Norfolk marshes


Skeins of Brent Geese

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

There aren’t many places in England that feel like a real wilderness but I have found somewhere that feels as remote as the Central Kalahari of Botswana. Less than two hundred miles from London but there are no motorways here. The North coast of Norfolk is a desolate salt marsh that in the 1700s used to be home to a thriving port. Now, the sea has receded leaving one of the most remote and desolate places in England. In the winter sunshine though it is an inspiring place. The breeze blows through the whispering reeds and dykes and meres are a mecca for the throngs of wildfowl.
I am standing on a dyke in the freezing cold on the edge of the marshes near the village of Cley, waiting for dawn. I am looking at silhouette of the windmill that stands sentinel against the cold wind coming in over the Wash. The sky starts to lighten to a mackerel red and I rememeber that I got up early to take photographs and I attend to my tripod and camera but in between exposures I can delight in being up so early and enjoy the changing atmosphere.
Starlings gather on the windmill’s sails, chatting and squabbling in the growing light. Overhead, skeins of geese fly over. It is a sight that is so evocative of the light and winter in the salt marshes. The Brent geese are our winter visitors from the frozen tundra of Siberia. They come in every morning to feed in the fields on sugar beet tops having the spent the night away from prying foxes on the water. There are over 10,000 of them here in Norfolk. The last place I saw such an amazing site was on the Scottish Island of Islay which is the winter quarters for thousands of Barnacle geese.
One of Britain’s oldest reserves is at Cley and is looked after by the Norfolk Naturalist Trust. There is an impressive eco-friendly visitor’s centre and we sat looking out through the large panoramic windows eating a slice of quiche with soup and tea. There is a book shop and some friendly help from the volunteers on where to go and what to see. Out on the board walks through the marshes there is a series of hides to keep watch on the meres, where there are teal, wigeon, shoveller, thousands of Golden plover and lapwings. It is worth spending some time here. The more you watch, you more you see. As your eyes attune to the variety of birds here you see their interactions and you notice the odd redshank amongst them and maybe a pintail. A bird flew past with a familiar cry. I couldn’t remember what it was although my brain said that it knew. Fortunately it came back and perched on a post. It was a kingfisher who stood there for a while so I could snap off a few shots on my camera before it flew on.
There were reports of snow geese out on the marshes so we went off towards the beach as the light began to fade. There were only a couple of swans masquerading as snow geese but the day had one last surprise. As we walked back to the car thinking of tea, toast and a warm fire it flew over. A barn owl, silently quartering the marshes to disappear over the dunes in one last salute to the clear light that is the feature of this wilderness of Norfolk.

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RSPB Titchwell


A flock of Golden Plover

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

The RSPB reserve of Titchwell is on the North Coast of Norfolk. There are a series of inland lakes from the sea which are great feeding grounds for a variety of birds. From the hides we saw plenty of wideon and flocks of lapwings and Golden Plover. In the surrounding marshes are flocks of brent geese and curlews.
After a sandwich and coffee at the cafe we headed down to the beach beyond the sand dunes. There was an expanse of sandy beach bathed in December sunshine. With hardly any wind it was relatively warm although not quite enough to go for a dip in the Wash, as the sea is called around here.
On the beach there were oyster catchers, standing around looking half asleep. Turnstones made their way along the high water line of razor shells, turning over mussel shells looking for food. Sanderlings ran across, their legs going like clockwork. Walking along the beach there is the crunch of the razor shells, impossible to step around as they are everywhere. There is a breath of wind through the maram grass of the dunes and the gentle crash of waves up the shallow beach. The cry of curlews from the marsh and every now and then an oystercatcher flies across giving its high pitched ‘kleep-kleep’ alarm call.
Talking with other people we should have seen eider duck and long throated divers in the sea but maybe they had really high powered telescopes.
There is a hide over the fens where a waxwing had been reported but we saw nothing. In any case, a blanket of cloud came over, signifying a front moving through so it seemed a good idea to head back. The days are not long here. By 2.00 is seems as though dusk is approaching so time to head indoors for tea and toast.

House sparrow


House sparrow

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

They were in the news this morning. Sadly they are in decline. A whole community live outside my mother’s house in Devon. THey are delightful. Living in a community together there would be a delightful buzz about the place. Busily feeding and fighting they would always be worth watching. In the summer in they lived in the shrubbery along the front garden. In winter they would move into the house martins nest under the eaves of the roof. It must have warmer for them. Come May, they would be turfed out by the House Martins, back from Africa and they would have to move into the shubbery again. Around July and August time the sparrows would find it too busy with all the martins and swallows around and they would pack their bags and go on holiday for a week or two. I think they went off to the seaside for a change of air and scenery.
What’s the answer? Plant more native shrubs. Honeysuckle is good but leylandii are bad, so is paving over your front garden. Look after our sparrows.

RememBird Digital Audio Recorder – Review


Pale Chanting Goshawk

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

The Ravenous Rambler is a keen bird watcher so I feel a review of this device fits into place here among the recipes and walks.
Have you been out walking and wondered what that bird song was? Maybe you have been looking for the first chiffchaff of the season but can’t quite remember what the call is like after a long winter? Well, the RememBird device is exactly what you need to ‘remember bird’ calls.
I was thrilled to find this new invention at the British Bird Fair this year. It is a small device that is easy to hand hold but can fit with velcro attachments to the underside of your binoculars. It has two buttons. Press one to make audio notes about the birds you are watching. Then press the other button to record the birds’ call with a built in microphone. All the audio is digital and can be down-loaded to the computer later using the special program.
The details have been meticulously thought about. It has simple buttons and light displays and runs on one AAA battery. Also once you have made an audio note, the device records on a 4 second loop waiting for you to press the call button. So if a bird flies past singing, you will re-capture the last 4 seconds worth of the call. All the settings can be altered in the preferences.
But how does this teach you the calls? Well, I bought the European library of calls that comes on an SD card. Using the ear piece, you can search through the calls and listen to the library. There are calls and songs for most of the species, allowing you to compare your own recordings. You can even create your own library.
Back at the computer, the program downloads your own recordings and puts them in a database with date, place and your comments. It’s brilliant and great fun.

British Bird Fair, Rutland Water, August 2008


eye
Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

“Excuse me, can you tell us why there are so many cars here”? The bewildered couple were getting out of their van expecting a quiet stroll around Rutland Water bird watching. But they had chosen the very weekend that thousands of exhibitors and people descend on the place for the British Bird Fair.
It’s the biggest, best exhibition for twitchers and anyone interested in bird watching. Taking place every year at Rutland water there is something for everyone. Thinking of buying a new ‘scope? Maybe investing in a tripod or a camera? Planning a bird watching holiday? This is the place to find out and talk to people who love their work. Ideally placed on the edge of the RSPB Reserve there are plenty of subjects to test out those cameras and telescopes. I jostled my way to the front of the crowds trying out the new HD leica binoculars. Have you noticed that everything is HD these days? I might rename my blog – The Ravenous HD Rambler! We moved on to the Canon stall where we tried out a lens so big that they would make the paparazzi jealous.
There were several marquees each dedicated to different aspects of birding. There was the art tent, the holidays tent, the optics tent and so on. But that could wait, we needed a bacon sandwich and coffee at the refreshment tent! Anyway, people watching is all part of the fun and there are interesting types here at the show. Some are so dedicated to birding that they walk round with their bins round their necks in case a lesser whitethroat should pass by.
Suitably refreshed we headed to the stands. The technique to really enjoy yourself is to talk to as many people as possible and maybe ask for some freebies! They are all friendly and keen to persuade you to accompany them to perhaps central Panama to take tea in an observatory and tick off all the species that you might find. As we went round, we kept an eye open for celebrities. Bill Oddie – the British TV guru of birdwatchers walked past chatting away merrily. Simon King – another TV great was on his own stand signing autographs and generally being available so we took the opportunity to shake his hand and ask him if he was supporting ‘Survival International’ (for the Kalahari Bushmen). I am sorry to report he wasn’t.
There are many gadgets to look at and I was tempted by the RememBird device for recording and listening to bird calls in the field. I shall write a separate blog about this though.
The camera stands are excellent as it is such a good opportunity to try out kit and get advice. We weighed up all the tripod options and bought the Manfrotto 190CXPro3. A useful thing for any camera mad rambler as it is light weight but sturdy and the arm folds over so you can get down low.
So we have come away with lots of ideas – Costa Rica, Uganda, Panama, Orkney and Skomer. Maybe see you in a hide somewhere – you will recognise me with my impressive tripod!

The Farne Islands


Puffin

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

Finally managed to get to The Farnes. The Farne Islands are a small group of Islands off the coast of Northumberland. They are the summer breeding grounds of many seabirds.

The weather was wet and cloudy this morning but the sea was calm and it was our last day so we had to go. We caught the boar from Seahouses. The boat chugged out to Staple island where we nosed up into a cove surrounded by guillemots sitting on rock painted paint with their droppings. Along with 60 other people from our boat we stepped nervously off the boat onto the shore and slipped and slid our way up the path. It was only a small island and there were only certain areas that we were allowed on.
Along the paths, female eider ducks sat disconcertingly around on their eggs ignoring everyone who went past. The guillemots sat in huddled crowds on the edge of the cliffs. Every now and then you can spot a razorbill. They stand around with the guillemots trying to blend in but their beaks are slightly different and they are easy to see once you get your eye in.
Then there are puffins. They come ashore to breed and lay their eggs in burrows like rabbits. They fly busily around sorting out nests and generally being busy bodies. I tried photographing them in flight but they are very fast. The only way is to latch on to them as they appear over the horizon and follow their movement. You feel like a gunner shooting enemy aircraft (Not). In the end I found it easier to watch them stand on a bank and wait until they took to flight. They seem to throw themselves off the grass with arms and flippers outstretched before taking to the air.
Back to the boats and we cruised around to the Inner Farnes. A slightly larger island completely taken over by Arctic Terns who nest everywhere. They even nest by the path and in one case – on the path. They get pretty angry at all the tourists coming ashore and scream and shout at them. They even try to attack your head. There are good views down some cliff stacks with kittiwakes and more guillemots. There were loads of puffins and a group of Sandwich terns – black beaks. The Arctic terns have red beaks and there are some Common Terns although the Arctics are more common on The Farnes. We managed to spot one Roseate Tern on the beach.
It’s a great place to experience sea birds in the raw. Half term week is not the best week to go as it’s so busy and it was difficult to get that lost in the wilds feeling with hundreds of tourists stamping over you, making inane comments and using their mobile phones.

Whooper swan


Whooper swan

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

On the way back from Islay to England we stopped for a day or two in Dumfries. This is a beautiful part of lowland Scotland with plenty of bird watching. Like Islay it is home for thousands of geese but these geese come down from Norway to spend the winter on the Solway firth. The WWT reserve of Caerlaverock was set up by Peter Scott to preserve these valuable wetlands and it is a superb site with comfortable heated hides and also many two man hides around the marshes. There is lovely cafe operating self service when we were there. It felt very homely to make our own teas and help ourselves to cakes. A real haven for the ravenous rambler.
There are many other attractions around this area with Loch Ken nearby where there are red kites and buzzards as highlights.
http://www.wwt.org.uk