Thursday 26 January 2023

North Norfolk - it were a bit grim - 25th January 2023

As my day out in Kent had no takers by Monday, Pat decided that I should be taken out for the day (subsequently sorry Sally!) and so I met him at his abode in Woodford at 6am yesterday for a North Norfolk excursion. The weather driving up was dire with almost freezing fog all of the way and we thankful to arrive at Holkham being able to see the trees in the distance!

With the slow journey up we were a little late for the full goose spectacle but there were still hundreds of Pinkfeet heading east and inland from the direction of Wells.  A vast flock of Wigeon were grazing alongside Lady Ann’s Drive and Snipe were foraging in the wet meadows and actually approaching quite close to where we parked where the would duck down in the grass at the slightest suggestion of trouble which was frequently provided by the marauding Red Kites and Marsh Harriers.



Legless Snipe

It was a monochrome landscape and even the Great White Egret that lumbered over the road barely cut through the gloom with its usual gleaming brilliance.

Grim White Egret 

We geared up with as many layers as possible and headed through the Gap to the beach passing Goldcrests and Coal Tits in the pines on the way.  The tide was still well in and an elevated scan only produced a few Black-tailed Godwits, a single Brent Goose and a couple of Redshank so we followed the Bay east towards the ‘compound’ where the Shorelarks are regularly to be found.  There were Rock and Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and a small Linnet flock on the saltings and it did not take long to find the three little yellow lark faces grovelling in the sandy areas.  It has been a while since I have seen this delightful species.


We left a tour group watching them and headed for the sea where the dunes afforded some shelter from the chilling breeze that had got up.  The sea was calm but almost devoid of birds despite visibility up to about half a mile out.  A dozen spiky headed Mergansers were found along with a single Red-throated Diver and a just one Grebe but to our delight it was a dusky fronted Red-necked.  Sanderling scurried along the foreshore like clockwork automatons and Oystercatcher and Grey Plover were also seen.  

Retracing our steps around the Bay saw us bump into another party of Shorelarks on the east side.  We had been told there were seven but 13 were counted on several occasions.  These ones showed even better as they shuffled on almost invisible legs.  We had collected six other people (none of whom had seen the species before) and by standing still we all got some memorable views.  Every now and then they would take off with the Skylarks and Linnets but would separate off and the thin calls could clearly be heard.  They would soon return to roughly the same spot and recommence stocking up on seeds.


Shorelarks - five in this shot!

The sea beckoned again but had receded some way so our impromptu party walked most of the way down.  It looked busier but closer inspection revealed that the duck rafts were not Scoter but Wigeon and Teal!  In fact I only saw one female Scoter!  There were other birds through with about another dozen Mergansers, a first-winter male Eider, Red-throated Diver, two Great Crested Grebes and surprisingly two more Red-necked Grebes.  Of the Snow Buntings there was no sign.

There had been some beach galloping

Walking straight back at the pines took us to the hide but the freshmarsh was scarily devoid of birds.  I had read tweets from two weeks ago off 13000 Lapwing along with vast numbers of wildfowl.  We saw three Lapwings and a few Greylags and Egyptian Geese and even the 200 Russian White-fronts were not visible so we ambled back passing a fine Red Kite with a fresh Rabbit kill and several more Marsh Harriers and Buzzards but not the hoped for White-tailed Eagle which had buggered off to the Broads.

There were very few small birds in the wood with only Treecreeper of note although the Firecrest was calling in the huge Holm Oak by the visitors centre and Pat actually had a good view in my absence.  Six Grey Partridge were in their regular spot in the corner of the first field and the same raptor selection were still giving the wildfowl serious grief out on the marsh towards Wells.  There was still very little light and I was dithering about what to do so we went west and had a look out over the freshmarsh from the Burnham layby.  There was almost nothing at all bar the raptor trio again, a Great White Egret and some Red-legged Partridges.  There were no Brents or Pinkfeet let along the hoped for Russian White-fronts.  Fortunately a brief stop at one of the Holkham gates gave us 20 of the latter complete with belly bars and facial blazes.

 Vaguely Reddish Kite


Very-Grey Partridges of the headless subspecies

 Red-legged Partridges

East again to Cley (ignoring some strange ‘road closed’ signage) and parking up at the East Bank in light rain. The Serpentine was frozen with a film of water on top but there were only Wigeon in the fields and not waders at all as we walked down while Arnolds Marsh added Avocet, Little Egret and Pintail to the day tally but there were only five Black-tailed Godwits and no sign of the Dowitcher.  

The rain was light but painfully icy and a few minutes at the sea produced a single Great Crested Grebe and not one other bird.  It was all getting a little dispiriting but thankfully a blizzard of Snow Buntings warmed our hearts as they drifted around us in a flock of rippling, flickering black, white and brown.  The disappeared almost completely into the shingle and we were able to scan them for the Lapland Bunting but a Goldfinch was the only waif amongst them.  My pictures tell me that there were at least 72 so my use of the word blizzard was appropriate for the first time in many years.

Snow Buntings - 23 in this pic and the Goldfinch

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings

The rain was getting heavier so we about turned and trudged back with a lovely Kingfisher and ice skating Water Rail for our troubles.  I am not sure I have experienced such a grey bitterly cold colourless day before. 

Garden Drove to wait for the Pallid Harrier had been the intention but the idea of walking down the muddy track, standing around and then trying to walk back in the near dark really did not appeal so we opted for the lazy option of Stiffkey campsite car park which at least meant we could retreat if the heavens opened and we spent the next 90 minutes scanning the murky saltmarsh and distance sandflats.  We did quite well all things considered with a female Hen Harrier close over the marsh heading west, two Marsh Harriers, Red Kite, female Merlin and distant female Peregrine along with a ghostly Barn Owl.  

The Pallid may well have snuck by us but it was hard work and tough on the eyes in such poor light.  Little Egrets were dotted across the area and seemed in no hurry to head off to roost while out on the sandflats skein after skein of Pinkfeet dropped in and settled down for the night.  This is the first time I have ever seen them do this and despite the great range you could still hear them ‘winking’ while a good mile to the west the Dark-bellied Brent geese were massing similarly and were noisily grumbling.  There were parties of these all around too and you could see the white bums winking on and off as they waddled around.

A Roe Deer appeared way out on the sand and ran like a demented dog through the entire flock of Pinkfeet which quickly settled after it popped out the other end.  Quite what it was doing way out there is anyone's guess.  Three Muntjac popped up under our noses too as they worked their way through the Sueda.

Curlews drifted back from the inland field where they had been feeding and were very vocal and a Song Thrush started singing behind us as the day came to a close but sunset came and went with no visible change in the light quality and it was the lack of feeling in fingers and toes than finally persuaded us to call it a day before similarly wet and grim journey home.

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