Weekend Trip to Norfolk 13th – 15th February 2016

It was an unusual Saturday morning start for our weekend as the coach pulled away from the Guild with a party of 28 members and friends, in the hands of our driver Arthur. We made good progress in the lighter traffic and, having stopped near Derby for a break, we continued on to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney, on the Ouse Washes.


This was the first visit that the group had made to this reserve, so there was eager anticipation as the coach made its final approach down narrow lanes to the visitor centre, which is linked to the hides by a long bridge spanning both the road and the New Bedford River. Our arrival was timely, as the trust was just about to start the midday swan feed; they kindly ushered us straight through, and delayed the start a little so that we were all able to see the spectacle as hundreds of swans and ducks (mainly Pochard) came close to the hide for feeding time.


There were lots of Whooper Swans and a few Mute Swans just outside the windows, but it took a bit of searching before we located a lone Bewick’s Swan further out, clearly not interested in the free hand outs. The accompanying commentary was well delivered and gave us all an insight into the origins and daily habits of the many visiting species. Once the talk was over, the group split up from the main observatory to visit the three or four smaller hides, spread along the embankment. These gave closer views of Pintail and Shoveler as well as a small selection of waders, including Black-tailed Godwit, Snipe, Redshank, Dunlin and Oystercatcher. Marsh Harrier and Buzzard were both observed over the wash, while Cormorant and Little Egret sought out small fish in the muddy waters.

As the day progressed, members of the party gradually drifted back to the centre, some to find a welcome cup of coffee, while others checked out the birds on the feeders and on Lady Fen, behind the centre. A small flock of Golden Plover, swirling back and to before landing, attracted some attention, but the cry of “Barn Owl” led to an attempted mass exodus as coffee and cake was abandoned in the hope of seeing this charismatic bird. Some saw it, some missed it, as it perched briefly on a roadside post before flying across the road and out of sight. Fortunately, this was not to be our only sighting of the weekend!

We left as the light was starting to go, and in not much over an hour we were pulling in to the car park of our accommodation, the Caley Hall Hotel in Old Hunstanton. An excellent dinner followed, and, after a good night’s sleep, a small group met before breakfast for a walk down to the beach. A Barn Owl was seen, somewhat distantly, from the lane beside the hotel as it quartered a field, but the main interest was the waders on the shore, where Bar-tailed Godwits and Curlews vied with Sanderling and Ringed Plovers to find the tastiest morsels. A cold northerly wind was an introduction to what we should expect for the rest of the weekend.


After a hearty breakfast, we set out along the north Norfolk coast, stopping first at Choseley Drying Barns where virtually the first birds we saw were a pair of Grey Partridge which, obligingly, ran towards the coach. There appeared to be little spilt grain, so in consequence, there were not the hoped for flocks of Yellowhammers and finches, which had been such a feature on our last visit here. A Red Kite hung over the ridge, an additional sighting to the many seen from the coach on the journey down.


We moved on to our next destination at Brancaster Staithe where a Red-necked Grebe had been reported over the previous few days. Our planned arrival at high tide meant that there was plenty of water in the harbour to scan for the grebe, and Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye were both soon found, but the grebe suddenly appeared less than twenty metres away and proceeded to swim along the shoreline, giving perfect close views in excellent light which were much appreciated by all.

After a comfort stop in Wells, the coach made its way along the narrow road through Stiffkey and we soon arrived in the car park at Blakeney. A walk along the sea wall took us to a point where we were able to look for the Lapland Bunting that had been seen in the area, and we joined a few other birders as we carefully inspected every Reed Bunting, in the hope of finding this scarce winter visitor. Eventually it was located, quite close to the path, but no sooner had a few members of the group got on to it, than an inconsiderate dog walker flushed the bird, and despite searching for some time after, it didn’t reappear. Very frustrating! The only consolation was a small flock of Twite that gave good views during our wait.


We then drove along the coast towards Cley, admiring this splendid stretch of coastline, but another shout of “Barn Owl” had everyone looking in the same direction towards a bird that was hunting over a field next to the road. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stop as the road was narrow and bendy, but Arthur slowed as much as he could to give us all the best chance to see it.


Our next port of call was at Salthouse, where we left the coach on the main road to walk down the road to the beach. The Turnstones here were very confiding, almost walking round our feet, and it was good to catch up with a sizeable flock of Pink-footed Geese, initially on the ground, but later to hear their calls as they took to the air. To say it was bracing as we crested the shingle bank would be an understatement – the wind was almost Arctic – but a few hardy souls persisted with a seawatch and were rewarded with a few new species to add to the weekend’s tally. Red-throated Divers flew by, and both Common Scoter and Guillemot appeared on the tops of waves before plunging out of sight into a deep trough. We retraced our steps back to the coach and were able to have a little lesson in Gull identification as a Common Gull perched conveniently on a gate, enabling us to see all its key features, with Black-headed Gulls close by for comparison. Our drive back to Holkham was fraught to say the least, as Arthur skilfully manoeuvred the coach through Cley and Stiffkey, not helped by the numerous Sunday afternoon drivers who seemed intent on making life as difficult as possible.


Our final stop of the day was at Holkham Gap, where we walked down Lady Ann’s Drive, passing small flocks of Wigeon and Teal, the odd Egyptian Goose, and a few Ruff with Lapwings. On the way to the hide, we had good views of Little Grebe, and once at the hide, we watched Marsh Harrier hunting over the reeds while Buzzards sat around on trees and posts. It was getting quite dark as we got back to the coach, but it wasn’t long before we were whisked back to the comfort of our hotel.

The early morning walk the following day was cancelled as it was raining, so we left the hotel after breakfast, heading for Thornham harbour. There were plenty of Brent Geese out on the saltings, with Curlew, Grey Plover and Little Egret also taking opportunities to feed in the channels. Yet another Barn Owl put in an appearance, a Kestrel perched on the top of a conifer, and a Merlin put on a dashing display as it chased after a hapless passerine. A small flock of Twite also showed well, close to the coach.


Our final destination for the weekend was Titchwell RSPB reserve, and the group split up to visit the various hides and to walk down to the shore. The area close to the visitor centre was very productive, with Brambling, Siskin and Marsh Tit on the feeders and a Water Rail feeding in a ditch close to the path. There was a good selection of waders with Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank and Greenshank all showing well, while out to sea, passing Eider and Kittiwakes skimmed the waves. Two or three Marsh Harriers were in the air together, while Gadwall, Little Grebe and Kingfisher inhabited the reedbed pools.


All too soon, it was time to leave, and we set off on a rather circuitous route home, thanks to Arthur’s sat nav system – I think my trusty map will need to come into its own again next year! Thanks are due to the organisers, to our driver Arthur, and to all members of the group who participated in making this a really enjoyable weekend.

Photos courtesy of Robert D


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