Saturday, 30 July 2011

The North Norfolk and Breckland Experience (12/4/11)

It’s 9:00am on 12th April and I'm at Titchwell RSPB, about to meet Simeon Grundy, a very nice young birder who I had been birding with a couple of times before. As I head along the walkboard with the reeds surrounding me, I pick up a Snipe (yeartick) in flight. The famous freshmarsh where in 2010 I had seen 5 Black-winged Stilts then appears in view, as does Sim who is staring out onto the marsh close by. We greeted one another – it was good to see him.

The birding had started. I was delighted by the number of Brent Geese present. A careful count resulted in a total of 70 Brent Geese, a total you don't get in Aberdeenshire due to how uncommon they are. There was also a nice variety of waders present, the most notable amongst the common ones being at least 15 Ruffs and a total of 30 Black-tailed Godwits, the Blackwits mostly in stunning summer plumage, and of course plenty of stunning Avocets. Over 40 of the 70 Brent Geese were present on the freshmarsh too. There had been a couple of Garganey around but we couldn’t find these. Apart from that there wasn’t a great deal about except the commoner wildfowl and some gulls, so we headed round to new territory – the new Parrinder hide.

Parrinder Hide overlooks an area of brackish marsh just opposite the freshmarsh, and it seems to attract some decent birds. On arrival, Dad very quickly picked out a stunning Yellow Wagtail (yeartick) amongst a group of Pieds, of the British subspecies flavassima. Yellow Wagtail is a rare treat for us birders in Scotland, and something I can only expect to see when down in the likes of Norfolk (I have had one locally at Girdleness before though). As a result, seeing this little beauty darting along the brackish marsh was a very enjoyable sight. Dad also picked out a White Wagtail in a different area of the marsh. Further scanning resulted in me coming across 2 Little Ringed Plovers (yeartick), which were originally at the left hand edge of the brackish marsh but later came very close to the hide and showed extremely well – it’s always delightful seeing these charismatic birds. 2 Wheatears were scampering about near the LRPs, whilst Sim interestingly got us onto a Grey Plover at the back of the marsh. Sim furthermore alerted me of a female Bearded Tit (yeartick) in flight that I got onto briefly, another bird you just don’t get up in Aberdeenshire and always such a pleasure to see. This was a productive spell with some valuable year ticks, but there didn’t seem to be much of an incentive to check the rest of Titchwell, so we decided that we’d head back to the car and take it from there. As we passed through the woods towards the Visitor Centre, we heard an odd sounding Chiffchaff at the turn off to the Meadow Trail, its song seeming to contain a few odd notes towards the end of the song that you wouldn’t normally hear in Chiffchaff. Iberian Chiffchaff crossed our minds, but when we heard it do what sounded like the standard Chiffchaff song this became a passing suspicion. We should have probably stuck with it though and tried to see it, as the next day an Iberian Chiffchaff was seen and heard in full song from the exact same place!!

Titchwell with the Parrinder Hide in the distance

The Freshmarsh

Next stop was Stiffkey Fen, but we got side-tracked when a large raptor across the road near Burnham Norton revealed itself to be a Red Kite (yeartick). As we came to a dramatic halt and got out the car, we got great views of this spectacular bird as it flew above a patch of trees by the road and then proceeded to twist across an area of fields before landing in an area of marsh. I was well pleased, heading towards Stiffkey feeling very happy. On arrival at Stiffkey we passed an ideal looking pool for waders by the side of the road, which unfortunately we couldn’t park by as it was by a sharp corner. Sim said he had always liked the look of this pool so we managed to find a way down to view it. It fulfilled its potential as Sim rapidly found a Green Sandpiper (yeartick) in amongst a group of 3 Ruffs and several Redshanks and Avocets – wonderfully energetic birds and a species I found surprisingly hard to catch up with last year. After a few minutes watching this bird, we left the pool and were directed to the Fen itself. Stiffkey Fen was largely dominated by Brent Geese and Black-tailed Godwits, with 50 of the former and at least 60 of the latter. There were also plenty of gulls around, and amongst a group of Black-headeds Sim very briefly picked out an adult Mediterranean Gull, which we didn’t see. Far more obliging with the Black-headeds was a first-summer Little Gull (yeartick), seen almost entirely in flight – yet another noteworthy bird. On top of this, a Little Ringed Plover showed well, the third of the day. This was supposed to be a quiet day in Norfolk terms!

Stiffkey Fen

We headed to Cley on the back of a report of two Ring Ouzels at an area called ‘The Hangs’. No-one in the visitor centre seemed to know where "The Hangs" were as it wasn’t on the main reserve, but thankfully some locals were able to give us directions to the area. It was nice to see Marsh Harriers at close range here, although they are such a common species in Norfolk. Once we had found ‘The Hangs’, an area of high ground overlooking Cley, we were unable to find the Ring Ouzels. It was around 2:00pm and with the coast being quiet we were undecided as to what to do. Dad and I were staying the night all the way down in Thetford as we aimed to go birding there in the morning. It was a tricky decision having to choose against staying on the North Norfolk Coast or leaving the coast, but it seemed the wisest option. So, with a few birds on the agenda there and with Sim not living that far away, we made our way there. The birds that I aimed to try for in the Thetford area included Stone Curlew, Willow Tit, Woodlark, Goshawk and Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, so I had to choose a couple of the sites to go that evening before taking Sim home at dusk. We arrived at Thetford at around 3:45pm with just over 4 hours to do birding before dusk and dropping Sim back home, having decided on the journey that we’d head to Olley’s Farm first to try for Goshawk and potentially Woodlark, and then to Lynford Arboretum for Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, all bogey birds of mine.

Olley’s Farm wasn't easy to find. Luckily Sim had been before so he knew exactly where to go. We parked in a large lay-by along a stretch of the A11 near Thetford which went through Thetford Forest. As we got out of the car, we surprisingly came across another Red Kite flying high over the tall trees and over the A11; it felt satisfying to have managed two of these magnificent birds in a day. It quickly went out of view, at which point we started what was a pretty long walk to the watchpoint, a clearing in the forest which the birds regularly soared over. On arrival we didn’t pick anything up. After about 5 minutes though I got onto a raptor that had just emerged above the conifers, and I immediately shouted that I had a Goshawk. The others got onto it and 100% confirmed it as a female Goshawk. A feeling of glee passed over me, I had finally seen a Goshawk and I had just self-found it – and it was no ordinary looking bogey bird either, a cracking looking one! This bird was much larger than a Sparrowhawk, with the diagnostic long tail which was the same width as its length. Its brown appearance and slight barring on the belly suggested that this was a sub-adult female rather than an adult female or a juvenile. At first it circled over the pines, so I was able to get reasonably good views of the whole bird. After a minute or so of circling, it proceeded to fly eastwards low over the trees with slow wingbeats; quite a telling feature as a Sparrowhawk’s wingbeats would have been much faster and urgent rather than relaxed. Not long after this it went below the tree line and didn’t reappear. Views were distant, but I had just watched my first Goshawk for over two minutes so I was happy enough!

We planned to hang around though as we had only just arrived and were keen to see more of the Goshawk(s). 15 minutes passed with no raptors at all on the wing, until Sim and I simultaneously got onto a smaller looking raptor circling in the same area the female Goshawk had been with the binoculars. On first impression through the bins it was smaller than female Goshawk but larger than female Sparrowhawk. Sim was quickly on the bird in his scope, at which point he was able to pick out the features of the bird and confirm this as a male Goshawk. Another wave of delight surged through me. This bird only circled at first, and by the time it was IDed it was flying low against the tree line, yet again with less erratic and slower wingbeats than Sprawk. I watched it in the bins for about 30 seconds until it disappeared from view, so only brief views were had. Nonetheless though, we were delighted having seen two Goshawks, a day maker in its own right. We spent an hour longer at the site in the hope that we’d see more of the Goshawks, but unfortunately none showed after this. We also had a look for Woodlark here, but were unsuccessful. There was more raptor interest late on though as what we presumed the same Red Kite was seen over the conifers and watched for a while. As we headed back towards the car we were alerted by the echoing call of a Brambling, something I have very rarely heard before. We traced the call to a group of closer conifers and scanned the tree tops to see if there were any there. Sure enough, there was not one but 3 male Bramblings (yeartick) mixed in with several Siskins on the tree tops. Bramblings are beautiful birds and not something I see often so it was delightful seeing them and made me even happier than I already was.

I was hoping that the last visit of the day to the nearby Lynford Arboretum would be equally productive. Sim knew an area at the site which was very good for Lesser-spotted Woodpecker. On the way to this specific site I went past the famous horse-paddocks which I was aware sometimes held Hawfinch and Firecrest. Once past the horse-paddocks we took a right into woodland and were down by a stream. From here you could look up into the trees and this was where Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers were apparently seen most often, although it would be a matter of patience. We stayed there for about 30 minutes, eyes peeled on the tree trunks, but unfortunately with no result. We didn’t have much longer and the sun was setting fast, so we headed towards the car. That wasn’t it though. Just as we were going out the woodland we found 2 Marsh Tits (yeartick), feeding on a tree stump and calling to each other, yet another bird that is always delightful to see because of its rarity in Scotland. There was another one of those type of birds to come. As we walked alongside the horse-paddocks, a Barn Owl (yeartick) emerged from an area of trees nearby with a vole dangling from its mouth. This exquisite bird drifted along effortlessly within 40ft of me, its ghostly white, heart-shaped face and intense eyes taking in its surroundings and noticing our presence; it couldn’t get more perfect. These birds are so beautiful they appear like a dream to me; I was utterly mesmerized as it passed close by. Its magical show was brief however, and it soon vanished. Finally, to round things all off, we got nice views of a Nuthatch by the car park. From there, we took Sim home, and made our way back to Thetford for the night.

The Paddocks at Lynford Arboretum

Lynford Hall (in the distance!)

What a perfect way to end a great day’s birding! Even though there were no rarities about, the variety of great birds I saw on that one day would be impossible to rival elsewhere. I ended the day with one lifer and 12 valuable year ticks, the latter of which many were birds I haven’t seen since this year. Once again Norfolk showed its astonishing quality, would it show it for the third time running on the last day of the trip?

Thanks for reading



  1. Beautiful places and good list of birds.

  2. Thanks Julito. Norfolk really is the place to be if you want to see loads of top quality birds and also see beautiful places :) .