Very late with this update, but I’ve been busy putting together a large-format kit, and there have been a number of prior engagements that have taken my time up too, but here goes…
Since the last update which ended with the report of Hen Harrier Day at Rainham Jem and I have enjoyed a few brief local wanderings, but not enough to really make a full update on its own.
The first highlight of the month-or-so before the Norfolk trip was the annual pilgrimage to Rutland Water for Birdfair. This time Jem’s mum came along too to see what the fuss is all about. We met up with various good people who we’ve come to know over the years, including David Lindo, Peter Jones and Clare Evans, and we were lucky in arriving just in time to meet Chris Packham and get a signed copy of his book which we’d failed to do at Hen Harrier Day. I also purchased Owls of the World by James Duncan (a completely new book, even though I have an older book of the same title by the same author), the new Britain’s Birds guidebook by Hume, Still, Swash, Harrop and Tipling, and Jem got Gerard Gorman’s Woodpeckers of the World. We had a nice chat with Mr Gorman and he gave me advice on where to go for the White-backed Woodpecker – the only European woodpecker that I haven’t seen yet (I did see a reintroduction bird in Sweden a few years ago, but I don’t count it). We spent some time – as we always do – testing out the latest binoculars in the Optics Marquee. I tested the 10×42 offerings by Swarovski (EL range: around £1800), Zeiss (Victory SF: around £1750), and the brand-new Leica (Noctivid: around £2080). They were all very, very nice…and I can’t afford any of them. We also managed to add Great White Egret to the yearlist as it was viewable from the Swarovski Tower. Another nice extra for us is that we had some spare time to wait at Oakham Station on the way home, so we went into the pub next door and tried some nice beers (I had Osprey, Jem had Panther, and Jem’s mum had Blue Moon).
Birding-wise we managed three weekend outings: the first was to the reservoirs to look for the reported Spotted Flycatcher. We met up with a few of the local birders: David, Jamie and Lol, and eventually found at least two of the birds. It was tough getting photos as they were flitting across a particularly gloomy pathway, but Jem and I decided to stay there whilst the others went off to look for waders. Eventually persistence paid off and I managed to get a few shots.
Next, Jem and I decided to make our first visit to the recently-opened Woodberry Wetlands near Stoke Newington. Plenty of standard wetland species were seen (various ducks and gulls, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots and Moorhens, etc), but no sign of the Water Rail that had been reported, and virtually nothing in the way of passerines. There was a late Swift overhead, but nothing else of real interest for us. The cafe was busy (and very ‘hipster’ in its offerings and prices), and there was an army of staff clearing various plants and foliage by the boardwalk. I wouldn’t say we were disappointed, but neither were we particularly impressed. I’d put it down as somewhere that has plenty of potential but probably needs a bit longer to settle in.
Finally, there was another afternoon spent at the reservoirs – this time on the northern side – and it was very productive. A wander up the eastern bank of the Lockwood brought us Common Sandpipers, loads of Pied Wagtails, a Sparrowhawk, and a very smart Dunlin which allowed me to get surprisingly close. We don’t normally head up the drainage channel but we’d heard of a couple of Greenshank up there and so we had a look (we hadn’t seen any so far this year). And although it was a real struggle to get a position where we cold see the only patch of mud, we were eventually rewarded with views. A Common Buzzard also floated high overhead. On the way back I decided to have a quick scan of the pylon at the southern end of the Lockwood and as I did so, a Peregrine swooped down and went on a sortie around the trees on the edge of the Low Maynard. It wasn’t a successful mission, and he returned to the pylon and gave us some very nice views.
An added note: I recently tried to calibrate the AF adjustment on my two long lenses: the Sigma 500mm and the newly-acquired Sony 70-400mm using my cameras built-in adjustment facility and a home-made focus target. Both appeared to be back-focusing and required some reasonable adjustment of around -8. The 500mm is now almost like a new lens in its ability to hit focus spot-on (the Dunlin proved to be a perfect subject and I was really happy with the results), however I’m having some issues with the 70-400mm which seems to be struggling to take sharp photos, especially at its long end. It’s most likely something that I’m doing (or not doing), so more work is needed here.
And so, it was finally off to Norfolk!
We finally managed to get things organised so that we would get to see the ‘wader spectacular’ at Snettisham, but that would be on the Wednesday morning. Wanting to make a week of it but still keep things under control financially, we booked to stay at Wells from the Tuesday afternoon until the Sunday, with guided birding on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. We also booked our trains from Tottenham Hale to Kings Lynn rather than from Kings Cross. It costs a small amount more and means changing at Cambridge, but it means not having to deal with the Underground. We also had the added bonus(?) of seeing the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the platform at Cambridge. He gave me a particularly unpleasant look.
Having dealt with the issue of the Coasthopper bus service no longer picking up from Kings Lynn Station (without receiving any notification of the changes), we arrived in Wells about 45 minutes later than planned and headed down the quayside for a late lunch and to do some timelapse photography. There were Turnstones and Redshank down on the mud and Curlew and Little Egrets on the saltmarsh. I was also planning – in the event of some clear weather – to try some astrophotography, so suggested that we take a wander eastwards along the East Fleet to a spot where Marcus had taken us a couple of years back at North Point. On the way we saw a nice Grey Plover, still in summer plumage, and a Greenshank. As we continued east I noticed a familiar brown shape floating off the marsh: a Short-eared Owl. We headed along the bank and waited and after a short while the owl returned, hunting between various scrubby bushes. After a while the owl headed off out of sight, and I joked to Jem that a Barn Owl would turn up next. Seconds later one did! The Barn Owl hunted around the same bushes as the SEO, and then passed over into the grassy meadow between us and the houses, eventually catching what looked like a very large beetle. By then it was getting dark so we headed back to our B&B. Not a bad start to the trip.
Wednesday was an early start so Marcus could gather everyone together and head off to Snettisham. It was worryingly foggy for most of the journey, but luckily it was clearer once we arrived at Snettisham and straight away we could see the Oystercatchers being pushed along the mud by the incoming tide. There were also Grey Plovers, Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets, Curlew and of course the dense numbers of Knot. The tide continued to push in rapidly and the birds occasionally took to the air in dense clouds. Some of them headed straight over to the pits behind us, but most returned to the mud and got pushed further and further to the end of the Wash. Eventually, they started to swarm together in larger numbers and began to streak over us as they ran out of mud to settle on. We made our way round to the most southerly of the hides to get views of the waders clustered on the small islands and around the margins. There was a nice Bar-tailed Godwit washing in front of us, and a solitary Curlew Sandpiper too. Most of the Oystercatchers were on a bank on one side, and most of the Knot were crowding together on an island just ahead, with a few Black-tailed Godwits and the occasional Oystercatcher for good measure. I tried various experiments with my photos: mainly with longer exposures to try to capture the movement of the Knots and the stillness of the Oystercatchers. Marcus pointed out some distant Spotted Redshanks too. After a while we headed round to a second hide where a single Little Stint was eventually picked up roosting amongst Dunlin and Redshank. Back out on the Wash the waders had begun to stream back as the tide receded. Both a Marsh Harrier and a Red Kite were floating overhead, making the smaller waders a bit nervous.
After the show was over we headed off to Titchwell for the afternoon. It was busier than we’d ever seen before and we struggled to get parked. After lunch in the woodland we headed out to the fresh marshes to look for a Pectoral Sandpiper that had been seen well and quite regularly, but unfortunately we just missed it by a matter of a few minutes. More Curlew Sandpiper and some very smart Ruff were enjoyed, and a large group of Golden Plover were sat on a muddy scrape. After reaching the beach we managed to see a very distant Arctic Skua chasing a Sandwich Tern, a Red-throated Diver that had come close into shore, and a seal. On the way back there was still no sign of the Pectoral Sandpiper, but instead we had a nice Hobby fly right over us and we eventually managed to get onto a group of Bearded Tits in the reedbeds.
Thursday was our day off, but we decided to make the most of it and get ourselves out of bed at a reasonable time and headed off down to the quayside and then along to Wells Woods. It was sunny and quite hot and the tide was right in, and by the time we started the walk from the car park a lot of the birds had hidden themselves away in the shade. We did manage to find a few interesting birds along the main path towards Holkham, including Coal Tits, Jays, Blackcaps, a Marsh Harrier that had probably just come in off the sea, a couple of Jays and a Stonechat, but the highlight was when we heard a call that we didn’t recognise. We followed it to some scrubby bushes and could see the silhouette of a small warbler. Eventually it moved through a tree and I got a brief but clear view of it: a Yellow-browed Warbler. My first for four years, and Jem’s first ever. We turned back after reaching Lady Anne’s Drive, and stopped for lunch once we arrived back at the car park by the caravan park. After a short shower while we waited we headed off onto the beach as the tide had gone out, exposing large areas of sandy mud, which was now covered with Knot, Dunlin, Oystercatchers, Little Egrets and a few Sanderling. A large flock of Brent Geese had also come in. I had developed a headache so we started to head back towards Wells, stopping to watch lots of Curlew, Ringed Plover, and a surprise Wheatear which hopped out onto the path in front of us. The evening was clear and starry, so after dinner we headed out to the footpath at the end of our road to a spot away from the streetlamps and I set up to photograph the night sky. I can’t remember ever seeing skies as clear as this in the UK, and we could even see the Milky Way with the naked eye. The ideal lens for this subject is something with a very wide angle of view, and a very wide maximum aperture. Something like a 12mm f/1.2 would be perfect, but sadly they’re incredibly difficult to manufacture so we have to compromise. I have a Sony 16-50mm f/2.8, which is probably the best compromise because I use a camera with an APS-C sensor. The field of view is closer to 24mm, so not as wide as I’d like. Anyway, it did a pretty decent job, although with the lens wide open there was a fair amount of coma visible in the stars. I’m thinking of getting a manual 24mm f/1.4 in the near future, but it’ll obviously make the field of view even narrower, unless I also get a full-frame camera. I also managed to locate the Andromeda galaxy and zoomed into it a bit. Not an amazing photo, but certainly quite interesting. I also had some fun illuminating Jem with a small LED torch. A Tawny Owl hooted nearby whilst we were out.
Friday was back on the guided birding trail. Marcus took us straight out to Wells Woods again, and it wasn’t long before we caught up with another Yellow-browed Warbler. They’re very skittish and it took a while before I managed to get any reasonable photos. I’m also having a bit of trouble with my newly-acquired 70-400mm lens. It’s great when I actually manage to get it in focus, but it seems to be affected by camera shake a lot more than my 500mm is. I had also focus-adjusted it recently and it had similar back-focus issues to the 500mm, but while the 500mm is now behaving like a new lens at the top of its game, I’m still struggling with the 70-400mm. I’m wondering if it’s something to do with the way I’ve been holding the lens (the front element extends right out when zoomed) and it’s exacerbating the vibration. I did get a few decent shots though, notably of a scruffy Goldcrest and, after we’d got back to Wells for lunch, another nice Wheatear. Before that we’d managed to get some good views of Garden Warbler (my first for two years), a Pied Flycatcher, Kestrel, Common Buzzards, a Red Kite and a brief Sparrowhawk, plus Coal Tits, a Great Tit dismantling a caterpillar, a skein of Pink-footed Geese and a couple of Treecreepers.
The afternoon saw us head over to Stiffkey Fen where the pool was hosting around 30 Spoonbills and a lot of Greylags. There were plenty of waders here: Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank, etc, plus a single Snipe (before a second one flew in and landed out of sight), and lots of lots of Wigeon that were being regularly added-to by incoming birds. We headed along the bank and down to the harbour edge where we watched the distant seals basking on Blakeney Point, and we also watched a Peregrine soaring around and a distant Gannet. On the way back I noticed two Greenshank that had appeared on the water, and a Kingfisher zoomed past across the reeds and along a channel. We finished off by heading to the nearby coastal marsh and bumped in to a group of birders who told us there was nothing around aside from a Red-breasted Flycatcher in the nearby woodland. We tried for the bird, but had to admit defeat. A nice Kestrel was perched on a mound of hay in the adjacent field, so we had to make do with that.
Saturday morning started with a breezy wander in the clifftop scrub by Beeston Bump near Sheringham. The plan was to try to find a Wryneck that had been there in previous days, but the stronger wind and the large number of dog walkers meant we had to console ourselves with a number of hirundines coming in off the sea. We then headed off towards Cley, starting with at least a couple of Wheatears, a Snipe, and an overhead Buzzard as we made our way to the new Babcock Hide on the Salthouse Marshes. Once inside we got to compare male and female Ruff (the female being called a reeve), and a Black-tailed Godwit that briefly landed alongside. A Hobby came past at high speed too.
After lunch beside the visitor centre at Cley we headed out to the hides. There was lots of good action (causing the Golden Plover to flock in panic) from the Marsh Harriers – I actually managed to get some photos from fairly close-in for once – and there were a couple of Little Stints out on the mud amongst various other waders. The most interesting bird here was a Caspian Gull: the first that Jem and I had seen in the UK. We switched to the hide next-door which was significantly busier, and everybody was enjoying a very close Common Snipe nozzling in the damp grass only a few feet in front of the hide. After a while, a Mute Swan came over and scared the Snipe away, but not before it posed elegantly right out in the open on a mud track. We also heard Bearded Tits in the reeds ahead, but they were keeping out of the wind. Eventually we went out to the beach car park and then walked along to the viewing platform. On the way we had a distant Guillemot, some Brent Geese and a Marsh Harrier arriving off the sea, a couple of Reed Buntings on the fence, and a nice pair of Whinchat too. There was one final Wheatear on a fence on the shingle and a distant Gannet over the sea as we made our way back to the car and then back to Wells.
Jem and I had open rail tickets so we didn’t have to rush about too much on the Sunday, choosing instead to wander around Wells for a few hours and then to have lunch. Plenty of waders were on the East Fleet, including several Curlew, and the Grey Plover from the first afternoon was still there. At the quayside in Wells we noticed a very contrasty juvenile gull. We considered it might be another Caspian Gull, but we weren’t sure – and Marcus confirmed via email that it was a Greater Black-back. I also did another timelapse, this time of the boats heading out towards the sea. After lunch in a cafe we collected our things and caught the bus back to Kings Lynn and then the train back to London. On the way we noticed a Green Woodpecker in a Cambridgeshire field – the first for the trip!
Overall, it was another very nice break in Norfolk. The weather was very good for the majority of the time, with warm, sunny days and a few clear nights as well. The highlight was definitely the wader spectacular at Snettisham, which we’ve finally seen after planning to see it for several years now. I’m also happy with some of the photos I took, especially since micro-adjusting the focus for my 500mm telephoto. If there was any disappointment at all, it was that I didn’t manage to see any species that I hadn’t seen before. That’s not the reason we go, but what made it a bit disappointing is that there plenty of species that had been around – Dotterel, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Pectoral Sandpiper, for example – that we missed out on. And in the weeks since our visit there have been many more interesting species drop in. On the plus side, Jem saw her first ever Yellow-browed Warblers – and they were the first for me since my first Norfolk visit back in 2012. It was also good to catch up with several species that had been missing from the yearlist too, and of course the bonus self-found owls on the first day. Our next booked trip is to the Forest of Dean in March, and then we’re hoping to go to Poland in May, so our next Norfolk tour will have to wait until next autumn.