A trip to the wonderful North Norfolk coast can reward you with some spectacular birdwatching
Birding on the beautiful North Norfolk coast is one of life’s great joys
LIVING ON THE North Norfolk coast, I am privileged to witness some of the county’s great wildlife spectacles, as well as occasionally getting to see some of the county’s rarest birds. Rare birds are always turning up here. The county boasts a very impressive species list which, to paraphrase a famous advertising campaign, is probably the longest county list in the... well, not the world, but you get the idea!
The geography is ideal, as the county bulges out into the North Sea and is the nearest landfall for vagrant birds from the northern continent blown off course. That accounts for the birds turning up. As for seeing them and recording them, well, that is down to the countless number of birdwatchers of all degrees of expertise who visit the county or have made it their permanent home. One particular recent year produced some very special birds along the North Norfolk coast, and the most exciting and noteworthy of these were a couple of major rarities that really caught the imagination and set many a birders’ heart racing – a pair of real spectacles you might say. The first arrived in early June and was one such, both in name and nature. A male Spectacled Warbler was located in the dunes near Burnham Overy and soon achieved celebrity status as, over the course of a few weeks, thousands of ardent birdwatchers turned up to catch a view. The bird constituted the second record for Norfolk, and amazingly the first one, back in May 2011, landed a mere half mile west on Scolt Head Island! Spring and early summer that year were on record as being the driest for many years, but I chose what must have been the wettest day of the season to set off and spot the bird, while the bird itself chose one of the most isolated and
windswept spots on the coast to settle down for the summer. Although almost soaked to my inner layers, all thoughts of discomfort were quickly dissipated as the bird soon appeared on the top of a nearby bush uttering its ‘not-quite-right-for-a-white-throat’ rattling call. Over the next hour, it moved short distances from bush to bush but always affording good views, despite the miserable conditions. The Spectacled Warbler is very similar in appearance to a Whitethroat, a familiar summer visitor to these shores, but is slightly smaller and slimmer and has some distinguishing features. I noted the plainer chestnut coloured back, the overall darker grey colouring to the crown and sides of the head, contrasting with what seemed to be a brighter white throat, and a more obvious pinky colour to the breast. Ironically, the white eye-rings which give the bird its name were far from obvious but just discernible. The Spectacled Warbler comes from arid scrub areas which are found in North Africa and parts of Europe around the Mediterranean. Those in Africa tend to be resident, while the European populations may take short migrations to winter in North and West Africa, returning for summer breeding. It is therefore remarkable that this bird turned up here, but perhaps not so surprising
that once it had recovered from its long journey it decided to set up home by staking out a territory with continual song and even collecting nest material in a forlorn quest to extend its family history. After a few weeks it must have dawned that this was a lost cause and, on 18 June, the bird had disappeared. Fast forward four months and a group of birders returning from a weekend on the North Norfolk coast were leaving the sea wall at Burnham Norton when they spotted a large grey shrike. Closer inspection revealed a Steppe Grey Shrike, a species that has visited this country on a few occasions, but this one was a ‘first’ for Norfolk. The bird is paler overall than the more usual Great Grey Shrike that can be encountered here most winters; and it has a more southerly range, inhabiting the plains of central Asia and migrating south to more tropical areas. I ventured forth early one bright autumnal day and, after a brisk walk towards the coast, I was treated to some superb views of the bird. The early morning light reflected off the pale sandy back and the subtle chestnut colours of the breast feathers and highlighted the white wing patches as it flew from post to post along the barbed wire fence. The bird was remarkably indifferent to the hundreds of spectators who had made the pilgrimage into this wild landscape, and often made quick sallies into the vegetation to collect some item to eat. With such an enigmatic bird in front of me, a whole hour passed before I realised that, in my haste to get out, I had forgotten to bring any food of my own with me! Although undoubtedly the star of the show, this single wayward wanderer was somewhat overshadowed by the supporting cast that morning as, against the rising sun, several thousand Pink-footed Geese, which were in small groups of between 80 and 200, left their roosting quarters on the marshes to the east and headed inland for a day of feeding. They wrote their journey across the sky in scribbled lines, all the time calling in their characteristic high-pitched notes. To the west, a flock of about 400 Golden Plover circled, wheeling and twisting to show alternate dark and light shades, like some giant aerial semaphore. I reflected on the sight of the shrike, of the Spectacled Warbler, and other rarities that year had thrown up and, in the end, I began to wonder if perhaps the real spectacles are the everyday natural scenes that are played out across the landscape of the North Norfolk coast. Why not pay a visit to this lovely county and see for yourself the wealth of birdlife it boasts. Go to visitnorfolk.co.uk for all you need to know.
Shingle ridge between Cley and Salthouse
Spectacled Warbler at Gun Hill, Burnham Overy dunes, June 2014
First-winter Steppe Grey Shrike, Burnham Norton, October 2014