Friday, 8 February 2013

Norfolk, 18th-20th January 2013

Black-headed Gull - Titchwell, Norfolk, Friday 18th January 2013

You can’t beat Norfolk in winter – I reckon it offers the most compressive winter birding experience in the UK. I spent three January days birding there, and apart from dipping/misidentifying some geese, a terrible few hours worrying about my lost phone, and a couple of terrible hangovers, I had a great time!

Friday 18/01/13

The snow and ice wasn’t as bad as first predicted, but I’d taken it easy on the journey from West Yorkshire, and didn’t arrive at Wiggenhall St. Mary Magdalen until nearly 9am. I was hoping to find the Smew reported from the bridge over the relief channel, but with no luck. Egyptian Geese among the common ducks was a nice year tick to get the trip under way, as were the groups Red-legged Partridge in the surrounding fields.

I moved on to Wolferton, the traditional site for Golden Pheasant. I wasn’t disappointed, getting great views of a male feeding alongside male Common Pheasant under the crossroads sign on the north side of the famous triangle.

It was a lovely clear morning now and I popped onto Hunstanton cliffs for a seawatch. Unfortunately, the bitter cold got the better of me and after seeing only the usual gulls, an Eider and several Great Crested Grebe, I decided some birding from the car at Thornham harbour was a better idea. Yep, I am a lightweight.

I first visited Thornham harbour to see the Northern Harrier that over-wintered there in 2010-11, and then again on last year’s big trip. A quiet place in winter, but allowing for good views of the creeks and lowes and over the marsh towards Titchwell. A nice surprise was a Red Kite quartering the marsh to right as I approached the car park. A female Marsh Harrier was hunting further out over the marsh. Before long, group of nine Whooper Swan flew low west over the car. A group of Skylark swirled around, landing occasionally grassy fringes of the track, allowing me to pick out a female Reed Bunting with them.

Plenty of waders in the creeks: Curlew, Redshank, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, and Grey Plover; and ducks on the shallows: Teal, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Shelduck, and a lovely pair of Pintail. A Little Grebe and my first Little Egret of the year made up the list.

On to Titchwell, where I bumped into a fellow Rodley Nature Reserve volunteer. He was just coming off the reserve, and warned me about the fierceness of the cold further out. He was right – by the time I’d reached the beach and come back, I realised I was the only birder on the reserve!

The feeders were busy: at least four Brambling (I heard there were many more), Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock, Wood Pigeon, Moorhen… There was a nice group of Siskin and Lesser Redpoll by the wooded path behind the VC, with a showy Water Rail pip-pip-pipping along the ditch.

 Freshmarsh, Titchwell, Norfolk, Friday 18th January 2013

Once beyond the shelter of the trees, an icy breeze blasted me square in the face. The water in the reedbeds and freshmarsh was completely frozen. A group of ducks and gulls had formed around the small island in the freshmarsh, and amongst them was a lone Fieldfare. The ducks were all Mallards, the other duck species obviously preferring not to stand around on solid ice in a sharp wind. A few Meadow Pipits skated around on the ice close to the path - unfortunately I couldn’t pick out any Water Pipits.

The Volunteer marsh had some open water, and so had some waders, the most notable being the four Spotted Redshank feeding in the wide channel close to the path. Such dashing, elegant birds, even when compared to their relatively graceful cousins - the Common Redshank. A couple of Pintail were sheltering on the tidal marsh.

To the west of the path, just as the boardwalk starts, was the group of Skylark containing a male Lapland Bunting. I needn’t have bothered wondering how difficult it might be pick out; the bird stuck out like a sore thumb, and was one of the closest birds feeding near the path. In a way, the Skylarks were a more interesting ID: they had their feathers so puffed out, making their faces appear flat and their bills seem tiny, I had to double-check they weren’t Twite (they weren’t).

 Lapland Bunting - Titchwell, Norfolk, Friday 18th January 2013

Birding on the frozen beach wasn’t pleasant, but there were plenty of things about: Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Golden Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Sanderling. The walk back brought a flyover Little Egret, a couple of very confiding birds: a lovely male Stonechat and a Song Thrush hoping along the gravel in front of me.

I headed to Salthouse in the hope of catching some Snow Buntings, but found only Turnstones eating the seeds put out by the photographers.

 Turnstones - Salthouse, Norfolk, Friday 18th January 2013

Salthouse, looking towards Cley, Norfolk, Friday 18th January 2013

The light was already fading, and the temperature falling, I decided the last call would be on Cley Marsh for hunting Barn Owl. I parked on beach road and watched five Marsh Harriers have a final hunt before going to roost. Then, right on cue, a Barn Owl flew out over the sluice gate towards Wiverton, and gradually made its way towards me. Few more iconic sites in British birding than a dusk Barn Owl hunting over the reeds with a backdrop of Cley windmill.

Then it was off to the excellent Providence Place for the night…

Saturday 19/01/13 

My host Chris made me possibly the best breakfast ever, and I wouldn’t need feeding again for around seven hours! [Note, this is ones of those birding blogs where the breakfasts get a mention].
Chris joined me for a full day’s birding in the east of Norfolk, with the first stop being Whitlingham County park. A couple of Bittern been seen here over the last few days, but we (and the many other birders there) could find any this morning. Fortunately, a Slavonian Grebe was on the far end of the Great Broad, and we got some great views of this beauty. A Goldcrest, low down in the brambles with its bright crest blazing against the snowy backdrop, was a great sight. As was the large flock of Siskin over our heads. While scanning for the elusive Bittern and Ring-necked Duck, I came across a Water Rail running along the far bank. Before leaving, I inevitably crossed paths again with Pete, the Rodley Nature Reserve volunteer.

On to Buckenham for (Taiga) Bean Goose. I’d seen them here last year so thought it wise to go there again. I didn’t want a repeat of the two-mile hike through mud from Cantley that I did in in 2011. Well, I wish I’d gone to Cantley now. We walked out from Buckenham Station across the pristine snow-covered grazing meadows. Loads of Fieldfare about, and the odd Lapwing. The most numerous bird was the Wigeon. Everywhere. Tens of thousands I reckon (one birder we met said he felt he’d seen “about a billion!”). The only geese appeared to be a flock of feral, Cat C, Barnacle Geese way off south. Not easy to pick up in the snow.

 Buckenham, looking towards Cantley, Norfolk, Saturday 19th January 2013
Wigeon - Buckenham, Norfolk, Saturday 19th January 2013

Chris then found some grey geese off the south west. I got my scope on them and started ticking off the Taiga Bean ID points. Dark head and long-ish neck, a decent-sized bill with a noticeable amount of orange, orange legs (I thought…) and no black lines on the belly. Surely the Beans… The distance, the wind shaking the scope, the weird light of the bright snow with a dark sky, the temperature, my watery eyes, combined with my over-confidence, ending up with me saying, “yep, that’s them”. But by the time I’m got back to the car, I was doubting myself. I hadn’t got a good enough view to be certain they were Bean Goose. I wasn’t sure I’d seen the legs properly at all. Chris, on the other hand, was full of misplaced confidence in my skills (bless him).

After pushing another birder’s car up the track, and skidding like crazy ourselves, we drove to Great Yarmouth. Loads of Pinkfeet around as we passed Berney Marshes (I can ID these at 1000 paces, while driving …I think), and plenty of Med Gulls by the pier. While sat having a coffee I realised I’d lost my phone. No, it wasn’t in my pocket, it wasn’t in the car, it wasn’t by the pier… erm. By the time we set off to Horsey (to look for raptors and cranes) I’d forgotten about the geese ID, and was in panic mode about my phone. Then our friends rang to ask where the Bean Goose flock was, and Chris answered saying the indiebirder “is certain he saw them at Buckenham, so don’t go to Cantley”. He hung up before acknowledging my protestations, “I’m not sure they were Bean Geese!”, I shouted…

A half-hour later we received the call: “I can see a flock of Greylag; where are these Beans then…?” Groan… My goose was cooked, my gossamer-thin reputation in tatters.

On a brighter note, someone had found my phone and rung my wife with their address! We stopped to turn round, and watched a beautiful ringtail Hen Harrier hunt by the roadside. Things were looking up.

Stubb Mill is the place to see Common Crane coming in to roost in winter (even my friend from Rodley was there), and despite arriving late I saw two come in from the east. A great view of a Woodcock in front of the car too. Our friends, who had refound the Bean Goose flock at Cantley, arrived later still and just about got some Crane action in the dark, and joined us in the pub for a meal and a few drinks later. I kept my head down. The shame…

We called into a petrol station on the way back, and Chris took the opportunity in the shop to help me identify some beans…

Taiga or Tundra?
Sunday 20/01/2013

We were at Salthouse beach car park at dawn (after another great breakfast – mustn’t forget to mention that). There had been fresh snow overnight, and the biting wind meant this was the coldest morning. In the poor light I picked out two Snow Buntings, a male and female. It was too dark and blustery to try to take a photo. The weather didn’t bode well for us birding along the coast, so we headed inland to Sculthorpe Moor.

Great place, Sculthorpe Moor. A nice place to wander around in summer, and excellent in winter. The target bird here was Marsh Tit, and the easiest place to connect with them is at the information point and bird feeding stations at the start of the track on the reserve proper, just along the rack from the reserve. We saw a couple here (as I did last winter too), and we picked up more sightings and calls throughout the woods. It was a quiet morning, we didn’t see anyone else for an hour, and the whole place was draped in snow like a winter wonderland. The woods were filled with Nuthatch calls, and occasionally big flocks of tits would move through the trees around us. The Bullfinches looked stunning against the snow-white backdrop.

 Sculthorpe Moor, Norfolk, Sunday 20th January 2013

We sat for a while in the Whitley Hide overlooking the reed bed and a feeding station. Plenty of action on the bird table, including maybe 20 Long-tailed Tits, which all started to call tighter then suddenly quieten and disappear. A Sparrowhawk dashed through, possibly catching one of the slower birds. It stayed quiet around the table for a while. A Little Egret flew high over the reeds, Jays swooped between the stands of trees. Slowly the numbers of Chaffinches built up, and with them the odd Brambling. Then more Brambling, until the table, ground and tree were filled with them: at least 50 of them.

We looked in vain for the reported Bittern, and then it was time for Chris get home, and I had to decide where to go now. A Shore Lark had been reported at Cley, so I decided to take a punt. I went via the Burnham Market road, and stopped at the pull-in on the rise half a mile south of the town. Always worth checking for birds here, and I soon got on to both Red-legged and Grey Partridge over by the hedge to the west. Heading past Holkham, I pulled over to check out the geese I’d spotted. Great views of 30+ White-fronted Goose (probably a whole lot more out of view) feeding in the snow assuaged some of the discomfort from the Bean Goose failure.

 White-fronted Goose - Holkham, Norfolk, Sunday 20th January 2013

The walk out along the icy East Bank at Cley was a thrill. Nearly ended up in the marsh the wind was so strong. Goldfinches and Skylarks were on the shingle, but neither I nor the two other hardy birders out there could locate a Shore Lark. I took some time to enjoy the bracing wind off the sea, and the spray from the roiling waves, picking out Kittiwakes among the Black-headed Gulls.

I set off home before the forecast snow storm. Another great trip to this wonderful county. Norfolk never fails.

So, at the end of the trip, the year list stands at 111. After achieving a 2012 year-list total of 272 – a massive increase on the 216 in 2011 – I’d like to keep up the momentum and get somewhere over 225 in 2013. That’s the plan anyway, but I know I won’t be busting a gut to achieve it.