Ironically, as we set off on the Friday we were subjected to snow flurries that we were looking to avoid in January. It was bitterly cold, and very grey. As we passed King Lynn, heading towards Snettisham we took the chance to drive around the Wolferton triangle. A couple of Golden Pheasants were being seen regularly over the past few days, but we couldn't find them. Over the course of the two days we toured the area three times without any luck.
We took a position sheltered from the wind, and watched the mud. Behind us were a series of pits created by gravel extraction. They were very quiet with a pair of Goldeneye and Pochard and a lone Little Grebe. On the mud in front of us were Curlew, Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Shelduck and a small flock of Avocet.
Away in the distance we could see sizeable flocks of Knot and Oystercatcher. It was the Knot that we hoped would perform for us, despite the fact that there was a considerable amount of mud still exposed.
It happened quite quickly, and without any real reason, suddenly in the distance the Knot took off and this triggered a reaction from other flocks.
They flew around for a while, and some even broke away and flew over our heads in the direction of the pits, the sound of their wings clearly evident as they flew over us. As the flocks wheeled around you could hear the noise of their wings as they twisted and turned. Finally they began to settle once again back onto the mud.
After a short rest they were off again, this time in distinctive separate groups, showing well above the mud.
They settled back on the mud, and found higher ground. It was now quite murky and very cold. We waited to see if they would move again, but the approaching tide did not seem to be making much of an impression, so finally we conceded defeat to the wind and tide, and made our way back to the car. We both agreed we should try again next winter when the tides align. There was no sign of any geese other than the resident Greylags.
We stayed in the Rose and Crown at Snettisham, and after a wonderful dinner, and pleasant night's sleep we set of on Saturday morning to explore the marshes and pools around Titchwell RSPB reserve.
Overnight there had been more flurries and there was a dusting of snow on the roofs and fields around the area. As we made our way towards Titchwell, the snow increased, and we wondered what the day was going to bring. The first stop was the Fen Hide, where apart from some feeding swans, and a lone Coot it was quiet, it did allow us though to see out the snow flurry in the relative warm and dry. Once the snow eased we decided to walk around the trail to the east, there was a large pool with plenty of Pochard. The area is very open, and despite the viewing blinds the duck see you coming very early on, and the Pochard made there way off to the other side of the pool, looking over their shoulders as they went to see where we were.
The drakes are lovely ducks we the rufous red head contrasting with the pale grey backs.
We left the Pochard and walked back along the trail. It was snowing lightly now, and around the the boggy area there was a flock of Long-tailed Tits. They are one of the earliest breeders and you could see within the flock that they were behaving in pairs. These two were exploring the lichen on the tree branches.
A Water Rail squealed from behind, but despite searching we could not find it. There was a small pool by the trail, and on it were a pair of Tufted Duck. The male seemed content to just drift around the pool, while the female kept diving around her mate, bobbing up either side of him. They allowed us to get quite close, and as a result we could appreciate once again the lovely plumage. The jet black head and golden yellow eye of the male, the pale blue bill of both and the lovely markings on what are usually thought of as the drab female. With the reflection of the reeds making the scene even more dramatic.
The trail took us to the sea wall, and we walked along it while watching the freshwater lagoon, and the marshes to the west. A Marsh Harrier rose from the marsh, and gradually drifted over us as it gained height and headed off towards the east. We went into the first hide, and spent sometime watching the Brent Geese that had flown in from the lagoons. With the grey skies the water appeared white in the distance and created a lovely scene for the dark grey geese and their reflections in the still water..
There is a brand new hide at Titchwell that sits between the freshwater and saltwater lagoons. It was very welcome today as it provided an escape from the cold, and somewhere to watch the birds while enjoying a warm cup of coffee. From the other hide the lagoon had looked empty, but from this hide suddenly we were presented with several new birds. Away off in the a female Long-tailed Duck sat on an island. She was too distance to photograph, but we were able to see her through the hide telescope. Apparently it has been present for about a week and alternates between the sea and the island in the lagoon.
A small group of Black-tailed Godwits provided a nice scene, again with the reflections in the water. While some slept others either preened or probed into the water.
As well as the godwits there was also a flock of about 30 Avocet, again content to just tuck their heads under their wings and sleep away the cold weather.
Duck at this time of year are at there best. The males are looking splendid in their new plumage, and the females if you look carefully are just as spectacular in their own way. This drake Teal was dabbling at the edge of the lagoon in front of the hide, providing some wonderful views and allowing us to appreciate the detail of the feather colours.
We all get used to watching these ducks from the side as they swim by, but it was interesting to look at them from behind, and really appreciate the beautiful tail and wing feathers.
Gadwall can be an underrated duck, appearing just as a grey and brown duck, but again look closer, and the plumage is really beautiful with the waved breast feathers and the lighter brown tipped primaries. As this drake swam past it created a bow wave flowing over the breast.
Both Helen and I both agreed that the female close up is definitely the smarter bird. The combination of browns on the feathers on the back and flanks produces a variety of delicate colours. She obediently followed her mate as they swam in front of us.
We left the freshwater side of the hide, and checked the saltwater. There were a couple of Ringed and Grey Plover in front of the hide, but not as much action as on the other side, so we decided to venture out into the cold, and try the beach. As we came to the end of the walkway we stopped to watch a Spotted Redshank feeding in the brackish water. Much greyer with clear spots and slightly larger, with clear spots than its Redshank cousin it seemed quite content to wade belly deep in the cold water, plunging its head deep to feed.
Strangely the wind did not feel so cold down on the beach, but there was a definite smell as we made our way across millions of dead razor clam shells. The tide was far out, and on the sea we could see rafts of Goldeneye bobbing about. On the exposed rocks there was a very large and noisy flock of Oystercatchers. They would break off from feeding amongst the sea weed to berate each other with the distinctive and irritating calls. The process would involve chasing a neighbour with the head down, and the bill open and sometimes dragging in the water.
The birds are still showing signs of their winter plumage as the neck collar was still visible.
Looking both east and west there was endless sea. The sky was a dark grey as was the sea making it difficult to discern the two, while in the middle the wind would produce a mist over the beach as it picked up the dry sand and blew it around. These North Norfolk beaches hold special memories for us, they are beautiful both in the winter and the summer. It was just around the coast a few years ago at Holkham where I remember my mother having a wonderful time just paddling in the surf, a very special day.
As well as the Oystercatchers on the rocks there was a few Knot and Dunlin. A small flock of Sanderling flew past us and over the irritating Oystercatcher calls, the bubbling call of the curlew could be heard calming the scene. The Curlew were working the rocks, pushing their long curved bills into the crevices and pulling out little bits of food. This individual was taking the chance to rest.
The tide was definitely coming in now, and was beginning to cover the rocks. We continued our walk until an inlet prevented us from going any further. We followed this up the beach, and it became a small pool where we found two common seals. It was a bit like a giant rock pool catching crabs because they were going to have to wait for the high tide before they could swim out, unless of course they ventured across the sand.
As we watched the seals a skein of Brent Gees flew over our heads coming from the salt marsh.
Looking back the beach again looked spectacular with the weak sunshine highlighting the distant grey sky.
As well as the beach the dunes were now looking spectacular as the sun began to come out. The clouds were lifting and the sunshine was picking out the yellows and greens of the dunes.
With the rocks now gone due to the incoming tide the Oystercatchers had to move, and there was a steady procession of them from the beach over the dunes and away in the direction of the pools.
We made our way back to the reserve by walking now at the top of the beach. This eventually took us through the mounds of razor clam shells. Apparently during the winter storms these are washed up on to the beach, and become a major attraction for the waders. As we made our way through them we disturbed quite a large mixed flock of Turnstone, Knot and Sanderling.
I love to watch the Sanderling as they feed and still photography does not convey I think the beauty of these birds. They scamper across the beach and sand like clockwork toys, their legs moving so quickly. The best place to see them I feel is when they are at the waters edge, and they run into the surf only to turn away so quickly to avoid a large wave washing over them. I had to be content here watching them make their way across the razor clams and then running up an down the sand busily chasing each other if they should locate some morsel of food.
While the sanderling were extremely busy the Knot were quite calm and i managed to get close to this individual. These are the birds we watched wheeling around the wash yesterday. They are very grey above in the winter with silver white under wings which provide the contrast as they fly around.
Leaving the waders behind on the razor clams we took the path back into the reserve, on the first pool we came to a pair of Pintail were slowly making their way across the water. The male looked spectacular and it seemed to be in the beginnings of a display as it would raise itself up in the water to extend the neck, and to accentuate the white "go faster" stripe up to the head. It reminds me of the white flash on the side of Starsky's car from Starsky and Hutch.
Once again a truly beautiful duck, the chocolate head contrasting with the pale blue bill and the back and grey body plumage, and that wonderful white stripe, that from behind looks even more impressive.
They swam ever closer, but unfortunately not as close as I would have wanted and then they were off, the male first followed once again by the attentive female.
We made our way to the hide once more to top up on coffee. The Oystercatchers we had watched leave the beach had collected on one of the small islands, but were clearly not happy, and every so often they would be spooked and would fly around. The black and white plumage looking spectacular against the drab background.
One of my favourite ducks is the Shoveler, I just love the colours in the plumage, the russet red flanks the dark bottle green head, the pale blue wing flash, and of course the ridiculously large shovel bill. There were plenty around the hide, but most were tucked up roosting on the bank, until this male drifted past the hide.
What a gorgeous bird, it swam past us,and then headed for the shore and stopped in the shallows to undertake an extensive preen. The reflections in the water are lovely.
Shortly after this we mad our way back to the visitor centre where we were entertained by the resident Robins feeding from Helen's hand and a couple of Brambling on the feeders. I just managed to see the elusive Water Rail as it hid in a ditch, but it was too dark to photograph.
From Titchwell we made our way late afternoon to Royden Common. This is a well known Hen Harrier roost site, and over the last few days there had been reports of up to four birds including one male. I watched from the car park, and it was very cold. After seeing Buzzards and Grey Partridges in the surrounding fields I was warmed up by very distant views of a Barn Owl. Finally a Hen Harrier appeared, but again very distant and flew low over the long grass and gorse. It was joined by another, they were both ring tails, probably females. As the light faded, it became much colder, and I gave up on the chance of photographs and a male bird . We headed back to the Rose and Crown for a hot bath, an England win, and a lovely evening meal.
We were not able to witness the scenes we had hoped for, but vowed to return next winter when hopefully the tides and gees will deliver the goods.