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.


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

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!

Seahouses, Northumberland


Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

A Review
A mixture of old harbour with new tourists. On the one side, fishing boats, lobster traps and ropes. On the other hand fish and chips, bucket and spades and the worst of British tourism. Our cottage for the week is on the older side of the town so it is a short walk down to the harbour where the eider duck waddle ashore and stand around preening themselves.
In the old harbour huddle the fishing and tourist boats protected from the rough seas outside where the waves break over the rocks in dramatic fashion. Seagulls make themselves busy picking up the remains of the fish and chips that get left around. Herring gulls are the most boisterous, fighting each other for every morsel. The black headed gulls are smaller and behave like first formers around the school bullies. They delicately nip around picking up pieces that the big boys have missed. Meanwhile small crowds of starlings and house sparrows busy themselves around collecting nesting material.
Look out over the harbour wall towards the Farne islands. The light from the lighthouse breaks through the mist. In front of the harbour wall are the rocks known as the Tumblers. A low plateau of rocks which makes up the whinstone – igneous rock, resistant to erosion.

The harbour was built in 1889 to cater not just for the fishing trade. The lime kilns were also built here right by the harbour and are now used by the lifeboat people for storage. The lime industry was important because as farming intensified from the 18th century, lime was more in demand as it increased the fertility of the soil.

Although there are plenty of places to eat to cater for all tastes and pockets we liked the atmospheric pub; The Olde Ship Inn. One of the smallest bars in England full of fishing memorabilia. There was another bar where you could eat and a separate dining room. It was bar food but good. I had mussels as a starter and a game pie with tasty potatoes and vegetables. It was wholesome and fresh. Washed down with a pint of Lindisfarne ale. The room is a little on the small side so you can hear everyone’s conversation but hey…

There are some splendid shops and services. The community centre has internet access for a small charge and the Bakers is a delight. Trotters sells some delicious cheese scones and quiches that are just the thing for a rough boat ride across to the The Farnes.

Seahouses is where the boats to the Farne Islands go from so if you are planning a trip out there it is handy to stay in the port. We had to wait all week for a trip because the sea was too rough. It was worth it to see the puffins and other seabirds.

Dawn Chorus Walk at Warburg Nature Reserve

misty trees

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

Dawn Chorus at Warburg, 4th May 2008
The Ravenous Rambler was up before the larks this morning. 3.30 am to be precise and then down to the Warburg nature reserve in the Bix valley for International Dawn Chorus Day.
It was still dark as we drove down the flooded winding lane deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. There were some shadowy figures standing around and our host – Gavin Hageman was giving a running commentary on what we might see. I worked out that the event was being recorded for Oxfordshire radio by Phil Mercer and whilst I was rummaging around in the boot, Mrs Rambler was being interviewed for the programme!
There were a few tawny owl hoots and then the skylarks kicked in along with blackbirds and mistle thrush. Then the robins started to sing and it all started to get a bit confusing.  We, there were about eighteen hardy souls, all went for a walk around the reserve and we heard black caps, chiff chaff and willow warbler and I was quite pleased to get these sounds into my head. Also distinguishing between blue tits and great tits. The great tits’ call is like “teacher..teacher”, whereas the blue tit is more “see…see…see”. We heard the green woodpecker with its cackle like cry.
The sun loomed up without giving much away – it was a dull day but the walk was excellent, through the chalky pastures and Chiltern beech woods. There were fields of cowslips and rings of mushrooms to spot.

This reserve is one of the oldest run by BBOWT. It nestles in a deep wooded valley in the Chiltern Hills and is a superb nature reserve with a network of interesting walks that link up with a variety of other footpaths that go outside the reserve. The mixture of chalk grasslands and ancient woodlands make it an excellent place to spot a wide variety of birds and butterflies.
It was with some relief that we headed back to the start where Gavin set to making breakfast on a camp stove and we all enjoyed bacon and egg sandwiches which have never tasted better. Red kits soared overhead but they weren’t getting my bacon roll!
Back home – it was back to bed with a pot of tea and we tuned into Radio Oxford to hear it all over again.