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Posted 17 February 2020
By Chris Lotz
My wife Megan and I are in the midst of an extended visit to Norfolk, arguably England’s best birding county, containing some of Britain’s most famous bird reserves such as RSPB Titchwell Marsh Nature Reserve and Cley Marshes. We arrived here on 1 January 2020, and as I write this blog we have now been here for a full 1.5 months.
The winter birding has been amazing! The birding here in Norfolk has been so good that I’ve hardly had time to miss the superb birding in Ohio, where we were based for three years, setting up the US office of Birding Ecotours (which is now being capably managed by Jacob Roalef). I’ve reached 130 species so far in Norfolk (plus a few more from other counties I’ve forayed into). Trying to see as many birds as possible while I’m here in Norfolk is really just an excuse to bird with old friends such as Paul Gaffan, Andrew de Klerk, and others who live in the area, to meet people I know of in the birding world who live in Norfolk (there are many of them), and, importantly, to get to know the county!
There are many highlights. I joined my first UK twitch for a Desert Wheatear on a beach in Norfolk. Then a male, blue-headed Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Norfolk’s first ever and Britain’s fifth ever) pitched up at a dung heap in northern Norfolk; what a great bird to see! Not only is this overwintering individual, which sticks to a small area around the dung heap it likes to forage on and is pretty reliably seen (it’s still there as I write this in case you’re interested!), a beautiful bird, but it’s nice to join the excitement and energy of local birders arriving at the stakeout in droves.
I’ve loved the massive flocks of Pink-footed Geese, picking out rarer ones such as Tundra Bean Goose among the flocks. Whooper and Tundra/Bewick’s Swans have been great to see. The Western Marsh Harrier roost at Titchwell was a true highlight (thanks Sue Bryan, who works there for the RSPB, for helping me with that). Getting my best views, by far, of Water Rail in the famous ditch also there at Titchwell was also a real highlight. Eurasian Woodcock roosting was yet another highlight of this winter’s birding. The owls here are stunning, and I have enjoyed seeing Short-eared Owl on the famous Norfolk Broads, Tawny Owls roosting at Lynford Arboretum, Little Owl at Highfields Farm just south of Norwich, and many Western Barn Owls all over the place; I love how the barn owls hunt in broad daylight, giving superb views, quite different from the strictly nocturnal ones in South Africa. Seeing Common Cranes, a few of which are resident on the Broads, was also one of the memorable highlights of the birding here.
Lynford Arboretum has proved lots of fun, with about a dozen Hawfinches, a few Bramblings, close-up Eurasian Nuthatch, Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush, and a lot of Redwings and close-up, dazzlingly bright Yellowhammers.
I’ve enjoyed the gulls, too. Apart from the common gull species, Moss Taylor helped to show me a Caspian Gull at Sheringham Beach. We were actually struggling to locate the bird when someone started feeding bread to the gulls and several species of them came in and started swarming around right next to us. I ended up getting photos and videos of the Caspian Gull with my iPhone; I could almost touch the bird, it was so close. Here are a couple of them:
Norfolk locals suggested I just wait a few weeks until Mediterranean Gulls would “be everywhere”, but is it really realistic to expect a birder to wait for a lifer? I certainly didn’t want to wait, so one Saturday after a sightseeing drive from Norwich (where we live) to Cromer, then southwards along the beautiful Norfolk coast, and after enjoying a traditional cream tea at Great Yarmouth I mentioned to Megan “since we’re only five minutes away, why not go to Great Yarmouth Beach now to look for Mediterranean Gulls” (it’s the best place in Norfolk for them). They didn’t disappoint, and several of these beautiful gulls with their stunning white wings were much in evidence among the many Black-headed Gulls and other common gull species.
A birding day with Andrew Stainthorpe, concentrating around Holkham National Nature Reserve, was incredible, to say the least. Four Shore Larks (as the Horned Lark is called in Europe), a nice flock of beautiful Snow Buntings, hundreds of Common Scoters, a few Velvet Scoters, a few Long-tailed Ducks out at sea, so many Brant Geese and other geese, etc., were fabulous to see. Nearby at Wells-next-the-Sea we had great views of Rough-legged Buzzard (or Rough-legged Hawk, as it’s called in North America), and we also easily located the three Western Cattle Egrets nearby (this is a rare species in England!).
Megan and I occasionally find an excuse to make a foray into another county. The highlight was a trip to Rutland Water to see Smew, and we enjoyed seeing a pair of them; the drake is such a stunning bird, the female being more subtly beautiful. I’d only previously seen this species in captivity, so it was great now getting it as a lifer. Rutland Water is a wonderful site for winter birding, and we saw loads of other good species as well, not to mention the beautiful countryside between Norwich and the Midlands. On the way back from Rutland Water we also dropped in at King’s Lynn and the 20,000-acre (8000 ha) Sandringham Estate (the Queen’s private home); England is such a wonderful country for combining birding with sightseeing. The hundreds of hundreds-of-years-old buildings, spectacular gardens, etc., are nothing short of spectacular.
What will the next few weeks bring? We’ve loved the winter birding, and I bet the spring is going to be even better!