Norfolk Part 2 – Barn Owls

Norfolk 08.02.2020

The disadvantage of booking trips well in advance is being at the mercy of the temperamental British weather. On hearing that our return to Norfolk would coincide with the arrival of Storm Ciara, heavy rain and 80 mile an hour winds, we were unsure what effect it would have on the weekend’s birding.

So we were understandably surprised when we woke up at our accommodation just outside of King’s Lynn to a fairly calm and only slightly overcast day. Having seen the long-staying Eastern Yellow Wagtail the week before, we decided to head for Holkham Gap to catch the falling tide and add the wintering Shorelarks and Snow Buntings to the year list.

Even in a moving car, the ghostly white figure was unmistakable, quartering low over an open patch of grassland. “Barn Owl!” I shouted, before quickly pulling the car over in a layby next to the field. “And another!” The excitement building in my voice. “Wait, there’s four!” Now in disbelief and unsure where to focus my attention, I scrambled to get the camera out of the boot. Completely unfazed by our presence the birds continued to glide over the grass, scanning for prey, occasionally dropping down abruptly.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Eyes locked in the viewfinder, I hadn’t noticed the dog walker behind me. “Pity they’re going to put 33 houses here.” The security fencing that had been obscuring my view now made sense. We chatted about the wonder of Barn Owls and nature’s ability to thrive in unlikely places. Four other residents, stopped to join in, some saying that they’d seen these owls every day, another having never seem them but all unified in marvelling at these incredible birds, the fragility of them and their habitat and lamenting their impending eviction. Feeling privileged to have been this lucky, but with a sinking feeling in my heart, we got back in the car and continued our journey.

We saw number eight flying across the boardwalk at Holkham Beach after adding three more from the car on our journey there. With the wind breezy but surprising in its lack of forecasted ferocity and with the sun threating to make an appearance, we walked out to get good views of the flock of at least 40 Snow Buntings. The variety of shingle like tones in their plumage was striking and before we had a chance to get prolonged views they flew East over the dunes. Unable to locate the Shorelarks we decided to have a scan of the bay. The lack of strong winds meant the sea was calm. Unavoidable was the black mass of around 2,000 Common Scoter fairly close to shore with a few dense pockets further out. With the tide falling quickly and the birds not flying or even moving too much we were unable to pick out the Velvet Scoter that had been seen regularly in the preceding days. A few pairs of Red-breasted Merganser offshore and Sanderling scurrying back and forth along the shoreline were welcome additions to the year list.

On our walk back to the visitor centre for coffee a small group with ‘scopes and telephoto lenses intently trained on a small patch of grass divulged the location of the Shorelarks. A group of at least eight gave fleeting views as they scuttered through the grass, pausing to raise their pale yellow heads for a quick scan before they carried on their way.

After a brief stop just outside Wells for another new year tick, the long-staying juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard, we headed for Titchwell. By now the sun was shining and although still cool, it felt more like an Autumn afternoon than the middle of winter. We decided to have a scan from the beach and noted the usual suspects on the walk down – wintering wildfowl and decent numbers of Avocet, Northern Lapwing, Golden Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit. The odd Dunlin and Redshank probed the mud for food oblivious to the pair of Peregrines overhead.

With the sea still calm and the tide only starting to rise, pickings were slim. A brief glimpse of the regularly reported Eider, more mergansers, a few pockets of Goldeneye and the odd Great-crested Grebe were all we had to show for our efforts.

On our walk back I heard, “there’s a med gull over there.” Instantly I recognised the voice. It was Steve. Steve runs tours through his company, Swallow Birding and we knew each other from when I lived in North Essex. An outstanding birder among his myriad of other talents, Steve has a knack for picking out a Mediterranean Gull pretty much anywhere. A quick catch up and exchange of bird sightings and we let him carry on with his tour and decided to follow his directions for a Woodcock that had been lurking along the Fen Trail. Looking for that Woodcock was like staring at one of those Magic Eye puzzles from the 90s. Gaze so long your eyes hurt and eventually you could make out an eye hidden behind a bundle of twigs and branches. It stretched briefly a few times, but otherwise remained perfectly still, undeterred by the people walking past a few feet away. A wonderful way to end the day as the light started to fade.

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