Day two of our Norfolk break saw us rising at dawn once more though the clear skies of yesterday were sadly just a memory. Drawing back the curtains revealed instead thick cloud, light mist and persistent drizzle but none of that was going to stop us from attempting to build on our stunning first day at Titchwell. A quick croissant in the hotel’s car park was enough sustenance to get me going and provided suitable alertness for Emma to spot the ghostly shape of a Barn Owl just outside Titchwell village. I quickly threw the car into a nearby drive and managed to spot the bird myself before it completely disappeared. Thinking that it may have continued further on we retraced our steps but could find no further sign though did manage to add a small flock of Stock Doves to our ever burgeoning tally.
Back on the road it was only another ten minutes or so before we were pulling into Lady Anne’s drive on the Holkham estate. This arrow straight section of private road is one of the best places to see Pink-footed Geese in large numbers, particularly early in the morning, and despite poor viewing conditions today was to be no different.
Until you’ve experienced the sight and sound of thousands of Geese on the move it’s simply not possible to appreciate the sheer joy such a spectacle can bring. Your whole being becomes engaged in the simple beauty of nature and there could have been no better launch pad for the hours ahead. Even the closest fields offered their own additions to the rich tapestry of life on show with a couple of Egyptian Geese (which made an extraordinary sound in flight) plus numerous Moorhen, Wigeon and a distant Marsh Harrier quartering marshland off towards Wells.
Passing through the narrow strip of pine trees that separates ocean from land delivered an impressive number of Goldcrests which were associating with numerous Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits, not to mention a Great-spotted Woodpecker and hunting Kestrel. It was only when we emerged back into the open that the full extent of the high tide was revealed, the first time I’ve ever seen Holkham Gap filled with water.
Skirting the edges of this large lagoon took some time and was made all the more surreal by the sound of numerous calling Skylarks. Admittedly temperatures were still very mild for the time of year but I certainly hadn’t been expecting such a vocal chorus. Very spring like it has to be said. In the past this area has also played host to large numbers of Snow Buntings but with much of the vegetation submerged they were nowhere to be seen. A trio of Grey Partridge however were spotted scuttling amongst the higher dunes and upwards of thirty Brent Geese seemed right at home in the shallow waters.
When we finally reached the sea proper it didn’t take long to spot the hundreds of Common Scoter which had been loitering off the coast here for the best part of a week. Much to my delight they were closer than any I’ve seen previously, though only comparatively, meaning that with my small spotting scope I was going to have difficulty picking out any rarities. What followed was an inevitable half hour of increasing frustration as I failed to spot any plumage variation amongst the masses. It wasn’t until a small group took flight that the distinctive white wing patches of Velvet Scoter became apparent, lifer number two of the trip and a species I’ve been after for some time. Of course after that the dam broke and we started spotting them everywhere but no amount of searching revealed the single Surf Scoter which was apparently also present. Still, where would the fun be in this hobby if everything came easily?
Of course there were plenty of other species out on the water as well including a lovely Red-throated Diver (new year tick), Great Crested Grebes, Knot, Red-breasted Mergansers and two Goldeneye. Even a solitary fishing boat provided an impressive diversion as it lifted its nets clear of the depths. Ghost ship anyone?
The presence of fishing activity was clearly bringing in the wildlife with a huge flock of Gulls behind the boat and a very large Grey Seal just a little way in front. Closer to hand I was astonished to see a Common Seal swimming towards us barely a couple of meters off shore and it was sufficiently interested to stop a while and check us out. I just think it wanted its photo taken really and I was certainly happy to oblige.
With time pressing on we continued along the beach before cutting inland to walk back through the forestry. Once again Goldcrest numbers were very impressive with roaming groups of mixed tit species never far away. Both hides offered good views of feeding geese with a steady trickle of birds such as Green Woodpecker, Buzzard and surprisingly hard to find Jackdaws keeping our totals heading in the right direction.
By the time we arrived back at Lady Anne’s drive the sun had returned as had the masses. Making ourselves scarce it was off to Salthouse where I was amazed to find that the car park we’d used barely eighteen months ago had now completely vanished! Last winter’s storm surge has flattened the shingle ridge here pushing it inland by several meters though the local tame Turnstones seem not to have suffered.
If there were any concerns about destruction of the surrounding habitat they seem to have been unfounded as to my eye at least the quantity and variety of life on offer seemed unchanged. In fact new pools formed by the changed landscape were proving a huge success with one just a short walk away holding a very confiding Purple Sandpiper. Very nice I’m sure you’d agree but even better with a Snow Bunting sat next to it, three Twite nearby and a Richard’s Pipit (lifer number three) calling as it passed overhead. I’ll admit that having a fellow birder shout out the latter’s id contributed more than a little to our counting it but subsequent research had revealed that he was spot on. What a gathering and an event unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
Climbing a nearby hill revealed the stunning view back across the landscape (above) and with a couple of hours daylight still on our side we managed to squeeze in a visit to Cley. Walking the east bank I managed a brief glimpse of Bearded Tit but despite waiting it never reappeared. The calls of at least two individuals could be clearly heard however so it’s good to know that they are still around, even if not showing that well. A little further and it was the turn of a Stoat to keep us entertained as it first ran along the ditch before darting into cover. It spent the next couple of minutes popping its head in and out of the reeds checking for our whereabouts and would eventually have made for a great photo had a particularly loud group not engaged us in conversation about how little there was about. Seriously? If you’d missed the Stoat surely you must have seen the two Redshanks going at each other hell for leather over there or at the very least that Little Egret sitting just off the path. Some people really do baffle me.
Needless to say the late evening light was simply stunning and it was hard to stop myself smiling as we finally had to draw things to a close. What a weekend with three new life ticks and two days of frankly amazing weather considering the season. I’m already planning our return trip when Stone Curlews will be the main target, another bird that I’ve been longing to see for years. Can’t wait.