Happy New Year

The scene before us: bleak. Miles of seemingly lifeless, creek fractured saltmarsh stretching to the horizon under scudding banks of rain laden cloud whipped by a cruel nor’ wester. The colour and light seemed drained from the world as another fleeting squall whipped our faces: the raw force of winter on the north Norfolk coast. A few fellow birders, making a pilgrimage for the day and determined to make the most of it, were also looking for twite. None of us stood much chance with that wind; any vulnerable small bird would hunker down and peck around for seeds in the shelter afforded by skeletal drifts of sea lavender. It was not a day for flying about. A single linnet gave hope, a bouncy lady jogger temporarily lifted the spirits, but of our target bird there was no sign. Time to move on and hope for better fare elsewhere.

And where better to fare than the RSPB reserve at Titchwell. Here in the car park sheltered from the wind, still relatively quiet and empty, we connected with four lovely bullfinches. A bird that can never fail to bring a smile, especially so since it could be added to the year list. For this jaunt represented a New Year’s outing when everything from the humble blackbird to a rough-legged buzzard could be counted afresh. A new year, a new start, a new list and with it a renewed energy and appreciation of each and every bird. Down on the list goes the bullfinches and those blue tits tazzing around in the hedges, pencil in that small group of chaffinches pecking around the car park, oh and don’t forget the pheasant we saw in the field as we drove in. It’s all new and wonderful, a rebirth of sorts making even this wet and windy day such a worthwhile venture. Tot up the list over a bacon roll and it stands at 20, there’s surely plenty more to see, on we go.

Titchwell seldom fails to deliver and with clearing skies we could enjoy unexpected sights of spotted redshank and a greenshank, bonus birds for a January bird tick. Contrary wise the sea produced nothing at all for us. No sea duck, grebes or divers, just a vast melee of boiling dark green waves topped with wind blasted spume pounding onto the beach. A distant red kite, recognisable at a kilometre distant by its angular shape was heartening, a pair of perky stonechats welcome. Some you win, some you lose but by the time we had splashed our way to the shore and back the New Year list stood at a respectable 58.

Holkham next where there was nothing but winners. The decision by the estate to fence off an area of beach for the shorelarks has paid off big time. People, and there were a lot of them together with their dogs, happily seem to respect the need to provide sanctuary which allows the birds some peace and quiet. Without this on such a day as today with so many humans making the most of the waning holidays, the birds would have been constantly hounded from one area to another. They simply wouldn’t have had a moments rest to feed and stay safe; a simple measure but one that works well. And of course if you have a mind you can stand and watch these lovely visitors from Scandinavia shuffling through the sandy humps and bumps playing hide and seek with your scope. Every once in a while one would suspend its incessant pecking and poke its head up for a look around. Then it’s beautifully striped head patterning could be appreciated, momentarily impressed on your retina and from there stored in the ‘good memory’ drawer of your mental file cabinet. The fact such an instance was highlighted by the golden rays of a late afternoon sun helped a lot. Yes, the clouds had cleared and blue skies ruled, if only for the next hour or so.

A scan of the churning sea from the vantage point of the dunes allowed clear, if constantly interrupted views of a raft of common scoter. With them was a long-tailed duck and an auk species. Trying to pin down birds in these conditions can be the devil’s own job as they appear as a bobbing dot once every 10 seconds. This auk, initially a presumed guillemot, would not show its beak sufficiently well to confirm identification. After several brief glimpses it dawned that it didn’t actually have much of a beak to reveal: little auk entered the list. Elated with this find we motored the short distance to Wells to conclude our day.

In the fading light of a now clear and relatively calm winter evening we stood upon a raised bank to scan the marshes, a sprinkling of geese and waders flighting to roost against the sky canvass daubed with subtle shades of grey and pink. The hoped for rough-legged buzzard was sitting in a distant field, its creamy head marking it as a special bird. As we looked at this beauty, a short-eared owl flew towards us, coming close enough to allow a great picture....if only I had brought my camera along with me. I’d left it at home, judging the earlier horrible conditions not conducive to photography. I stifled a curse. And then a barn owl appeared and you can’t be anything but elated when that happens. We watched both owls hunting along the field edges until the chill and gathering dusk forced us to leave and head home, there to sink into an armchair and bask in the warming glow of a day well spent.

We ended the excursion with 77 species on our list. Not record breaking but most satisfying. Some good birds in that list as well. It’s been quite a while since I was lured out to spend the day up there. Why have I left it so long? I love it and want more. Something of a rekindled interest in birding may be afoot and there is more to it than just getting a New Year list. I have a feeling the next year or so could be extremely interesting both for me and I very much hope for you too. I’ll explain more once I’ve settled in my mind exactly what I plan to do, but rest assured you’re more than welcome to come along for the ride. Watch this space!