A newcomer’s reconnoitre in north Norfolk – 18th Oct

On Wednesday and Thursday of last week I noticed on RBA just what a concentration of birding gems was to be found in north Norfolk. With two rare Shrikes (Steppe Grey and Isabelline), Warblers and other small passerine migrants, there were five lifers here with which to move past my personal 300 British birds.

I appreciate this is stating the obvious to any experienced and regular visitor to the area, but I am neither of those. In my first phase of birding in the 1980s and 90s I found the arduousness of driving there and back from Oxford in a day could detract from the overall experience. Even reaching the north Norfolk coast from my parental home in Essex usually seemed a long way. But after two weekends of trying to indulge motivation for end of season gardening while all the regular chores still stared back at me, I just needed to get away. And so I decided on a modern day reconnoitre of the birding mecca.

Sod’s law dictated that by Friday evening only the Isabelline Shrike was still present, but undeterred I booked a night in B&B and stuck to my plan. In the event the journey time, with comfort breaks and a detour around a road closure, was four hours. On my arrival at Stiffkey Marsh at 9:30am, birders were already walking away saying the Shrike had not been seen. I gave it an hour there, after which news came in of Yellow-browed Warbler at Campsite Wood close to the car park I had used.

I have seen this species once before, in company with other Oxonbirders at Oxford’s Port Meadow a year ago. But on that occasion for me it was a silhouette moving around in cover, and I couldn’t make out the diagnostic features. Still ticked it of course, chaps! Today, after an initial hour of frustration when other people called the bird but I couldn’t get on it, not one but two Yellow-browed Warbler emerged to put on a superb display. I gained a full appreciation of all the plumage diagnostics, and can only say what beauties these little sprites from Siberia are. I learned that the narrow strip of Campsite Wood is a regular location for scarce migrants, and one birder said he had been working it with notable results for 25 years. There were several YBW in north Norfolk on this day and getting good views had been my second priority after the Shrike.

It was now midday and another birder informed me of an obliging Grey Phalarope along the coast at Cley Marshes. So with one result gained, my thoughts turned to photography and I headed for the beach car park adjacent to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve. On joining the throng of observers there it was apparent this bird too might keep me waiting, and so I moved a short distance along the beach to see a Snow Bunting that other birders were on. I had not appreciated previously the perfect camouflage of this Norfolk speciality against a stony background: it’s in the picture below somewhere. Grey Seal swimming offshore and many of those evocative autumn arrivals Brent Geese added further interest.

I kept an eye on the body language of the group overlooking the Phalarope pool, and headed back when that suggested the bird was showing again. In the event it was difficult to capture good images in the strong wind and glary light, as the Phalarope moved quickly and jerkily in and out of cover. When my car park time expired I headed back to Stiffkey just in case, but the Isabelline Shrike was long gone and with it my recent run of positive twitches. It happens!

A birder told me the centre of attention had switched to Holkham Pines, that I have seen referred to on RBA often. Relocating there I joined twitchers searching for a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler that was said to be in a roving tit flock at what is a prime location for the species. This was clearly a small needle in a huge haystack. I was feeling pretty tired by now and unlike others present didn’t need this bird for my life list, having had cracking views in Berkshire once previously. That happens too! So I contented myself with resting on a bench and waiting for a shout to go up, but it didn’t. And that, excepting a distant Great White Egret on the drive west to my B&B, was the end of day one. Click here for a guide to Holkham NNR.

Whilst at the Cley visitor centre I invested in copies of the Buckingham Press Best Birdwatching Sites: Norfolk, and the AA Walkers Map 21: North Norfolk Coast. The former has a better level of relevant detail than the Helm Where to Watch Birds series, while the latter does the job of two equivalent OS maps. I suggest these are both valuable aids to less experienced visitors to the area.

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