Friday, 3 May 2013

Norfolk For Forty

Normally any sort of landmark birthday is celebrated with some a party, beers and usually a dreadful hangover. But as my 40th approached I'd worked out that most of my closest family were overseas on their holidays that week, leaving me wondering what to do. I couldn't face being in work for it, so I thought I'd head east for some bird photography, and drag Dad along too. Afterall, he celebrates his Birthday the day before mine and has been couped up in his house for months hiding from the hideous winter.

Rather than aim for the usual coastal location, I chose to stay in land a bit, in Fakenham. Only a dozen miles from the coast should the mood take us, but right next to the Hawk And Owl Trust's Sculthorpe Moor reserve, which is a spot I had visited before, but wanted to revisit, especially after helping the Trust out with some images recently.

After a remarkably easy run we arrived at the reserve, on my Birthday (I'd opened my cards before setting off), and we wandered down through the woods towards the hide, overlooking the extensive reedbeds. It was quite windy and the light wasn't great, but the view was promising and there were plenty of birds feeding from the stations either side of the hide.

Didn't take long to spot a flock of bramblings, which immediately became a target, and proved challenging, as they tended to fly straight on to the table, or down to the ground, littered with sunflower seed. Not particularly attractive.

Patience yielded results though, and eventually I managed to get shots of both a male and female perched in one of the trees.

Such colourful birds, and striking with the dark heads and flashes of bright yellow in flight.

Also providing entertainment was a pair of bank voles, darting out to grab seeds, before hurtling back into the vegetation at the slightest hint of danger.

All the while though, I kept an eye out across the reeds, as the one thing that really attracted me to Sculthorpe was the chance of photographing marsh harriers. I had a few shots already; usually chance encounters though I'd managed some from the visit back in 2010. But I hoped the site might yield more sightings and after a while, I finally spotted one, a male flying in quite high up.

His presence brought the female out too, and she flew much closer to us, giving fantastic views as she slowly scoured the reeds below.

As harriers often do though, they both dropped down and out of sight, and we were left watching the smaller birds again. Being April, the weather was rather changeable, and just as the sun looked like it was breaking through, it poured down. With the sun appearing again, we were treated to a fabulous double rainbow across the reserve and I joked to Dad that it'd be great to see one of the harriers fly now, against that backdrop. Well guess what. Enter stage left, the male marsh harrier, and, lit up by the emerging sunshine, he flew right across the rainbows. Fab!

Just as the buzz of seeing that had died down, one of the birders in the hide spotted a barn owl hunting, and boy did that give us a show! Quartering the reeds, it suddenly changed direction and flew right at us in the hide!

Maybe it'd seen one of the photos of the bank vole on Dad's camera and was trying for that, but it came so close I couldn't fit it in the frame, and it only veered off when one of the togs in the hide clipped his lens on the hide window frame.

The sunlight was very harsh on the owl's pale feathers, so I initially thought I'd ruined the shots, but Lightroom and Elements recovered the shots incredibly well.

Not a bad treat for my Birthday I thought, and that continued when we headed to a pub, recommended by Lin at the Hawk & Owl Trust - she was hoping to join us later after meeting for a chat in the hide already.

The Sculthorpe Mill - gorgeous pub / hotel, on a river, beside open countryside. Beautiful garden too, serving a great pint of Abbott ale and the food was top drawer too. The only downside came when I received a message from Lin, that they were about to release an osprey on the reserve, and we couldn't go see it, as our food was on the way. Apparently it had got into difficulty when trying to fish at a local fish farm but was lucky to be rescued, checked over and released.

When Lin did arrive at the pub later, with a few friends, the hawk expert who had had the task of releasing the female osprey told us how remarkably strong it had been - and had pushed itself away from him as he tried to hold her, commenting on how heavy she was too. A successful release, so a very happy ending there.

After an entertaining evening, we headed back to the B&B in Fakenham for a much needed kip, to recharge for the next day. I have to recommend Erika's B&B. Super value, great location and the breakfasts were just the ticket!

I had planned to return to Sculthorpe the following afternoon, after taking a drive around the area, just to see what was around. Never know what you might find. And within a few miles of the drive, we had seen some brown hares and also a fair few grey partridges.

Both obviously didn't like the look of me, and legged it, though I managed some half decent shots prior to their disappearing acts.

The weather seemed to be a bit clearer over the coast, so we drove that way, and a spur of the moment decision proved to be a stroke of fortune for the remainder of the trip. Heading to an area where I knew harriers roosted, we quickly spotted a pair chasing one another. They were distant, but fascinating to watch.

The light was terrible where we had chosen to watch from, and even when one flew right over us, the shots were rather disappointing. Wanting something better, I suggested to Dad that we look for a spot maybe closer to the action, but definitely with the sun in a more favourable direction, and, moments later we'd found just such a place. And within seconds of getting out the car, we saw a male harrier hover momentarily, in perfect light with a blue sky behind.

So where are the pictures you might ask? Erm, there aren't any, as hand-holding the bazooka isn't easy and I missed the focus - leaving it hunting for long enough to lose the harrier from view. I was furious and blamed the camera of course. Never me... But thankfully this spot we'd picked proved to be a gem, and the male powered away from the reedbed, over us and off into the fields beyond.

Still hand-held, but this time I nailed the focus, and got the reward.

With the weather improving and frequent views of the harriers, we stayed put. I'd never seen harriers so closely, especially in such great light.

By early afternoon though, the action seemed to subside a touch, and we fancied a change of scenery. It was sunny, we were on holiday and there was a pub down the road called the Lifeboat Inn, with 2 pints of Wherry with our names on! Irresistible! We even managed to sit out the front in the sunshine.

A visit to Thornham harbour proved worthwhile with views of a black-tailed godwit glowing in one of the channels as it fed, and returning to the harriers later provided views of a pair of them chasing each other high above us.

The sun was still out and I started to think about barn owls, so we headed to an area where I've had success with them in recent years and waited. Amusingly, Dad seemed to be weighed down with the camera hanging from his neck, so I suggested he ought to put it in the car for a bit, and I'd not finished suggesting it when I clocked a barn owl hunting right behind him!

Dad scuttled off to get to a spot giving him a bit of cover, while I scrambled to get my gear on the tripod.

Maybe a memo had gone out to the local barn owls about our Birthdays, as this one put on another fantastic performance, hunting only a few yards in front of us in gorgeous sunshine.

At one point, it was so close the sound of my shutter clicking attracted its attention.

And I only just got it in the frame moments later when it flew even closer!

What a fantastic day - ended as before at the Sculthorpe Mill, for fine beer and grub once again.

With it being only a short break, I had planned to head back early on the Saturday, but a cloudless morning soon changed my mind, and we headed back to the harriers once more. A female was busy chasing a common buzzard high over the marshes, while the pair of kestrels nesting up the road were whizzing around, hunting over the farmland nearby.

The sunshine sadly brought problems with heat haze, and despite having stunning views of the harriers overhead, most shots came out soft. Not all though, thankfully...

I certainly achieved my goal of getting a few better images!

Thirsty work though, and the lure of the Lifeboat was again too much to resist, with it being even warmer out the front on the benches than on the first visit. The harbour was fairly quiet, as was the one at Brancaster, though the pot of prawns and crayfish tails from the hut made a tasty treat to end a wonderful break in Norfolk, and a great way to celebrate reaching 40!


Unknown said...

Sounds like you had a cracking '40th' trip Pete. Enjoyed your write up and its now tempting me to visit this reserve having never been before.


PasiĆ³n por las aves said...

Hola Pete unas magnificas imagenes con una gran variedad de aves.Un saludo

Steve Seal said...

Not bad I suppose .