Christmas and New Year in Norfolk was particularly unusual this year, not for the birds as such, but due to the fact the South African part of my family had come all the way up to the UK to visit. This unfortunately meant there were severe limitations to my available birding time away from the patch. Thus, I had to economize and prioritize appropriately.
I wasn’t able to get out for a day on the coast until the 27th December, and with no-one available to meet I concluded that the plan of action was to work the stretch of coast between Kelling and Salthouse and then move towards Burnham Deepdale to see what comes into roost. Time was precious as I was unable to get a lift to Fakenham for the bus before 10, which in turn meant I did not pitch up at Kelling until nearly 11:30. Once I had arrived, I started down the verdant grove track that runs parallel to Kelling Quags and past the Water Meadows.
It just so happened that a Richard’s Pipit had been faffing around for a few days in the fields just west of the Water Meadows. If the bird was still there I decided I’d give it a brief look whilst I scouted the area for other stuff. The Water Meadows were deadly quiet, not holding any wildfowl at all, so I continued round towards the airfield only to have the Richard’s Pipit flying right over my head and calling: nice, the first time I’ve actually heard this species call. Behind it were a couple of Mipits, reduced to minuteness. The Dick’s largely favoured a load of grassy hay-like debris that had been washed up by early December’s devastating north and east Norfolk coast floods. Here it literally became a needle in the haystack job, so I was disinclined to stick around for long. I gave it 10 minutes, managing stonking views through the scope early on before it headed into the debris, as it fed busily by a pool. Its gorgeous pale fringed lesser and greater coverts were evident, as were the pale lores, the long hind-claw and the characteristic Turdus-esque stance. That was my lot though. I could not be arsed sticking around as it gradually headed deep into the nearby debri, becoming amorphous with it. I happened to get more flight views of it as I started towards Muckleburgh Hill though, where there was nothing particularly of note save a Stonechat.
This was the first wintering Richard’s Pipit I’ve seen. Wintering Dick’s are by not entirely unprecedented in Norfolk, with rogue individuals from the autumn often sticking around, albeit sometimes transient on a local scale. This has been the case since the early 20th century and beyond, as my superb Christmas present A Season Of Birds: A Norfolk Diary (1911) by Jim Vincent testifies. Vincent, a professional wild-fowler, avid bird enthusiast and Hickling born and bred, accounts for a year’s birding at Hickling and its environs in this wonderfully evocative and beautifully presented diary-cum-book. At the beginning of the diary he recounts:
‘2nd January: Strong wind from the N.W. Squalls of hail. No-one in Hickling can remember so high a tide. I saw close by the Lodge on Hickling wall a Richard’s Pipit. Watched it running on the wall, and at the edge of water several minutes’.
Over the page, there is a delicate illustration of this chanced upon Richard’s Pipit by Vincent’s friend George Lodge, capturing with a certain raw beauty the various diagnostic feather patterns and plumage hues of the bird in its watery, boggy environs. On reading of this record when I got the book a few days ago, I was immediately transported back to the bird I had seen at Kelling. The Richard’s Pipit at Kelling was, like Vincent’s lonesome individual, taking advantage of the squalor created by tidal flooding and, most evocatively for me, also spent a brief time pecking around at the edge of some water that had been left by the high tides. A timely and touching coincidence, given that Vincent’s diary was also written in Norfolk, and also accounts for a wintering Richard’s Pipit in roughly the same period.
Anyway, offshore at Kelling there was very little kicking off, the best I could muster being 15 Red-throated Divers, their demarcations gleaming out against the flat-as-a-millpond sea. The stretch to Salthouse was utterly bird-free, and my spontaneous plans to continue walking across the shingle to Cley were completely hindered by a new patch of where the shingle had subsided and the sea had pushed through, blocking off the rest of the shingle on the other side. I stuck around at Salthouse for 45 minutes before taking the Coasthopper westwards, by which time it was nearly 2:30pm. This left me with an hour and a half or so before dusk, and with the bus not due to arrive at Deepdale until near enough half 3, I did not have long.
After a tense wait I finally made it to Deepdale in the failing light. Standing along the sea wall, I watched rafts of Little Egret, perhaps 60 in all, wing their way towards Holkham. In the winter half-light their white forms were like ethereal, giant ghostly glowflies. Towards Holkham and Wells the sky was black with a flock of 2000+ Pink-footed Geese, not quite audible. 200 Brent Geese were obscured as they touched down on the sand beyond Deepdale’s creeks, whilst 4 female Marsh Harriers hunted briefly, each heading westwards from Holkham. This disrupted throngs of winter waders, including 100s of Curlew, 40 Golden Plover and 30 Grey Plover. The night won, and I headed home.
A surprise visit to Holt Country Park was made the next day with family, but I was ridiculously stopped from going to check out the Parrot Crossbills there (mothers these days, hey?). I did manage a bonus stunning Red Kite right over the car as we passed Edgefield Tip, however, and clocked Marsh Tit and Treecreeper at Holt CP proper. The 30th was the final bit of birding I managed during the trip, involving a brief reconnoitre to Jim Vincent’s territory: Ludham for a certain Cygnus sp, namely the annual wintering flock of Bewick’s Swans. Vincent himself noted them in the vicinity of Hickling and around Ludham in the winter of 1911, as early as October, so this is clearly a traditional wintering spot:
’25th October: Saw 29 Bewick’s Swans in the afternoon… after having a short feed and harassed by the Mutes they went off West at dusk. They were all old birds.’
Even in the howling wind and rain, these birds were obliging as I sifted through them with the scope from the comfort of the car, having picked them out from the main road in a field by the A149 between Potter Heigham and Hickling. We took a minor road and were soon watching these superb swans down to 100ft or so in reasonably good light, despite the weather. Bewick’s Swan is a species I have only seen twice outside of Norfolk, so whenever there is an opportunity to see this species locally, I always take the opportunity. The last Bewick’s I had seen were also the Ludham birds, nearly two years ago back in January 2012, where I had delighted in seeing my highest ever personal total: 40 birds. Today there more though: some 60 Bewick’s Swans (3 juveniles) along with 15 Whooper Swans (6 juveniles), feeding intently. The Whoopers were all clustered near hay bales at the left hand edge of the flock, with the odd Bewick’s feeling a bit short-necked and out of place in amongst them. However, the Bewick’s were sprawled messily across a large stretch of the field, one group of 10 were completely detached from the nucleus of the flock. I had an ultimatum of 15 mins with the birds before we had to move on to pastures new for other reasons, so maximized the times by making the above count and taking the below images. A very enjoyable and worthwhile little stop for one of my favourite British species, ending the birding year in Norfolk. What will 2014 herald for me in the county? Only time will tell.
Thanks for reading,