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NORFOLK: Bird Race

1st May 2011

This will be quite a long post. You may want to make a cup of tea, or better still, pour yourself a beer.

Long-time readers will be aware that every May myself, Gary White & Adam Pointer have a bird race. It's not technically a race, we just set out to see as many species of bird as we can within a day. This year we made two changes, firstly doing it on the first Sunday of the month rather than the last one, and secondly constricting ourselves only to birds seen within the county of Norfolk.

We left Norwich at 04:00, and the difference a month makes was immediately evident, we didn't see a single bird on the journey down to Santon Downham. The sun was beginning to rise as we made our way along the river, anxious to get a good start by seeing some woodland birds. First bird of the day was a Moorhen. Gary soon saw a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker fly off, but Adam & I missed it. We spent probably too long trying to track it down, and eventually gave up. Some compensation was a Treecreeper (we had heard them all around us but it took a while to see one) and even better calling Willow Tit. Two Sparrowhawks flew over, a shame they werent Gos, but still good as I missed one last year by virtue of falling asleep. On the way back to the car we managed a first Garden Warbler of the year, drake Mandarin and a Grey Wagtail, and further on Crossbill and GS Woodpecker.

Next we tried the area around St Helens picnic area. I managed to see a Kingfisher whizzing down the river, but Gary & Adam missed it. We kept on ticking woodland stuff, Goldcrest, Coal Tit and Siskin all down early. A Canada Goose flew over with a hybrid goose that had a bright almost glowing orange beak (Canada x Greylag x Carrot?). With no sign of Nuthatches or Bullfinch we headed for Weeting. A brief stop near Grimes Graves gave us our annual Tree Pipit, whilst Weeting was good for Stone Curlew, Lapwing and Mistle Thrush.

We reached Lakenheath Fen, which is unfortunately in Suffolk. However, you can see over the county boundary (the river) onto Hockwold Washes. This was a good decision, with GC Grebe, Little Grebe, Garganey, Common Tern, an Arctic Tern and c20 Bar-tailed Godwits all good birds. In fact by not walking around Lakenheath and waiting for Orioles we saved time and moved slightly ahead of lasts years equivalent total. Next stop, Welney.

Last years weather problem had been rain. We had sheltered for around an hour from downpours, denting our total no doubt. This year the issue was the very strong wind. There was no sign of the Corn Buntings near the carpark, and we didn't hold much hope of seeing the Bluethroat either. Still I coughed up the £7.10 entry fee and we marched on. A few waders, Yellow Wagtail and a few lingering wild swans were the main attraction, until the Bluethroat began singing. We stood still on the path and waited - and woohoo, the Bluethroat came out, a paths width away! Much better views than last year, and it turned, splayed out its tail and flew along the path. Now that actually was worth £7. Tree Sparrows on the bird table were the icing on the cake.

Birds were now coming a bit slower, but the total was still ticking over. A Swift over the road near Nordelph was my first of the year. We failed to see Woodlark, but I did catch up on Cuckoo having missed one at Hockwold, and we also added Whimbrel, Grey Partridge, Wheatear and Lesser Whitethroat. We were up to 98 when we arrived at Titchwell for a cup of tea.

My 100th bird (at about 14:00) was a Pochard on the freshmarsh. A number of gulls and waders boosted the tally as we headed for the beach, hopeful for some close in seabirds. On the way we were warned in increasingly strong terms about the wind.

"good luck out there lads"

"Its like a sandstorm out there"

"If you see a New York Yankies hat on the marsh, it's mine"

Out of the three, birder number 2 wins the prize. It was like a sandstorm. With the real possibility that we would be incorporated into the dune system and only a flyby Common Scoter to show for it, we dug ourselves out of the sand and headed back. Red-crested Pochard and Little Tern brought us up to 115, equalling my best ever day total. Nb, Gary saw two more than me last year, hence he was aiming to beat 117.

Driving east we decided to try Friary Hills to look for a reported Ring Ouzel. With no sign of it and Penny having no luck either we had a quick scan of the freshmarsh (Greenshank, Spotted Redshank) and left for Cley. Here we added Sandwich Tern, Reed Warbler, Hobby and Green Sandpiper, but decided against hunting for the Shorelarks. Salthouse Heath was quiet, as was Keeling Heath, so we headed down to the water meadows. Here we saw a smart Wood Sandpiper, and when the cattle went for a wander we saw another two join the first in a flight around the meadows.

Now on 121 and other birds were a bonus. We went back to Cley to check for Spoonbills. No joy, but Adam spotted some summer plumaged Golden Plovers close by. Golden Plovers are beautiful birds, and as the red sun set over Blakeney, a late-hunting Marsh Harrier flying along the bank adding to the spectacle. Heading back to Salthouse Heath we head a Nightingale singing in the distance, and pulled over further down the road. We were treated to a full song from this skulking bird as it sung near the edge of the road, and we were able to make it out as it hopped regularly about. A fitting end to the day, but on the North Norfolk coast the last bird has to be Barn Owl, and indeed it was. Just before 21:00 a Barn Owl flew along the road and perched up on a tree to watch us. Bird 124, a new record and a cracking days birding. This sort of intensive birding isn't everyones idea of fun, and I wouldnt want to do it regularly, but now and again its jolly good fun!

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