The first day of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. We headed down to the Broads to catch up on a few of the local specialities. We picked up a couple of participants on the way, in Aylsham, and were rewarded with a Barn Owl hunting down by the river. A good start to the day.
The first stop proper was at Ludham. We could already see the swans from a good mile away. One collective noun for them is a “whiteness of swans” and this seemed particularly apt as 200 large white birds in a flat open landscape really stand out! We stopped nearby and spent some time studying them in the scopes. The majority (175+) were Bewick’s Swans and amongst them were a smaller number (25+) of Whooper Swans. It is always great to be able to see them side-by-side, to see the differences in size and structure, and the pattern of yellow on their respective bills.
From there we moved on to Horsey. A drive along the coast road quickly yielded our next target – a pair of Common Cranes in their ‘usual’ field close to the road. We pulled over and watched them feeding for a while before they suddenly took flight and dropped down over a bank of reeds. Fantastic views! While we were still standing there, yet another Crane flew over. Unfortunately this one seemed to be injured – one of its legs was dangling beneath. It landed on the other side of the road and, whilst still able to move about and probably feed, it was clearly unsteady and would frequently raise its wings to steady itself. Such a great shame to see such a majestic bird in this state.
With Cranes all around, we spent some time surveying the surrounding fields. Lots of Lapwing, Golden Plover, Fieldfare, Starling and even a Common Buzzard were out on the open grass. There were also quite a few Pink-footed Geese on view, but the bulk of the flock today were feeding further away. As we left and drove on up the road, we could see all three Cranes, two on one side and the injured bird on the other.
We stopped further on at Horsey Corner and walked behind the dunes out to the viewpoint for the Grey Seals. The rookery here has had another successful breeding season, with over 800 pups now recorded. Numbers have now dropped from the peak in November/December, but there were still a few pups out on the sand, as well as a selection of adults loafing on the beach.
While we there, we spent a while scanning the sea, which produced a couple of Red-throated Divers and a Great Crested Grebe for the day’s list, as well as a single Sanderling running along the beach and plenty of gulls taking advantage of the remains of those pups which didn’t make it to sea. Both on the walk out, and the way back, we were accompanied for part of the journey by a pair of Stonechats perching along the fence posts in front of us.
Due to roadworks, we had been forced to drive round via Hemsby to get to and from Horsey today. This should have been to our advantage, as several Tundra Bean Geese have been in with Pink-footed Geese at Hemsby recently. Unfortunately a metal detecting enthusiast had chosen today to prospect the fields they had been in, so the geese had moved on. So did we – we headed round to Strumpshaw for lunch. While we ate, we enjoyed a good selection of tits coming to the feeders, including a couple of Marsh Tits.
The Taiga Bean Geese which normally winter in the Yare Valley have been feeding somewhere other than their regular sites this year. With 7 reported from Cantley Marshes this morning, it seemed worth a look. However, in keeping with recent form they were nowhere to be found, so we moved swiftly on.
A short drive to Halvergate and no sooner had we got out of the car than we were wondering where to look. On one side of the road, a Short-eared Owl was hunting back and forth across the grazing marshes. On the other, the Rough-legged Buzzard was sat on a fence post. What a dilemma! We watched the Short-eared Owl for a while, as it was putting on by far and away the best performance initially. It looked stunning in the late afternoon sun.
Finally, as if in recognition of the fact that its lack of activity was costing it the attention it deserved, the Rough-legged Buzzard took to the air and spent a while hunting, hovering over the marshes. Through the scope, we could get a great look at its black-banded white tail and white underparts with contrasting black belly and carpal patches. At one point, it was even pursued by a second Short-eared Owl.
With the afternoon drawing on, we made for Hickling and walked out to Stubb Mill for the evening roost. The Marsh Harriers were already starting to gather and yet another two Common Cranes were feeding out across the marshes. As we scanned the fields, a steady stream of Marsh Harriers were drifting in to roost (we counted at least 30) and eventually we managed to pick up our first ringtail Hen Harrier briefly. Then a male Hen Harrier appeared, an ghostly apparition in pale grey, it flew in and dropped down behind the reeds. Then another ringtail appeared and spent some time circling over the reeds. A Merlin shot through, all too briefly before anyone could get onto it. A Kingfisher flew round in front of us and dropped into the ditch behind – it perched up on the bank for a while where we could get it in the scope. A Chinese Water Deer walked across the marsh.
However the day undoubtedly belonged to the Cranes. After the three we had seen so well earlier, it seemed like we couldn’t hope for better, but as the light faded a flock (herd?) of 8 flew lazily across in front of the watchpoint – quite a sight. Thinking that was a fitting end to the day, we set off back to the car. But as we walked yet three more Cranes appeared over the trees and, as we stood silently on the road they flew right over our heads and off over to Hickling Broad to roost. Simply awesome.