Trip reports

In search of Nightjars and Nightingales with the Norfolk Buccaneers

In search of Nightjars and Nightingales with the Norfolk Buccaneers
The Buccaneers -Laura Bimson

Friday, 5 June 2009

Our trips to Norfolk aren't just about twitching and tick lists. It's about getting away from the urban sprawl, breathing country air, taking in new vista's and re- adjusting your focus for a few special days, and most importantly spending time in good company with like minded friends.

In 2007 Liverpool RSPB's bird tally for 3 days was 103, so we were on a mission to beat it - no pressure then! The count started from when we got on the bus at the Rocket pub M62, the first bird recorded was a Kestrel hovering by the motorway, by the time we got to our first reserve Paxton Pits N R we had seen 20 different species, including 4 raptors : Red Kite, Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and the Kestrel, these were either flyovers, spotted on wires, perched on poles, on lakes and in fields, or in car parks at service stations. By popular demand Chris Storey was quickly nominated as keeper of the list 'The Tick Master'

Don't let anyone tell you Norfolk is a quick trip, it's not- its a large county jutting out into the North Sea. It takes at least several hours to get to Kings Lynn where our hotel was based, and daily your legs will go dead from sitting on the bus as it travels from reserve to reserve!

So after a brief wee and tea stop on the way we finally arrived (about 3.5 hrs) at our first 'Hit list' reserve: Paxton Pits N R where we met our guide John - Chris had thoughtfully arranged for John to take us to the Nightingale hotspots on the reserve. The arrival of our first rain shower did not deter us, ears straining to pinpoint where that rich hypnotic voice was coming from.... Nightingales secretive, skulking birds which like nothing better than hiding in the middle of an impenetrable bush, at Paxton there are currently up to around 25 males singing each spring. Ah yes, four nightingales singing today, but our sightings were reserved to brief glimpses of rusty tails and rumps and black eyes - believe me your fortunate to see that! Another bird of note, our first harbinger of spring , (* record that bird ) was a Cuckoo perching beside the path. On the Heronry south lake it was good to see Cormorants nesting in large numbers, currently between 100 and 180 pairs on site.
(By the way the Nightingale singing in Berkeley Square, was much more likely to have been a Robin, which also sings at night!)

Back on the bus and our dedicated driver and leader Chris Tynan was after a tick!
Another fleeting visit, this time to Natural Trust owned Wicken Fen to catch a lone Squacco Heron standing in a pool: a British first for Chris. A rarity, a small buffy-brown Heron with white wings, which favours swamps, marshes, rivers and wet grassland. Squacco showed well if distant, before skulking into the reeds!
Once again Cuckoo's were heard and seen. Wicken Fen is particularly Cuckoo favoured with at least 3/ 4 seen in flight (easy to see why Cuckoo's are mistaken for Sparrowhawks in flight) and perched on bushes near to the visitor centre. Both male and females seen. Sadly another 'red listed' migrant , with only 14 thousand pairs (Summer) listed by the BTO. Wicken Fen is still a stronghold with about eight female Cuckoos on the fen with around 10% of Reed Warbler nests parasitized by Cuckoos each Summer.

Hotel check in, barely time to check there was soap, tea and milk in the room.......

As the weather was uncertain we decided to try for Nightjars on our first night, so after a quickly arranged 'Roast all round' dinner, with the promise of cheese and biccies later when we got back to the hotel we set off. A wonderfully calm, still evening saw us standing patiently on the wooden plank paths of Dersingham Bog NNR . English Nature have been restoring the heathland & woodland habitats, it's work over the last decade has seen the Nightjar population double.
Careful not to get close to the couple with the two nervy dogs - barking wasn't the sound we wanted, churring more like it. As the dusk fell , Woodcock flew, Muntjac deer skirted the heath edges, Nightjars stayed still. Eventually the churring began and suddenly from the scrub close to were we stood the goat sucker rose into the air and slowly, silently hawked over our heads in search of a moth dinner, into the darkness; a performance for Liverpool RSPB only it would appear as the watching couple, the lady waving her white hankie furiously, missed it - it's behind you!!

And did we get our pudding? By the time we got back to the hotel after a very long day we were ready for a relaxing drink and a spot of supper, but our cheese feast was nowhere to be seen. As bottom lips began to trip, we ordered our drinks - twas then that the hapless chef came into the dining room and caught a withering look from Brenda, this had the desired effect of immediately curing his forgetfulness and sending him scurrying into the kitchen to prepare the Jacob's and Stilton - Yum !

Saturday, with a busy schedule ahead if us, saw the group set off for RSPB Lakenheath Fen hoping for another successful morning. Sadly no Barn owls or Fox cubs this year, but yet another Cuckoo was heard
Well it wasn't too difficult to find out where the star species were, about twenty twitchers had their telescopes trained on a very special nest. The occupants were Golden Orioles, canary yellow and black, sitting tightly on their amazing coconut shaped nest hanging underneath a tree branch. Difficult to find initially but there were enough eyes on that nest if your focused strayed...(perhaps on the Marsh harriers seen hunting over the reserve). If you were one of the lucky ones, (not my day, and no chance of a piccie) you were looking through a scope when the parents were making their 'sitting' change over, then you got a good views of the birds bright plumage. Wouldn't you know it according to the wardens the eggs started hatching that very day... ah the twitchers dilemma - should I stay or should I go, we left and missed it!

A sunny interlude at the fen seemed to inspire the insects to fly, out came the dragons and damselflies, this is the haunt of the Hobby who likes nothing better than a large tasty insect for dinner, such as the hairy (definitely a rocking dragonfly) and the stunning 4 spotted chaser seen here. We were not disappointed as our band of watchers were treated to a Hobby in flight, dashing along with it's long pointed wing's, a high-speed manoeuvre and the dragonfly was caught and devoured.

A moment later a brief fleeting glimpse of electric blue darted across the pool by the hide, this was a Kingfisher, alas seen by few. On the same pool we were mesmerised by a pair of elegant Great crested grebes diving for small silver fish for their young to eat; great close up views as one of our group quoted 'it was just like watching a wildlife documentary on TV.' Grebe chicks have the most striking markings, their black and white stripes help to camouflage them when they are in the water.

Who said there were still Stone curlews at NWT Weeting Heath: after 30mins fruitless searching for the Wailing Heath Chicken we decided they were over the ridge, gleefully messing us about or reckoned our successful visit in 2007 was enough. Seriously though, these birds are scarce summer visitor and are currently on the Red list which means it is of high conservation concern and considered vulnerable. Mainly resting by day and feeding at night... so it's not so hard to understand why we didn't catch sight of one.
Still we did focus our scopes on a totally charming family of Stoats frolicking in the sun, obviously doing very well, certainly well fed as there are bunnies everywhere in Norfolk! A Green Woodpecker searching through the grass for an ant dinner was a pleasure to see. ( Did you know the barbed tongue of the Green Woodpecker is so long (10cm) it has to be curled round its skull !) and a obliging Spotted Flycatcher, hopping about on the fence outside the East hide, pursuing passing flying insects. Another bonus was the Marsh tit found at the Heath's feeding station, a first for some.

Then it was back on the road in search of the Black-winged Pratincole, a bird that winters in Africa and is normally found in warmer parts of south east Europe and south west Asia. Apparently this bird seen locally, had taken to visiting Titchwell reserve briefly in the late morning and early evening, we were looking for it in a field! As it turned out it was easy to spot the field, the row of cars and the lines of telescoped twitchers gave it away, less easy to spot was the bird itself, hunched down on the ground hiding behind a rock against a chill wind. We finally found a good viewing position after several attempts skirting the field boundaries....Black Winged Pratincole, striking facial markings features but slightly uninspiring - as it was just sitting in a field, but nevertheless good to see for it's rarity.

That just left the coastal reserves. The day was near it's end and the weather on the turn as we reached RSPB Titchwell Marsh a dash for the Fen hide was called for before the rain arrived. This hide has a large picture window giving excellent views of the reedbed and a small pool. Despite our best efforts however we were unable to locate any pinging Bearded tits, but couldn't miss the noisy, scratchy, Sedge warblers singing.

Moving onto the Parrinder hide, a good range of ducks, waders, terns and gulls were on the lagoon in front. But the weather wasn't kind and you had to feel sorry for the breeding Avocets hunkered down in a line on their nests, buffered by the wind and spray.
Back along the path a couple of us admiring a Chaffinch fledgling in a shrub were pleasantly startled by a loud burst of song that proved to be a Cetti's Warbler in the tree opposite, a cocky little fella with a rich chestnut back, and pale grey underneath, not the easiest bird to see but this bird was quite obliging hopping about - but not quite still enough to do it justice with my camera.

Back at the hotel Saturday evening was a lot more relaxing affair than the night before, time to soak the feet and watch the box for the weather forecast before going down to dinner. We were not the only visitors to the hotel that night, a wedding party were raving in a marquee in the grounds, one young guest by the name of Ringwood, (sounds like someone off the Blues brothers!) was carried out by several friends late in the proceedings, through the hotel lobby to the front door, where he then deposited everything that had passed his lips in the hrs before, actually probably a better option than a stomach pump, but not very impressive for his friends who had to clear up after him. A more surprisingly reserved bunch were a group of Kiwi's, all sporting the build of the All blacks rugby team - steady girls. Needless to say despite them watching the rugby on the big TV in the bar they failed to break out into a Haka, indeed they turned out to be a party of Exchange Farmers discussing good practices!

I could regale you with more night time tales and reveal the identity of the lass who could drink the men under the table effortlessly, and whose the athletic drinks table tackler (obviously inspired by the rugby) who amazingly didn't spill a drop of his own drink, but the red wine went everywhere! Ah, Tis the stuff of legends and only to be recalled at future birding trip dinner tables!

Sunday dawned a dull, rain threatened day. After a hearty breakfast, pockets lined with choice fruits from the breakfast bar!The group decided to make a dash for the area the Montague's harriers had been seen circling overhead, 'been seen' being the operative words as apparently, as a couple of waiting birdwatchers informed us, they had been showing twenty minutes before we arrived - not the news we wanted to hear, now distant soaring specs on the horizon. Time and weather wait for no man, so we rapidly moved on towards Cley, but not before we came across a family of Egyptian Geese on a farmland pool, these pretty distinctive geese having escaped into the wild after being introduced as ornamental wildfowl now breed in wetland areas, the North Norfolk coast holding high numbers.

NWT Cley Marshes Cley visitor centre looks out to sea, a breathtaking panoramic view across the marsh and reed beds, a wonderful new reserve for many of the group .
Cley reserve has 4 hides which overlook the pools and scrapes, all reached by a boardwalk footpath. Unfortunately we didn't have the luxury of visiting all the hides so we headed towards the sea. A shingle, pebble beach made it a little heavy going as we approached the seaward hide from the beach car park but we were compensated with a good view of a pair of Avocet's with chicks on a small enclosed pool, and were pleased to see some little ringed plover nesting on a fenced off area of the shingle. From the comfort of the large hide we could observe the birds Cley is famous for, Avocets &, Spoonbills. Among the more usual waders and gulls, a tiny little stint was seen foraging on the scrapes, as well as little gull hiding away with all the other gulls. In the distance Marsh harriers were once again seen quartering .
So ended our Big trip, weather could have been a tadge better and another day wouldn't have gone a miss considering all the travelling time, but as Chris 'kept asking 'Is everybody happy', Yes Chris, I think we were.

Chris 'the list' Storey reckoned the total for the weekend was 106. All birds were seen and not just heard.