Jem and I have now been to Norfolk several times over the last two or three years, but it’s always been in the autumn or winter. This time we decided to give it a go in summer, so we booked a three-day tour with our usual company: the Bird ID Company.
We got settled in at our quaint B&B in Wells on the Thursday afternoon and went for a self-guided stroll along the harbour and out to the beach. Oystercatchers were plentiful, and a Marsh Harrier hunted over the field alongside the football ground. The tide was out and the meandering channel that stretched out to the sea was packed with holidaymakers swimming with their dogs. This was when we noticed something different about one of the Black-headed Gulls that lined the water’s edge. It was larger, had no black wingtips, and it’s dark hood came down to the back of its neck: our second ever (and first self-found) Mediterranean Gull.
Jem then noticed a dog-like head that kept popping up in the channel, which turned out to be a seal. On the other side of the channel was a group of Sandwich Terns, and our walk back into Wells also brought us a Curlew and several Pied Wagtails. And the tour hadn’t even begun yet…
Overnight we were hit by an awesome and intense electrical storm, which meant the air was cool and fresh when Marcus picked us up in the morning. The plan was to look for raptors, and it wasn’t long before we had seen Red Kite, Kestrel and a distant Buzzard. Bull finches and Siskins were heard in the trees, and there were several Yellowhammers calling from the treetops. We also had brief views of Brown Hare, Red-legged and Grey Partridges, and a good look at a worn Painted Lady butterfly, along with various Skipper species.
After a short look for Turtle Doves – which brought us a Stock Dove instead – it was off to Titchwell to see what we could find there. Lots of Black-tailed Godwits were here, still mostly in summer plumage, along with Ruff, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Dunlin and a single Curlew Sandpiper. Young Bearded Tits were seen in the muddy reedbed margins, and there were also Spoonbills, Curlew, Whimbrel, and Little Gull. A shower blew through as we scanned the coast from the beach, and this also brought Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Scoter, and four Eider. Back on the reserve Marsh Harriers floated around.
We returned to Wells for an early tea before getting over to Holt to meet up with Marcus again. Firstly we made our way back towards the coast to Cley, and as we neared we saw our first Barn Owl hunting over a village meadow. After watching for a few minutes the owl moved onto another meadow so we moved on too, to Blakeney Freshes. Here we saw two more Barn Owls, one that headed from a nest box along the woodland to the west, and one that was hunting over the marsh between us and the sea. This third owl hunted successfully in the time we were there, flying past us on three occasions, each time clutching prey on its talons before heading back to its nest in the village. While we were here we also watched a Marsh Harrier, a Sparrowhawk and several Bearded Tits in the long grasses in front of the windmill.
Then it was off to the heath as the light began to fade so that we could get into position for Nightjars. It took a little while before we first heard some churring – and we had a Woodcock fly over in the meantime – and eventually a male appeared and perched on a silver birch stump. As it waited a female fluttered past and he showed off his wing patches. It was difficult to tell how many birds were around, but we had two flybys and heard at least two, and probably more, males churring before it got too dark to see any more and we headed home.
Day Two saw an early start as we met Marcus in Fakenham and then drove down towards Thetford to look for Stone-curlews. We got two Red Kites straight away, and lots of corvids and a few Red-legged Partridges in the pig farm, but nothing else so we went on to Lakenheath Fen. At the first pool we got Reed Warblers and Kingfishers straight away, and then a Bittern flew out of the reedbed and landed on the margins right in front of us before awkwardly clambering out of sight. There were lots of dragonflies and damselflies around, but surprisingly no Hobbies. At the next pool I noticed a second Bittern in flight going across the tops of the reedbeds, which was eventually joined by a second bird before they went down into the reeds. We also saw four Common Cranes flying in the distance. It took a long time scanning the landscape to see where they’d landed, but eventually we relocated them. Marsh Harriers and a Common Buzzard were hunting too, and as we turned and headed back we saw a second family group of Cranes.
After lunch it was off to Weeting Heath to see the Stone-curlews. We heard them calling from the moment we stepped out of the car and it was easy to find them once we’d settled in the hide. I didn’t count the birds, but there were several – both adults and young – partly hidden amongst yellow flowers. There were also at least two Kestrels flying around right in front of the hide. Following this we made our way to a location close to Grimes’ Graves, where we watched a number of species moving up and down a line of tree stumps and rocks. There were adult and juvenile Stonechats, Yellowhammers, Whitethroats, and at least one Tree Pipit which perched obligingly on a stump for enough time to allow me to get several photos.
We finished the day at Lynford Arboretum. The non-native trees were very quiet, aside from a single perched Kestrel, but a pond-side deciduous glade brought us lots of woodland species, including Long-tailed Tit, Chaffinch and at least two Treecreepers.
Day Three was an even earlier start as we headed off in grim rain to Cley. Here we settled in a hide to see what was on the pools and scrapes. There were Marsh Harriers quartering, Common and Green Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plovers, Black-tailed Godwits and more. Avocets chased the small waders away whenever possible, leaving themselves open to attack from the harriers. Several Spoonbills also arrived on one of the scrapes, adults and begging juveniles. By this time the rain had moved on and the sun was out, so we relocated to the northern side of the reserve to see what else was about. There were Sand Martins, Linnets and Goldfinches fluttering around, although not a lot of different species on the pools, aside from a Yellow-legged Gull, a family of Bearded Tits and some Greenshank. Out on the sea we had some Gannets and a Little Tern: the first I’ve seen in the UK.
Next it was off inland to Kelling Heath to look for Dartford Warblers, despite a strong wind. At the first location we heard one chattering, but it took a lot of effort to get a look, and that was only very brief. As we waited for it reappear, Marcus pointed out a large raptor overhead, which turned to be a Honey Buzzard – a real rarity here. There were also Linnets, Yellowhammers and a Kestrel here. We moved on to look for more Dartford Warblers at a different part of the site, and we succeeded again. One bird perched in the open for a couple of seconds but again they didn’t hang around for long. With too many people around we had no luck with Woodlarks, but on the way back a tit flock moving through the bushes brought us a bonus Goldcrest. Returning to Cley the wind had increased further and a walk along the East Bank brought us very little, but a scrape out on the marsh was hosting lots of Sandwich and Common Terns, both Godwits, Dunlin, Knot and a smart Turnstone still with some summer plumage.
Marcus dropped Jem and I in Cley so we could get our bus home. Despite being the first guided birding tour I’d ever been on that hadn’t brought me a new life tick, it was still one of the best UK tours to date, and I’m looking forward to our next visit.