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Norfolk Birds

David Roberts writes:

Had a super short break in Norfolk last week, drove up Tuesday 23 November and back Friday 26, staying at Caley Hall Hotel, Old Hunstanton, which is a favourite of mine as it is so close to all the bird watching sites on the North Coast; I have stopped there many times in the last fifteen years. Jean and I took our labrador, Millie, and met up at Welney Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre for lunch with Roy and Anne Jackson and their King Charles.

As it was well into November a lot of Whooper Swans had arrived and it was quite spectacular looking out at the large area of water from the luxury hide. There were masses of water birds including Pochard, Shoveler, Teal, Pintail, Tufted Ducks, Snipe, Lapwing, and hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits in the distance. The weather was beautiful with a clear blue sky. After a couple of hours we headed on to Caley Hall, about an hour away, arriving just before dark. By the time I had walked Millie down Smugglers Lane to the golf course it was dark.

Whooper Swans at Welney

The next morning was quite still and bright, with clouds and after breakfast we all headed off to RSPB Titchwell Marsh Nature Reserve and walked down the path that leads to the sea, past several areas of water with hides and lots of reeds. We had good views of groups of very handsome Dark-bellied Brent Geese flying overhead and down on the water. The smallest of our winter geese that migrate here from Russia for the winter. When they fly they are quite vocal with growling calls. Two or three flying Marsh Harriers were seen from time to time. An Island in one of the lagoons was covered in Golden Plovers, really showing off their golden colour well. Some of the other birds we saw from the path were, Widgeon, Teal, Shoveler, Shelducks, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets, Redshank and across the marsh to the left several Curlews that were quite vocal with that lovely haunting call when they flew. Farming practices, predators and loss of habitat have led to a huge decline in breeding pairs and chicks being born in recent years. A Water Rail could be heard squealing in a reed covered area but could not be seen.

Golden Plovers at Titchwell.

Down on the beach, with the tide receding, there was a huge expanse of sand stretching both ways and the shoreline in one area was thick with birds. Oystercatchers, Dunlin, Sanderling dashing about at the tide line like little clockwork toys and the odd Little Stint. Cormorants out in the water and a Great Crested Grebe some way out, showing it’s long neck. Roy also picked up a group of 6 Goldeneye someway out. As we were leaving the beach someone spotted a Red-throated Diver.

Gone lunchtime we decided to drive along to Brancaster Staithe for a crab sandwich but sadly the usual outlet that sells them was not there. We headed on to Lady Ann’s Drive at Holkham and found the Lookout Cafe open. Afterwards as the light was starting to fade we watched a tremendous number of Pink-footed Geese on the marshes at the side of the drive and more and more cackling flocks coming in all the time to drink and bathe in the fresh water. There were thousands of them, what a spectacle to behold! They are between the size of a Mute Swan and a Mallard and arrive here for the winter from their breeding grounds in Spitsbergen, Greenland and Iceland.

Returning to our hotel it was nearly dark when I took Millie for a quick walk. I could hear Pink-footed Geese approaching, ” heaven’s hounds”, before they flew overhead in great V formations heading in the reddening sky for their roosting sites, possibly the mud on The Wash at Snettisham.

After a great Caley Hall breakfast the next morning we headed off to Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley visitor centre, there was rain in the air as we crossed the road and walked down through the reeds, along the board walk to the hides on Cley Marshes, Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s oldest nature reserve, purchased in 1926 and now replicated across the UK. Here we spent a happy couple of hours watching the birds on the pools in front of us. It was good to see a couple of Avocets with a small group of Mute and Whooper Swans. The most interesting were four Marsh Harriers flying low over the reeds and sometimes dropping down in the reeds on the edge of the water, good to watch them so close, flying with their wings in a very characteristic V shape, with beautiful markings. They have been a great success story in Norfolk after becoming extinct at the end of the nineteenth century through habitat loss and persecution. There are over one hundred breeding pairs in Norfolk now.

Back in our hotel that evening we were speaking to another couple staying with a couple of dogs and they showed us a fantastic photo of a White-tailed Sea Eagle they had taken on their phone down at Snettisham Beach in the afternoon as it flew low over them, what a stroke of luck!