Monday 11 January 2016

And Ziggy Counted Crows... and Cranes... and Harriers...

The Norfolk Broads beckoned me towards them and a trouble free journey up was a pleasant surprise on a Friday afternoon with no hold ups and a nice Red Kite over the M11 at Saffron Walden to keep me alert.  

9th January:

It is always nice to get up the next morning and realise that you only have a twenty minute drive to the meeting point for the trip and by 9am we were all wrapped up and ready in the car park at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen.  The cool southerly breeze was getting up and the forecast only suggested that we might get a couple of hours before the rain caught up with us.

The first screen revealed some great reedbed management work and lots of very happy Mallard, Teal and Gadwall feeding in the mown areas.  I introduced the crew to the word ‘squibbling’ for the noise ducks make when feeding in shallow water. They agreed that it was a fine word and I promised to tell the creator of such a fine addition to their vocabulary.  The traditional Black Swan was loafing around but as usual there were no Bitterns, Beardies or Otters to be seen.


The trail was surprisingly un-muddy until we approached the Fen Hide but some clever use of firm sand had created a very usable surface and I will be taking the idea back to Rainham. 

A Chinese Water Deer scampered across the dormant flower meadows and a huge skein of Greylags came in from Buckenham but the marsh was very quiet with no duck to speak of and only a couple of Snipe that were spooked by one of the six Marsh Harriers that we saw. The Barn Owl came out of the old pumphouse building as we approached and silently headed across the Yare while a pair of Stonechats and a Meadow Pipit were perched on appropriate fences posts.

Out of the wind it was very mild and the damp woodland was alive with song with Mistle and Song Thrushes and Blackbirds, Robins and Wrens singing like it was early spring. Cuckoo Pint, Primroses and Celandines were already showing good leaf and Hazel catkins were already swaying in the breeze.  The wood itself was full of roving tit flocks with Marsh and Coal amongst the Blue, Greats and Long-tails along with several Treecreepers and Goldcrests but not one woodpecker. Chaffinches fed in the leaf litter and Siskins and Goldfinches dangled acrobatically in the Alder canopy.

A quick coffee and them onto nearby RSPB Buckenham for a walk back down to the Yare through the extensive water meadows.  Things were not as wet as I expected and the mild weather has seen to it that the small number of Taiga Bean Geese that arrived for the winter had largely moved on.  Two had been reported again last week so it was pleasing to pick them up quite quickly as they fed loosely with some of the now numerous Pink-feet grazing the area and even from some distance the long neck, dark head and big, largely orangey-yellow bills stood out in the flat light. 

Cantley Beet Factory in the distance

Pinkies probably numbered about 400 and after a good scan round we started to find the Eurasian White-fronts and ended up with 126 of these and 11 Barnacles amongst the hoards of Wigeon and swirling Golden Plover and Lapwing.  Unusually there were no Ruff or Black-tailed Godwits but I did find a single Grey Plover.

Canadas, Pinkies and a couple of White-fronts
Chinese Water Deer and White-fronts

Sam showing the Twins our funny 'Goshawk-headed Buzzard'

Some of the Wigeon was especially obliging and fed right alongside us by the main ditch. It is such a delight to see them so close and hear them chatting away to each other with whistles, grunts and throaty chuckles.  


Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards were a constant feature but a fly through Rough-legged Buzzard was something of a surprise as was the complete absence of any Peregrines!

Three Chinese Water Deer grazed with the geese and the odd Skylark flew around and both Water and Meadow Pipits were seen but with bellies and bladders rumbling we decided to head back to the shelter of Strumpshaw for lunch and some home comforts.  By three we were back at Buckenham just as the rain arrived. We had been lucky up until this point but would it abate for the main spectacle at dusk? 

Thankfully it did and as the light dwindled the flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws began to appear, firstly from the west where they congregated in several of the standard winter Oaks that lined the fields.  There was not enough room to house them all and the wind was making landing difficult and they played in the gusts around the branches like Chough around and alpine crag.

Suddenly a huge flock of several thousand birds arrived and the whole gang swirled off to the east and out of sight leaving a few stragglers in the original trees and we wondered if it was actually going to happen before the light left the sky. The noise level rose and they returned shortly afterwards with tens of thousands of their friends in tow and the swirling melange of black twisted and turned over the roost wood by the church with the sound crashing over you like pebbles washing up on Chesil Beach. 

I tried to video it but it never does it justice.... click here

It did not seem possibly that the cacophony could get any louder but the southerly contingent had not yet arrived and then the sky to the right of the wood suddenly darkened as countless more corvids came in in a snaking line that took another five minutes to peter out and become absorbed into the cloud of black wings. 

With no sunset sky, the sound was all we were left with as the hoard settled down for the night and was not much more than a murmur as we ambled back to the cars as the first of the rain returned.

A Tawny Owl flew over the road as we drove back to The Swan and we lost Pete C for a while (he had his Sat Nav AND Denis navigating) but by the time we all assembled for dinner everyone was talking about what a great day we had had.  For some the roost was a new experience but once you have witnessed it you will want to go back for more...

10th January: 

It dawned clear and dry albeit a bit breezy and so, winging it as usual, we headed off towards the coast with Rollesby Broad being the first stop.  This was a threefold destination... One: To check for any interesting wildfowl on the broad... Two: To rendezvous with the Wren family and Three: To feed the ducks with all the manky bread I had brought up from home.

All three were ticked off although duck wise the Broad was poor with just some Pochard, Tufties, Great Crested and Little Grebes and a strange little duck with the bread-begging motley ducks, Gypos and Coots is still eluding identification.  

Rollesby Broad

With the Wrens in tow we headed for Winterton Dunes where a whole hour was spent sheltering out of the cold wind behind a shed while us lads watched the sea and the ladies and kids sat on the beach and made a sandhill (not a castle).

At least twenty Red-throated Divers patrolled up and down along with many Cormorants, Kittiwakes and Gannets. A few Guillemots and Razorbills zoomed through and eight female Common Scoters were fishing just offshore. An agile small Skua chasing Kittiwakes on the horizon was on balance of probability a Pom but whichever species it was, its tenacity with its chosen victim was astonishing.

The coast road was now slowly driven and although it did not yield any Cranes, we did get superb views of flocks of Golden Plover and Pink-feet but no wild Swans with the Mutes. A Barn Owl hunted a ditch line and Antony picked up a delicate first-winter Little Gull feeding over a wet field with some Black-headed and Common Gulls while Marsh Harriers were all around and boded well for the roost later on.

We turned off the coast road and onto Hickling Road to cut through to Stalham and stopped and the hard standing pad on the left as it affords a view to the south. We could not see any Cranes but Pete picked them up calling some way off inland behind the trees and the bugling was carried to us on the wind. I tried to take us that way through the side roads but I could not find them and I suspect that there are many small fields and sedgey plots that we just cannot see from the road.  Lunch was acquired at Tesco where Antony deomostratetd his parkign skills before pulling off by the Catfield gas depot to have a look at the fine flock of winter swans present in the fields around the old airfield. The sun was now shining and it was good to have both species in the same herd and I counted 112 Bewick’s and 13 Whoopers.  This slightly made up for missing the eight Whoopers at Rainham on Friday morning!
Technically Antony managed to get his behamoth into almost four bays...

Whoopers in the middle...

and some Red-legged Partridge photobombing in the backbround...

After this it was a short of slightly damp drive down to Hickling for a picnic bench lunch in the sunshine and puddles.  Extra layers were added as the sky was clearing and the temperature was on the drop. 

The view
The Watchers

We were almost the first down at the Stubbs Mill view point and almost immediately two Cranes got up and flew a short way and so with the key species in the bag we settled down to watch and wait. The wind dropped almost completely and the sound of Cranes calling somewhere out on Hickling drifted towards us while out over the fields and reedbeds the Marsh Harriers slowly began to congregate and we were quickly into double figures. During the course of the next couple of hours I reckon that the best part of forty birds came in to roost including several immaculate males. Two ringtail Hen Harriers joined them and at the last knockings two female Merlins hurtled in. A fine male Sparrowhawk made several attempts at some Fieldfares and even perched up for us and Barn Owls were near constant companions for us as they ghosted around.   

Barn Owl

The closest pair of Cranes dropped back in to an area where a couple had been out and put down grain and could be seen cautiously feeding and seeing off opportunistic Shelduck while another pair and their youngster flew effortlessly to the north. 

Crane Family

With a smidgen of light left we sloshed our way back (now with Angie in tow) and stood in the car park for a little while to see if any Woodcock headed over and out onto the marsh to feed. Nothing happened so most of the party bid their farewells and started to head off. Angie and I remarked that it was usually at this point that we saw the Woodcock and sure enough two flew over as we waved them off... oh well

11th January:

Awoke to the sound of rain and the fact that Ziggy would no longer play guitar before starting the journey homewards.  The Crane Circuit did not reveal anything bar some Pink-feet and more puddles of epic proportions.  It did however result in the brakes on my car getting over wet and failing to work properly for some time. I was certainly awake and alert from that point onwards... 

The rain abated briefly at Ness Point, Lowestoft where seven Purple Sandpipers and 36 Turnstones were located on the wave soaked sea defences and as usual the light was terrible and my pictures poor. The sea was alive with Cormorants and small gulls and five Pintail battled southwards.

An almost sharp Purple Sandpiper

RSPB Minsmere saw us briefly as the weather closed back in and we stayed just long enough to use the facilities and have a chat with Ian Barthorpe about what was around.  The idea of heading out to the Levels to look for two Tundra Beans Geese did not appeal but the chippy in Aldeburgh did and so lunch was spent watching the gulls and more Turnstones opposite the bit of beach that held that lovely Hoary Redpoll in December 2012 and the Ivory Gull even further back in December 1999.
A brute of a Herring Gull

Black-headed Gul
Can't quite read this BTO BHG ring...

The rest of the journey home in the gloom and rush hour was accompanied by the iconic voice of Bowie in his various guises...


  1. A great write up and a great time had I'm sure Howard ! loved to have been there, but you know how it is at the moment. I remember the last time I was with the gang and you there at Stubbs Mill...without a coat on a freezing cold day, left it in Mark Vale's car in Harold Wood ! Happy days.

  2. Good stuff, need a visit back to my old haunt - Strumpy, not sure how sustainable the sandy paths are - brings back memories of laying down sand from the reserves own supply every year and then watch it get either washed or disappear under layers of clay