the railway line with the huge chimney of the nearby Cantley Beet Factory providing an apocalyptic vision of belching writhing columns of white smoke ascending high into a cold pale blue sky, backlit by the rising sun. It really was quite impressive which was more than could be said for the birdlife. The vast acreage of frosted grass and reeds was not exactly teeming with birds as we trudged out along the frost rimed muddy furrows towards the River Yare. Normally wigeon and teal in their hundreds if not thousands are out on the fields or swimming in the drains and ditches but not this morning, just a few Mallards although a Chinese Water Deer, grazing quite close, provided some interest. To me they seem to have heads not quite big enough for their body.
We scanned for geese but that too was a struggle. Fifty or so Pinkfeet, ten Greater Whitefront and around thirty Egyptian Geese was all we could find and apart from the Egyptian Geese the other geese soon departed eastwards into the cold sky leaving the fields strangely deserted for this time of year.
There was needless to say not a sign of any Taiga Bean Geese. A small flock of Lapwing and an even smaller flock of Golden Plover hunched in the grass, silhouetted in the rising sunlight, rounded and made plump by feathers fluffed against the cold. We reached the river bank and a Cetti's Warbler greeted us with its exclamatory, peremptory song. A couple of Marsh Harriers quartered the marshes for prey and one was obviously successful, as later it was plucking something on the ground, harassed as usual by those avian chavs, a couple of Carrion Crows.
Frankly it was all very disappointing and somewhat deflated, feeling we had failed at the first hurdle, we retreated to the car and taking some back lanes drove to the western side of the marshes to see if it was any better there but it wasn't. The regular Canada Goose flock had by now arrived in our temporary absence and a lone Barnacle Goose was with them plus a few Greylags further off. Huge numbers of wigeon rose from the River Yare but nice though this was it was not the experience we had planned to set our pulses racing.
We did however have a prospective ace up our sleeves. A male Desert Wheatear had been discovered on the beach at Winterton Dunes NNR the day before so with some anticipation we headed off to Winterton on Sea. Passing the reed fringed and grassy fields near Acle I mentioned to Hugh that this was usually a good spot for Common Cranes and sure enough as I concentrated on the road Hugh saw four cranes in the fields off to our left. There is of course nowhere obvious to stop or pull off on this busy road so we went some way beyond before finding a suitable turning point but having achieved this we managed to return and park off the road by a barn to view the four cranes with another two flying in to join them. Huge and grey with a black bustle of cockerel tail feathers at their rear end, their elegance was only accentuated by the continual extending of their long necks to check their surroundings. As they strutted around, the square of crimson red feathers on their nape only became visible at certain angles in the sun as they turned their ever watchful heads. This vision of loveliness cheered us no end after the Buckenham disappointment and we reached Winterton on Sea in a much better frame of mind than when we left Buckenham.
The day was now brightly lit by a full sun sitting dazzlingly low above the horizon, the air was clear and sharp and the sky cobalt blue and cloudless. We parked by the café, now busy with visitors and walked down onto the beach. The sand, not orange and yellow but a milky coffee colour where the tide had receded leaving it damp, was firm below our feet, the sea a deep grey blue with white frothing lines of waves fussing along the shore. A complete delight but we had a mile or so to walk westwards so it was onwards with the gentle sound and rhythm of the surf to accompany us until eventually we saw a small group of birders intently looking at something close to the dunes. This had to be the Desert Wheatear and it was.
A lovely male with plumage the colours of the beach, sandy tones and black bits just like the sand and dead dried seaweed. It was constantly active, acrobatically flying low over the sand to seize insects, and then perching briefly on any protuberance to give it a view point, black tail dipping in almost wagtail fashion before flying erratically after another victim. It was sometimes distant and at other times very close as it ranged over the sandy expanses. Overall it was a pale sandy orange with a black face mask, all black tail and wings, with the wing feathers edged pinstripe white. It presented a very smart almost dapper appearance as we watched it for an hour or so, constantly active and feeding frantically whilst a small but steady procession of admirers walked along the beach to see it.
I stood on the dunes and looked through the scope for any activity out to sea. A large head, grey and somewhat sinister rose from the sea close inshore but it was only a Grey Seal. A steady stream of Red throated Divers, shining white and grey in the sun were moving west and then a distant very dark shape came flying low over the waves. A skua, a Pomarine Skua, occasionally stopping to chivvy some gulls but all the time steadily moving west. Two Snow Buntings called overhead and flew westwards along the beach but time, like the buntings was moving inexorably onwards. The hours of daylight are so short at this time of year and there were many other places we wanted to visit, so a long walk back through the dunes, the sun so low in the sky it hurt our eyes, brought us back to the café and purchasing some refreshments to eat in the car we left Winterton on Sea and drove towards North Norfolk.
|Male Desert Wheatear|
Our next stop was to be Salthouse where we hoped to see a flock of six or seven Lapland Buntings that had been reported from there. The buntings were still present when we arrived, as other birders readily confirmed but were virtually impossible to see as they were feeding in an area of overgrown saltmarsh with no access and so had to be viewed from the road. The only time you could see them was when they flew up out of the tangle and really this is not my kind of birding although Hugh was more enthusiastic, being younger and a lot more patient. A flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese were feeding in the fields on the other side of the road and Hugh said, no doubt to stop me complaining, 'Can you find a Black Brant in that flock?' I turned my scope and did! Hugh had a look but by then it had disappeared into a fold in the ground and was hidden and I began to doubt myself but later Hugh found it again so this was a nice surprise for both of us.
We never did see the Lapland Buntings and slowly the light was fading and it was becoming increasingly cold so we made one final move towards Cley and the famous East Bank where a Water Pipit had been reported, but although walking the entire bank, of the pipit there was no sign. Three or four Marsh Harriers floated dark and menacing over the reedbeds, hovering with bright yellow legs dangling when they saw something to take their interest whilst high in the sky a huge flock of Golden Plover created a constantly changing hologram as they revelled in their aerial prowess.
|Black Brant with Dark bellied Brent Geese|
Standing alone on the bank, the solitude of the marshes and saltings entered my consciousness. Gradually the topographical outlines became more indistinct as the light faded in the west and the pale brown expanses of gently swaying reeds took on an air of mystery and secrecy. The sky, now salmon pink and orange yellow, diffused into the deeper more sombre colours of late evening and a quiet descended on the land.
I waited for Hugh to rejoin me and we conceded the day was now over. So at four thirty in the afternoon it was dark in Norfolk and what was to be done? For both of us there was only one answer which was to repair to the incomparable Dun Cow at Salthouse for a meal and a few beers. Hugh's favourite beer is Woodford's Wherry which is from Norfolk whilst mine is Adnam's from neighbouring Suffolk. You will not be surprised to learn that The Dun Cow serves both and so it was with a table in the corner by the fire we ate and drank and watched through the pub window as a huge full moon rose above the unfathomable darkness of the marshes outside. Life felt pretty good at this precise moment.
|Sunset over the East Bank c Hugh|
We strung it out in the pub until eight o'clock but the combination of too little sleep the night before, the cold day and a lot of walking was taking its toll. That lovely fuzziness of contentment permeated my body and if I allowed it to lull my senses further we would be sat in the pub until closing time. With a supreme effort we prised ourselves from the warmth and convivial ambience of The Dun Cow and headed for our B &B, The Lifeboat Inn at Wells next the Sea.
We found it with no difficulty but getting in was another matter. I rang the door bell and we waited but no answer came. I rang again but nothing. I called the lady owner's mobile and thankfully she answered. She told us she was on her way. Was she in the house at all? The answer was obviously no as someone else, possibly her husband arrived ten minutes later in a pickup truck and let us into the house, showed us to our rooms and all was well. It was, after all, only £35.00 per night for each of us, so cheap and cheerful it was and cheap and cheerful we accepted.
Hugh now suggested we have another pint of Woodford's Wherry and led me to another pub where we could get some. I could not even finish my pint so Hugh helped me out and then we went back to our lodging for the night arranging to meet at 7.15 the next morning and foregoing breakfast head for Holme Dunes NNR on the track of a flock of Snow Buntings.
The next morning the weather had changed markedly for the worse and as we drove west to Holme it was still dark, it had been raining in the night and now a biting northwesterly wind was blowing hard. Undeterred we crossed the deserted golf course at Holme and headed for the dunes and the beach beyond. We were alone on the beach and a vast emptiness of sky, sea and beach stretched away from us on both sides. A flock of Snow Buntings flew low and west into the strong wind and we lost sight of them in the undulating dunes.
We looked out to sea with Hugh especially keen to see a Pomarine Skua but there was no sign of one. A big flock of Bar tailed Godwits with a lone Black tailed Godwit in front, passed along the tideline, divers and grebes flew further out, a lone Goldeneye, five Eiders, three Red breasted Mergansers and small groups of brent geese all flew west towards the Wash as we watched. The different cries of waders borne on the wind accentuated the wildness and open space of shingle, saltmarsh and sea. I left Hugh sea-watching and walked half a mile west to the very end of the shingle spit by the sea. I was looking for the Snow Buntings but only found a number of waders that were roosting in the shelter of the spit away from the strong gusting wind. Knot, Grey Plover, Bar tailed Godwit and Common Redshank faced into the wind - their grey winter plumage mirroring the sea and skyscape. A lone Dunlin, miniscule compared with the larger waders, roosted on the sandline with them. A huge flock of Oystercatchers rose from the very edge of the sea and Curlews wheeled high into the wind their mournful, querulous cries signalling their anxiety.
The tide was ebbing fast but I still had to negotiate some tricky channels of seawater to get back across to the beach and the track adjacent to the Golf Course. Inevitably I managed to get a bootful of water in crossing but that was a small price to pay for this invigorating early morning experience. The wind so strong and powerful in my face as I walked west had made my eyes water and face tingle but on turning east to return to Hugh it was subdued at my back as the clouds scudded east and occasional rain showers pattered onto my waterproof jacket. A flock of small, dark coloured birds rose from the saltmarsh wheeling downwind and then struggled back into the headwind before descending with much twittering onto the saltmarsh again. I looked at them through my bins but they were not the hoped for Twite but Linnets. Skylarks and Meadow Pipits hid in the waterlogged vegetation only rising with heart stopping suddenness at the very last moment to be whisked away in the wind as I approached
I rejoined Hugh who told me the Snow Buntings were nearby and he had called me on the mobile twice, but the wind roaring in my ears as I walked west had precluded any chance of my hearing the phone. Never mind I was here now and soon was watching a flock of fifty five Snow Buntings feeding along the saltmarsh edges. Constantly active they shuttle and scuttle along in a compact tide of small bodies, those at the rear constantly flying to the front and thus creating a moving feathered carpet as they progress but then, suddenly, all taking alarm for no apparent reason they fly up in tight formation to wheel and settle somewhere else and resume their frantic feeding. I love to watch these flying flocks with the pure white of the adult male's wings flashing so distinctly amongst the duller and browner females and juveniles in the flock.
Having had our fill of the Snow Buntings we took up goose chasing again. We had done fairly well so far with Pinkfooted Goose, Greater Whitefront Goose, Barnacle Goose, Greylag Goose, Canada Goose, Dark bellied Brent Goose, Black Brant and even Egyptian Goose. Now we were going to embark on the sterner challenge of finding an adult Lesser Snow Goose amongst tens of thousands of Pinkfooted Geese near Great Bircham. The weather was still foul as we arrived in the general area of Heath House Farm where the geese were feeding in the surrounding fields. Unfortunately this particular area was not easily accessible as there were few roads from which it was possible to view the geese, even fewer footpaths and the geese were generally favouring fields that were not viewable from any public access area. Geese were, however, everywhere, thousands of them crossing the sky in noisy querulous lines like musical notes written across a dull grey sky manuscript.
Huge flocks of geese, taking alarm, would rise in a roar of wings and a cacophony of complaining calls and fly off up into the sky to then drift down to join other goose flocks in different fields. It was chaos and difficult to know where to start looking.
There was one road, Fring Road where the geese could be viewed but they were not there when we arrived from Holme, following up a report on the pager. They had moved. We consulted the ordnance survey map and discerned there was a footpath or bridleway that we could walk along for about two to three miles which might, just might get us near to the geese. The only other option was to trespass onto the farm which judging by the number of game feeders scattered around would not make us popular and it was not something I felt entirely comfortable with anyway. We parked the car at the beginning of the footpath and headed down the track into a steady, cold and grey morning of drizzle. It was bleak, my legs and feet ached from walking the muddy uneven track and I was feeling my age. At first we were optimistic as the geese seemed to be favouring a field not too far down the track to our left but as we approached they all lifted up into the sky and headed for one of the inaccessible fields. My heart sank but my resolve strengthened. This would now mean we had to walk at least another mile with no guarantee we could see the geese when we got there. A Grey Partridge flew from us in a whirrr across a field.
To cut a long story short, which is more than can be said for the miles we walked in vain, we eventually found ourselves after several miles of walking, at a place where the track dipped down into a hollow that was not lined by high hedges thus enabling us to look out to the fields on either side. There were plenty of Pinkfooted Geese in the field to our right including a lone Barnacle Goose but no sign of anything white apart from some gulls. Other skeins of geese were descending in their thousands by long glides into further off fields hidden by the hedgerows. All very annoying as we watched in mute frustration but I had to admit the sight and sound of such huge flocks of wild geese was mightily impressive and is surely one of the more memorable natural phenomena to be seen in Great Britain.
A little further down the track some other birders were looking across to another field on the left also full of Pinkfeet and which we deduced was the field we had originally looked at from Fring Road earlier this morning. Even more galling we could see parked cars and people obviously interested and looking at the geese from the road but a hedgerow concealed many of the geese from where we were and amongst the geese that were visible there was no sign of the ever elusive Lesser Snow Goose although we were pretty sure the birders by the road were looking at it.
I looked at Hugh and we just shrugged and resigned ourselves to a very long trudge back to the car. There was no alternative and we just knew that by the time we got back to the car there was a more than even chance the flighty geese could have moved and be virtually anywhere in the area. It seemed to take us for ever to retrace our steps, surely it was not that far when we were walking in? But it was. There was nothing for it but to press on. Cold, tired and fed up I was not in the best of moods as we walked ever onwards back along the track. I noticed other birders trespassing and wandering along the edges of the farm fields to our left. So much for our courtesy and consideration of private land. There were few birds to be seen on the way back, just a few Blackbirds, the occasional Fieldfare and a couple of Bullfinches their distracted melancholy piping coming from deep in the hedgerow.
After what seemed a lifetime we got back to the Audi and as I slumped into my seat to rest my aching limbs I noticed a handwritten note under the wiper. What now! Hugh lifted it loose and instead of finding the expected curt note from an irate farmer, although I ensured I was not blocking any access, we were pleasantly surprised to find it was a note from two former Oxfordshire birders who now live in Norfolk and recognised the Audi from my blog. The note told us the Lesser Snow Goose had been seen by them from Fring Road, so just as we thought the goose had indeed been in the field by the road we had been looking at from the hollow. The note told us they had seen the goose around half an hour ago.
So thank you so much Robert and Patricia, it was really kind of you to leave the note and I will certainly pass on your best wishes to Barry when I see him.
Was there a chance the Lesser Snow Goose would still be there? Probably not. Wasting no more time we drove as fast as we could to Fring Road but approaching Great Bircham cars coming the other way were flashing their lights. This could mean only one thing. There was a Police speed trap and sure enough Norfolk's finest were raking in the Christmas Party funds from unsuspecting motorists. We passed at a steady 20mph and once out of sight shot down Fring Road but found all the birders and cars had gone as had the geese. Damn! So close and yet so far!
We drove back past the police trap giving the stoney faced policeman a cheery wave and just beyond the farm we noted a whole lot of cars now parked in a muddy, unofficial pull off by the road, created on a bare area of field and which tractors obviously used to gain access to the fields. It was Sunday, the field was fallow and nobody would be working. Operating on the flimsy excuse there was safety in numbers I just about managed to squeeze the Black Audi into the last remaining space on what was ostensibly private land. We could see other birders walking over the fallow field to our left. 'Perhaps the goose is here Hugh? It's looking good with all these birders,' I reasoned out loud and we decamped rapidly and headed over the bare muddy field following the other birders, all considerations and worries about trespass on private land temporarily forgotten. We got to a further hedge and found a small group of birders looking through a gap in the hedge across another field to another hedge. Through a hole in that hedge perfectly framed and silhouetted was the pleasing sight of an adult Lesser Snow Goose. Anywhere to the left or right and it would be invisible. Result! After three hours and a futile five mile yomp around a dreary Norfolk winter landscape we had achieved our aim. The field in question behind the second hedge sloped upwards from a natural valley and would be totally invisible from the road. Many of the geese were visible on the sloping field above the hedgeline but not the Lesser Snow Goose which eventually wandered off into the flock and was obscured by the hedge, although its gleaming white plumage could be just discerned through the bare winter twigs of the hedge.
I have never seen so many Pinkfeet in one field before, there were thousands. Two more Barnacle Geese were visible in the masses of geese and someone else claimed they could see the orange legs of a Tundra Bean Goose near to the Lesser Snow Goose but we were happy with finally getting to see the Lesser Snow Goose.
|A very distant Lesser Snow Goose amongst Pinkfooted Geese!|
We wandered back over the fallow field, dumped our stuff in the car and reversed back onto the road. A debate had arisen between us whilst watching the Snow Goose about the dreaded Lapland Buntings. Hugh was still keen to try and see them but I opted for the longer drive to go and see, if we could find them, a small group of eleven Tundra Bean Geese associating with another flock of Pinkfooted Geese at Weybourne and as I was driving that was where we went. We were the only people present and found ourselves looking down onto another large area of fallow fields containing yet another huge gathering of Pinkfooted Geese. It was somewhat daunting but we set about looking for a grey goose or geese with orange legs as opposed to pink ones! It is not easy from a distance but Hugh found first one and then another two. We had done it. Tundra Bean Goose was on the list and now we had added probably the best two species of goose of the weekend to our tally. With this quicker than expected result I relented with regard to the Lapland Buntings and we returned to Salthouse. Needless to say the result was exactly as predicted. Not a sign of them. Even Hugh gave up at this stage and we headed for Roydon Common, near to Kings Lynn which was currently harbouring a Great Grey Shrike with the added incentive of the regular Hen Harrier roost to admire.
Negotiating the appalling potholed mess that masquerades as Roydon Common car park we came to rest on a piece of dry land between two of the extensive pond sized puddles. The wind seemed even colder as the sun was now setting so we energetically headed for the sandy track that overlooks the heathland where the harriers come in to roost. We met several disappointed birders leaving the Common who told us there had been no sign of the Great Grey Shrike all afternoon. 'Oh well, it will be nice to see the harriers and you never know the shrike may show up. Slim chance I know.' I remarked to Hugh.
On getting to our chosen viewpoint, almost immediately a ringtail Hen Harrier flew low over the heath below us which cheered us up as we stood looking at the bleak landscape before us. Very little other birdlife was apparent. A Kestrel hovered in the strong wind and three Common Buzzards flew above the distant wood. A lone Fieldfare chackered its way across the sky and two Carrion Crows looking for trouble perched in a small birch tree.
To keep our circulation going we walked further into the Common to see if we could find the shrike but to no avail. We returned to our watchpoint, stood and waited but very little happened until the same or another ringtail Hen Harrier appeared again and we watched it flying low over the heath, its white rump distinctive in the increasing gloom. It passed over a small birch and almost in unison we said to each other 'Hang on what's that in the top of the birch?' An indistinct grey and white image resolved itself into the Great Grey Shrike. Amazing! Shortly afterwards it dropped from the tree and flew towards us coming ever closer until it perched in another small birch almost opposite us. Now we could see it very clearly as it balanced precariously, buffeted by the harsh wind on a topmost birch twig. The combination of black, grey and white plumage is always pleasing to the eye on whatever it appears and the Great Grey Shrike was no exception, especially as it was so close. We watched it for ten minutes before it slipped down and away and we lost sight of it.
The late afternoon drew in and dark descended but no other harriers arrived to roost and our Norfolk birding weekend came to its close. We had our goose for Christmas, indeed we had around ten thousand geese for Christmas.