Having had my brief visit to Durham, I spent 15th-25th in Norfolk. As usual this meant plenty of birding, with 4 days out on various parts of the coast interspersed with religous patching of Costessey House Private Estate. 3 out of the 4 days can only really be described as hard graft, in what were probably the quietest conditions I’ve ever experienced in Norfolk. Rewards were thin and bird numbers negligible, so some eking out was on the cards. This was successful enough to retain at least some motivation before I emerged out the other side on the fourth day (which will have a blog post to itself). Each day also proved valuable in increasing my understanding of the coast as I found myself covering places that hitherto I hadn’t visited.
On 17th October I spent the day walking the length of Wells Woods/Holkham Pines and to the eastern edge of Burnham Overy Dunes, a good three or four miles. Whilst conditions weren’t favourable for passerine migs, I expected that several hours in the woods would at least produce a Yellow-browed Warbler, so with this prospect in mind I headed up to the coast with a certain spring in my step. My plan was to work the woods from east to west, so I got off at Wells and made the surprisingly long trudge up to the woods on the path adjacent to Wells Quay. The tide was reasonably low at the quay, so I took the oppportunity to have a scan. It was the most productive period of birding all day, producing a healthy total of 15 Grey Plover, a group of 150+ Golden Plover distantly towards East Hills, 4 Bar-tailed Godwits, 70 Brent Geese and 2 Little Egrets. Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were vis-migging, with small numbers heading west. Omens seemed quite good at this point, so I was hopeful as I entered Wells Woods. I headed straight for the Dell, with the hope that the Yellow-browed I had envisaged would kindly reveal itself amongst the Goldcrests.
Lots of Goldcrests, but no YBW. This situation was pretty much mirrored throughout the whole of the pines, all the way to the start of Burnham Overy Dunes. Goldcrests, and only Goldcrests, with a conservative estimate of 70 spread throughout the pines. This became clear before I’d got as far as Holkham, so I was hoping some activity on the freshmarsh would provide some recompense. A good spell at Washington Hide can only be described as fruitless. I had never seen so few birds on the freshmarsh before. There was no Pinkfeets, very few winter ducks save a group of 60 Wigeon, nor anything else. Aside from the Wigeon group it was more or less empty, so I quickly resorted to scanning the sky. 2 Buzzards unfortunately did not have white tails with contrasting broad dark subterminal bands. A Sparrowhawk accompanied them. The aforementioned 4 species was it in terms of entertainment. I completed my trek to end of the pines, and took lunch at the eastern edge of Burnham Overy Dunes, new territory to me. I could see the famous Gun Hill in the distance, alluring. Rationality and demoralization kicked in however, so I decided to meander back towards Holkham. It had been a lovely day weather wise and felt rewarding physically to have walked the length of the wood, but the prevailing feeling as I headed home was of disappointment.
The following weekend (20th-21st) was spent entirely birding. On the Saturday I was based further east, starting at Cley where I hoped to liven the spirits by catching up with a White-rumped Sandpiper that had been around for a couple of days. This bird had been mobile between Pat’s Pool and the North Scrape, so I made sure that both these areas were checked. I arrived in the hope that it would be present or would at least have been seen that day, but was soon given news that there had been no sign all day. Nevertheless, I gave both Pat’s and the North Scrape a good look. I checked Pat’s from Bishop Hide, where there was quite a bit of wader activity with 50 flighty Golden Plover, 2 Ruff and 6 Snipe, the latter keeping well camouflaged towards the reeds. They became freaked when 2 Marsh Harriers flew through, but soon settled down again. The North Scrape was teeming with Wigeon (at least 200), but very few waders were interspersed with them, the best being a Knot and another Ruff.
I managed to stop myself from feeling demoralized as we headed to Kelling, with a vague hope that I might get news that the White-rumped Sand was back and head back to Cley from the aforementioned site. This was the first time I had visited Kelling, and Iwas keen to check out the water meadows and other habitat here. The water meadows were a good 10 minutes from the village, requiring us to walk down a lane encompassed by a wall of thickets and blackberries, which looked great but hard to work for passerines in the right conditions. The whole area was pretty quiet, the water meadows holding just 30 Greylag Geese and 2 Teal. The fields towards the beach held a good congregation of geese, including 2 Barnacle Geese amongst 150 Canada Geese. That was our lot, but I see the site was full of potential. I would be back again a few days later…
With no more news on the White-rumped Sand, we continued as planned eastwards, making the lengthy journey away from the north coast Waxham on the east coast. If anywhere, I felt that this site would provide the opportunity of something decent from a self-find perspective. Walking along the dunes here and checking the scrub around the church did hold a few migrants of interest, but of the sort that were migrating regardless of weather conditions. This included 30 Redwings, 10 continental Song Thrushes, a single Fieldfare and 10 Goldcrests. Somewhat inspired, we saw out the remains of the day at Horsey Gap, staying until dusk. Despite plenty of bush bashing the best I could produce was a few more Goldcrests, but an overhead movement of 50+ Meadow Pipits provided some interest.
The day ended with one of the most evocative nature experiences I’ve had to date. In complete awe, we watched an extensive, incandescent sunset descend over the fens. Whole strands of cerise illluminated the skyscape and mist started to form along the fields, tightly but thickly hugging the ground in that archetypal autumnal way. As the sunset became ever stronger, the melancholy yell of a Crane echoed in the distance, reverberating across the broadland expanse. It sounded five times. I lit up inside. This was the first time I had heard this Norfolk speciality, and to hear it during a breathtaking sunset felt intensely special. It stopped. As I reflected on what was happening, a group of Fallow Deer emerged out the mist, including a fine stag, and ran out into the middle of the field to feed. Eventually, the deer were obscured by darkness and the cerise rays died out. After a hard graft day, this was the best possible remedy I could have hoped for. An experience that will remain dear (so to speak) for a long time. Hopefully the pictures and your imagination below will give you an idea of just how astonishing this was.
On the Sunday I met up with Daniel Watson to bash the very same area of coast I’d worked earlier that week, Holkham Pines, with the added addition of working Burnham Overy Dunes. With light easterlies picking up that morning, we hoped that we might be in with the chance of finding something decent from the east. We started at Burnham Overy Dunes, taking in the cover all around here, including Gun Hill. This was the first time I had worked this top site, and considering that easterlies had only just strengthened it was quite enjoyable and gave pretty good first impressions. At least 25 continental Robins, 10 Goldcrests and 50 Song Thrushes were noted, mostly in the scrub at Gun Hill. At the aforementioned I had a very brief female Blackcap, whilst Dan flushed 9 Grey Partridges – a personal Norfolk first. An Olive-backed Pipit had been reported with 100 Meadow Pipits, but this nor any large numbers of Mipits were obvious. On Burnham Overy saltmarsh 5 Grey Plover, 4 Little Egret, a young male Marsh Harrier and 100 Redshank were noted. This mini fall was the omen of something bigger and much better to come over the following few days…
Unfortunately, Holkham’s curse of deadness remained, the pines holding the same batch of Goldcrests in lesser numbers and a Chiffchaff, and the freshmarsh holding very little in the way of anything once again. We found our efforts being largely directed towards sorting out a Buzzard based conundrum in which several people had become convinced they were watching a Rough-legged Buzzard. The bird that most were confused about was blatantly a Common Buzzard, but we soon picked up another bird in flight over Lady Ann’s Drive which had been the source of confusion on news services. Also a Common Buzzard, this bird had a very diffuse dark sub-terminal band at best – not broad enough for Rough-legged Buzzard nor diagnostically contrasting with a white tail – complete with a darkish head and a dark underwing lacking a visible carpal patch. A third very pale Buzzard was also picked up at distance. As much as we’d have liked one of these Buzzards to have been a Rough-legged, it wasn’t to be. Whilst good fun, this conundrum was all we really had to work with at Holkham.
Dan was staying at Brancaster, so we finished off by scanning the saltmarsh from here for raptors. On the way we were astonished to flush a male Merlin from the rooftop of a house, a stunning bird seeming almighty out of place in the suburban environment. At the saltmarsh we watched several species going to roost, including a female Marsh Harrier, 70 Curlew, 9 Black-tailed Godwits, 100 Golden Plover and over 1000 Starling, the latter a migrant group and a delight to watch as they headed westwards en masse. I left Dan here; the day had been a good laugh and it was good to see him again. Despite a decent enough start it had been another hard graft day.
Eking stuff out more or less perfectly describes the three days accounted above. I was in Norfolk in October, and frankly I was hoping for better passerine wise. My desire for decent passerines needed to be attended to. It was, to the point that I’d forgotten the frustration of times past…
Thanks for reading,
PS: I am now part of a collaborative blog by young birders called 2nd Calendar Year Birders – see more posts from me and other young lads on here if interested.