Day 2 of the 3 day tour. The plan was to work our way east along the north coast today. The weather forecast did not look promising, and the day started cloudy with drizzle, but luckily it was not going to be as bad as it first looked.
We started out at Wells and had a quick look out across the harbour. Several Marsh Harriers were flying about over the saltmarsh. Groups of Brent Geese came low overhead and landed in the creek to bathe, before flying to the fields to graze. A Little Egret waded just off the mud and several Redshank and Turnstone, plus a Curlew and a Grey Plover were on the sandbanks. A small group of Redwing flew overhead and inland. Best of all, a Kingfisher flashed across and landed on a pontoon in the harbour.
A short drive along the coast and just past Cley we could see several large groups of Brent Geese flying alongside us from the reserve to the grazing meadows by the road. We stopped to look through the gathering flock and it wasn’t long before we managed to locate the Black Brant which has been with our ‘Dark-bellied’ Brents in the Cley area for the last couple of weeks. After the Black Brant hybrid which we saw yesterday, this was the real deal, an altogether more impressive beast. Much darker, almost black back and belly with brown rather than grey tones, and with a very bright white flank patch and collar, the latter complete under the chin and continuing extensively round to the rear of the neck. It really stood out among the Dark-bellieds.
While we were sitting in the car watching it, a Chiffchaff appeared in a bush in front of us. Presumably a migrant on the move, it flew off along the ditch by the road. We got out of the car very carefully and managed to get great views through the scope of the Black Brant, but we could see several people gathering in the field across the road and then the shooting started. The geese took flight and all the birds around took to the air. As a large covey of Red-legged Partridges fled from the guns we saw a Woodcock amongst them – thankfully it escaped unscathed.
We drove on to Salthouse and parked on the beach road. Walking up on to the shingle, we stopped to look at a group of Dunlin feeding on the pools behind the beach. A couple of Turnstone were in amongst them and more were feeding around the remains of the old shingle bank. While we were standing there, a small flock of Snow Buntings flew in from the west, their calls first giving away their arrival, and we watched them land on the edge of the pools. We spent some time watching them through the scope, running quickly along the mud and feeding in the grass along the edge.
We walked east along the beach. A large flock of Linnets was on the shingle where the old car park used to be. Looking out to sea was quiet – a single Red-breasted Merganser flew past, some more Brent Geese arrived presumably from the continent and a lone Gannet circled distantly offshore. The one thing we could see was small groups of Blackbirds flying in off the sea. One landed on the beach exhausted – it took two goes to fly up the beach before dropping down into cover on the other side. At Gramborough Hill, there were a couple more in the bushes and yet more flew in as we walked round. It was to be a theme of the day, with small groups arriving wherever we went.
Back to Cley and we headed along the path by the road and up onto the East Bank. The new pools on the edge of the reedbed held a Grey Heron and a small group of Teal with the Mallard. Scanning along the edge, a pair of Stonechat were by the reeds. Then a sharp call alerted us to a Water Pipit overhead, which thankfully dropped in amongst the reed regrowth around the margin of the pools. We managed to get the scope on it and everyone got a quick look before it disappeared into cover.
There were several Marsh Harriers over the reeds, both on the old reserve and over Pope’s Marsh. One of the group spotted another harrier flying in from behind us, which looked slightly different. A quick look revealed a stunning male Hen Harrier. We watched it fly west across the reedbed, over the reserve and disappear away over the West Bank. Out in the reeds, their distinctive ‘ping’ calls alerted us to the presence of Bearded Tits. They were keeping low down in the vegetation, but occasionally would fly between groups of reeds, allowing us to see them. Several Reed Buntings were slightly more accommodating.
There were lots of ducks out on the marsh – Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Shelduck. A single Black-tailed Godwit flew overhead. The sea itself was still quiet, but more Blackbirds were seen flying in. The walk back towards the car was accompanied by several small groups overhead, or flying past us over the reeds.
We finished the day at Stiffkey. The forecast had been for rain later in the afternoon, but it was actually dry with the cloud even breaking up in places. It seemed worth a go at seeing the harrier roost. There were several Marsh Harriers over the saltmarsh, but it didn’t take long for us to see our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, in this case a young bird which flew east over the saltings. Then a second ringtail appeared distantly to the west, and it too flew past us, before turning and doing a much closer flypast back west. Finally, to round off the performance, a beautiful male Hen Harrier appeared. Possibly the same bird we had seen earlier at Cley, it worked its way slowly west past us, giving us prolonged scope views.
There are always lots of Little Egrets on the saltmarsh at Stiffkey, but as the light started to fade, even more began to appear, flying east in small groups to roost. In the space of about half an hour we saw more than 50 fly past, with the largest group comprising 13 birds together. And they were still coming when we decided the light was getting too poor to stay any longer and called it a day.