Ah, mid-May and it’s time to return to Norfolk with Marcus of the Bird ID Company. We go at least once a year but this was the first time we’d gone in spring, with arriving migrants being the main targets. We chose this specific time as it was likely to be the best time to see Dotterel, which is currently our most elusive sought-after species. We had a brief view of four individuals in Finland back in 2014 flying away into the sun, but it wasn’t a view that Jem or I were happy with to say that we’d actually seen them.
Arriving in Wells on the Thursday was largely uneventful and the weather was already looking promising. After dropping our bags at the B&B we walked into the town to get some lunch and then headed off along the quay. Straight away we had a Peregrine swoop down from on top of the Granary’s gantry and head off across the saltmarsh. Walking up towards the harbour we had Red Kite, Common Tern, Oystercatcher, Pied Wagtail, Spoonbill and Little Tern, followed by a couple of Wheatear. From the sands we also had a good look at a Harbour Seal. There were terns everywhere, but unfortunately we couldn’t pick out any Arctics. On the way back towards the town we also had a probable Whimbrel. We always head out to the marsh and fields at the east of Wells to look for Barn and Short-eared Owls in late afternoon, but this time there were no owls to be seen. I was pretty sure I could hear a distant Turtle Dove purring somewhere near the main road to the south but we couldn’t see it.
Marcus picked us up on the Friday morning, we met with the other guests and then we headed off to see if we could find Nightingales. Unfortunately we had no luck – Marcus had said that numbers were down this year – but we did get a few Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. We headed on to Kelling because of reports of a couple of Garganey. There were a pair of Hobbies in the air behind the village, along with lots of Swallows and House Martins and the walk down the track brought us Whitethroats and a Brown Hare in a ploughed field. It took a bit of work at the pond, but we eventually managed to locate the Garganeys in one of the corners. Avocet, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Reed Buntings, Whitethroats and Linnets were also here. We walked on up the hill to get a look at the sea and we had Stonechats, Meadow Pipits, Little Terns, Sandwich Terns, a Kittiwake and a Kestrel. As we walked back to the car we saw Marsh Harrier over the field where the hare had been earlier. I tried and failed to get photos of Orange Tip butterflies as we went along the track.
We then moved on to Cley and tried the Iron Road pool first although there was little on it, and so we headed round to the hide instead, watching some baby Lapwings on the way. Here we had great views of mating Avocets and Pied Wagtails right in front of us and a Common Sandpiper which slowly made its way around the edge of the water, feeding as it went. At lunch in front of the Visitor Centre we used the scope to check out both Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits out on Pat’s Pool, along with various other waders. After we’d eaten it was up to the Heath to look for Dartford Warblers. A Hobby flew past just as we arrived and after a bit of moving around we managed to get good views of a Stonechat as well. A Woodlark went up for a flight at one stage too, but despite plenty of effort the Dartford Warblers were staying away.
Saturday morning started with the pleasant surprise of a Peregrine flying through the pigeons and up onto the church tower in Wells, just as we were picking up the rest of the group. We spent several minutes watching it and taking photos as it sat on a ledge. The rest of the morning consisted of a long walk at Burnham Overy Dunes in the warm sun. All the usual warblers were around – Sedge, Reed, Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat – and on the mud on the sea side we found several Grey Plover in summer plumage. As we reached the dunes themselves we got some good views of Wheatears, presumably of the Greenland subspecies. As we headed westwards a Yellow Wagtail flew over us, calling as it went. It was good to finally get it onto the yearlist and it remains, bizarrely, a species that Jem and I have only ever seen when on guided tours. We reached the more shingle-covered part of the beach and located superbly-camouflaged nesting Ringed Plovers which I spent some time trying to get decent photos of – very difficult with all the heat haze. Turnstones, Common Sandpipers, more Ringed Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits, and several Common Terns were found. Marcus also saw a very distant Arctic Tern which Jem and I desperately wanted for the yearlist but we couldn’t get onto it before it disappeared. As we eventually headed back to the car we heard a Bittern booming several times – I think the first time I’ve heard one booming in this country since we visited the Somerset Levels back in 2013.
After lunch at Holkham it was back to Cley to look for a Temminck’s Stint that had been reported on the pool by the Iron Road. It was starting to rain and the stint had apparently already gone by the time we got there but we did see another Hobby, a Little Ringed Plover, a couple of Ringed Plovers, a Wheatear and some Dunlin instead. We headed round to the hide and luckily the Temminck’s Stint was there, feeding along the back edge of the pool and regularly being chased by two Little Ringed Plovers. As the rain had stopped we then headed out for a final walk on the East Bank where we saw a distant Spoonbill, several waders including another summer-plumage Grey Plover, and a Hobby on a fencepost. Several Marsh Harriers were drifting around too as we finally made our way back to the car to head back to Wells.
Sunday morning was cloudy but still warm and we headed off to Titchwell. The idea was to look for Turtle Doves first, although we weren’t too expectant as the reports suggested that the pair in residence was heading off elsewhere very early each morning and not being seen the rest of the day. We had no luck but after checking out the birds on the feeders behind the Visitor Centre we heard a very close Cuckoo. Annoyingly it was just the other side of the trees and by the time we got round to have a look from the main path it had gone elsewhere. We followed the calling round to Patsy’s Reedbed but still no sign, although we could still hear it close by. This was frustrating to say the least. As we headed back to the main footpath Marcus got a brief glimpse as it disappeared into the distance towards the sea, but the rest of us would have to wait for a look. Sedge and Reed Warblers were in the reeds alongside the path and we eventually managed to get a few brief views of Bearded Tits – our first of the year. On the Freshmarsh there were four very variable Ruff lined up on the edge of a scrape and a pair of Red-crested Pochard, plus two Pink-footed Geese. Here was also a single Little Gull, and as we arrived at Parrinder Hide we got great views. There were also some Mediterranean Gulls on one island amongst the Black-headed Gulls, plus some Common Gulls and a pair of mating Sandwich Terns. There was little of note on the no-longer-tidal Tidal Pools but once we reached the beach we got scope views of Grey Plover, summer-plumaged Sanderling, Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwits, Common and Little Terns, one Scoter and a couple of Fulmar. As we headed back towards the Visitor Centre we could hear the Cuckoo again, this time far more distant out to the west. It took some time but Marcus eventually managed to get it into his scope as it perched in a small tree. It eventually took flight and we watched it circling over a small woodland at the north of Thornham Village. On the yearlist at last! An extra surprise was a Siskin on the feeders as we arrived back near the Visitor Centre.
After lunch we made the effort to look for Dotterel at Choseley. I’d been following the sightings closely and I knew that the small group that had arrived the previous week had not been seen for several days, so I was well prepared for the subsequent disappointment. We didn’t waste much time there and instead went off to Holme to look for Turtle Doves that had been reported earlier in the day. By this time it was getting pretty hot and although we didn’t get any Turtle Doves we did get closer views of another Cuckoo, as well as a nice Linnet, a Willow Warbler and a pair of Lesser Whitethroats. As Jem and I were hanging back the Cuckoo flew right past us and out to a bush on the sea wall. Heat haze prevented me getting anything other than a record shot though.
The tour ended with a fine walk at Stiffkey Fen. From the footpath alongside the main road we watched two male Marsh Harriers systematically taking Brown Hare leverets from the meadow, and then Marcus noticed a small wader in a small distant pool in the meadow. It turned out to be a Wood Sandpiper – like the Temminck’s Stint, a first for the UK for us. Moving on to the Fen we got views of two Greenshank – new for the yearlist – various other waders, Brent Geese and Little Terns. Out on the harbour edge Marcus noticed a small wader amongst a group of Dunlin and Ringed Plover, and eventually we managed to find it in the scope: a Little Stint. After we’d all had a look and were about to turn back a Whimbrel came in and landed on the saltmarsh and a male Marsh Harrier flew straight over us. We walked back along the path by the fen and a startled Barn Owl flew straight up from the trees by the river. As we arrived back at the car the same owl briefly came over the hedge towards us, but annoyingly I’d somehow knocked the useless on-board flash on my camera and it had popped up – when this happens the camera automatically goes into flash exposure mode and so it messed all my settings up and stopped me getting a photo of the owl. I wish camera manufacturers would just do away with the crappy on-board flashes.
As we reached Wells we noticed that the Peregrine from Saturday morning was back up on the church tower. As we said goodbye to the other guests and thanked Marcus for another fine tour, Jem and I decided we’d go back out to see if we could find the Turtle Dove that we’d heard the first evening. We skirted the fields to the east of the town and eventually heard it purring again. As we got closer to the sound Jem managed to locate it on top of a mobile phone mast. Luckily it stayed put for a while and I managed to get some decent-ish photos before a Kestrel came along and perched on the same mast, sending the dove into the nearby trees. Once the Kestrel had moved on the Turtle Dove returned to the same spot.
We’d booked a final night’s stay so decided to get up extra early on the Monday morning for a dawn chorus walk around the farmland to the south of Wells. We didn’t see a huge amount, aside from an injured Woodpigeon that was clearly unable to fly, a Brown Hare that stopped on the road just long enough for me to get a photo, and a couple of Buzzards.
Not a bad little holiday. We didn’t get the Dotterel but we’d added two new birds to our UK lists and fourteen to our yearlists, bringing mine up to 186 (beating my previous best of 185 in 2015). We felt we’d pretty much maximised our spring birding and it had taken the pressure off the quieter summer months ahead.