Monday, December 3, 2012

Winter Birdwatching in Norfolk

Brent Geese at Cley Beach in Winter (Phil Farndon)

This is one of the legendary birdwatching locations in Britain, with a diversity of habitats and being uniquely placed projecting east into the North Sea, Norfolk catches some of the most exciting and inspiring birds the UK has to offer. From the sweeping mud flats and sand dunes of the west via the salt and fresh marshes and fragile cliffs, to the grazing marshes and shallow lakes of the broads in the east. This is one of the best locations in the country to see the most spectacular winter wildlife sights, all within easy reach.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese (Mick Green)
The arrival of tens of thousands of these vocal Arctic geese is the most awe-inspiring spectacle. Spending their days feeding on farmland around the county, in the evening long, straggling skeins of a few hundred at a time will make their way back to the coast and the safety of mud flats and marshes to roost. The best time and place to see the impressive scale of this migration is at dawn after a dark, moonless night at Snettisham on the west-facing end of the coast.

Knot in flight (Mick Green)
These are another specialist of the mud. Thousands of these dumpy waders will gather to feed on the foreshore, continually rearranging themselves as the tide retreats and returns. Their name is said to derive from the story of Cnut, the 11th Century king of Denmark, England and later Norway showing to his subjects that even he could not hold back the tide. Again the sheer numbers make these birds a breathtaking sight as they wheel and turn in unison.

Snow Buntings and Shore Larks

Snow Bunting (Mick Green)

Shore Lark (Mick Green)
Moving east to the sand dunes of Thornham, Holkham and Wells and the shingle ridge from Blakeney Point, Cley and Salthouse more Arctic breeders can be found. In spite of their bright Naples yellow heads and throats, Shore Larks are masters of camouflage and so are difficult to find, especially on shingle, but are well worth the effort. Snow Buntings are more gregarious and tightly bunched flocks of sixty or more can be seen in their bouncing flight along the shingle ridge at Salthouse most years. When on the ground they can be as hard to find as the Shore Larks, apparently vanishing as they land on the stones. It often happens that you will notice one and then realise that a dozen or so more are also there feeding invisibly in full view around it.

The fresh marshes of Cley and Salthouse are a haven for wintering Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Pintail and Brent Geese. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Cley Marshes is one of the best places to get up close to these species and also get large flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing coming in to roost in the evening.

Barn Owls, Short-eared Owls and Harriers
Barn Owl (Mick Green)
When travelling around the coast and countryside always keep and eye open for birds of prey hunting over fields, verges and reed beds. East Anglia and Norfolk especially holds one of the densest populations of Barn owls in the country. These elegant and silent hunters are crepuscular (most active in the twilight of dawn and dusk) but will frequently fly during the day and are captivating to watch quartering a meadow in search of voles in low winter sunlight.

Short-eared Owl (Mick Green)
Short-eared Owls are winter migrants that can in some years arrive in large numbers. It is often worth scanning across heaths, reed beds and marshes for these large, fierce-eyed birds. In the same habitats and over farmland in the coastal hinterland look out for Hen and Marsh Harriers spending the winter in Norfolk.


Bean Geese
One for the connoisseur, these geese are winter visitors in low numbers from northern Europe and Asia. There are two races of these grey geese, the Tundra and the Taiga, their names indicating their favoured breeding grounds. Superficially similar to Pink-footed Geese but with orange on the legs and bill they can be challenging to pick out and often are very mobile making an element of luck important in finding them. They are best observed on open fields and grazing marshes all along the coast and inland at sights around the Broads and East Norfolk rivers like Buckenham and Cantly.
Winter gems
Lapland Bunting (Mick Green)
As well as the regular delights mentioned above there is always the possibility of happening across a rarity or one of the scarcer visitors to this county. In some years Lapland Buntings can be found in coastal fields or mixed in with Snow Buntings, in the Broads small parties of Cranes feed on the grazing land, and in harsh northerly winds high Arctic gulls come down the North Sea.  Large numbers of Waxwings sometimes are driven south by hard winters in Scandiavia and come to feed on fruit and berries, often in gardens and carparks at the edge of towns. Norfolk is also one of the best areas to see Rough-legged Buzzards around the coastal marshes and Broads.

The great joy of birdwatching is the unexpected, and anywhere along the coast you stand a good chance of turning up something out of the ordinary. The best way to increase your chances is to tap into the local knowledge and reports and ask the perennial question of birders everywhere, “Much about?”.

Some of the best sources of Norfolk wildlife information on the internet are listed below.

Cley Spy.
The largest dedicated optics shop in the UK with 200 models of binoculars and over 50 models of telescope in stock plus a good range of second hand optics.  We also stock tripods, bird food, straps, Tilley hats and Paramo and Jack Pyke outdoor clothing.

Local Birder who regularly blogs on the birding scene in Norfolk with highlights of the days bird news from RBA. This blog is valuable sources of up-to-date information and photos.

A subscription bird news service with online and pager news sent out 24/7.

Online bird news service with free to access overview of UK bird sighting or subscribe for full details.

Lots of information and photos from the Cley area.

Norfolk wildlife photographer and member of the Cley Spy team.

A group of young, mainly Norfolk based birders with a unconventional outlook on the birding scene.

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