Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads. We were ready for anything – Storm Gertrude was on its way and it was forecast to be rather windy!
We started with a drive along the coast south of Sea Palling, scanning the fields for Cranes as we went. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese circled over the trees inland and dropped down out of view. Otherwise it seemed rather quiet here, with many birds presumably hunkered down out of the wind. South of Horsey Mill, we pulled over and got out of the car – getting knocked sideways by the wind in the process (we later discovered it was gusting to 52+mph!). There was a small herd of Mute Swans in the fields here, but not much else – this area is normally alive with birds but there were very few today. A Kingfisher skimmed away from us along a ditch, low over the water, flashing electric blue as it went.
We turned around and headed back towards the Mill, and this time picked up two Cranes. They were tucked down in a wet meadow behind a hedge and initially obscured almost completely from view. Only by repositioning ourselves so we were looking through a gap in the hedge could we see them properly, feeding mostly with heads down but occasionally raising their necks up to look around. Surprisingly hard to see for a bird which stands around a metre tall!
Cranes – a record shot, it was hard to keep the tripod steady in the wind!
That was a good start, but it was clear we needed to try to keep out of the wind as much as possible. We decided to drive inland to look for the wild swans next. We didn’t have to look very hard – before we had even left the main road we could see the smear of white across the field in the distance. We drove round to where they were and found they were actually too close to the road – we didn’t want to get out and disturb them. So we made our way down a track until we were far enough away and only then got out.
Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – at least 160 today
We could immediately see that there were both Bewick’s and Whooper Swans there, as usual here. The subtle difference in size and shape is noticeable from a distance and, through the scope particularly, we could see the differences in bill pattern too. The Whooper Swans have a longer bill with a large area of yellow extending down towards the tip in a point, whereas the yellow on the smaller bill of a Bewick’s Swan is more squared-off. It is always great to see the two species side by side like this, to really appreciate the differences.
Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – showing the size and bill differences well
We did a quick count of the herd – there were at least 160, possibly 170 swans in total today. It was too windy to spend too long trying to work out how many of each though, but there have been only 20-25 Whooper Swans for most of the winter and the remainder have been Bewick’s Swans.
Again, we wanted to try to keep out of the worst of the wind, so we made our way down to Great Yarmouth. There has been a juvenile Glaucous Gull hanging around close to the seafront for a week or two. It is a slightly incongruous setting for an arctic gull, in amongst the seaside hotels and tourist attractions shuttered for the winter. We couldn’t find it at first around any of its favourite haunts. We amused ourselves watching a Common Gull doing a ‘rain dance’ on the grass, stomping its feet rapidly up and down on the spot, trying to tempt the worms into thinking it’s raining.
Common Gull – doing a ‘rain dance’
We didn’t think the Glaucous Gull was around and were just getting into the car to leave when it suddenly appeared overhead with all the Black-headed Gulls. We got a good look at it as it circled over the road, before drifting over the houses towards the playing fields. However, round at the playing fields there was no sign of it. A quick visit to the corner shop was called for and a few minutes later, after the strategic deployment of half a loaf of sliced white, it reappeared with a large throng of other gulls.
Glaucous Gull – tempted in with some bread
The Glaucous Gull flew around just overhead, giving us some stunning views. Rather plain, mealy, biscuit coloured all over its body, apart from its wing tips which are plain off-white, lighter than the rest of its wings. It kept swooping down with the hordes for a bit, before landing a short distance away on the grass. Its huge size was now obvious, much bigger than the local Herring Gulls, and it was sporting a massive bill, pinkish at the base with a contrasting black tip. It stood there for a few minutes before deciding it had had enough and there wasn’t going to be any more bread, so flew off.
Glaucous Gull – big and pale, with a massive two-tone bill
We still had half a loaf left, so we made our way a little further along the seafront and walked out onto the beach opposite all the amusement arcades, between the two piers. Further along the beach, a huddle of smaller gulls were braving the wind and as soon as we walked onto the prom they realised what was about to happen and flew to the beach in front of us. We kept them waiting for a bit while we had a good look at them.
They were mainly Mediterranean Gulls, at least ten of them. This is a well-known spot for them in winter and there are often a lot more than this – the rest must have been hiding from the wind somewhere. They were mostly adults with pure white wing tips, but in amongst them were a couple of 2nd winters, with paler bills and black spots in their wings. Only once we had enjoyed a really good look at them did they get the bread.
Mediterranean Gull – an adult starting to get its black summer hood
Mediterranean Gull – a 2nd winter
While we had been feeding the gulls, news had come through of a Green-winged Teal at Ranworth Broad. It seemed like their might be some shelter from the wind there, so we decided to drive over there to try to see it. We parked in the village and had our lunch overlooking Malthouse Broad. There were lots of Tufted Duck and Coot out on the water, along with a couple of Great Crested Grebes. Several of the Coot came out to feed on the grass in front of us.
Coot – feeding on the grass at lunchtime
A flock of Long-tailed Tits had passed us a couple of times while we were eating, and once we had finished we looked up into the alders nearby to see if we could see anything else with them. Feeding on the cones, we could see several Goldfinches and with them a few Siskin. We had a good look at one of the latter in the scope. A Treecreeper came to the front of the trees as well and proceeded to climb up one in front of us.
Siskin – in the alders by the car park
We walked round and out to Ranworth Broad itself along the boardwalk. It was only when we got out there that we realised the scale of the task. A small crowd had gathered but they had lost sight of the Green-winged Teal in a vast flock of ducks out on the water towards the back of the Broad. There were hundreds and hundreds of birds – mainly Wigeon and Teal, with a smaller number of Shoveler and a few Gadwall and Pintail. Even worse, they were all constantly on the move, swimming around or just drifting in the wind.
Green-winged Teal is the American cousin of our (Eurasian) Teal and it looks very similar, apart mainly from a bold white vertical stripe on the sides of the drake’s breast. We eventually found it again, but it was an impossible task to get all the group onto it. As soon as somebody else took over the scope, it had drifted or swum out of view again and had to be refound. After trying in vain for some time, in the end we had to give it up.
We walked back along the boardwalk, where a Marsh Tit was calling from the trees. A Goldcrest was singing and more Siskins were in the alders over the road.
We wanted to get back in time for the raptor roost at Stubb Mill, so we started to make our way round there. We stopped off several times to look for Cranes, but we couldn’t find any more at any of their favoured sites this afternoon. A tractor was ploughing a field beside the road, pursued by a mass of gulls. Nearby, a Common Buzzard was perched on a large clod of earth, watching, mobbed by a couple of Carrion Crows.
Out at Stubb Mill, we immediately spotted the two Cranes which are regular here, in pretty much their usual spot. They spent most of the time we were there standing behind the reeds, with their necks up, looking round. Unfortunately, only when the light started to fade and it was too dull for photos did they fly round and land directly in front of the viewpoint. Still, it was a great flight view.
Crane – the usual two suspects at Stubb Mill
There were lots of Marsh Harriers already flying in and out among the trees in the reeds when we arrived. They didn’t seem to want to settle in the trees today, possibly due to the wind. At one point, they all circled up high into the air – we could see around 50 Marsh Harriers all up in the sky together. A stunning spectacle. Still they kept on coming, and there must have been at least 60 Marsh Harriers in the roost by the time we left.
Marsh Harriers – about 50 were in the sky together this evening
We didn’t see the Hen Harriers come in this evening, but the next thing we knew there were two ringtails flying around the ruined mill with the Marsh Harriers. We got them in the scope and you could just make out the white square at the base of their tails and they circled round.
Then the dark clouds rolled in, just as the wind seemed to ease a little and we lost the best of the light. We had already seen what we had come to see, so we decided to call it a day and head for home.