Tuesday’s entry covering our encounter with Nightingales at Dering Wood was just the icing on what had been a very nice cake indeed. We’d spent the previous week based near Sheringham in Norfolk, a little further east than our normal haunts but a change which would give us access from Cromer down to the Norfolk Broads. Up until now this had been an area we’d never previously visited but I’m pleased to report that it more than lived up to expectations. Of course we still managed to squeeze in classics such as Titchwell and Cley but it was new sites including Hickling Broad, Happisburgh and even Sheringham itself which proved to be the biggest revelations. Even our base, a small converted barn, proved better than expected with the addition of two Barn Owls roosting just outside our front door. We were first alerted to their presence when emptying the bins only to be met by a flurry of feathers as one of the birds shot out and across a neighbouring field. After that we were much more cautious and each evening treated us to a chorus of squawks, squeaks and screeches. Chatting to the owners it seems that Barn Owls have raised chicks here for the last couple of years so give it another few months and anyone staying there will be perfectly placed to enjoy their development. I’m sure it will get a whole lot noisier as well!
That discovery set us up pretty darn well for a week in which we managed to record 130 bird species including three new life ticks. We had an absolute blast though if I could have wished for just one improvement it would have been to have had a little more success photographically. Whereas no one can doubt Norfolk’s ability to deliver birds galore, they’re not always within camera range particularly for those of us with more limited equipment. Saying that I didn’t come away exactly empty handed so let’s get stuck into a little of what we got up to.
Day 1 – Sheringham to Salthouse Coast Path
Anyone reading this blog for even a brief amount of time will know that we love the coast. As a result most of our holidays seem to gravitate towards one and once there there’s often no better way to get to know an area than to walk its coast path. So that’s exactly what we did. The fact that Sheringham is known as one of the best sea watching sites in the country was just an added incentive though we quickly realised that was not a year round accolade. To see this place at its best you really need to be here from August to November when conditions are a little stormy, not during a flat calm in the middle of April. As a result pickings were slim with a couple of Fulmars, several Kittiwakes, hundreds of Black Headed Gulls and a lone Mediterranean Gull being about as good as it got. Fortunately things were a little more active on land kicking off with a flock of Turnstones along Sheringham promenade. Of all waders these are probably my favourite, partly due to their attractive plumage and partly because they tend to be quite tame, particularly in areas of heavy footfall. Here we weren’t quite at St Ives level of approachability but that didn’t stop me getting a couple of decent shots.
Out of town the landscape quickly turned to rolling fields with modest cliffs providing a slightly elevated view of our surroundings. This is Norfolk after all. Although still relatively early in the season we soon started to pick up migrants including a lone Wheatear and singing Skylarks, joined not long after by Sand Martins making the most of those fragile cliffs and an increasing number of Swallows as the day wore on. Birds of prey also put in a good showing with Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine Falcon and Buzzard all being recorded during our walk. The views weren’t half bad either.
We probably could have gone even further than Salthouse but from there the path has been rather overtaken by encroaching shingle, and if there’s one thing I hate more than anything else it’s walking on shingle. So instead of torturing myself we headed back the way we’d come enjoying great views of the North Norfolk Railway before heading home for another evening with the Barn Owls.
Day 2 – Gresham to Felbrigg Hall
The forecast for Sunday included copious amount of heavy rain but as we gazed out at the sky all we could see was sunshine. Not wanting to waste a good thing, no matter how long it lasted, we elected to explore the local area a little more on foot. Heading out from the cottage we skirted Gresham with its fields of Oilseed Rape enjoying the sight and call of a Yellowhammer as we went.
Picking up the Weavers’ Way found us crossing fields sown with a crop in its early stages of development, something which back home would normally mean the complete obliteration of any footpaths. Not here though! Instead we found a wide track left clear, numerous signposts and well maintained stiles and gates. What a pleasure to find farmers actually encouraging walkers to cross their land, something I’ve long thought must be preferable to the alternative of having us straying off course in an attempt to pick up a lost path. All that time freed from following maps meant more time to notice the wildlife around us including a nice patch of Lady’s Bedstraw which we stopped briefly to examine, only to have a pair of Garganey erupt from a nearby stream. And when I say stream I really do mean a stream. It was no more than a meter wide and heavily overhung by Gorse bushes for much for its length but nevertheless, a pair of Garganey was what they were. The distinctive white stripe above the male’s eye was simply unmistakeable despite their unusual location. We were still stood open mouthed as they disappeared around the corner and once we’d snapped back into action no amount of searching could relocate them. Still, not bad for the first real rarity of our break.
Things returned to normal as we headed onwards to Felbrigg Hall with our route along quiet lanes delivering plenty of Stock Dove and Red-legged Partridge. Things were a little more hectic at Felbrigg itself thanks to a certain well known confectioner conducting an egg hunt but we soon found some semblance of solitude out in the grounds where a small wetland area delivered not only several Teal but also a quartet of Lapwings, one of which appeared to be sitting on a nest. Butterflies were also on the wing in good numbers with Orange-tip, Small Tortoiseshell and Speckled Wood all seen. In fact the sun was still blazing once we’d returned to the cottage a couple of hours later with the rain only arriving as evening began to draw in. Our forecasters seem to be just as flummoxed by the weather this spring as the rest of us apparently.
Day 3 – Cley and Blakeney
Another glorious morning found us at Cley but don’t let initial impressions deceive you. Despite all that sunshine it was bitterly cold with a strong north wind dropping temperatures well into single figures. In fact it was so bad that I was forced to crack out my gloves which I’d previously thought banished having waved goodbye to winter some weeks before. At least the crystal clear conditions gave us chance to enjoy our surroundings to the full including Cley’s landmark windmill.
The marshy land either side of the flood defences delivered our first Avocets of the trip, a species which in the end turned out to be present at virtually every water body we visited. A true conservation success story when I think back to how scarce they used to be. Other waders including Redshank, Curlew, Lapwing, Black-tailed Godwit and Oystercatchers were also present in good numbers whilst spring migrants continued to build with our first Sedge Warbler and White Wagtail of the year as well as an increased number of Swallows. Adding their own voice to proceedings were several Cetti’s Warblers, always elusive however, an accusation which certainly couldn’t be levelled at the Short Eared Owl which popped up hunting the scrub between us and the beach. In strong sunlight we got some fantastic views, such a difference from the often dull and distant encounters we get up on Mull. We saw the same bird a couple more times during the day taking our Owl species count for the week to three (we’d also heard a Tawny Owl at the cottage the night before). As if that wasn’t enough we were also treated to views of five Marsh Harriers quartering the marsh. Over at Blakeney a tantalising group of waders fled before we’d had chance to ID them but I did at least pick up my first couple of New Naturalist books. I fear another collection coming on!
Having retraced out steps we set out to explore the reserve at Cley itself and were soon enjoying views of Ruff, Dunlin, a few lingering Wigeon and even a Red Kite. Just like being at home. The highlight though has to be a group of four Bearded Tits which we saw in flight over by the main hides followed by another lone individual from the east bank. All had announced their presence by sound long before we saw them. I even managed a quick record shot but to be honest the less said about that the better.
Day 4 – Titchwell
This was the day I’d been looking forward to for almost two years now. My favourite reserve and just about the only place that I can happily sit in one spot for an hour or more and never feel the need to move on. Past experience has shown that Titchwell has the pedigree to deliver big and across seven hours we managed to see 76 species. Much of the commoner stuff was similar to at Cley but we also added several new year ticks in the shape of House Martin and Blackcap. Indeed it was quite noticeable how quickly the volume of migrants was increasing with each passing day. A few Titchwell specialities such as Red Crested Pochard and yet more Marsh Harriers were quickly found before we got to enjoy more fantastic views of those Avocets. Although a passing weather front dulled conditions somewhat, nothing could distract from these stunning birds.
Further migrants came from the Parrinder Hide with two Little Ringed Plovers and a flock of at least ten Bar-tailed Godwits and a Grey Plover down on the beach. The sun had by now returned but if anything the wind from yesterday was now even stronger and much, much colder. With a spot of sea watching in our plans we hunkered down behind the old WW2 defences and started to scan through an impressive raft of at least a thousand Common Scoter. They stretched almost across the entire viewable area and by pure fluke we managed to pick out a pair of Velvet Scoter in flight thanks to their distinctive white wing patches. This was cause for much celebration which briefly warmed us before it was back into the cold for a walk towards Holme. In contrast to winter the beach was relatively quiet bird wise but we did spot three Sanderling battling the conditions, one of which was blown clean of its feet while we watched.
Similar challenges were being faced by hoards of caterpillars in the dunes, each inch of progress being undone as a sudden gust blew them several foot in the opposite direction. It’s fair to say that by the time we’d made it back to the hides and finally the car I was quite frozen, but Titchwell had one last trick up its sleeve. As I waited for Emma to visit the loos the unmistakeable sound of a booming Bittern drifted across. I shared a glance with a fellow birder who smiled and nodded in agreement. That moment of shared connection shows just what a special bird the Bittern is and I was grinning from ear to ear as Emma returned. Actually I wasn’t as I knew that she’d been dying to hear one for the very first time and it looked like she had just missed out. Or so we thought. Heading back to Fen Hide we decided to stick it out for another half an hour during which time I’m happy to report that we heard the Bittern boom a further three times. Absolute magic. Things couldn’t get much better than this, could they?