Last Friday afternoon saw us driving east for nearly seven hours, much of it through torrential rain. What, you may ask, could have brought on such madness? I could blame an early mid-life crisis or work related stress but no, what drew us inextricably across almost the entire width of England and Wales were the birding delights of the north Norfolk coast. I’ve been visiting this area for as long as I can remember but a couple of weeks ago came to the startling realisation that we were about to pass the two year mark since out last week in Wells. Clearly this was unacceptable and with no annual leave left this mad dash remained our only option. The plan was to rise at dawn each morning spending Saturday at Titchwell and Sunday further along the coast at Holkham then Cley. Each of these names has become synonymous over the years with truly top quality birding but even with such illustrious reputations we could never in a million years have predicted the 48 hours ahead of us. If that’s not whetted your appetite perhaps I should add that our trip included three lifers (two self-found) plus our best ever sea watching experience. This one is certainly going to live long in my memory.
Saturday morning at six are never phrases that you wish to combine but somehow we managed to drag ourselves out of bed at the superbly well-appointed Caley Hall Hotel. Drawing back the curtains revealed plenty of condensation (this is November in Norfolk after all) with a clear blue sky beyond. We were most definitely on. Jumping into the car Emma spotted a Muntjac Deer skulking across the field opposite whilst all around the sound of calling Pheasants filled the air. Two Red-legged Partridge waved us through Thornham before the short drive to Titchwell was complete. If you’ve never visited before the reserve map may look rather unpromising with a straight kilometre long path leading across the marsh to a beach. Let me assure you however that the sheer quantity and variety of birds hidden within is often breathtakingly broad, just one of many reasons why this has become my favourite nature reserve and one that I can happily spend an entire day or more exploring (others include WW2 tanks on the beach, stunning scenery, Sammy the Black-winged Stilt…..). Even the car park on this cold morning was fit to bursting with a very tame Robin taking food from my hand and a noisy flock of Long-tailed Tits making their way through the surrounding vegetation. You only need walk a short distance further to find the main path which today greeted us with a swirling flock of Golden Plover numbering in the thousands, several hundred Brent Geese arriving from their overnight roosts and, best of all, an immature Marsh Harrier quartering the reeds to our left.
Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Water Rail, Teal, Little Egrets, Ruff and many more species lined our way as we made a beeline for the beach where a high tide meant that this morning that was the place to be. With only a couple of other early risers present we had the place pretty much to ourselves as long as you don’t count scuttling groups of Sanderling, Grey Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Oystercatchers etc etc. A scan of the sea revealed a couple of passing Red-breasted Mergansers, thirty or so Common Scoter, Gannets, large groups of Wigeon, a single massive flock of Pink Footed Geese over towards Holme, one Sandwich Tern, two Great Crested Grebes and even eight Eider way off on the horizon. Such variety, and so easily obtained, simply puts our regular haunts to shame but unbelievably it was about to get even better. Movement amongst the dunes (at least what’s left of them following last winter’s tidal surge) quickly resolved into a group of nine Snow Buntings. I had planned on giving the camera a bit of a rest this weekend as usually most things here are out of range anyway, but how can you resist these gorgeous little birds.
As ever they were remarkably approachable and were happy to continue their feeding even when I was relatively close. It’s a little strange therefore that one of the big lens brigade felt the need to continually disturb the flock but they soon settled down again and were still present when we left.
The next half hour or so was spent brushing up on identification of birds in flight before Emma called out that an auk species was flying towards us. Nothing unusual in that so I raised my binoculars and started scanning the sea. Spotting nothing I looked again only to spy a Little Auk half way up the beach and closing rapidly! It shots by us at only a couple of meters distant before returning back to the shore which it followed until out of sight. Gob smacking doesn’t come close to describing the experience and despite having superb views we couldn’t quite believe that such a rarity had been almost within touching distance. In fact we were so amazed that we headed straight for a group with telescopes and double checked that we hadn’t just imagined it all. They quickly confirmed that although they hadn’t seen our encounter a Little Auk had been on the sea moments later and had now gone. Lifer number one in the bag and what a beauty. Very kindly one of the group then asked if we’d seen the Red-necked Grebe and Long-tailed Duck? I hadn’t but definitely wanted to and he was good enough to put his scope onto each for us to take a look. The Grebe was no problem but just as my turn came the Long-tailed Duck dived and then disappeared. Determined not to miss out I used my own spotting scope and despite its much lower magnification managed to relocate the bird. As it turned out the effort had been well worth the wait as it turned out to be a stunning drake. My first English individual and a real stunner at that.
By now the clouds had started to gather and with the threat of rain building we returned to the reserve. First stop was the Parrinder Hide from which more evidence of the previous winter’s tidal surge could be seen. The only recently constructed east bank suffered extensive damage though did its job of protecting the freshwater habitat of the reserve upon which so many species rely. Today that included a trio of Common Snipe at very close range, numerous Pintail, Shoveller, Teal, Wigeon, Lapwing and this very close Ruff.
Only when the bird moved could we see its limp, probably the main reason for such an obliging nature. Despite this it seemed to have no trouble feeding so as long as the predators stay away it should be ok. Saying that we saw Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Peregrine Falcon in the area so that may be a more risky proposition than first thought.
Over at the Island hide I managed to pick out three Avocet roosting before a Water Rail popped up right outside the huge glass window. Clearly a juvenile it walked amongst the reeds at very close range giving all inside superb views.
A quick stop in the shop saw us purchase a copy of Ray Kimber’s new book recounting his forty years at Titchwell (review to follow next week) before it was back out onto the reserve. Unfortunately the Fen hide is currently shut as restorative work takes place on the east bank so it was back out onto the freshwater lagoon to watch the birds coming into roost. The Golden Plovers were first to return having gone missing at some point during the day and were soon joined by an ever growing number of waterfowl and gulls. Dunlin also seemed to increase dramatically while we were kept amused by a family trying to identify a Ruff. Due to their incredibly variable plumage I’m sure we’ve all been there at some point and I’m happy to report that they got there in the end.
Perhaps the only disappointment of the day was that as the sun began to set a storm front moved in which turned increasingly nasty as evening advanced. The result was that we missed watching the Marsh Harriers come in to roost, though still saw at least three birds, and didn’t get chance to see any of the Barn Owls that are a fairly regular occurrence here. That’s just nit-picking however as who could possibly complain after such a great day. The text that I sent to my parents that evening read like a who’s who of the Norfolk fauna and yet remarkably things were going to get even crazier the following day.