Nor­folk de­lights

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 vis­it­nor­ 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

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