Day 3 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. With ‘Stormageddon’ Ciara forecast for today, we knew the weather would be challenging, with winds around 40mph and gusts up to 60mph+. It was also meant to be heavy rain all day, and thankfully that part of the forecast was wrong – we had some squally light drizzle at times, most of which we were able to dodge, but the only really horrible weather was as we were driving back north late afternoon. Armed with the knowledge that it would be difficult, we set off down to the Broads to see what we could find.
Our first stop was at Ludham. We could see the herd of swans from the main road, so we made our way down a couple of minor roads on the edge of the old airfield and parked on the edge of the beet field they were in. It was certainly windy when we got out, but we got the scope set up on them, a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans.
It is always nice to see the two species side by side, which they normally area here. We could see the smaller, shorter-necked Bewick’s Swans, with less yellow at the base of the bill and the yellow squared off. The Whooper Swans were bigger and longer-necked, with the more extensive yellow on the bill extending down towards the tip in a wedge. There were several greyer juvenile Whooper Swans towards the back of the group, with dull bases to their bills. Two Mute Swans were feeding on their own in the winter wheat further over.
Our first mission accomplished, we were happy to get back in the minibus and out of the wind again. We decided to head down to look for some Common Cranes next. There has been a large group feeding in the fields at Billockby this winter, but when we got there it was very exposed and windy, with no sign of any Cranes.
We figured they might be out on the marshes instead today, where they could be able to find a bit more cover, so we set about scanning the surrounding area. It didn’t take us long to find the Cranes – they were rather distant here, but we got them in the scope and watched them feeding in around the wet pools and amongst the dense rushy tussocks. We counted at least 11 Cranes, hard to be sure as some were difficult to see at times in the vegetation.
From here, we drove round to the causeway between Rollesby and Ormesby Broads. We scanned Rollesby Broad from the shelter of the minibus first. The water was very choppy, whipped up by the wind, and most of the birds were sheltering down in the near corner, behind the reeds – with two Great Crested Grebes in amongst the Tufted Ducks, Mallards and Coots. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was trying to stand on one of the floating jetties beyond.
The near edge of Ormesby Broad, the other side of the road, was a bit more sheltered from the wind by the causeway. There were more ducks on here, including several Common Pochard and a scattering of Goldeneye further back. We got one of the closer drake Goldeneye in the scope and admired its golden eye and white cheek patch. We couldn’t see any sign of the Long-tailed Duck which had been here earlier in the week though.
There was still a little bit of time before lunch, and we wanted something else to do which would not require braving the conditions, so we decided to drive down a nearby track which overlooks some pools and marshes, which we could then scan from the minibus. It was a bit muddy down the track, but perfectly passable. We could see lots more ducks on the pools, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal and Gadwall. A Marsh Harrier was battling into the wind along the near edge, over the reeds.
The first area where we might turn around looked rather muddy, so we drove on to the end of the track, where there is a larger turning area with a hardcore base. Typically, having not seen a sign of anyone else braving the conditions here today, there were two cars parked in the turning area and in such a way there was no way we could get around. There was no option but to reverse back. All was fine until we got back to the area we would have to turn round, and as we prepared to manoeuvre, the front wheel got stuck in the muddy edge on the edge of the track. As we tried to get out, we just ended up getting more stuck.
Fortuitously, there was a cafe not far away, so we wrapped up and everyone walked back along the track to the road. With the group installed in the warm with a hot drink, we managed to find a very helpful couple of locals with a 4×4 who could help. After a bit of a wait to assemble the required gear, it was thankfully a fairly painless process to tow the minibus out of the mud and back onto the firmer ground of the track. Many thanks to the help from the locals. All that was not spared was the embarrassment of the guide! We couldn’t even really blame the weather.
Back on the road, with everyone back in the bus, we drove round to Hickling Broad and stopped for lunch by the Pleasure Boat Inn. There had been a couple of Scaup out on the broad in recent days, so we walked out to the shore to have a look after lunch. There was a Marsh Tit calling in the bushes by the car park, but when we got out to the water it was far too choppy for any ducks to be out in the middle. A Cormorant was fishing around the staithes, presumably where the water was a little less churned up.
We had a message now to say that the two Cattle Egrets were still at Potter Heigham, and some directions as to where to look. We drove back round and parked in the car park by the boat yard. As we walked down the footpath which runs alongside, a Kingfisher zipped away along the ditch ahead of us. It landed on some brambles above the water, long enough for us to get it in the scope, but was quickly on its way again.
Once we got out of the shelter of the trees, it was very windy. We could see some cows on the grazing marshes at the far end, so we put our heads down and walked on. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls out on the wet grass, but two larger white shapes were feeding around the feet of the cows. When we stopped by the gate at the end, we could confirm they were the two Cattle Egrets. Some squally drizzle started up now, just when we didn’t want it, but we got them in the scope and could see their short, yellow bills. Everything was very flighty in the wind and kept whirling round and dropping back down again.
With the Cattle Egrets in the bag, we turned and headed back to the shelter of the trees. Typically, the drizzle stopped as we walked back.
It felt like we had got the best we might get out of the Broads today, so we thought we would drive back round on the main roads via the North Norfolk coast. We figured we would still have time to have a look in at Sheringham on the way, where it would be more sheltered down along the prom. Having not had any heavy rain all day, we now drove into a very heavy squall at Stalham, with very gusty winds, driving rain and poor visibility. Thankfully, we were in the dry and it passed over fairly quickly, although we lost a bit of time as it was slow going. It was also good that we hadn’t had these conditions all day, as had been forecast.
Even better, as we drove up towards the coast, we could see the back edge of the front approaching and bright sky beyond. As we walked down to the prom, we were mostly out of the wind, which seemed to have dropped now, and the sun even came out. We couldn’t find much life along the prom though this afternoon – perhaps it was just a bit too late in the day now or perhaps many of the birds had gone elsewhere to find shelter in the wind and rain earlier. Despite it approaching high tide, we couldn’t find any Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences, although we did eventually find a few Turnstones feeding on the beach below the slipway. True to their name, they were busily flicking the stones over, looking for food underneath.
The light was starting to go now, so we decided to call it a day and head for home. It had certainly not been easy-going in the wind today, but there was general agreement in the group that we had done pretty well all things considered – it was certainly better than cancelling the day. And we had enjoyed a very successful three days in aggregate, with a total of 127 species on the list and a good selection of winter visitors and a couple of rarities thrown in for good measure.