Friday, January 23, 2009

Norfolk - 3rd & 4th January 2009

Windmill and Little Egret

3rd January

48 precious hours to spare outside of the city at the beginning of the year, and so to Norfolk with Paul (Cook) behind the wheel of his newly-acquired, made-for-birding second-hand camper van; leaving not-so-sleepy north London well before sunrise, our first port of call was Lynford Arboretum, effectively the unkempt grounds of a stately home in the middle of nowhere, well known as a good site for Hawfinch.

Arriving shortly after sunrise with clear blue skies and a deep, white frost, we were lucky enough to catch up with a couple of birds allowing great views in the treetops; before leaving, we had the pleasure of a very confiding Water Rail crunching just beyond our feet in a frozen ditch, as well as Bullfinch, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Siskins.

Heading west towards the north-east coast of the county, we decided to try our luck with several Waxwings, which had been reported in a typically godforsaken suburb of Norwich called Thorpe St. Andrew; in the midst of a legoland housing estate and with local chavs taking the air with their unfortunate staffs straining at their chains, we got out of the van and immediately connected with a single bird, perched nervously in the top of a tree.

Golden Plovers and Pink-footed Geese

A quick wander round produced no sign of any more, and so we headed east, to the Yare Valley and Cantley Marshes. A traditonal hot-spot for grey geese, a short walk from the van (a recurring theme developing here) and we were scoping a flock of several hundred; the majority Pink-feet, with around 40 albifrons White-fronts and, our target species for the site, 60+ Taiga Bean Geese.

Having greatly increased (personally very rusty and limited) grey-goose ID skills in the shadow of the local sugar beet factory ploughing out its column of smoke, we entered the classic north-east Norfolk landscape of evocative, endless, creek-ridden and windmill-dotted grazing marsh.

B-roads snaking through Halvergate Marshes provided great views of the area, with multiple Common Snipe flushed at every stop, a Merlin speeding past, several hundred Golden Plovers, Redshanks, a few Little Egrets and our quarry, a Ross's Goose attempting somewhat pathetically to blend in with thousands upon thousands of Pink-feet.

Ross's Goose with Pink-feet (honest)

With daylight at a premium (and extremeties almost frost-bitten) our final stop of the day was Stubb Mill (Hickling Broad NWT reserve), where a couple of kilometres walk east ends at the Raptor watchpoint. Marsh Harriers were already everywhere, perched like crows on almost every available bush and post, with at least 35 present by dusk; a single ring-tail Hen Harrier eventually joined them, as well as a Barn Owl and the ubuiquitous hundreds of Pink-feet.

However, one of the highlights of the day was the unmistakable sound of Common Cranes coming in to roost, with 16 birds drifting into view in the failing winter light. Refreshment in a local backwater pub (American Werewolf in Norfolk) and then on to Great Yarmouth, a cheap and comfortable B&B (£16 single en suite - the seventies are back), a indian restaurant to ourselves, a few nightcaps in a seafront bar and an early night.

4th January

Up and out early and onto the deserted sea-front, armed with leftover mince pies to intice the Mediterranean Gulls over from the beach; this took a matter of seconds to pay off, the only drawback being the closeness of the birds for photography (hand-feeding and big lenses not mixing too well). At least 35 Meds of all ages graced us with their presence before we headed a few hundred metres down the seafront towards the harbour.

Med Gulls of all three age groups, Great Yarmouth beach.

After sending in the details to the BTO, we now know from the Med Gull ringing group in Germany that the adult bird pictured (centre) was colour-ringed as a chick on the tiny island of Pionierinsel in the Elbe estuary (40 kilometers NW of Hamburg), on June 17th, 2006. Coincidentally, it's from the same colony as the bird which winters on our birding friend Des Mackenzie's local patch, Kensington Gardens (central London).

A five-second scan from the van of a few loafing gulls on the beach immediately produced a cracking first-winter Glaucous Gull, picking cautiously at a discarded rubber glove as if it were alive (a possibility considering the proximity to Sizewell down the coast).

First-winter Glaucous Gull, Great Yarmouth beach

To the Broads next, and an extended session in quintessentially bleak and beautiful local environs, at Martham Ferry / Heigham Marshes. Another 12 or more Marsh Harriers in all directions, joined by another ring-tail Hen Harrier and an especially large and feisty Peregrine, which spent most of its time deliberately crashing into a flock of crows in a solitary bush, apparently just for the fun of it, and the rest fighting harriers.

Accompanying two Pink-feet and then a flock of grazing Greylags (both species dwarfing the bird), what for all the world resembled a Lesser White-fronted Goose was watched for a long while, and despite our best efforts to dismiss the little chap, fitted the majority of characteristics attributable to the species. Knowing the minefield of establishing origin, the possiblity of hybridisation and our lack of local knowledge, we'd stop short of giving the bird unblemished credentials, but it kept us on our toes at the very least...

Lesser White-fronted (type) Goose

Dozens of Common Snipe, Curlew, White-fronts, a covey of aroud 15 Grey Partridge, a pair of Egyptian Geese, a few Water Rails, and the omnipresent flocks of Lapwings and Fieldfares were also recorded. Lastly, a drive west (clipping Suffolk and Cambridgeshire en route) across the county to Welney WWT Reserve on the Ouse Washes, for a final fling with classic winter wildfowl.

An impressive, inclusive reserve with all mod-cons (heated, glass-fronted viewing centre, joystick-operated CCTV on the pools), it admirably and justifiably attracts a lot of visitors, and there are worse ways to spend a cold January day than looking out across the part-frozen floodlands accomodating innumerable Common Pochard, Pintail, Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon and Mallard, and the added bonus of eight Tundra Bean Geese implausibly completed our full set of Grey Geese for the trip.

All very well, but for personally appreciating the spectacle of hundreds of Whooper and Bewick's Swans coming in to roost, stepping outside and standing alone along the path, away from the crowds, is the only way. The birds came in against a watery, peach-coloured evening light, fantastically low and directly overhead, with every call and wingbeat audible in the silence.

Whooper Swans, Welney WWT