Norfolk Trip Report
For the last two years, myself, Keren and Rob Lowe have spent a February weekend birding in the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland. This year we decided to have a change of venue and head east, across to north west Norfolk as the birding and scenery would be completely different.
The weather forecast wasn’t looking at all good with heavy snowfalls being predicted for the entire eastern side of the UK and driving conditions were going to be horrendous. In fact, both the BBC and Sky News were advising people against travelling on Thursday 24th. I can imagine many people would have been put-off by this and either changed their venue or cancelled the trip altogether. However, we’re birders. Poor weather and bad driving conditions are a minor consideration when balanced against the top quality birding Norfolk has to offer.
As it turned out, it was a classic ‘panic forecast’ and the 6 hour journey from Heysham ferry terminal to Blakeney in Norfolk was completely uneventful both bird wise and weather wise.
We arrived at our hotel (the King’s Arms) at 6.30pm and, after a brief unpack, headed straight for the bar for a well-earned pint of ‘Old Speckled Hen’ and a hot meal.
Day 1 Friday 25th. February
The following morning Rob and I went for a short pre-breakfast stroll around Blakeney quay. The sky was dull and grey and there was a bit of a strong north-easterly wind blowing. Almost the first bird we saw was a Little Egret feeding out on the salt marsh and on the distant horizon, we could see Blakeney Point. In the sky there were lots of small skeins of dark-bellied Brent Geese and hundreds of small groups of Wigeon. On the main creek was a pair of Little Grebes and several more Wigeon and Brent Geese. Large flocks of Woodpigeons were feeding on the ground amongst good numbers of Lapwing and at least 200+ Black-tailed Godwits.
After a full breakfast, we jumped into the Land Rover and headed the 2 miles east to Cley-next-the-sea. This is one of Britain’s best known reserves and is always good birding.
Before we arrived at the car park of the famous East Bank, Keren called out “what’s that bird in the tree?” (not particularly helpful directions, seeing as we were passing a pine plantation at the time!). However she wasn’t looking at the trees to the right of the car and was in fact referring to the large raptor sat in an isolated bush out in the middle of the Cley reed bed on our left. I made a hard, but controlled, braking manoeuvre and pulled up onto the roadside verge so as not to inconvenience any other motorists and was rewarded with a beautiful female Marsh Harrier not 30 yards away (Rob’s 1st. tick of the weekend). Unfortunately the suddenness of my stopping obviously spooked the bird and she took to the air, allowing only a poor record photo to be taken.
We parked up at the small car park at the southern end of the east bank, wrapped ourselves up in variety of warm layers, grabbed our bins, scopes and cameras and started-off on the 1mile hike to the far end of the bank where it meets the gravel defences protecting the whole area from the north sea.
Apart from the now familiar Wigeon, Shoveler and Brent Geese, nothing of particular was seen on this stretch, but this was probably due to the reed burning that was taking place in the middle of the reserve. Undeterred we proceeded to walk along the sea defences keeping an eye out on the sea itself for any passing sea duck or divers but this, too, proved fruitless.
At the first hide we again got reasonable views of the commoner wildfowl and a magnificent male Sparrowhawk flashed across in front of us, spooking most of the smaller ducks and waders. We stayed in this hide, just enjoying the whole atmosphere, whilst a particularly heavy downpour passed over us. After an hour or so we made our way in the cold and damp to Cley Coastguards and took shelter in the ‘beach hotel’, a 4-sided brick shelter that has been used as a cheap form of accommodation by many a twitcher over the years! After about 20 minutes we made an executive decision that, because of the disturbance being caused during the reserve’s reed burn, we should make our way back to the car via Dauke’s Hide and blast out to Titchwell for the rest of the day.
Dauke’s hide provided Rob with excellent views of his first Avocets (tick #2) but not much else – although close-up views of many species we don’t see too often on the IOM was a pleasant diversion.
As we approached the car park having done a complete circuit of the reserve, I heard a familiar sound coming from the reeds to our left “Bearded Tits” I called to Rob. There then a followed a very frustrating 10 minutes as we tried in vain to get a view of these elusive little birds. We could see the reed stems moving and the birds were calling constantly but they never ‘showed’.
After a few butties back at the car, we headed back west towards Titchwell, but not before stopping along the way at Holkham to get excellent views of the Eurasian Whitefront flock. Further down the road I suggested to Rob that he kept his eyes peeled for Egyptian Geese as they are often seen right alongside the road. Sure enough, within a mile, Rob was getting his 3rd. tick of the day as we (briefly) stopped to look at one of these ugly creatures.
Another mile further on and we came across a huge (to us) flock of Pink-footed geese right alongside the road. There followed one of my ‘extravagant parking manoeuvres’ and we got some stunning views of the birds. I remembered that there had been a few reports of Tundra Bean Geese amongst this flock of birds along with a 1st. winter Snow Goose, so started to look a little more intently at the 2,000+ birds in front of us. Within 5 minutes I located a Bean Goose (Rob tick #4) closely followed by 4 more and even managed to get a few record shots in the atrocious light. No Snow Goose though.
Titchwell was pleasantly ‘quiet’, being a weekday, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves and didn’t have to fight through the hordes of bird-spotters this wonderful reserve attracts.
We spent a while wandering round the car park enjoying ridiculously close views of some of the commoner birds before heading out to the reserve hides. I even got a glimpse of the long-staying Arctic Redpoll but Rob missed it. On the way down to the hides a Water Rail put in a brief but amazing performance, not 10 feet from the path – Rob was particularly pleased with this as not only was it his 5th tick of the day (his target for the weekend!) it also meant he could now put it on his Manx list, having heard dozens but never having seen one before.
Out on the reserve proper we again enjoyed getting great views of birds we just don’t see too often on the IOM – Yellow-legged Gulls (3 adults), Avocets, Pintail, Shoveler, Gadwall, Marsh Harrier etc. but something was missing.
‘Sammy’ the long-staying Black-winged Stilt was nowhere to be seen. After about an hour of scanning, I said aloud, “where’s that bloody stilt?” and, honestly, within 3 seconds, Rob was asking me “is this it that has just landed in front of the hide?”. It certainly was (Rob tick #6). An amazing co-incidence. We enjoyed great views for about ½ hour before deciding to head off to Choseley Drying Barns to see if we could get the Lapland Buntings and Little Owl that I had been told were “a dead-cert’”.
Lots of Yellowhammers though and, another bird we don’t get on the IOM, Corn Buntings (Rob tick #7). We hung around for a good couple of hours until we started to turn blue in the cold and decided to call it a day and head back to our hotel for a few beers and something to eat.
On the way back through Holkham, I decided to have another look at the Pinkfoot flock and was immediately rewarded by a, distant, hunting Barn Owl. We moved up the road a little way to where there was a gap in the hedge in the hope of closer views of the owl, but as I pulled up something pale caught my eye. There, right alongside where I had pulled up, was the Snow Goose! Alright, it was a grotty looking thing, but it was Rob’s 8th. Tick of the day. God, he was going to have to buy me a lot of beer tonight!!
Day 2 Saturday 26th. February
Another, somewhat muzzy-headed, pre-breakfast walk produced nothing new for the list apart from some good views of Stock Dove.
After breakfast we headed straight for Stiffkey Sea Wall in the hope of seeing the long-staying Lesser Yellowlegs (an American wader superficially similar to our Redshank). We walked/slithered down the well trodden and very muddy path the 1km to the shore. All the information I had on this bird was that it was ‘seen in the creek by the sea wall’.
grassy bank at the end of the
mudslide path, I didn’t know what to
expect. Where was the sea wall? More importantly, which of the myriad creeks
would hold our target bird? It turned out that the sea wall WAS the grassy bank
and the creek was right in front of us. No more than 10 seconds after arriving
on the ‘sea wall’ I got onto the ‘legs’.
It then ‘performed’ in a stunning way for the next hour, allowing us to get some fairly good photos as it fed on the expanding mud (the tide was on it’s way out) not 15 feet away. (Rob tick #9). We then had to make our way back through the quagmire masquerading as a path but, remarkably, no-one fell over. Although Rob’s bins made a bid for escape and ended up bouncing into the grass. Luckily there was no damage done.
Our next stop was Lady Anne’s Drive and Holkham Gap, in the hope of seeing England’s only wintering flock of Shore Larks. Over the last few months, Rob and I have traipsed up and down the sandy coastline of the north of the IOM hoping to find some of these birds without success. So Rob was particularly keen to see these individuals, if only to negate having to accompany me on another fruitless Manx beach trek! Having paid our £3 entry fee we started to trundle down Lady Anne’s drive when I noticed another flock of the ever-present Brent Geese – this time there must have been about a thousands birds two fields distant but there were about 100 quite a bit nearer. I was aware that there had been an American Black Brant in the area so decided to stop and have a quick scan at the closer birds to see if we could locate it. Unbelievably, I got onto the bird immediately – a complete fluke! (Rob tick #10).
We parked up at the end of the drive and joined the ‘weekend walkers’ as they trudged out to the shoreline beyond the belt of pine trees. On reaching the beach, a bleak and barren-looking place, I noticed a group of elderly birders coming back from the direction salt marsh, so asked them “any sign of the Shore Larks?” The answer was a “they’ve not been seen today and there were only 2 seen yesterday, but there’s that many people out here, they’ve probably flushed miles away – but there’s some very pretty Snow Buntings”. Oh joy, this looked like a dip. Still, we were here now might as well go and have a look. Besides, something about my ‘new informants’ suggested they might have overlooked a couple of small brown birds crawling around like mice in the salt marsh….
Further down the beach, I noticed a familiar face heading towards me – it was Geoff Pain, an acquaintance of mine from Bird Forum.
“You seen any Shore Larks, Geoff?” I asked, more out of desperation than expectation! “Oh aye, they’re out yon, wi’ some Ringed Plover, abaht 20-odd of ‘em” came back the Yorkshireman’s response.
10 minutes later we were watching 26 of the little darlings as they scurried around the salt marsh with their heads down - only occasionally lifting them to see what was going on around them. Wonderful birds and Rob’s 11th. tick of the weekend. We also saw the “very pretty Snow Buntings”.
We now had another decision to make. Do we go up to Holkham Hall and look for woodpeckers or should we risk the masses that would be at Titchwell? Or should we go and look for the Firecrest that has been reported from the pine trees 200yds. west of the car park?
Easy. Firecrest is one of my favourite birds.
We walked about 200 yds down the path alongside the pines when, all of a sudden, we came across a tit flock that contained a hell of a lot of Goldcrest. These flocks, being what they are, kept us busy for a good 20 minutes as we looked at each and every ‘crest’ in the hope of finding the real jewel amongst them. Keren soon lost patience and got bored so decided to photograph an American tree rat that was sat pretending to be cute alongside the path. A further 5 minutes passed and I must have looked at 40 bloody Goldcrests (or 20 of them twice!) when Rob said over my shoulder “I think Keren has got something, over there”. When I looked, she was beckoning “in a discrete manner’. “if she wants to show some bloody squirrel photos, there’s gonna be trouble” I muttered to myself. But, being the dutiful husband that I am I ambled over towards her and looked in the direction of her pointing finger. There on top of bramble bush was a stunning male Firecrest! Of course, no sooner did I lift my camera than the little sod flew up into the canopy of a nearby 60 foot pine tree! What made it worse was that Keren in her excitement, (“do I shout for Chris or get shots myself?”) completely screwed up her photos of it! Still, ‘respect’ to her for finding it in the first place.
We decided to brave the masses at Titchwell.
On arrival, the car park was packed. Lot’s of people wandering about with R.S.P.B. shopping bags, doubtless full of tat, and hardly any binoculars to be seen! Fortunately most of the birders were assembled under a nearby alder tree looking at the Mealy and Arctic Redpoll (Rob ticks 12 & 13). These birds were a complete nightmare. They were up in the top of the tree and always against a bright cloudy sky making photography almost impossible. Furthermore, when they did descend to a better height (with a background behind them) I didn’t dare walk forward and risk disturbing them and upsetting the assembled throng. We spent only an hour at Titchwell, most of which time was either being frustrated by the redpolls or enjoying another really obliging Water Rail!
Leaving Titchwell we decided to have a second go for these ‘dead-cert’ Lapland Buntings and Little Owl(s) at Choseley. Nope, dipped again.
So that pretty much ended our last full day in Norfolk as we were having to head back to Liverpool the following afternoon the catch the ferry back to the birdless Isle of Man.
Day 3 Sunday 27th. February
We had some time in the morning to ‘mop-up the easy stuff’ that I had left for today for the very reason they were pretty much guaranteed.
First, there was the wintering Great Grey Shrike at Harpley Dams alongside the A148. We arrived on scene at 10am to be told that “it was seen 45 minutes ago but got chased by a Sparrowhawk”. As we were on something of tight time schedule we could only spend 20 minutes here and as with the other ‘dead-certs’ this weekend, we dipped out.
The second of my guaranteed birds were the Hawfinches at Lynford Arboretum. We arrived on site at 11.30 to be greeted by the site of a couple of dozen birders wandering aimlessly and scanning the tree tops. This wasn’t a good sign. They should have had them ‘pinned down’ by this time. There followed a very frustrating hour standing around seeing nowt interspersed by the unmistakeable calls of distant Green Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted woodpecker – both of which would have been ticks for Rob had they shown themselves!
We had to call it a day. As we were walking away (we hadn’t gone 20 yds.) one of the birders we had been chatting to whistled us back. He had a Hawfinch! I managed to get a naked-eye view of the bird but it very quickly disappeared and didn’t re-appear. Rob missed it by literally 2 seconds.
So there you have it, a 650 mile weekend trip (not counting the ferry crossings) and 104 species recorded.
It would have to be the thousands of Brent Geese. Or the ‘Old Speckled Hen’ at the hotel…
Norfolk Bird Photos Page