A weekend in Norfolk with the crew is always a highly anticipated event. The promise of scarce bird species, good company and conversation is always a top draw event.
So with a trip planned months upon months in advance, it was going to be hit or miss as to whether we would have the trip planned to favourable weather conditions. Time passed, plans were made and possible target species identified. And as time grew nearer, and nearer, the weather seemed to get more and more tasty for some migration and with only 2 days to go, it happened. A large fall hit North Norfolk. Score!
The Friday came, and onwards we went. A very early start from our midlands homeland had us finding ourselves pulling into a layby at Beeston Common. An Isabelline Shrike (ssp L. isabellinus isabellinus) had been found at the site a few days previously, and with it being a lifer for everyone in the car, it was perhaps no surprise to head here first. Within a few minutes, we had the Shrike located, flicking around in the densely vegetated hawthorn stands. With its plumage being a mix of sandy and reddish colours, it actually proved to be a very attractive bird. Shrikes are always highly prized birds, and to start off our weekend with a bird of this class certainly boded well.
Very aware that we had arrived at simply the perfect time for migration, itchy feet soon took hold. Firstly by a look around the habitat on Beeston Common for any further migrants (Marsh Tit and hundreds of inbound Thrushes) and later by thinking about our next place to go.
As well as the passerine migrants, we were also away that the weather conditions looked decent for seawatching. With the midlands lacking ‘some sea’ seawatching is a task we don’t manage to achieve often, so while being so close to the known seawatching hotpot of Sherringham it would have been rude not to drop in. In the grand scheme of things, it turned out to be fairly quiet, however we quickly added 7 Common Scoter, 5 Red-Throated Diver, 5 Great Skua, Mediterranean and Little Gull to an ever growing day list. The Skuas in particular were greatly appreciated, with me having had a significant lack of them in the past.
As we sat in a crowded ‘seawatching shelter’ on the promenade, I received a text. ‘Olive Backed Pipit still at Muckleburgh Hill’… On our group chat the night before, I was quoted on saying that it wouldn’t be around by the Friday, and with an afternoon of no reports, it certainly seemed true.
After wiping off some egg from my face, we jumped in the car and headed west. Finding the hill, a new site for all of us, proved hard, but we managed it first try, and quickly made our way up the sandy slope of the hill. With Thrushes still streaming in off the sea we made our way to the top of the hill, where a small clearing had been made among the Bracken. The scrum of twitchers easily giving the site away as where we need to be.
After seemingly an eternity of failing to get onto the bird, which was showing very briefly and often hidden I finally managed to get a brief view of the bird as it picked its head up from the vegetation and stood proud. Olive-backed Pipit. Wow! That face pattern!
Slowly and stealthily the bird crept through the bracken, and as the crowd grew, the bird became continually more and more confiding. After about an hour with the bird, it was creeping around a mere 20ft away. Absolutely crippling views!
With Wells Wood/ Holkham seemingly being the epicentre of the fall, it was no surprise to head here next, and it truly was dripping with birds. Those birds being mostly Goldcrest and winter Thrushes, but we all knew there were some rare birds lurking in there! A Blyths Reed Warbler had been knocking around in the Dell, however after a fair amount of time searching here, this drew a blank. A Short-Eared Owl flew in off the sea and over our heads before we decided to head further into the woods to try and locate some of the other autumn migrants.
My main target, without a shadow, was Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, a species I have dreamed about seeing since I first saw it in a bird book a number of years before. While I had been searching for the Blythes Reed, the group split and our walkie talkies came in handy when they relayed news they had just seen a Pallas’s about a mile further into the wood. This gave me an extra boost and I walked past the Hume’s YBW crowd for views of a much better bird.
By the time I arrived with my other crew members, the bird had disappeared, but I went about scanning the hordes of Goldcrests in the small areas of sycamore and Oak. It was only a minute or so before out of the leaves flicked a broad yellow supercillium and a broad central crown stripe.
A few views were had as it flicked along the treeline, but then it flew across the track, and into a small line of trees on the marshes side. For the next 15 minutes, the bird performed very well in a small sycamore, often giving binocular filling views! Superb! Dreamy views.
Unfortunately I was too busy swooning over the bird and by the time I had realised I should grab the digiscoping setup, the bird had melted back into the dense vegetation. I again stayed behind for further views but this proved pointless, and I missed views of the Hume’s as a result.
We headed back for further attempts to locate the Blyths however, but this was again hard work, however at least this time we struck lucky as while scanning a passing Tit flock, out flicked another Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, right above the heads of the crowd! This one proceeded to flash its rump shamelessly as it moved across the Silver Birches, before again, melting into the canopy.
As we drove out of the car park at the Well’s Wood end, we stopped on the entrance road, where we had good, but distant views of 2 Great Grey Shrikes, both perched like sentinels waiting for the next passing exhausted migrant. (I imagine Goldcrests were on the agenda).
With the day quickly closing in we wanted to add some waterbirds to our weekend tally, and so therefore it was no hard decision to head to Titchwell RSPB. A quick loop searching for Passerines within the scrub around the centre didn’t produce much, so we headed out onto the marshes.
The expected cast of waders was present on the tidal and saltmarshes, swarms of Golden Plover and winter Duck filled the skies, together with sizable flocks of both Godwit species and Ruffs. A couple of late Avocet were a nice addition as we stood waiting for the roost. Only 2 Marsh Harriers arrived, however the Gull roost developed, and in dropped 3 Yellow-legged Gulls. At last light, a Barn Owl quartered the reedbed, a perfect way to end a superb day 1 of the Norfolk weekend.
17/10/16- Durnham Deapdale- 6:45am.
Wanting to maximise time in the field, the crew was up pre-dawn with the intention of getting into the field by the time it got light. As the first shades of blue emerged, the sound of Pink-Footed Geese built, and soon the sky was filled as they vacated their roost to head to their feeding areas inland.
With the wind coming in at a strong north-easterly, and high tides, we decided a quick shot at seawatching would be worthwhile to ‘test the water’. If things were moving, we would stay.
We arrived on the Cley shingle bank by 7:30, and then settled ourselves in for a shift. There was a fair bit of Duck movement, but our targets were proving elusive, those being the rarer Shearwaters and Skuas. A few Red-Throated Divers were moving back and forth, and a close single Red-Breasted Merganser flew past and along Blakeney Point.
Scanning into the distance, a Shearwater was approaching from the east, low down across the water before wheeling up in a wide loop. This behaviour quickly indicated we were on one of the targets and soon the bird approached its closest point, revealing all dark plumage and long wings, the first Sooty Shearwater of the weekend!
The next hour provided a further 5 Sootys and a number of Great Skuas. A Sooty was tracking west when I removed my eye from the scope, to see a dark seabird approaching close in from the west. Quickly the lighter build of the bird was apparent in comparison to the earlier Greats, however the bird still seemed barrel chested and heavy. Approaching within 100ft of the beach viewpoint, it was clear we had our first Pomarine Skua!
3 of the crew members were further east then us, so a call on the walkie talkie tried to get them onto it, but in return we received a message that they’d just seen a Lapland Bunting. Long story short, a walk out there and a thorough search couldn’t relocate it and they didn’t see the Skua, so with the continuing allure of Well’s Wood, the two members who hadn’t seen the Lap cut our losses.
Following a quick Bap in Wells Harbour, we pulled into a very full car park by 10:30. A Red Flanked Bluetail, found yesterday after we had left was item number 1 on our list, so we quickly hot footed it down there. It didn’t take long for our first view, a ‘Robin shaped bird’ dropping down out of the tangle of bushes followed by a strong flash of blue as it flicked back up.
After this, we didn’t strike lucky with any of the rarities reported within the woods, and with it being 1:30, activity was dropping off on the passerine front, so again, we decided that Titchwell would be a good shout. We were still missing a number of species from our trip list that we could fill in.
Although it was much the same as the day before, with large flocks of ducks and waders, we managed to find a few of our targets. Pochard and Red-crested Pochard were well represented, with 13 and 9 individuals. Good numbers of both. Our main reasoning for missing them the day before being that we didn’t visit their favoured pool.
Beyond the pools, the beach held the expected variety of shoreline waders, with Grey Plover, Knot, Sanderling, Turnstone and Bar-tailed Godwit all being represented. As we had walked towards the beach, we had been treated to rather good views of Spotted Redshank. And again on the way back, we connected with the same bird, although this time it was feeding right beside the track with a couple of Black-Tailed Godwits. Phenomenal views!
With the early mornings catching up with us, we decided to take the rest of the evening off, enjoying food and drinks in a nearby pub.
We again were out for dawn, this time with the intention of finding something for ourselves. We had racked our brains the night before about where to head with the best options of finding birds, but being able to avoid the majority of the crowds. Wells, as it had been all weekend, was packed with birders, so if anything was in there, you’d imagine it was found, so where else? Cley? Stiffkey?
We chose Burnham Ovary marshes and dunes. A good variety of species can be found, and indeed we found many. The roadside fields were covered in Geese, pink-Footed, Greylag, Brent and Egyptians. Smaller numbers of ducks and waders were present in the fields. We checked the pool and the estuarine mud after wading through hordes of Goldcrest to the seawall, adding Little Grebe stalking the edges of the reeds.
We walked further, and another Short-Eared Owl flew over our heads as it came in off the sea before dropping into the Sueada on the saltmarsh. A Greenshank flew past calling among the omnipresent Redshanks and a number of Common Snipe flew out of the vegetation as the tide approached. We reached the dunes, with Reed buntings, Robins and Thrushes all scattering from the bushes but these seemed fairly quiet. (If only we had checked the same area of scrub a little further west- we may have found the Little Bunting seen later in the day at the same site!). A single Wheatear was flicking around We settled on top of the dunes and scoped the sea for a while, and also scanned the roosting wader flock. 18 Common Scoter flew past as well as 3 each of Red-Breasted Merganser and Red-Throated Diver. A Great Crested Grebe- our first of the weekend, sat out on the sea.
A number of Gannets were passing offshore, and sure enough, after a while, a number of Great Skua started moving past. An hours watch produced 15, including a flock of 6 which lumbered offshore before settling on the sea, including some fairly good views. As A Skua lumbered west, a more ‘flappy’ bird further out at sea immediately drew attention. The bird flew nearer and nearer until it revealed itself to be an ‘Eared Owl’. Although we had seen a number of SEO coming ‘in off’ we had not watched one struggling across the waves until this point. Clearly exhausted, the bird tried its best to shake the attention of a party of passing Gulls until it reached land. We had been watching it or about 4 minutes before it finally struck land, flying over the dunes and dropping into the long grass on the marshes.
We walked east, which honestly was all a bit quiet, with only a few hundred winter thrushes, Meadow Pipits and Goldcrest to show for the effort. We walked all the way to the western end of Holkham wood, where a quick scan revealed the Great White Egret was still present, feeding in one of the pools there, although very distant. A number of Raptors were also in the sky here, with 4 Marsh Harrier, 2 Buzzard, Kestrel and Peregrine.
With a long journey home, we walked back to the car, with our plan to find something interesting unfulfilled. A Bunting that if we had walked 30 meters in the opposite direction may have shown itself to us, and a brief probable large Pipit sp seen by one of the crew, which despite further searching couldn’t be refound (A Richards was found in the exact same spot the day after). As we were about to drop over the seawall, a superb Merlin gave a cracking flight view, before perching up on a post on the saltmarsh.
With our weekend drawing to a close, we drove west, with a last ditch stop at Choesley Barns to find a few farmland species. Sadly we couldn’t find any of our targets here, huge coveys of Red-legged but no Grey Partridges and no Corn Buntings. A large mixed wader flock were there to greet us goodbye to end the trip on a cheery note.
Overall an excellent weekend. Considering we had planned the trip months in advance, and not last minute due to weather conditions, we obviously struck lucky. Lots of great birds, great company and lots of birdy chat. What could be better!
To next autumn!