WAVES OF WADERS – 18 Mar 2011

Sandbach U3A Birdwatchers took off on their second weekend trip with four nights in the bird-rich county of Norfolk. A dozen of us set off from Sandbach on the morning of 18 Mar 2011 heading across country towards East Anglia, where we had booked into a hotel on the north-west tip of Norfolk at Old Hunstanton. But first we had organised a stop for lunch, and a little light birding, at Rutland Water!

The usual plethora of countryside birds met us at Rutland, with the highlight being good views of a Green Woodpecker. The lagoons produced good numbers of waterfowl with Canada and Greylag geese, Shelduck, Tufted, Pochard, Gadwall, Goldeneye and Teal. A pair of the locally-breeding Egyptian Geese put in an appearance, as did a Little Egret. Marie’s sharp ears picked out out the song of our first migrant, a Chiffchaff, and the bird of the day, a thermalling Red Kite, was spotted by Louise.

We continued on towards our destination, turning the corner at King’s Lynn and committing ourselves to the sometimes-winding A149, which was to become our main traffic artery over the next four days. Having settled in at the hotel, we took a stroll along the beach, adding Oystercatchers, Ringed Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit to our list before retiring to the hotel for dinner.

After dinner, Gary Hibberd, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Home Dunes Reserve Warden, talked to us about his reserve, how it had developed, and what species we were likely to see there. He also invited us to a Visible Migration watch just after dawn the next morning, which suggestion was met with little enthusiasm! However, one member did wake early, and heard and saw Siskin, Linnet, Yellowhammer, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail and Greenfinch migrating west over the low Hunstanton cliffs.

We returned to a nearby spot after breakfast, mainly to observe Norfolk’s only nesting Fulmars, which breed on Hunstanton’s sandstone cliffs. A couple of fly-by Eiders were also seen, along with Scaup, Mergansers and Great Crested Grebes on the calm sea. The foreshore gave up Sanderling, Turnstone, Grey Plover and Rock Pipit, before we turned our attention to Holme.

Holme proved to be of great interest, combining several habitats, and adding Wigeon and Pintail, Pink-footed and Brent Geese and Dabchick to our wildfowl list. The majority of the group now connected with Meadow Pipits on the heathland and Siskin in the pines before viewing 11 Avocets on the scrapes. Raptors were present in numbers with Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, two Marsh Harriers and a Red Kite which was visiting the bird resorts of the North Norfolk coast. We had lunch at Holme before returning to the hotel for a brief rest.

In the mid-afternoon we set out for the RSPB’s Snettisham reserve, where the one of the highest tides of the early spring was expected. Its a long walk out at Snettisham, and we took time to add Knot, Dunlin and Redshank during the trek. We headed for a group of benches between the lagoons and the Wash, where dry land was likely to be at its narrowest. And made it just in time to watch the spectacle, seated in the late afternoon sun.

Wisps of waders like thick smoke were already swirling about above the Wash, growing ever larger as the water pushed them off the mudbanks. The tide came in faster and faster with water flooding the channels quicker than a man can jog and with it came Shelducks and Wigeon seeking new areas to dabble in. And then the water reached the final few square metres of mud.

Waves of waders started flowing off the Wash and up and over the banks of the lagoons in flocks of 100 or more, the rush of wings clearly audible as they skimmed overhead. Knot in their thousands, Dunlin in their hundreds, Redshank in their scores, Oyster-catchers in their dozens. Pockets of Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover and a couple of Avocets seasoned the heady brew. A single stint clung onto the tail of a fling (coll. noun – useful for the next quiz!) of Dunlin, moving too fast to be identified as it twisted and turned. And as quickly as it had started, it drew to a close, the last of the waders rushed overhead, over the berm and into the lagoons.

One last spectacle to see, as we entered the nearby hide overlooking the lagoon. And there, on a gravel bank, were the densely-packed flocks of waders, almost as mobile on the shingle as when on the wing. They flowed backwards and forwards in a seeming Brownian motion within their own flock. The “Whirling Wader” video on the RSPB Snettisham website will awaken memories for those that were there, and perhaps whet the appetite of those yet to join us for such a spectacle (http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/s/snettisham/video.aspx ). As we walked back to the cars one turn of the path brought us head on to a huge, orange, gibbous rising moon, the antecedent of the spring tide, and a fitting end to our day.

Despite dire warnings of the odds against seeing them, two carloads made the (very) early morning journey to Wolferton to see Golden Pheasant. As we turned off the A149, one was spotted pecking its daily quota of grit from the roadside. A second soon joined it and we were treated to the sight of two gorgeous adult males strutting their stuff, their iridescent golden helmets shimmering in the dawn light. The follow-on visit to Dersingham Bog was bound to be anti-climactic, but a singing Woodlark and a Jay made it on to the trip list, before the return journey added a female Goldie to whet the appetite for breakfast.

After the wolf had been driven from the door, we visited Choseley Drying Barns, where up to 73 Corn Bunting were spending their time only a month ago. Just one or two remained, but we did see them, along with Yellowhammers, Red-legged Partridge and flocks of Golden Plover. Onwards then to Titchwell, that jewel among RSPB reserves, a relatively small area into which a large number of species are crammed. Among crowds of Sunday birdwatchers, notable species included Snipe, Ruff, Spotted Redshank, Chiffchaff (heard and seen), Water Pipit, Twite, Bearded Tit, Snow Bunting and Scoter. Also noted were the “groupies”, those partners among us without the all-consuming avian interest, drawn by Titchwell’s numerous delights. These nomadic wanderers also spent time in a King’s Lynn glass factory and underook a brief patchwork course in Hunstanton.

On Monday, we headed east, stopping briefly at Burnham Overy Staithe to watch a Barn Owl perched up in the open and then hunting. Marsh Harrier and Kestrel reminded us of the area’s importance for raptors. And so we came to that legendary reserve on the North Norfolk coast at Cley, although perhaps waning a little in importance in modern times. Here we had some luck, both good and bad. The reported Ross’s Goose was quickly spotted. This Arctic Canada breeder usually winters in the Western US, but had chosen the Norfolk Goose resorts for a change. (Or had escaped from a wild fowl collection!) It kept company with seven Barnacle Geese among the hundreds of Brent feeding around the reserve. The vacationing Spoonbill put in a brief appearance, allowing a telescope wielder a very brief view before hopping over into a hidden dyke, just as the group arrived to view it. We did add Little Egret to our Norfolk list, and saw our only Great Black-backed Gull of the weekend. Another hunting Barn Owl was seen, with the third of the day hunting alongside the road on the way back to the hotel.

All too soon it was time to go home. We stopped at a Common Crane site near Peterborough. The Cranes were not at home however, and the only addition to our weekend’s list of a 104 species was a late Fieldfare, scurrying along the hedgerow. The only cranes were those seen in a heavy plant yard on the outskirts of Peterborough! So a dozen tired but satisfied birwatchers and “groupies” made their way back to Cheshire, with memories full of Golden Pheasants and scarce birds such as Ross’s Goose and Water Pipit. But the spectacle of waves of waders headed over Snettisham’s sea wall will stay long in the memory.