Monday, 15 May 2017

A Spring Trip To Norfolk?

Normally the annual trip east to Norfolk coincides with my Dad’s and my own Birthday, but Easter gatecrashed the party, so we had to delay the trip by a week. I had secretly hoped that this might break the cycle of us being there a week too soon for anything interesting to show up in terms of rare birds, but what actually happened was quite different.

Winter made an unwelcome return during some of the week, and put an end to any ideas of rarities showing up as the winds were yet again from the wrong direction, mostly from the north, and bitingly cold.

Still, at least I would be able to get out to see the resident attractions, and after recent years, I half expected to see barn owls each day. Not so. In fact the only opportunity I had for getting a shot was when I’d decided to put down the camera, and go for a walk, to relieve myself. I was just zipping up when I caught sight of something white moving nearby, and a barn owl floated by, looked at me and landed on a fence only a short distance away. I backed off, scuttled away behind a wall and grabbed my camera. When I returned and I was pleased to see the owl was still sitting there. I lined the camera up, and it flew off. Damn!!!

Brown hares were thankfully still plentiful, and my dawn drives around the lanes proved fruitful. Despite it being late April, there were numerous boxing bouts going on, along with adrenaline-fuelled chases across the crop fields.

The females had a real job to fight off the advances of all the males, and one I watched in the shimmering light one morning, seemed to have accepted a pursuer, and allowed him to mate with her. Now I was interested to see if brown hares have the same amusing trait as mountain hares when copulating, in that as the male reaches a climax, his ears shoot forwards.

So do they? I can’t answer that, as just as that point in proceedings was about to happen, the female hare decided she’d had enough, and booted him up in the air! I burst out laughing - nature can be highly amusing at times.

One pair of brown hares I spotted close to a convenient viewing point from the road seemed to be fairly content with one another, though each time the male tried his luck, he’d be put in his place.

He was very defensive of her, and any other males that strayed too close were chased away.

Being able to sit and observe these two allowed me to learn more about their behaviour. I was somewhat surprised to see these hares, like their mountain-dwelling cousins, eating their own droppings. I understand that the mountain hares have to do this to get additional nutrition from the droppings, on a second pass, but surely the food the brown hares are eating is more nourishing?

Also even more revealing was the sound made by the male hare. Every so often he would make a strange mewing call - hard to describe, a bit like a duck whistle. I wasn’t sure it was him making it at first, but with nothing else around, and watching him closely through my binoculars, I could clearly see the sound was coming from him.

On one morning, the pair were sitting, as hares often do, almost motionless. There’s only so many shots you can take of something just sitting there. With the view through my new Kite binoculars being as sharp and clear as through my expensive camera gear, I also found myself watching them more this way - the view is certainly easier on my eyes. I wished it would rain, so as it might make the hares do something, anything!

The skies behind darkened. My wish was to be granted. A short shower would be perfect. Lesson learnt… be careful what you wish for! Over the next hour, I saw rain, then sleet with flakes of snow, followed by a horrendous hail storm, thunder and lightning and a drop in temperature of about 10 degrees! The track I was on became a river of slush and hailstones. And yet the hares sat still, ignoring the grim conditions.

When the weather finally moved over, the hares moved, and I was treated to them grooming, shaking off excess rainwater, and stretching.

Two hares sitting beside each other. Both seemingly content with each other’s company. The male stood up, stretched and approached his partner. Perhaps he was hoping for a sign of affection from her, after enduring such horrid weather together? He inched closer and… soon backed away when she stood tall and raised a paw! Definitely a waiting game here!

Another target when in Norfolk is the marsh harrier. But as we were a bit later than usual, the birds had already paired up and the females were on nests, deep in the reed-beds.

At least the Wherry ale was still present, and we made sure we sampled it each evening (and the occasional cheeky lunchtime pint) at the fabulous pubs around the area. I have to say that the meals in the Bowling Green Inn (Wells-next-the-Sea) are superb. Such a homely pub too, and of course Wherry on tap! And the sandwiches in the Dun Cow at Salthouse are worth the trip too. Ghost Ship on tap there as well as Wherry. What a dilemma!

I often go to these locations (Norfolk, not the pub) with a preconceived idea of what images I will return with, and of what subjects, but more often than not, I come back with something else entirely. And true to form, this was the case once more.

On one warm afternoon during the week, I decided to go for a stroll around the marshes at Burnham Norton. I popped the camera on the monopod, to travel light, and set off on the circular walk. I was about a third of the way around it when I spotted a different-looking bird feeding in one of the creeks. A spoonbill!

To get closer, I had to retrace my steps back and continue along the coast. Was worth it to try to photo one of these birds, especially as it was in full breeding plumage.

Just as I thought the spoonbill was approaching me, it decided to relocate to elsewhere, and I had to face facts it had been a wasted walk. Or was it? As I returned to the original route, I clocked the spoonbill feeding from a small pool beside the raised pathway, and by approaching on the other side, out of sight of it, I was able to peer over and grab some shots.

Again the spoonbill then decided to fly away, and again I followed it. Which became a theme for the next hour or so.

At one point, I was only a few yards from it, as it fished in a shallow creek, and I crept along, hiding in gorse bushes. Funny looking birds, and ungainly when seen next to the elegance of a little egret.

And even funnier when they decide to ruffle their feathers up!

When the spoonbill flew further into the marshes, away from any pathways, I had to give up the pursuit, and head round the route back to the car, and a very patient father, who was sitting enjoying some spring sunshine on a bench. On the way I stopped beside a small pool to photograph a group of avocets, and enjoyed their antics as they chased each other, running and splashing through the water, occasionally taking flight.

On my return, I was curious to see how far I’d walked, and my iPhone app reckoned I had covered 4.5 miles chasing the spoonbill. A long but very worthwhile walk.

Of course visiting North Norfolk isn’t just about the wildlife. We both love the scenery, and that was made more dramatic with high tides and stormy skies.

Watching the clouds build and roll in behind a windmill was something to behold.

Alas the cold winds meant we didn’t get the chance to visit the Sculthorpe Mill pub, which is somewhere very special to sit outside on a warm day. Perhaps next year?

As we left Norfolk, we diverted to Cambridgeshire to catch up with old friends who have recently relocated there. They’re renting a gorgeous, secluded cottage which may yield some wonderful encounters with wildlife, and if there are any owls there, I might have to find a reason to call round again.

Back home, and I had to pack my bags once more, as I was heading north… to the Highlands again, but that’s for another blog post.

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