This is quite possibly the worst play on ‘had a go’ you’ll ever come across, but it has probably been done to death by Norfolk birders. That aside, there were a few days during my two weeks in Norfolk when I was able to get out birding elsewhere in the county, first of which was at Haddiscoe Marshes in the Broads. I had been tempted to go for two long-staying Rough-legged Buzzards there, and was finally able to get a lift there during the afternoon on 5th February. It had not been a promising day weather wise, a biting cold wind from the east and dullness dominating with the occasional showers. Given this was the only opportunity I really had without having to wait at least another week, I pounced at the opportunity and hoped for the best.
Quite frankly I had expected to dip given the conditions. A Barn Owl by the bridge after St Olaves village was a nice start, and a hopeful sign that other raptors might be on the wing. Parking up at Waveney Forest, I was surprised by how quick the walk to Haddiscoe Marshes and the famous mound at the edge of the forest was. The mound allowed for panoramic views of the Yare Valley, with views towards Cantley and a whole northward and eastwards expanse of reedbed which would have looked astonishing on a brighter day. It was hard to fully appreciate its beauty on such a gloomy day, but a wee bit of a raptor fest managed to make up for that! Very soon after arriving I had managed a tantalizing glimpse of the two adult Rough-legged Buzzards, the dark carpal patch, whitish underwing and diagnostic tail pattern gleaming out at me as they harried each other a few feet off the ground for a few seconds before disappearing from view behind a house.
This house proved to be of massive annoyance to me. I had expected to see the Rough-legs in flight again away from the house, but it ended up that both birds were concealed behind the house for the hour or so’s light that remained. I only managed a single other fleeting glimpse above the house of one of them, roughly 20 minutes after first seeing them, but that was it. Very frustrating at some level, given that they were there but just not visible whatsoever! Such is birding. Having had decent views of this species at Strathbeg on a couple of occasions, it wasn’t as annoying as it could have been, had they been only my first or second Rough-legs. There were some very welcome distractions in the form of 3 Marsh Harriers, 2 Barn Owls and a Short-eared Owl, the latter first picked out flying alongside one of the Barnies and showing an absolute treat. A Kestrel completed the raptor fest, whilst a good 300 Pink-footed Geese were in distant fields towards Cantley. Mission was accomplished at Haddiscoe with a raptor fest to boot, albeit only just with the Rough-legs. Regardless of views, its always fantastic to see these stunning birds anyway, and I’d had a Bittern on the patch a few hours earlier; so there was no need for me to complain!
After a patch oriented rest of the week, I worked the north coast and the Broads during the following weekend (9th-10th). The 9th saw me spending the day walking from Kelling to Cley in some gorgeous mid winter sunshine. This made for very pleasant birding on a mostly quiet day, meandered down the shingle in the direction of Cley. I checked Kelling Water Meadows beforehand, which held a posse of 30 Teal and 20 Wigeon. A flock of 300 Brents here were mobile, flying very low overhead on one occasion, the soft sound of their wings echoing across the tranquil scene in mesmeric fashion. A look offshore produced two extremely distant Great Crested Grebes and upwards of 15 Red-throated Divers, before I headed westwards along the shingle. Things were soporofic until I reached Salthouse around half an hour later, when I was surprised to bump into 13 Snow Buntings.
As usual with these charismatic birds, they were attracting plenty of attention from admiring birders, and showing fantastically. I settled down on the shingle just to the east of the car park to have a bite to eat, and after a short time found myself being approached down to a few feet by the birds in question. I did not have my DSLR on me, so simply admired Snow Bunts as they moved hither and thither between its favoured feeding spot by the car park and near where I was sitting. One of the Snow Bunts appeared to be of the Fenno-Scandian nominate nivalis subspecies, the more irregular of the two subspecies occuring in Britain. The more regular Icelandic subspecies, insulae has noticeably brown upperparts with a dark mantle and ear coverts and a blackish rump. The single nivalis 1st winter male here really stood out from the crowd, a real snowball with very extensive white on the wing coverts, a frosty, rufous tinged mantle with discernable dark streaking, rufousy ear coverts and a much paler rump. A fascinating article here shows that on some years nivalis do intermingle with insulae in Norfolk almost to a 50:50 point, though the latter race tends to predominate most years. Most of the Snow Buntings I’ve seen have been insulae, so to watch a nivalis alongside them was an educational experience.
Things were a little more active as I neared Cley, with 40 Turnstone and 20 Dunlin on a small pool about 1/4 mile off the reserve. It wasn’t long before I was at a surprisingly empty Swarovski Hide, where a group of 56 Pintail provided entertainment; always lovely to see in big numbers. Amongst these were some 50 Teal, 30 Wigeon and 20 Gadwall, whilst 2 Marsh Harriers caused some brief havoc. After a surprising amount of time, I ambled along in the direction of the Visitor Centre, becoming distracted by a large group of 500 Brents on Eye Field, where I picked out a hrota (Pale-bellied) Brent towards the front of the flock, my first of this subspecies in Norfolk. With an hour or so’s light left, I meandered down Beach Road, scanning the marsh to the west, producing a Barn Owl and another Marsh Harrier. As I waited for the bus back to Sheringham, 6 Whooper Swans winged their way westwards over the Visitor Centre, making a hell of a lot of noise. This was a curious note to end on, as I realised that I hadn’t actually seen Whoopers on the north coast before this point.
The following day I was ferried around the Broads. Tempted by the possibility of Water Pipit, I popped in to Strumpshaw and had this very showy Bittern, which remained out in the open for a couple of minutes and then flew straight past the hide.
We were only around for 45 minutes as I fancied a go for Taiga Bean Goose at Buckenham, but picked up Marsh Tit, Nuthatch, 20 Gadwall and 5 Shoveler on the way out. Buckenham was torridly bleak as a chilly north-easterly shafted through. Though it did not produce any Beans, a Ruff was present towards Cantley and upwards of 250 Golden Plover and 200 Wigeon were noted before I retreated back to the car after 25 minutes. A Norfolk ale or two was imminently appealing, so we had lunch in a pub near Ranworth before going to check Ranworth Broad itself. Up to 40 Cormorant were on the broad, many in fine courtship plumage, whilst a posse of 27 Gadwall and 10 Great-crested Grebe, 3 Marsh Harriers and 2 Lesser Redpolls all provided entertainment.
We saw out the remains of the day in the Hickling area, where after utterly failing in finding a large flock of Bewick’s Swan around Catfield, we were lucky enough to bump into a flock of 11 Common Cranes in a field about 3/4 mile west of Hickling Broad. Having planned to maybe see some flying in at Stubb’s Mill, this was the best we could have hoped for. About 60ft off, they fed with clumsy grace, seemingly unfazed by at least 3 car loads of other birders. Despite the unmatchable thrill of having six over the patch just a week earlier, the speciality of this moment was intense. These were by far the closest and most prolonged views I had ever had of Crane, and the most I had ever seen together. They really are birds of unrivalled majesty; an absolute day-maker and reminder that it is only Norfolk that can reliably produce such outstanding experiences as these.
It did not matter that no Cranes came to roost at Stubb’s Mill that night. After that, I had had my filling of Cranes for the trip! Despite seeing our target bird before making it to the Mill, we trudged along the partly flooded road in extremely bleak, grey conditions. We had just missed out on a few Hen Harriers when we arrived, but were compensated by a bonus Bittern in the dying moments of light, as well as 10 Marsh Harriers and 200 Brent Geese.
Whilst patching had played a more central role in my birding this time round in Norfolk, all three occasions spent birding elsewhere in the county had plenty of rewards and made for a thoroughly enjoyable stay. Considering the stay as a whole, I think its safe to say that Crane and Bittern dominated the headlines, on and off patch!
Thanks for reading,