Marsh revisited

This time last year, my friend Dave and I went on a birdwatching trip to the Norfolk Coast. We had a memorable day on the marshes among reed beds and on the wind-battered beaches and dunes. We decided to return, and we did, on Tuesday. Guess what? We had another fantastic day. You can read about last year’s trip here. We make no apologies for returning to the same birding spots, visiting the same excellent reserves, staying at the same pub B&B in the village of Dersingham and eating the same local sheep’s cheese bought from the same local shop as we tramped the walkways at Titchwell and Cley. Dave was wearing a different waterproof, and we ate the cheese with homemade ginger biscuits this time, which made the trip entirely distinct. Here we are on a bench at Titchwell, pretending to look at birds for the camera. We are not looking at birds.

As I believe I established last year, Dave is a far more seasoned birder than I. He’s been doing it since the cradle and has advanced spotting skills and behavioural knowledge; he knows Latin names and can spot a skylark by its song. He is, in this respect, my hero and my spirit guide. There’s no better chap to go birding with. At the reserves and in the hides (both in excellently designed abundance at Titchwell and Cley), you will see a much more professional birder than either Dave or I, weighed down with telescopes and tripods and cameras, and almost always bearded. Birders of this type are friendly – nods and hellos are usually exchanged on the paths – assuming you don’t break birder etiquette in the quiet of the hides, such as shouting out, “Look! There’s a pigeon!” or keeping your mobile phone on. We respect these rules, but observe birdlife with a little less stricture and a more relaxed attitude, never scared to get out our bird guides and consult them – a perfectly sensible act, but one perhaps frowned upon by those who have it all up here. (I love bird books, and carry the Larousse, which is a bit big, but has exquisite drawings, and I don’t care.)

It was a gorgeous day, Tuesday: dry, bright, not as dramatically windy as last year, and a little misty later on, which certainly made identification through binoculars of a wading purple sandpiper a little tricky – although we managed it through a long process of elimination and further, patient inspection. This was one of two “lifers” for me ie. species I had previously never spotted – the other being the surprise pair of little egrets we saw at Cley in full view. Once again, we were captivated by the swooping and hovering of the Marsh Harrier, and sat and watched a pair of them for ages. This is better than watching television.

Enjoying a small cup of instant coffee at the Titchwell “feeding station” and the last of the sheep’s cheese, we followed the antics of the two pheasants that seem to live there. I am intending to enter the photograph above of the male in the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition.

Last year, over the entirety of the trip, including birds we saw from the car on the drive into and out of Norfolk, we spotted 49 species of bird. This year, I am happy to say, we notched up 50. In no particular order (as I got my notes mixed up):

  • Shelduck
  • Teal
  • Avocet
  • Shoveler
  • Canada Goose
  • Greylag
  • Redshank
  • Herring Gull
  • Curlew
  • Brent Goose
  • Wigeon
  • Oystercatcher
  • Lesser Black-Backed Gull
  • Wren
  • Blackbird
  • Crow
  • Gadwall
  • Cormorant
  • Moorhen
  • Chiffchaff
  • Chaffinch
  • Siskin
  • Robin
  • House Sparrow
  • Blue Tit
  • Great Tit
  • Dunnock
  • Pheasant
  • Kestrel
  • Reed Warbler
  • Greenfinch
  • Mute Swan
  • Tufted Duck
  • Black-Headed Gull
  • Pink-Footed Goose
  • Swallow
  • Mallard
  • Egyptian Geese
  • Marsh Harrier
  • Coot
  • Black-Tailed Godwit
  • Lapwing
  • Purple Sandpiper
  • Pochard
  • Little Egret
  • Starling
  • Jay
  • Magpie
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Rook

For the record, we heard skylarks but didn’t see them, so they don’t really qualify as a spot. Nor do the two hens I saw from the car on the road to Wisbech. I only have a very basic digital camera with a very low-powered zoom, so I don’t really bother to try and photograph the birds. However, amid the mist, you might just be able to pick out two passing pochards and a nesting greylag. For a wildfowl enthusiast like me, Norfolk presents rich pickings. And my new favourite duck is the male gadwall with its steel-grey body. Magnificent. There’s a good drawing of one on the RSPB site.

In addition to revisiting last year’s sites to ensure that they were still marshy and reedy, we stopped off in Sandringham on the drive back yesterday morning and enjoyed the stillness of some prime woodland, where we saw a common jay and a white-haired old lady with some dogs who turned out not to be The Queen.

Before returning to the grim reality of urban misery, a quick mention for The Feathers, the hotel next door in Dersingham to the pub we stayed in, where we went for our well-earned dinner after many hours birding. A charming, family-run, carrstone building “steeped in royal history”, formerly a coaching inn, the Saddle Bar had wood panels, a stone fireplace and framed photographs of the Kaiser visiting Sandringham before the First World War. It also turned out to have a new chef, and a very good one, who cooked us steak and hunter’s pie respectively, which we washed down with draft Bulmers pear cider, with ice. We felt we had earned this inexpensive feast.

But what made our evening in the Feathers especially memorable was the British Legion function being held in the room next door. Before our food arrived, a young man came through to the bar selling raffle tickets in aid of the Legion, and all the diners in there bought a strip each. A while later, the same man came back through and called out the winning number. A lady nearby leapt up – she had won. She followed the man through to the function room and came back clutching a bottle of wine. How nice.

Then, unexpectedly, the man came back and called out another number. It was one of mine! Because I was by then tucking into my venison, he brought my prize out to me: a bottle of liebfraumilch, the very existence of which made Dave and I chuckle into our seasonal vegetables, although not wishing to appear ungrateful. (I love 1983, as you know, but my nostalgia for this year does not stretch to drinking German wine.) Then, the man came back in and read out a third number. It was one of Dave’s! Third prize turned out to be a fairly nondescript kitchen storage jar. But the winning was not over yet.

A fourth number was read out, and a young couple on the next table claimed fourth prize – which was “a bowl for putting peanuts in”. Mercifully, the prizes stopped flowing at this point. Dave and I left our liebfraumilch and storage jar on the table when we left, in the hope that our prizes can be reused by the British Legion for their next raffle.

Thank you, Dersingham, for making us so welcome. We’ll be back to make it 51. And Dave may well have a new waterproof.


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