A second year of birding in Norfolk – 2021

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By Chris Lotz

This blog was first posted on 3 May 2021, then with updates on 24 May and 8 June, and with frequent updates planned.

What a privilege it is to be able to spend a second year based at the UK office of Birding Ecotours, right in the middle of one of Britain’s best birding counties, amazing Norfolk! Norfolk has such a long stretch of coastline along the North Sea, both east and north coasts as the county bends around, including the huge bay/estuary called “The Wash” in the northwest near the Lincolnshire border. Many vagrants and rare migrants join the regularly occurring and common migrants as they first arrive on British shores here along the extensive Norfolk coastline, making it ever so exciting a place for a birder to be based. Norfolk also has a plethora of wetlands, the largest lowland pine forest in Britain, Thetford Forest, and so much more.

Year birding NorfolkOur British birding tours such as the spring set departure shown by the above map, and our England in winter birding tour, practically always include time in Norfolk. Not surprisingly, we also run many Norfolk birdwatching and birding photo day tours, having our office and a couple of staff members here.

 

After learning most of the superb birding sites and how/in which months to see the scarcer birds that help make Norfolk famous among birders, in 2020 (see the stories about this first year, here), I was able to start 2021 with a better foundation, poising 2021 to hopefully be a truly great birding year. While I get great enjoyment from seeing the common species repeatedly, constantly learning more about them and watching different behaviors over the course of the year, I also enjoy the “excuse” that year listing gives me to get out birding more often, and to discover more places (rarities pitch up at the most unusual places sometimes, so birding gets one to places “normal” people never see).  So, in most years I make it my aim to try and accumulate a good year list within a manageable area, in this case within the county of Norfolk.

Waking up on New Year’s Day is always exciting for a birding year lister, as even the most abundant species are new. First of Year (FOY) species in the garden this morning included Dunnock, Common Blackbird, Eurasian Blue Tit, European Robin, Common Wood Pigeon and many others, plus a couple of less ubiquitous species like Song Thrush (Megan and I are lucky enough to have a pair of these living in our garden here in Norwich). A later morning visit to Filby Broad and the Rollesby Bridge at Ormesby and Rollesby Broads, was hugely productive, generating further common birds along with some scarcer species such as a “redhead” Smew, my first for Norfolk (Megan and I had seen a couple of Smew including a drake, at Rutland Water near the British Birdfair site, in 2020), Common Goldeneye, Horned (Slavonian) Grebe and a close fly-by Eurasian (Great) Bittern! Marsh Tit and all the more common tit species, and Redwing (always a good winter thrush to see) were also welcome additions.

In the afternoon, Megan and I enjoyed a lovely walk at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Reserve, with inevitable further FOY birds such as another winter thrush, Fieldfare, a magnificent Western Barn Owl hunting in broad daylight, as this species so commonly does here in England, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Stock Dove and our first raptors such as Western Marsh Harrier and Eurasian Kestrel.

Year birding NorfolkWestern Barn Owl is commonly seen hunting in broad daylight during winter birding days in Norfolk.

 

On 2 January, a visit to the adjacent RSPB reserves, Cantley Marshes and Buckenham Marshes, hoping for Taiga Bean Goose for the year (this was one of the last additions to my 2020 list a few days ago in late December as per my 2020 birding year blog, but I had to get it for 2021 now!). The Taiga proved elusive, but not surprisingly I still managed to add lots of other quality species at these excellent birdwatching sites, including Greater White-fronted Goose, beautiful Eurasian Wigeon which overwinter at Buckenham in their hundreds, European Golden Plover, fabulous-looking Bearded Reedling and stacks more. Returning home and scoping the incredible Norwich Cathedral from our home allowed me to add Peregrine Falcon, which nests near the top of the steeple. Megan and I then went for a lovely afternoon walk at Sparham Pools NWT (Norfolk Wildlife Trust) Nature Reserve, one of our favorite places for a really pleasant walk through the woods looking down onto the lakes. Close-up Eurasian Treecreeper, European Green Woodpecker and Goldcrest were welcome additions, putting me well on the way (at 74 species by the end of 2 January) to an early “January 100”, something I brought here to Norfolk from my Ohio birding years (it’s so popular over there where I lived for three years before heading to the Birding Ecotours Norfolk office).

Unfortunately, my great start to this Norfolk birding year, was virtually brought to a halt by a nasty surprise stringent lockdown due to the third wave of Covid here in the UK. We had to stay at home for three months, except for outside exercise close to home and essential shopping. Of course, as always, I at least had my friends, the common birds in the garden and nearby sites such as Lionwood, Mousehold Heath, Whitlingham Country Park and Thorpe Marshes NWT (all in walking/running distance from our home). I did also manage to see some really great scarcer birds though, including Caspian Gull and Yellow-legged Gull (subadults in both cases) in the greater Norwich area. A small colony (six or seven) Rose-ringed Parakeets, also in Norwich, allowed me to reach 90 species by 17 January. A really close-up Water Rail at Whitlingham during a run, and some surprise scarce birds there in the form of Greater Scaup and Black-necked (Eared) Grebe on other visits there that Megan and I made for our daily walks, were also very welcome additions. Amazingly, during a day in which many Common Cranes were reported all over Norfolk including quite a few over Norwich, I had two flying over our home! Brilliant bird for the “yard” list! That was on 22 February, and my next FOY additions would be more than a month later just as lockdown was loosened a bit due to declining Covid cases (hooray!): a visit to Buckenham Marshes in late March allowed me to finally add Green-winged Teal (a common species that I usually would have seen good numbers of within the first week of January), Common Redshank (also common here in England!) and Ruff. Common Chiffchaff at Wheatfen Broad (Ted Ellis Reserve), another of our favorite places for Megan and I to do walks at, meant I reached 99 species by the end of March this year.

Despite a good start on 1 and 2 January, by the end of March with just 99 species, I had certainly failed in my “January 100” attempt, haha (I would likely have reached 100 species by 4 or 5 January if it weren’t for the lockdown). By the end of March, I was still missing lots of really easy coastal species such as Eurasian Curlew and Eurasian Oystercatcher. Good news though was that April was going to be an incredible month, and I was going to greatly augment my list, to reach 165 bird species (which is fairly decent and respectable) by the end of April. I had to bird like crazy, trying my best to frantically find the “winter” species before they all left (partly to take pressure off December when most of the winter species should be back), but then also to chase all the spring rarities, and simply to see the host of “expected” migrants arriving in the UK over the course of April (Chiffchaffs are among the first to arrival, Willow Warblers arrive a bit later, Common Cuckoos a bit later, and so forth). Oh, and not to forget the species that are easiest to find when they start singing and breeding – e.g. Dartford Warbler, Common Firecrest and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker; these are present year-round in Norfolk but are easiest to see in late winter and early spring.

I don’t have time to write about the extremely busy birding month of April right now, so it will have to wait for the next instalment of this blog. Watch this space!

A teaser for the next instalment of this article: a pair of Purple Sandpipers on the Sheringham Promenade; I managed to see these late-stayers – they’re generally winter visitors to Norfolk – just before they apparently left as reports on Birdguides.com dried up shortly after I saw this pair on 13 April).

 

24 May 2021 update: April birding in Norfolk

This year it was great to experience a “proper” April/early spring birding session in Norfolk, as last year’s was cancelled due to the lockdown. And it did not disappoint! But it was hectically busy as I had to catch up on a bunch of really common species missed during the winter lockdown, while at the same time find all the spring birds and also chase rarities. And I’m not retired, so this has to fit around my work!

Things like Eurasian Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlew and a bunch of other species that I usually would have easily seen at coastal sites around Norfolk within the first few days of January, could only now be added in early April! A good number of scarce species like a beautiful adult Little Gull at Thorpe Marshes NWT Reserve and a Black-legged Kittiwake and later in April three Arctic Terns at Whitlingham Country Park, Eurasian Spoonbills at Cley Marshes NWT, Black Redstarts at Titchwell RSPB Reserve, etc., all vied for attention. Then I was late for sessions I would usually have done in February or March but this year had to fit into April because travel around the county was finally permitted, post-lockdown. These included:

 

A visit to Sandon Downham on the Norfolk/Suffolk county line for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and other superb goodies:

It’s best to do this once Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have started displaying, but before the trees have leaves on so that one can actually see these tiny woodpeckers, not just hear them. Last year a few of us paid this beautiful site a visit a couple of times in late February, but this year I barely managed to pay a visit in time before the trees had leafed out. I did make it just in time though, now in early April, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed; I got great, rather close-up, views of a calling female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! It was also a true delight to see hundreds of Red Crossbills, Lesser Redpolls, Eurasian Siskins and other finches that had irrupted into this area this winter/early spring. There were also a few Bramblings around, in dazzling plumage. Yellowhammers were also in luminous yellow plumage and were in fact FOY (First of Year) birds for me; this common species had also eluded me until April as I was all but stuck at home and until early April hadn’t been able to get out into the farmland around Norwich or other open country areas frequented by this great, bright yellow bunting.

The highlight of the walk along the river that forms the border between Suffolk and Norfolk here at Sandon Downham, was a couple of amazingly close-up, confiding Eurasian Otters; this must be one of the easiest places to get good views of this animal!

 

Kelling Heath for Dartford Warblers and the nearby Pretty Corner near Sheringham for Common Firecrest

Both these scarce, localized birds are easy to see in spring if one visits the correct sites, and indeed I managed to lay eyes on both species as they sang and made themselves more obvious than at other times of the year.

Birding in NorfolkCommon Firecrest: despite the name, this stunning species is not common!

 

Finding some late winter birds in Norfolk this year

Conveniently, some winter birds actually lingered into April (and even May in the case of Iceland Gull, more about that in next month’s update). Arguably the highlight was a small flock of Lapland Longspurs (Buntings) at Happisburgh on the north-east coast of Norfolk. The brilliant thing about these buntings, which I was rather familiar with (but only in non-breeding plumage) from my Wyoming and Ohio birding days, was that a couple of them had molted into breeding plumage, a “lifer” plumage for me! One particular individual had an obvious yellow bill and stunning black and white on its front half. What a win!

I also saw the two late-staying Purple Sandpipers along the Sheringham Promenade at high tide (when this species is usually easier to see and closer-up than at low tide) one morning and I got some video footage as shown above (earlier in this blog). These birds were actually not reported again, so basically I saw them just in time before they vanished for the season! They’d stayed the whole winter, into early spring, but left soon after I saw them, again another win!

Probably the best of the “winter” birds was a Dusky Warbler on 26 April at the pleasant Nunnery Lakes BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) Reserve (just watch out for the aggressive Canada Geese here; my colleague Dylan would not be amused as he has a love-hate relationship with this species). An individual of this rare species for Norfolk (Dusky Warbler, not Canada Goose!) had been around for much of the winter, and again I was lucky enough to see it just before it stopped getting reported on Birdguides and the Rare Bird Alert. I was particularly ecstatic because for the first time ever I heard this species’ song a couple of times, along with its call (numerous times), in addition to getting great views.

The Welney Wetland Centre near the Cambridgeshire border had good numbers of Whooper Swans, also more of a winter species in Norfolk, and this site also generated a few other “FOY” birds including a Eurasian Tree Sparrow at the feeders. I was also really pleased to see a Western Cattle Egret nearby, but was disappointed to find out after e-birding it that it wouldn’t count for my Norfolk year list as it was just across in Cambridgeshire! A good species for my neighboring county’s list, though, although probably also easier there than in Norfolk (at least this year as Cattle Egrets have been thin on the ground this year in Norfolk). Sadly, I missed the Cattle Egret at Limpenhoe Marshes, but did manage to see a stunning male Ring Ouzel there (one of the April 2021 birding highlights, in fact!).

 

Good quality “odds and ends” for April 2021

April also allowed me to add lots of other good birds, in addition to those mentioned above, allowing me to end the month on 165 species for Norfolk so far for the year up until 30 April. Highlights included a Northern Goshawk displaying, close-up Woodlarks with their wonderful songs at Buxton Heath, Common Grasshopper Warblers (groppers!) going crazy with their reeling songs at various sites especially Thorpe Marshes NWT Reserve at Thorpe Saint Andrew, all sorts of other warbler species that arrived back in England one by one, and an amazing number of Garganeys (including several beautiful drakes at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB Reserve from near the Tower Hide). While out birding around Norfolk I also had Grey Partridge (along with its much more abundant cousin, Red-legged Partridge), fabulously white wing-tipped Mediterranean Gulls at Titchwell RSPB Reserve, Eurasian Bullfinch (Sculthorpe Moor Hawk and Owl Trust Reserve), a displaying Tree Pipit in the Brecks, and last but certainly not least, Eurasian Stone-curlew at Weeting Heath National Nature Reserve.

Birding in NorfolkEurasian Bullfinch: Sculthorpe Moor is a reliable site for this beaut.

Birding in NorfolkA drake Garganey, a good Norfolk spring bird and one of the targets on our UK spring birding tour that indeed includes Norfolk.

The last couple of days of April were particularly exciting. At the Choseley Drying Barns, I missed the female (unusually for birds, more brightly colored than the male, in this species) Eurasian Dotterels (but see the next instalment of this blog…!), but I did catch up with Corn Bunting which has become rare in Norfolk although with a few still lingering at this classic site. A few Jack Snipes were around, notably at Warham Freshmarsh near Wells-next-the-Sea and at Titchwell, the one at Titchwell being remarkably close-up and allowing “up-close and personal views”; we named it Bob as the species does bob all the time! The month ended with me being able to join a fun twitch for Temminck’s Stint showing really well (right in the open on a small sandbar) at Stiffkey Fen.

The next instalment (focusing on May) of this birding year in Norfolk article, should be out soon! Until then, cheers and good birding!

 

8 June 2021 update – superb May birding in Norfolk

On 1 May, Megan and I decided to do a nice Saturday drive to north-western Norfolk. We stopped by Snettisham RSPB Reserve, famed for its tens of thousands of waders (or as American birders say, “shorebirds”) and (in winter though) geese that use “The Wash” for foraging. We saw a good number of nice birds, but the only new year bird for me was a spectacularly fast-flying Eurasian Hobby that winged its way right past us. We then drove along the coast, stopping briefly at Hunstanton’s sea cliff to see my FOY (First of Year) Northern Fulmars.

A couple of days later I heard news that a male Eurasian Dotterel had pitched up at Choseley Drying Barns. This is one of the few bird species in which the male is duller than the female; phalaropes and painted-snipes are other examples of this reversal of the norm. Megan and I decided to drive up to north-western Norfolk again to see this fine bird (it was close to where we’d been on 1 May!), and we were rewarded with great views of this bird coursing across an open, ploughed field. It was great to meet up with a bunch of other birders at the site, all so eager to see this charismatic species which is rare in England. Since we were again near the Norfolk coast, we then decided to do a beautiful drive eastward, all along the north coast through to Weybourne Camp. We did this drive in the hopes of finding the remarkably late-staying Iceland Gull that others had been reporting, and we were delighted that it was indeed present, just standing there as if waiting for us. This individual had been moving east and west along the coast between Cley and Weybourne throughout the winter and spring. This was my first sighting of this bird since December (so it did feature in last year’s blog here), but I actually then proceeded to see it twice more in the next few days, but soon after that it stopped getting reported so presumably it must have moved on to colder climes where it belongs at this time of the year.

I was pleased to add a few more common migrants that were arriving, over the next few days of early May. The next three species on the list were the nondescript Garden Warbler, Common Swift and (finally; everyone else had been reporting them for a while already!) Common Cuckoo.

A trip to the Cley/Salthouse/Kelling area on 10 May allowed me to see a Common Guillemot (Murre) on the beach near Gramborough Hill, but I did worry about this bird as it may not have been in a good way to have been on the beach rather than out at sea or on rocky cliffs. Incidentally, Grambourough Hill is a well-known migrant trap that hopefully I’ll mention again in the autumn when birds are arriving in England after breeding in Scandinavia and other parts.

A visit to Titchwell on 13 May was highly productive as I managed to see one individual of the increasingly rare European Turtle Dove, along with a beautiful, dainty, Little Tern, both new additions, bringing my Norfolk year list to 175 species. And, while I was on the north coast again, a quick drive eastwards generated my FOY Northern Pintail at North Point Pools/Warham Freshmarsh, near Wells-next-the-Sea.

I had to wait until 19 May to see a brilliant bird, rare here in England, and something I dipped on last year, Caspian Tern. It was great to belatedly catch up with this excellent species with its bright red bill.

On another drive with Megan, this time to north-eastern Norfolk, we dropped by Salthouse where a couple of Short-eared Owls had been pretty reliable according to the rare bird sites, and we were not disappointed, yay! Owls are always so special and it was great to see one of these flying around in broad daylight.

I was very pleased to add Common Nightingale to my Norfolk list towards the end of May, at a site that I have to keep secret to protect this increasingly rare bird.

I guided a wonderful Norfolk birding day tour on 27 May for a great couple from Lincolnshire, and the detailed trip report is shown here. The only FOY bird for me was Spotted Flycatcher, always a good species to catch up with!

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