It had been a wee while since I had been to the county where I had previously lived, so it was a visit full of positive thoughts. The four years back in the 80’s were a special time shared with family and friends on their numerous visits to Hunstanton. This time with guests that had been on previous Greenspaces trips it felt like it was amongst friends anyway.
Travelling down on the Thursday, a crown off one of my molars detached so a visit to my old dentist was in order, sadly it could not be repaired.
Getting settled in at the excellent Le Strange Arms at Old Hunstanton, the itinerary was set out for the next few days. Our first day took us to the ever-expanding Hawk and Owl Trust reserve of Sculthorpe Moor, none of the guests had heard of it let alone visited it. With wet Alder Carr, grassland, streams, lake. river and farmland it really covered a multitude of habitats offering a chance to see a wide range of birds. We were also given some first-hand knowledge from the site manager Nigel Middleton about the pair of beavers that had been on site since spring 2022, we did see evidence of their activity but not them as individuals.
With a range of feeders offering up a mix of feeds at a range of points across the site a range of Tits including Marsh, others including Bullfinch, Brambling, Siskins and Goldfinches were soon on the list. Overhead Red Kites and Buzzards soared with one seen at roost with yellow wing tags which was a scheme being pursued by the Norfolk Raptor study group. On the raptor count for the day were a pair of Tawny Owls choosing to sit on the lip of their nest box, being an early breeder it would not be long before they continued their courtship. With a few Muntjac deer being seen it was a great day but why did we not connect with a Tree Creeper which is normally a regular sighting. Our funniest moment however was when a photographer put his head through a hide door and said seen any Brambling, one of our guests who was intently looking the other way thought he had said ‘Seen any Brown ones’ this phrase was used time and time again over our tour and promoted many laughs . We finished the day up at Holkham in the late afternoon looking for owls sadly we were unsuccessful but we saw a stunning pale morph common Buzzard which we checked over to ensure it was not a Rough Legged Buzzard.
Having told the guests it would be an early morning goose watch the following day we went to our beds early, arising from our slumber we were down at the carpark at Snettisham for 7am. Heading for the southern fringes of the reserve, after a walk of 20 minutes there they were somewhere in the region of 12,000 Pink Footed Geese just starting to awake from their overnight wash roost.
A great mix of waders over the various habitats, a few Marsh Harriers drifting over the reedbeds, a Great White Egret stalking its prey, a early call from a Cetti’s Warbler all completed with a Water Rail going about its daily routine in the bottom of the dyke
Pinking and winking their calls with increasing intensity, just prior to their take off to the skies in their family squadrons. Wave after wave took off over the next hour, some directly overhead, others on a more oblique flight path, all heading in land to their preferred feeding destinations on sugar beet tops where they were available. The only downside to the morning was sighting two Grey Seal pups that had clearly not survived and been washed up at high tide with the rest of the debris that was on offer from the North Sea.
Returning to the Hotel for a hearty breakfast we would be spending the rest of the day in the area around RSPB Titchwell. I did mention we would go and see the local Groynes looking for Purple Sandpipers, this was taken out of context with the very mention of anybody’s groins. Firstly, Choseley Barns was to be viewed, a rather large flock of some 300 individuals, which were mainly Linnet but also Reed Buntings and Chaffinches in good numbers, a Sparrowhawk flashed through trying to reduce the total by one, whilst a Kestrel close by was intent on finding a Vole, in the lane ahead a Chinese Water deer crossed and set off at a merry pace into the distance. To complete the sightings all from one spot a beautifully, dapple winged male Marsh Harrier worked his way inland. This had certainly proved birding from one spot can bring great rewards.
Upon getting to Titchwell, we inadvertently bumped into one of my Norfolk contacts, Les who had previously volunteered at this site but was now more actively involved at Wild Ken Hill a regenerative farming site which had been used by BBC Springwatch for the last couple of years. This proved fortuitous as he was very forthcoming about local sightings both at Titchwell and a little further afield. The first highlight and there were many was a Bittern very close to the path, doing what they do best, standing still, in reeds with their cryptic camouflage, photos were taken for the future. A great mix of waders over the various habitats, a few Marsh Harriers drifting over the reedbeds, a Great White Egret stalking its prey, a early call from a Cetti’s Warbler all completed with a Water Rail going about its daily routine in the bottom of the dyke with the eyes of the Titchwell birding fraternity looking down. Some of the Les intel had put us on the spot for a local Barn Owl, not just any old owl but one of the individuals that had been featuring on our screens on winterwatch over the last fortnight. Just magnificent as it moved from post to post, hovering, hunting and resting. To complete the picture it became obvious we were below the Pinkie flightpath as they returned to their overnight wash roost, oh that sight and sound, is it not just the very best of British winter birding.
The third day started with a twitch as we joined the throng at a layby up above the village of Brancaster, the task find a Richardson’s cackling goose (a smaller variety of Canada Goose ) in amongst thousands of Pinkies in a distant beet field, with a little help, and direction from the already assembled throng of men, women and scopes we were able to tick a ‘lifer ‘ for us all. Our next venue at Holkham ,proved to be a challenge, it was Sunday, popular with people and their dogs with the generally no sense of respect and awareness about where and what they were doing, there were even a couple of birders who walked through an area of great sensitivity. Having just finished reading Land Healer by Jake Fiennes( the estate conservation manager for Holkham) I fully concur with his sentiments in that book, just how do you manage 800,000 people, 500,000 cars and 300,000 dogs on an annual basis, an absolute nightmare! There really needs to be a national education and awareness campaign for people to realise just what an impact they are having on our countryside.
To be fair we could not get away fast enough, vowing to never come back on a weekend ever again. North Pools near Wells had a great mix of birds all enjoyed in great light but as a couple came back to their car having been on a walk, their dog inside the car clicked the locks and locked them outside, doing the good Samaritan role we offered to take them back to their home at Binham just a few miles inland. This was a good move as we found a recently opened café at the old priory with just the best homemade sausage rolls I have ever tasted. Returning to Warham Greens to hopefully see the Harriers come into roost, some one called out the Pallid , but it was distant and I was not convinced with the view I had, however a rather splendid male Hen harrier did float by with a couple of Chinese Water Deer in the middle distance. It was here that I bumped into Dawn ((head of Surveys ) at the BTO and Pete we had been together as speakers and guests at the Grant Arms in Scotland just a month earlier.
It was good that we had seen Dawn as she messaged me to say the resident Long Eared Owl had put in an appearance at Cley Spy optical centre the very next morning. Getting there for opening time of 10 am we had great views and yes it was a Brown One ! The associated sales that they must have had from this bird must have been incredible, they were also collecting for a conservation charity.
It was our Cley day, so we ventured out onto the reserve where a Long Billed Dowitcher was in amongst the waders, clearly quite different from the Black Tailed Godwits it was accompanying. With many Wigeon and the pure personification of the duckworld, Pintail in good numbers too, it was a good experience.
After lunch we ventured down to the seafront car park to have a scan through the Brent Geese, whilst I was in the mode of looking for a black Brant through a1000 strong flock a lady a short distance away called that she had a pale bellied individual, these are normally found more to the north and west of Britain. What happened next we were not prepared for, a Barn Owl floated into view, after a while a Kestrel was watching its every move, suddenly as the Barnie appeared to have a successful pounce the Kes homed in and both disappeared into a saltmarsh creek. Eventually the Owl emerged minus its prey, giving great views, the Kestrel followed a little while later having been successful in its kleptoparasitic adventure.
Our day finished with a walk down the east bank at Cley in wonderful late afternoon light to see a flock of about 70 very confiding Snow Buntings which were only a few feet away from us at certain times, someone had been and scattered some seed earlier in the day. The only downside of this day as we walked back we saw a grey seal pup , up on the shingle clearly no longer in contact with its mum so we rang the local seal rescue and hoped that it would be collected later and given a chance for a future life.
So with a final tally of 107 species seen on the trip, some lifers for some and some obvious ones missed it was great trip and a welcome return to my former home county, I just hope the guests enjoyed it !
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