Kessingland is a coastal village near Lowestoft in northern Suffolk. It was situated just off the main road (A12), so there was no trouble in finding the village. Far less easy to find was Kessingland Sluice itself. Birdguides gave these details: ‘Follow signs to Suffolk Wildlife Park and after 0.5 miles park in the small car park on the right. Walk down the muddy track to view.’ The first part of this was relatively simple to follow, as we soon found a car park about half a mile from the A12, and also found the muddy track, which went through some woodland along the back of some houses. I thought that we would not have to walk far at all to get to the Sluice, but on entering the muddy track we found it to go on for around a mile... Eventually the path and woodland gave way to an area of reedbeds and a Caravan Park, with the sea in the far distance. Having already walked quite a way and not having the faintest clue where we were supposed to go, much to my frustration we called it quits and headed up towards the Broads for the afternoon. Although we didn’t make it to Kessingland Sluice, our visit wasn’t completely pointless. We encountered a vast area of bushes that looked absolutely ideal for passerine migrants at the right time of year, where I managed to connect with my first Whitethroats and Willow Warblers of the year. On top of this, there were several Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps around, and the song of a Cetti’s Warbler exploded from an area of reeds near the Caravan Park.
It was about 1 by the time we had made it all the way up the Suffolk coast to the Norfolk Broads. As soon as I arrived in the area I could see how picturesque it was – miles of flat land scattered with areas of marsh and reeds which was fringed by sand dunes. Prior to my arrival at Horsey Mere 2 Red-legged Partridge (yeartick) were sighted in a field a few miles from Winterton. I planned to check Horsey Mere for an hour or so before heading on to Waxham for the two Dotterels. Unfortunately, the first part of this plan was dented when we found after a few 100ms that the path to Horsey Mere reserve was cordoned off due to maintenance. This was yet another blow to what had been quite a frustrating day. I scanned the fragment of the marsh that I could see from the dead end to the path, managing to pick up 4 Marsh Harriers and a Kestrel distantly over the reeds, and then headed back to the car and onwards to Waxham. Waxham was a pretty short drive, but it took some effort to find the track and the area we were supposed to park in to access the dunes, which was behind Waxham Church. The Dotterels had been seen at the southeast side of the dunes in a field which could be viewed from the dunes behind the church and was supposedly 500m north of a ‘pipe dump’. With no reports all day as per Birdguides, my hopes were low. We walked across the dunes in the direction of the pipe dump which we easily sighted once up on the dunes. The area was very pretty, with an expansive beach to the east, the rest of the Broads to the west and some ideal migrant bushes just below the dunes. In these bushes, 2 Long-tailed Tits and a Blackcap were discovered. Having walked about half a mile, we bumped into a birder who had been looking for the Dotterels and he informed us that there was no sign. Nonetheless, he gave us directions to the field where they had been and we scanned it and the surrounding fields for about 15 minutes, but with no luck. With no sign of the Dotterels, on top of Horsey being inaccessible and Kessingland being too difficult to find, my heart had sank. Was this a day destined for disappointment? With the next stop being the North Norfolk coast, I dearly hoped things would change...
It was just after 4:30 by the time we had reached our B&B at Wells and dropped off our bags, having taken the exciting route along the coast past Cley. As we were about to head out it started bucketing down with rain – as if things couldn’t get worse! 20 minutes had passed before it stopped, and when it did a feeling relief and excitement swept over me. I was about to spend the evening at one of the North Norfolk’s premier sites, Holkham Pines and freshmarsh - a place I had been to once before. We parked at the end of Lady Ann’s drive, and headed towards the hides in the west. We didn’t plan to check the pines, but we had to walk through them to get to the hides and view the freshmarsh. Once out of the pines, the freshmarsh appeared in view and it wasn’t long before I was in Washington Hide. After what had been a bird-free day there were finally lots of birds to see, with the commoner wildfowl and marshland species present in good numbers. Very quickly, I was able to pick up two overdue year ticks in the form of a pair of Pochard on the freshmarsh and a Sedge Warbler in the reeds near the hide, As time progressed the presence of some more interesting birds were revealed. A few Little Egrets were present, as were 10 Egyptian Geese amongst the wildfowl on the pools, a delightful sight and a very valuable year tick considering that they were such a rare sight elsewhere. This gave me an adrenaline rush and I was inspired to scan the area more meticulously. In doing this, I spotted a group of 4 roosting Pink-footed Geese at the very back of the freshmarsh, and with them was a far sandier brown goose with noticeable black markings on the belly. My immediate and very strong suspicion was that it was White-fronted Goose, but I was unable to see the bill due to it roosting so I was not 100% certain on the ID. I determinedly kept on the bird and patiently waited for it to raise its head. After about 5 minutes it stopped roosting and the white-front to the bill immediately confirmed that this was a White-fronted Goose (yeartick). I was immensely pleased with this spot as in Aberdeenshire White-fronted Goose is a noteworthy bird and therefore a species I’ve only seen on a few occasions before.
In confirming it, I got Dad onto the scope so he could have a look. As he got onto the bird I was scanning the freshmarsh with my bins, quite relaxed, until I caught onto two Spoonbills flying east high over the west end of the marsh at distance . My pulse increased dramatically in excitement as I immediately exclaimed to my Dad what I was seeing, keeping on the birds with the bins as I did so. Dad got onto them and we watched them as they flew towards Lady Ann’s Drive and eventually out of view. The spatula shaped bills on these adult birds were immediately obvious even at distance, as was the diagnostic extended neck rather than retracted necks that you’d see on egrets. I reported the birds on Birdguides quite quickly, noting that the time of the sighting was 18:20. I was pretty chuffed with myself, having found two pretty decent quality birds within minutes of one another. Suddenly, what had seemed a continually frustrating day had become very good! Spoonbill, however, was not a year-tick as I had seen one at Strathbeg just a couple of weeks before the trip.
The Freshmarsh from Washington Hide
We spent another 20 minutes or so in Washington Hide, enjoying views of the White-fronted Goose as it started showing itself off more and walking around. It was brilliant to see it alongside an Egyptian Goose at one point – two stunning species. We then moved onto Joe Jordan Hide. On the way we were both interrupted a reeling Grasshopper Warbler in an area of bushes very close by, a bird that was a huge bogey of mine up until last year. We stood patiently, searching for it and waiting to see if it would move from its cover. After a couple of minutes my Dad took a step forward towards the bush, at which point the bird in question was seen in flight briefly as it flew at speed into another area of bushes and proceeded to reel once again. This was only my second sighting of a Gropper, so I was overjoyed, albeit with views of the bird’s back for a few seconds!
I entered Joe Jordan Hide greatly enthused to see more decent birds. It wasn’t long before I spotted 3 Red-legged Partridge by a gate. 3 Marsh Harriers, 2 males and a female, were flying around close by, always a delightful spectacle. However, this didn’t beat an even more captivating sight. There was an area of bare trees more or less directly in front of the hide but a fair distance away, part of which was hidden by the brow of a steep area of ground, and in these trees roosted several Grey Herons, Cormorants, Rooks and best of all, Little Egrets. There were 6 of them, favouring areas of the trees close to the Grey Herons. The best thing about this was though that not only was I seeing a few of the birds on the roost, but right in front of my eyes I was able to witness many Little Egrets flying in as they arrived to join this large tree roost. Whilst sat in Joe Jordan Hide, a total of 10 Little Egrets flew in as the sun set and joined the roost, some landing below the brow of the hill but most landing in the open, although generally quite low on the trees – the Cormorants and Rooks had the tops of the trees covered. It was one of those moments that is hard to describe evocatively - both the arrival of the Little Egrets and the mass roost of all these species - it was just too breathtaking!!
Whilst totally engrossed in this, I became distracted as a Peregrine zipped through at high speed at close range, sending the birds on the marsh into frenzy. At the same time, the Marsh Harriers were on the wing. That wasn’t it in terms of raptors in view though. As the Peregrine flew low over the ground, it in turned flushed a resting female Hen Harrier which had previously been out of view. Things couldn’t have been more awesome or dramatic! The Peregrine headed west at speed and quickly went of view, but the Hen Harrier didn’t move anywhere in a hurry. It proceeded to fly above the tree roost briefly and then started wheeling round towards the hide. Totally thrilled, I watched it come closer and closer towards the hide. As it flew past within 20ft of the hide, I was truly stunned. They are beautiful birds, and the binocular views of this bird were just out of this world when it passed in front of the hide. After this, it disappeared around the back of the hide. Birding couldn’t have been more epic: a Peregrine flushing a Hen Harrier which did a fly past by the hide, witnessing the roosting of Little Egrets, finding two Spoonbills and a White-fronted Goose, seeing a Gropper and Egyptian Geese – Jesus Christ!
View out from Joe Jordan Hide
I left Joe Jordan Hide and headed back towards the car feeling over the moon. In the golden sunset, I watched 5 more Little Egrets head towards the tree roost. Back by Washington Hide, I watched in admiration at the silhouettes of a pair of Marsh Harriers as they cavorted along by the reeds and the last flickers of sun peeped through the deepening darkness. Finally, in the Pines themselves, we chanced upon a grazing Muntjack Deer, which stopped what it was doing and bounded off into the trees. This wonderful visit to Holkham meant the day had lost its poor status and had become a great day’s birding – or should I say evening’s birding! This was Norfolk showing it’s unbelievable quality, and with a full day at the top sites with young birder Simeon Grundy imminent the next morning, I was hoping the quality would continue...
Holkham Pines in the Sunset
The Freshmarsh in the Sunset
Thanks for reading,