A Day in Norfolk

Last Thursday I had a day in Norfolk; an early start leaving the house at 4.15am and arriving at the Snettisham RSPB nature reserve two and a half hours later. The high tide, one of the biggest of the year at 7.4m, was scheduled for 9.26am. I like to arrive at Snettisham at least a couple hours before high water. There is a walk of over a mile from the car park to the Wader Point on the reserve and that’s a long way with over 15kg of camera gear on your back and large Gitzo tripod in hand! It’s good to be at the Wader Point ready for action two hours before high water.

As the tide floods it continually flushes the wading birds off their feeding areas over the huge expansion of exposed mud in the Wash on the east coast of England. The waders start to integrate into large flocks along the coast lines of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. Snettisham, on the west coast of Norfolk, is a favourite location for the birds. The height of the tide varies each day and in order to flush all the birds from the mudbanks, at Snettisham the tide needs to be a minimum of 6.8m high. The RSPB website contains the Snettisham Tide Tables and shows the most appropriate tides with respect to watching this wildlife spectacular, as well as a Trail Guide.

 A flock of wading birds over the beach at Snettisham about two hours before the high tide.

A flock of wading birds over the beach at Snettisham about two hours before the high tide.

Snettisham contains a number of man made lagoons very close to the beach and over the high tide period the birds roost on the shingle banks of these shallow lakes. They leave a few hours later when the tide starts to ebb and again reveals the mud which contains the rich selection of marine life such as molluscs and worms on which they feed. Knots and oystercatchers are present in the greatest numbers accompanied by godwits, cormorants, little egrets greylag geese, shelduck and a wide variety of other waders.

I like to spend half an hour or so at the Wader Point taking photographs of the birds as they gather into enormous flocks flying over the beach, occasionally harassed by a peregrine or harrier, before I head for the hide at the end of the lagoon to watch the birds at roost.

 Backlit oystercatchers about to land on the shingle banks of a lagoon at Snettisham

Backlit oystercatchers about to land on the shingle banks of a lagoon at Snettisham

Birds of a feather flock together and the knots accumulate in massive numbers with tens of thousands of birds flying over the beach and then squeezing onto relatively small patches of shingle (estimated at about 700 birds per square metre) to roost, cheek by jowl. The oystercatchers too arrive en masse but many of the other birds such as the little egrets, which also roost together on the shingle banks, arrive singly to join their fellows.

 Little egret flying over a lagoon at Snettisham.

Little egret flying over a lagoon at Snettisham.

Others, such as the greylag geese shown below, arrive in great noisy skeins.

 A flock of greylag geese arriving at Snettisham.

A flock of greylag geese arriving at Snettisham.

Godwits, both black-tailed and bar-tailed, are usually present in good numbers and redshanks are common, occasionally accompanied by a few greenshanks.

 A lone greenshank in the company of redshanks.

A lone greenshank in the company of redshanks.

The oystercatchers roost in very large numbers and look impressive with their carrot-like beaks. They move continually with much commotion as the following video displays.

From time to time the birds are spooked by a raptor and take to the air. On Thursday a hobby flew over the lagoon and flock of oystercatchers lifted off from the shingle in great panic, returning to their roost once the hobby had departed.

 Oystercatchers lift off as a raptor passes overhead.

Oystercatchers lift off as a raptor passes overhead.

It is a terrific experience with the shrill calls of the birds in the cool morning air echoing over the water. The sights of tens of thousands of birds flying in unison is spectacular. Snettisham is a wild and special place and what particularly attracts me is that I am never quite sure what I might see there. On Thursday there were there spoonbills on the shingle. And while I was in the hide taking pictures of the birds, on the nearby shingle a hare raced by; and stoats are frequent visitors. Species such as the snowy owl, hen harrier and Montagu’s harrier have all been seen here in the recent past and barn owls and short eared owls are not uncommon. And of course there are always plenty of the more usual birds such as the dunnock below. It is a place of which I never tire.

 A dunnock on a heather.

A dunnock on a heather.

After the long walk back to the car park, stopping frequently to pick the tons of blackberries on the brambles which line the path, I headed off to find a late breakfast.

Later, I visited some of the many excellent nearby wildlife sites along the north Norfolk coast, east of Hunstanton, and enjoyed an hour of so sitting in the hides. I also found a tractor tilling the fields near Chosely Barns, followed by a number of black-headed gulls. It was a good end to most enjoyable morning.

 Seagulls following a tractor.

Seagulls following a tractor.