As it would be dark by 6:00pm and we wanted to make the most of our day out, my Dad and I woke up at 5:45am, far earlier than we usually do. We were out the door by just after 6, after a lightish breakfast. Of course, at this point it was still dark, but it was still quite a drive to the North Norfolk coast, where we aimed to spend the day. Our first location, as a matter of fact, was going to be West Runton, where in the few days leading up to our day out there had been sightings of (Greater) Short toed Lark, Richard's Pipit and Barred Warbler, all three which we were wanting to see. The drive to West Runton from where we were staying was around 1 and a half hours, with surprisingly busy morning traffic being one of the reasons why we took this long. By this time (around 7:45) it was fully light. And so the birding day commenced.
The three rarities had been reported in the fields around a disused farmhouse between the small villages of East and West Runton. Leading down to these fields was a track, which was fairly easy to locate from the road. We parked by a few other cars, obviously other early rising birders that had gone in search of the three birds, and got out to explore our surroundings. The bushes round the farmhouse were teeming with bird calls, the commoner migrants such as, Goldcrest, Robin, Blackbird, and numerous species of tits. In these bushes the Barred Warbler had been seen; but we knew that it was going to be hard to locate it amongst all the other birds, so we decided that we were going to have a look for the Richard's Pipit and Short-toed Lark, both of which had been seen in the fields surrounding the farmhouse, and then look for the Barred later. These fields were mostly grass, but there was one stubble field, the closest one to us, and in this three birders stood on the look out. As we were walking towards the field, one of birders suddenly raised whilst watching the ground intently, signalling to us that they had seen something. As we walked to them, we flushed up many Skylarks, these birds being invisible to us as they were hiding in the stubble. When we reached them, one of the three birders said:
" We've just had a view of the Short-toed Lark. It landed about 20 feet away from us."
With this news, we became ever more excited. I asked if we were going to have to flush the bird.
" Yes, but mind a lot of Skylarks will probably take off at the same time, so it may be difficult to locate it amongst them."
We all crept forward slowly towards where it had landed, me feeling slightly tense as we did this. Then, as we expected, a mass of birds took off right in front of us from the stubble, and we raised our bins to see if we could see the Short-toed amongst the hoards of Skylarks. We were in luck.
" I've found it," said one of the birders, " Its one of the first birds to have taken off, and is flying by a Skylark."
And sure enough, there was the Short-toed Lark. There was no mistaking it from the other larks; it was clearly smaller than the other larks, and wasn't calling in the 'chirrup' alarm of the Skylarks. It was also visibly paler than the Skylarks. We watched it intently as it flew left of the main flock with a few other Skylarks, allowing us to make the aforementioned comparisons clearer. Eventually, the Lark flew out of sight, not landing again as we had hoped it might. Obviously, we didn't get satisfactory views, but enough to ensure identification. At this point, the other birders turned to us and said:
"We're going to see if we can re-locate the lark. Best of luck, guys."
And then they were on their way. Their rather abrupt departure was an annoyance to us, as we wanted to know more about the Richard's Pipit. We couldn't do anything about it though, so we decided just to have a look at the other fields in the area. Unfortunately for us, there was no Richard's Pipit in these other fields, and we weren't able to flush any pipits species up in the stubble field on the way back to the farmhouse. This wasn't too disappointing though, as we had seen a Short-toed Lark and still had a chance of a Barred Warbler. The Barred Warbler, on the other hand, seemed to elude us as well, although we did have a possible sighting when a definite warbler species was very briefly seen flying from a tree into the bushes. Seeing the Barred Warbler was inevitably going to be difficult, what with the many other migrants there were in the bushes. Checking the bushes we had several sightings of Goldcrest, Robin, plus more.
It was probably around 9:00am when we had finished looking around West Runton, and overall we were pleased with the variety of birds it held. From West Runton we headed to Cley Marshes; argued to be the 'home of British Birding.' It was around 20 minutes from West Runton to Cley, and when we arrived there the first impression I got of it was that it was very much like the Loch of Strathbeg, but with a tone of softness that Strathbeg fails to have. There were views of the marshes from the road, and there was a big, nice looking building overlooking it with loads of bird related books in it and a cafe. We simply went into this building to pay for our visit (a sum of £4.00), and then headed out into the marshes themselves. Here is a picture of Cley from the Visitor Centre.
Just from our walk down to the hides, we could tell Cley was a great spot to be, with a nice Marsh Harrier being spotted on a post and Bearded Tits being both heard and seen, the latter species not being a common sight in these parts, and there were some Long-tailed Tits too. We spent quite a lot of the time just birdwatching from the boardwalk down to the hides because of this. The Bearded Tits in particular were lovely to see; most of the time we would see them flitting from reed to reed, but we also managed to get some in flight, looking rather like oversized dragonflies as they flew with whirring wing beats across the reedbeds. There were a total of three hides that you could at Cley, all situated very close to one another but each with entirely different views of the marsh. In the first hide, there was a wide variety of duck species, ranging from Shoveler to Wigeon), as well as a view of the Marsh Harrier and a few Dunlin and Redshank. I took a picture from this hide:
The second hide had mostly waders on it; with good numbers of Dunlin and Redshank, along with 2 Greenshank, a female Spotted Redshank, a single Grey Plover and up to 8 Ruff seen. However, these weren't as surprising as the main bird we saw here, which a birder in the hide pointed out virtually as soon as we entered, a hint of pride in his voice.
" There's a Black Redstart just here. You can have a look at it through my scope if you like."
I had a look through his scope, and he was right. On a small, white post, sat a lovely, male Black Redstart. The Redstart wasn't standing up, and wasn't being the least bit flitty like one would expect. It was actually just sitting there, looking kind of like it was fluffed up in a ball, but you could clearly see its face and its other defining features (excluding its flash or red). It stayed on the same post for the whole time that we spent in the hide and never even moved position, which allowed us to have great views. He was perfectly visible through the bins too. This Black Redstart was my second for Britain; it was fantastic to see one again after such a long time. The next hide along happened to be comparatively devoid of birds, but allowed you to get a different view of the Black Redstart. Having checked all three hides, we then headed up to the beach part of Cley. Here we had some nice views of Brent Geese, a Wheatear, and yet another Black Redstart, this time a female, presented itself. Here's a picture of the Brent Geese that we saw (there were many more than this there):
We decided not to sea-watch off Cley, as we had noticed that hardly anything was going past out there and the winds were light. Instead, we went straight to the Wells Woods/Holkham Pines area; an area of coastal woodland with a good record of scarce passerines. After quenching our thirst and hunger (we had our 'lunch' at about 11:20am), and driving through many lovely villages; we arrived in Holkham Pines, having been (embaressingly) unable to find the way to Wells Woods. The woodland in Holkham didn't just look promising for birds, it was also very pretty, with a lovely path with delicate foliage that you could walk up if you didn't want to go down to the beach. We took this path, walking up a fair way, but not quite as far as Wells.
You could tell Holkham was a good place for birds. You could hear the calls of small passerines almost constantly; the same variety of passerines you could hear and see in West Runton, but this time in even bigger numbers. There was also a very nice variety of woodland birds at Holkham, such as a few Treecreeper, 2 large parties of Long-tailed Tit, Great-Spotted Woodpecker and lots of Jays. Amongst these passerines and nice woodland species however, there was nothing more unusual, although I did get a very brief view of a Phylloscopus sp flitting from one bush to another, which could have been something scarce. No doubt there were other warblers in there... On the walk back down the path I recieved a text from sim of Birdforum; who updated me on what was about in Norfolk. The Pied Wheatear was still at Horsey, but that was too much of a drive and we wanted to spend the day on the North Norfolk coast rather than the east, there were a few Yellow-browed Warblers dotted around the coast, the Great Grey Shrike remained at Holme, which we would visit later on, and most to our interest, there was a Grey Phalarope at Thornham. Curious of the whereabouts of Thornham, I texted Sim back and asked him where it was, and lucky he said it was not that far, was on the way to Holme (around 30 minutes drive) and that the bird would probably be in the Harbour. This option tempted me in particular, as I had never seen any species of Pharlarope before. So, thanking Sim, I told my Dad to head down to Thornham.
We had some trouble finding the road to the Harbour, but eventually, we found it. The Harbour itself was hardly a major one and was different from most; it contained just a few small boats and overlooked muddy pools and boggy lowlands. You wouldn't think its the sort of place that people will go to, but that day it was! When we arrived, there were loads of birders there, over 50 people I'd say, all watching the Grey Pharlarope. I hadn't expected such attendance! The first thing I noticed when I got out was a few birders taking pictures of the bird, so I made their way to where they were, as they were probably closest to the bird. I turned out to be correct. The views of this Grey Phalarope were just ridiculous; I swear I have never seen a bird that close before! It was probably around 15ft away from where I was standing; a small, grey-white wader (1st winter bird) moving about hither and tither on the muddy pools in search of food. Of course, its understandable that I was seeing the Phalarope that close, as Phalaropes are renowned to be very tame, which is all the better for such beautiful birds! Not only that, but their tameness allows you to get up close to them, and experience what they are really like! Here are a few pictures I got of the bird:
Just before we left the Harbour the Phalarope took off, and went out of sight. Before we left though, we had a look at the other birds at Thornham Harbour. A Spotted Redshank was one of these birds, and a Grey Plover another, both of which were quite interesting. The highlight, however, was a ring-tailed Hen Harrier, seen very briefly by a handful of observers as it attacked a bird (presumably killing it) and then dived into the reeds. The giveaway features of this bird were obviously its white rump and the fact that it attacked a bird. Not long after this brief ring-tail sighting, the Grey Phalarope returned, but we decided to leave so we would have time to have a good look at Holme before sunset. Holme, of course, is only a couple of miles south of Thornham, so we reached the nature reserve there within 10 minutes. However, unlike Thornham, it had far more of a coastal feel to it. The area was covered in dense, multifarious bush, and beyond the bushes rose some small sand dunes. In these bushes, a Great Grey Shrike had made temporary residence.
" It has been here for the last week or so," said the warden at the Visitor Centre, "But it's rather elusive, and tends not to show itself that often. However, at this time of the day you might be lucky, as its been seen during mid to late afternoon on a couple of occasions."
So with this information, we walked all the way to the bushes (which were some way from the visitor centre), where the Shrike was generally seen. We scoured these bushes for a long time, and even sat down at one point for a while and waited to see if it would appear. Unfortunately though, we had no such luck. However, it was by no means dead, there were lots of Starlings in these bushes, almost certainly migrants that had come to winter, as well as a few Stonechats, and a good number of other common migrants. By the time we had had a good look through the bushes, there was maybe just less than an hour's sunlight remaining. There was no point in going somewhere else, so we came to the conclusion that it was best to stay at Holme, and go to the hide there. The view from the hide was general quite similar to Cley, but the reeds here were generally taller.
My first impression of waterfowl life at Holme was that it wasn't as good as the passerine and coastal birdlife. This was because all there was there was a Grey Plover. For about half an hour, it remained this way, until suddenly I spot a big, pale. sandy coloured, ghost-like raptor flying across the reeds...
"Barn Owl!" I exclaimed.
Now, for many the years the Barn Owl was a bogey bird; and a bird that I had always wanted to see. This moment, for me, was a moment of pure joy! The fact I had finally seen a Barn Owl made me ecstatic! Not only that but I was captivated... Watching a Barn Owl for the first time is an amazing experience; the majestic, the elegant, slow, wavering movements it does whilst its in flight, its ghost like, heart-shaped face as it takes in its surroundings.... This Barn Owl was doing all these things... It was just beautiful... It continued to quarter the reeds for some time, before it eventually landed on a post quite a long way away from the hide. I had to use the telescope to re-find him; and when I did he was sitting there, looking out across the reedbeds, ready to capture and eat any rodent that moved. As we watched him sitting on the post, the sun gradually set, its rays becoming a pinky-red colour and changing the colour of the sky. Eventually, it became too dark to bird-watch, and we headed back to the car. And so the day finished....
Firstly, I give countless thanks to sim from Birdforum, who kept me updated with the birdnews in Norfolk on the couple of days leading up to the day out and whilst we were on the day out. Without you, things wouldn't have gone the way they did! Secondly, if I had to reflect on the day, I would say it was a fantastic day, and definitely worth all the driving! I had 3 life ticks that day (Short-toed Lark, Grey Phalarope and Barn Owl), all of which weren't exactly common. There was also some other very nice birds we saw that day like Beared Tit, Black Redstart, Spotted Redshank and Hen Harrier! All these birds you wouldn't expect to see in the space of 10 hours, and we managed to! The places themselves were also really nice; and I am sure I'll remember and return to them in the future. And finally, I'd definitely say Norfolk lived up to its reputation as a fantastic county for birds, and I will certainly be visiting again!
Thanks very much reading, in the next entry I will account the first day or so of birding in Corsica!