If you’ve not yet had chance to read part one of the tale from our week out east then head over here first. No one wants to descend into anarchy after all.
Day 5 – Happisburgh and Hickling Broad
As good as things had been up until now, our Norfolk birding trip was about to kick into hyper-drive. It all started on another crystal clear morning though one which, I’m rather relieved to say, actually held a degree of warmth. After shivering our way through the past few days it made a pleasant change to be walking without coats along the coast path at Happisburgh. Now this was riskier than it may at first seem as in sections the path had dropped a good thirty foot onto the beach below leaving sheer drops that could quite easily catch the unwary off guard. Needless to say we gave these stretches a wide berth as just one glance at the crumbling cliffs told you that this was not a stable area. That feeling was backed up by nearby signs which showed how much of the village itself has been lost to the sea in recent years. Since 1990 an entire street has simply vanished and that rate of erosion is only emphasised further when you learn that in the not too distant past there used to be another entire village between Happisburgh and the coast. That’s a crazy thought when one considers how solid and permanent we tend to think of the ground beneath our feet. Even worse is that as things stand there is no end in sight with any potential defences tied up in red tape and politics, a fact that will result in the loss of the village’s church and lighthouse within the next decade unless something can be done.
But I digress. The reason for our visit had been a report from a couple of days previous that five Shorelarks were lurking nearby. Now Shorelark is one of those species which has been on my target list for several years now and was in fact one of the main reasons for our base of operations being located a little further east this tine around. On previous visits I’ve always noted that Great Yarmouth seemed a particular hotspot for these so was planning on heading there at some point, but with Happisburgh being a whole lot closer it would have been rude not to at least take a look. With acres of sand, cliffs and fields to search I didn’t hold out much hope until Emma shouted that she’d found one on the path a little ways ahead. It couldn’t be that easy, could it? Apparently yes! There in front of us was a Shorelark but our views were only brief before it relocated into a ploughed field just inland. For a yellow and black bird it camouflaged itself remarkably well but we soon had it relocated, along with another two of its compatriots. What a result. They were soon on the move again however and quickly vanished amongst the mounds of tilled earth but there was no taking away from the fact that we had our first lifer of the trip. I even got a terrible record shot to prove it.
Sharing that ploughed field were six Turnstones, a pair of Ringed Plovers and a White Wagtail whilst back at the car another male Blackcap was in full song. From there it was a short drive down to the northern tip of the Norfolk Broads, or Hickling Broad to be more precise. This reserve is owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and we’d not picked it for any other reason than when I googled “Common Cranes in Norfolk”, this was the first site which popped up. Initial impressions were impressive with a freshly opened visitor centre and friendly staff followed moments later by a pair of Common Crane circling on thermals high above us. Now that is what I call delivering on your promises. Both were however incredibly distant but even so their sheer size was a sight to behold and looked almost completely alien in our skies. Indeed the species was almost entirely extinct from this country until a small breeding population re-established itself here in the 1970’s. Very recent history but I’m so glad that they’re back.
As we explored the rest of the reserve it was standard Norfolk fare in the shape of Sedge Warblers, Marsh Harriers and Avocets until I spotted a strange looking Crow lurking at the back of one particular pool. As I watched it slowly emerged revealing an entirely unexpected Hooded Crow! Now this is a species normally only found across Europe and in Scotland so to find one here was completely out of the blue. Indeed it may be a reserve first as when I reported it back at reception they certainly couldn’t recall having one recorded here previously. Pretty pumped up after that we almost immediately stumbled into a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, our first of the year and an individual that was even visible, just about. Not often that you get to say that about Groppers in my experience.
And now for something a little different. At Hickling Broad it’s possible to pay a little extra and enjoy a boat tour out onto the broad, stopping off at a couple of otherwise inaccessible hides. This sounded very tempting given the weather and thanks to our excellent guide we had a thoroughly enjoyable trip (plus another couple of excellent book recommendations – I’m going to need some more shelves). Along the way we spotted a pair of Bearded Tits, Common Terns as well as a superb male Pintail, but for me the highlight turned out to be the treetop hide. With this area being so flat it’s hard to get a sense of your place within it at times, something which a lot of steps and a distinctly wobbly structure soon had solved. All around us for as far as the eye could see stretched reeds and waterways whilst off in the distance stood sand dunes and the sea beyond. Even the lighthouse at Happisburgh put in an appearance along with a stark warning from our guide that if the sea ever does manage to break through there, all of this area could be inundated. Now there’s a sobering thought.
Back on dry land we had one final stop to make at the Bittern Hide, a name which always induces a sense of scepticism. So it was that we sat down, opened a hatch and were soon enjoying views of a Bittern crossing the expanse of low lying reeds spread out before us. Nope, I couldn’t believe it either and yes we were very jammy. Even better was that the bird appeared in no hurry, periodically stopping to look around or grab a juicy morsel. I wish my photos could do the encounter justice but with distance, heat haze and errant reeds all playing their part, these were the best I could manage.
But wait, there’s more. Having lost the Bittern to taller reeds after twenty (!) minutes or so we were treated to the sound of it and some distant rival booming away. Our bird then climbed the reeds ahead of us and, whilst precariously balanced, boomed again in full view before stretching those wings and lifting off, soon lost to the expanse of Hickling Broad. My best Bittern encounter without a doubt.
Day 6 – Wells to Holkham
I really didn’t think that anything could have bettered yesterday but somehow our last day in Norfolk had one more ace to play. It certainly wasn’t the weather however which was distinctly grey and drizzly as we set off from Wells, a fact which meant that even the hundreds of Brent Geese feeding nearby couldn’t entice my camera into action. No photos then unfortunately so my first Whitethroat of the year, seen in Wells Woods, escapes exposure on this blog. Saves me royalty fees I suppose. We still enjoyed a lovely walk and at Holkham Gap managed to spot a flyover Spoonbill and pair of Whimbrels. Would the birds ever stop coming? Apparently not. Common Scoter and Great Crested Grebes were making the most of a calm sea until we arrived at the dunes beyond Holkham. At this point the sun chose to put in an appearance as we begin to look through the scrubby vegetation during the first genuinely hot period of the past week. I’ve heard people speak before of how an area can feel rare and, after spending just a few moments here, I knew exactly what they meant. There was an inexplicable sense of expectation that, given the time of year and weather conditions, there just had to be something unusual out there. Once again our luck was in as we stumbled across not one, not two but six Ring Ouzels! By now even I was starting to believe that we were somehow blessed. Actually that’s not strictly true as earlier in the day there had apparently been double figures reported so in a way this was a bit of a let down (I’m joking of course). Even after all that Holkham had one last treat in store for us with a lone Pink-footed Goose and at least three more Spoonbill from the hides. Now that’s how you sign off. Thanks Norfolk.
Day 7 – RSPB Minsmere
If you’ve seen my Nightingale post then you’ll know that by Saturday we were down in Kent. Along the way though we thought we’d stop in at a very cold, rather grey Minsmere. Now this reserve and I have history as back in 1997 it was the first time I had ever set myself the goal of seeing a bird and was determined not to move until I was successful. This probably irked my parents no end but after an hour or so of waiting I was treated to my first ever views of Bittern. That was also the first trip on which I’d ever carried a field notebook meaning that I have the moment preserved for prosperity.
Indeed it was the Bittern we were again hoping to see when initially planning this trip but given our success over the last few days that no longer seemed like such a priority. Even so we still managed brief flight views and heard several birds booming but we were instead focused on a few of the rarer species on site that day. Stone Curlews were target number one but they sadly eluded us once more though we did get more cracking views of Bearded Tit and another reeling Grasshopper Warbler from north wall. At least 45 Sandwich Terns out on the scrape were another year tick as was a male Mandarin. What I really wanted to see though was a Savi’s Warbler of which one had turned up the previous day outside Island Mere Hide. When we arrived late afternoon there were a series of scopes trained in the same direction which is always a good sign. Turns out that the Savi’s had been seen twice for just a couple of seconds in the last three hours or so, always on the same very, very distant bush. As we settled in for a long wait more Bearded Tit’s kept us entertained until a distant reeling drifted across to our ears. It’s hard for me to explain in words but the call was distinctly different from that of a Gropper, a lower and flatter pitch about the best that I can come up with. Then the shout went up that the bird itself was visible but I couldn’t connect before the moment was gone. Another bout of reeling and an hour later and again the shout went up though this time I locked on almost immediately. Despite the vast distance between us the Savi’s Warbler was visible calling and preening intermittently for at least a couple of minutes. Given the previous day’s brief sightings it seemed that we had lucked in once more. Lifer number two and another species I never expected to see.
And that, as they say, was that. Next stop Kent for another lifer (Nightingale) before home and back to work. Without a doubt this had been our best ever trip to Norfolk and frankly, I just can’t wait for our next eastern adventure.