North Warren RSPB and Stour estuary, Suffolk – 4th Jan

I fancied a day trip before returning to work for the new year, and so looked to Suffolk for two birds that I might not have considered going for normally. Why so? Well Lesser White-fronted Goose is one of those grey areas that often apply to wildfowl (read on!). And Surf Scoter, usually being a black dot in the distance somewhere, might not be my best idea of value for petrol money. But together they offered good reason to hit the road on what was forecast as another of the bright winter’s days that had so blessed the holiday season.

LWFG is in decline throughout its range and there is always debate (see here) about the true wildness and purity of the few birds that turn up in East Anglia. Just recently four juveniles from a northern Scandinavian reintroduction programme had settled at North Warren RSPB reserve. Whatever their status (see here) these were more “wild” than the only previous LWFG I had seen that was in a pen at Slimbridge WWT. North Warren also holds a wintering flock of Eurasian White-fronted Goose and on good days some tundra Bean Goose.


Arriving at 8:30am after a foggy journey, I walked out into a frozen landscape (pictured above) from a car park off the B1122 road just north of Aldeburgh. This didn’t look like goose habitat at all and after a 45 minute circuit during which the fingers of my left hand froze inside a thermal glove, I conceded that I had not chosen the best access point into the reserve. The information boards here pre-date the RSPB’s current house style and so are a little more informative with an accurate site plan. A check of one put me right.


I headed for Aldeburgh’s beach car park then walked northwards along a road towards Thorpeness. Inland lay a wetland area (above) with reed fringes and meadows, overlooked by viewing platforms. In the increasingly attractive morning light this held good concentrations of winter wildfowl but the geese amongst them were all feral Greylags. Another birder was standing on a bund between this area and a similar one just to the north, and so I headed that way. He was local and friendly and gave me the lie of the land. Good sized flocks of Barnacle Goose and White-fronted Goose were visible northwards. But the latter were too distant to scan for the smaller LWFG, besides being in a difficult to view position.

I next walked inland along the bund, then north along the course of a former railway that dissects the reserve. North Warren’s great variety of habitats was now making an impression upon me. Looking west I could retrace the frozen walk with which I had started the day, then further north there was woodland and fenland. I stopped to survey the last named (below) from another viewing area and a Bittern flew across then down into the reeds.


Nearby a higher viewing platform served the meadows eastward (pictured below) towards the beach road. Enough Curlew, Godwits, Ruff and other common waders were active here to recall the Algarve wetlands in which I had spent the last two Januarys; and the WFG were again just visible in the distance largely concealed beyond reeds. The Barnacles all went up for a fly around, making a brief but breath-taking spectacle. Occasionally I would meet other birders but no-one had seen the LWFG today.


The more I walked in the stunning midwinter light the less important it became to see particular birds in this beautiful place. Things just felt relaxing, refreshing and renewing: all the reasons why I wanted to be out on this day. And there was little of the disturbance here that the RSPB so loves to encourage, or at least not on this cold morning. From the fenland a path led east through an attractive hotel and golf complex to Thorpeness, and from there I followed the beach road back towards my start point. I had not felt so grabbed by or at home spiritually in one wildlife location since Larnaca salt lake in Cyprus three years ago, and so I stored North Warren away to revisit in the future.


It was now midday and the car park was filling up with general public. There were two options. 1: hang around here all afternoon and hope the LWFG came in to a viewable spot, which would be a lot of trouble to take over a “plastic” species. Or 2: relocate 20 something miles homeward to the Stour Estuary to look for a different needle in another haystack, the Surf Scoter. I chose the second.

A few vagrants of the north American sea duck Surf Scoter are recorded offshore around Great Britain annually and they are usually seen distantly. One had been present on the Stour estuary since mid-November, most reports on RBA coming from Wrabness on the Essex side or Stutton Ness nearly opposite in Suffolk. Weather conditions had seemed almost mild when I left Aldeburgh, but as I followed a bridle path from the village of Stutton fog was setting back in and with it the temperature plummeted. A birder coming back the other way said the Scoter had been showing well on the Essex side two hours previously and I could see the mist gathering over the estuary itself.


I persevered: it was still early afternoon and too early to turn around and head home. I reached the shoreline at Graham’s Wharf (or the ruins thereof – see picture above) from where murk coated the vista before me. A lone birder was scoping from Stutton Ness itself nearby. When I joined him he had seen the Scoter but could not relocate the bird. After he left I scanned around for a while in the deteriorating visibility but without success. Numbers of Red-breasted Merganser, Goldeneye, Shelduck and Great Crested Grebe were all confusing things in the gloom here. But this dull grey setting still had a certain evocative charm that prevented what had been a very positive day from being spoiled.

So this day trip’s results matched the dodginess of the original targets, but the overall experience was what had counted. The LWFG were not reported on RBA today, but the Surf Scoter was observed at different times from both sides of the Stour estuary. Perhaps the revisit will be sooner rather than later.


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