A 5am start allowed us to be at the RSPB’s flagship reserve, Minsmere on the Suffolk coast by 0930. A stroll through the woods down to the Bittern hide produced various common woodland species such as Great tit & Chaffinch. The Bittern hide sits on stilts about 20ft above the ground giving unparalleled views above the main reedbed. My goal in this hide was to photograph the Marsh harriers that hunt this area. 10minutes later, the first Marsh harrier drifted past the hide, a female, carrying an unfortunate Coot or Moorhen chick.
At least 5 different Marsh Harriers were seen across the reeds during the next hour.
Gadwall, Shoveller, Little grebe, Common tern a Hobby & the speciality of this hide, 2 Bitterns were also seen. A Red deer hind grazed to the left of the hide throughout.
A walk back up through the woods & out towards the scrapes produced 3 singing Nightingales, which after a bit of patience, showed quite well. Further out on to the Boardwalk, Bearded Tits flitted through the reeds, there pinging calls giving away their position.
Onto the hides on the scrapes, areas specifically made for waders, waterfowl, gulls & terns.
Little, Common & Sandwich terns were in constant view as well as Avocet, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwits & Ringed plover. Greylag & Canada Geese had broods of goslings & a pair of presumably feral Barnacle geese grazed amongst them.
After leaving the main reserve to continue our journey up to North Norfolk, a brief stop on the road out, gave us great views of a Tawny owl in a roadside tree. A Muntjac crept across the road to our left. A little further on & another stop. This time our target was Willow tit. The high pitched pee, pee, pee, calls soon gave away an adult in the tree above our heads! Doesn’t get any easier than that. Good views but unfortunately too dark & leafy for a photo. Probably also too close!
On the drive up to our B&B in Hunstanton, many Hares & Red-legged partridges were spotted, the arable landscape ideal for them it seems.
Saturday 9th North Norfolk
A quick ¾ hour before breakfast on the cliff top car park in Hunstanton saw several Yellow wagtails passing over, Fulmar, Great-crested Grebe, various gulls & a few Terns on or over the sea.
After a big breakfast it was on to Titchwell. Sedge warblers were everywhere, both singing from the reed stems & on their song flights. A small group of Beardies moved along the reeds next to the main track, allowing great views & a few photos. Manual focussing was the order of the day due to the many waving stems, confusing the autofocus. I then visited the Fen hide where a male Marsh harrier gave fairly close views.
A walk back along the track towards the sea produced Little tern fishing & a pair of Spotted Redshank at the opposite end of the salt water lagoon. A party of Greylags had a dozen or so goslings with them. A Carrion crow tested the adult’s defences & its patience & cunning payed off. When the adults were distracted by a Mute swan, the crow swooped in & grabbed an unfortunate gosling, carrying it away & dispatching it swiftly with powerful blows with its bill. The seashore added Dunlin, Sanderling, a Blackwit & Common Gull.
On the salt marsh to the west of the track, a Chinese water deer proved elusive & was only seen by a few people. The same could not be said for the skeins of Dark-bellied Brent geese that passed overhead & landed out on the freshwater pool. A single Ruddy duck showed, almost defiantly, on another small pool back towards the visitor center. The cull obviously missed a few!
A couple of miles up the road from the reserve, on top of a hill (yes they do have hills in Norfolk), is a collection of farm buildings. These are known as Choseley drying barns. This is a must do for anyone visiting this area. Spilt grain on the yard in front of the buildings attracts numerous Yellowhammers & the star bird of this site....Corn bunting. At least 6 were seen. In the past I have seen up to 60 here.
A quick check of the bare fields around the area didn’t produce the hoped for Dotterel & no Turtle doves graced the overhead wires. The buntings were accommodating though & allowed me to approach fairly closely for some shots.
The next stop was a special one. For obvious reasons i will not disclose the site but for a few years now Montague’s harriers have bred in arable crops in this area. After waiting for around ½ an hour, a large raptor was seen above a distant ridge........false alarm! Another Marsh harrier. They are everywhere! A further 20 mins & a ringtail soared above the same ridge, slowly gaining height & coming towards us. It never really came into range but allowed a few record shots. Cley & the east bank were next. Again Marsh harriers dominated the skies above the reeds & panicked the Avocets & Lapwings. At least five individuals were noted & scuffle between a pair of males was worth watching. A group of Bearded tits worked their way along the track & a few shots were in the bag.
Just up the road is Salthouse. This usually a great place to photograph waders, on the pool behind the shingle ridge. On this occasion, the pool had dried out, so there weren’t any waders present.
Kelling water meadows produced a couple of Yellow wagtails amongst the cattle but not the reported Grey-headed wagtail. A few hours later RBA (Rare bird alert) reported a Grey headed wagtail at Salthouse. We had a reservation in the Lifeboat in Thornham, so were unable to backtrack.
Sunday 10th Breckland
The Hawk & owl trust reserve at Sculthorpe moor was the first port of call after breakfast. The main reason for visiting this reserve was not for Marsh harrier, but for Golden pheasant. Splitting up, we searched the undergrowth through the woods on the way to the hides. A further ¾ hour wait in a hide next to a feeding station produced Marsh harrier, Common pheasant, a Robin feeding a fledgling & various common woodland birds. Voles scurried around the floor. Our roving member came back to the hide saying he had found one a couple hundred of metres back down the track. The bird was still there when we arrived, although a clear view was impossible in the thick undergrowth. This stunning male was a lifer for me & made the wait worth the wait.
Flitcham abbey farm gave good views of Kingfisher, but no Egyptian geese or Turtle doves this time. A male Kestrel grabbed a Moorhen chick off of the grassy area to the left of the hide.
On to Weeting heath. It was now around midday & the hides here were full of people. The Stone curlews had done their usual trick & disappeared down over the hill where they cannot be seen from the public hides. Another hide on the side of the hill would allow views wherever they were & would not disturb the birds anymore. Views had in the past have been distant (200-300m) & a new hide would not be any closer. Woodlarks which are another speciality of this area were also absent.
The next & last stop was at Lakenheath fen. The two target species were Golden Oriole & Common crane. Neither easy due to their habitat, reedbeds & poplars in full leaf, but we had been successful in previous years. On approaching a favoured Oriole area, we were told that a pair of males had just flown from the corner of one wood into another! Staking out this area, we eventually heard the flutey calls of the male as well as the jay like screech. Alas this was as close as we got & we did not manage to see them. The Cranes were deep in the middle of a huge reedbed & also out of sight. A ½ hour wait at the viewing point was not long enough! After 3 days from dawn to dusk, we decided to head for home. We have had trips to East Anglia that have had more species & perhaps more rarities, but it was by no means a waste of time After all, Marsh & Montague’s harriers, corn bunting, Willow tit, Bittern, Avocet, Little Tern & Bearded tit can’t be bad can it. And who could forget the Golden Pheasant!