And so it began, midnight in North Norfolk very cold, listening for owls in the landscaped gardens of Felbrig Hall. The aim of the ‘race’ was for the team of four to all hear or see as many species of birds in a 24hr period and hopefully do this more than the the other five teams competing around the county. In the middle of the night there is only so much birding you can do and most of it is by nature by ear. The first bird came just after midnight as Little owls called and gave their barking calls around the Hall. Strained sets of ears hoped and thought they picked up a tawny owl but if we did it was distant and not all could say we had it so we moved from wood to wood hoping to hear a bit of hooting to no avail. Next and in a similar manner was a bit of reedbed listening to see if we could pick out the nocturnal squeal of a water rail but again with no luck. After the best part of an hour we had a better list of mammals we had seen than we did birds but we did pick up a few disturbed night birds including woodpigeon, mute swan, oystercatcher, black–headed gull, avocet, and cettis warbler and then we stopped under a glowing, blue velvet night-sky full of stars near to Cley and listened for owls but instead heard the sweet call of the nightingale. Difficult to imagine a more special moment and worth the early start and subzero temperatures. Having found no owls and added only a pair of mallard to the seen list it was time to head for the Brecks for the dawn and hopefully its chorus.
I had the dubious honour of keeping the records so once the dawn broke I was busy and having travelled for the best part of three hours with no owls we found ourselves surrounded by them all calling like they needed to sound off before bed. As they stilled the early callers started first blackbird robin and songthrush but they were soon joined by a host of other common birds. We spent some time trying to dig out some breckland gold (pheasant that is) but failed and left for another nearby rarity the tree sparrow which showed well and were clearly set on making nests.
Tree sparrow courtesy of and taken by team photographer Mark Clements
Another highlight for me came at number 66 and 67 species as we drove around the brecks from secret site to secret site picking up rarities. A stony field full of pigs produced a pair of stone curlew and several grey partridges both favourites of mine and relatively good views of both.
Record shot of the stone curlews which looked a bit sharper down the length of a telescope .
Next it was off to Lynford arboretum for pleasantly confiding views of a firecrest and some flyover mandarin ducks. Alas last weeks recce of the same spot had produced red kite hawfinch and a reeling grasshopper warbler but all three were absent on the big day. Next was Santon Downham and a thrash along the river bank for an elusive lesser spotted woodpecker. Fortunately unlike the previous recces there was a female obligingly waiting for us. Again though we missed birds that had been seen there by us very recently including woodlark and garden warbler but this didn’t spoil the high of seeing the little rare woodpecker in the flesh.
The often difficult to see Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Lakenheath Fen was last stop in the brecks and took us to 87 species including the highlights of Bittern booming and the first swift of the year. Then it was off to Norwich for a guaranteed peregrine before heading back to the coast. The peregrine was initially sitting out of sight on the four chicks but soon gave us views as it harried off a passing buzzard. Only regret of this visit was that we had missed a similar episode with the female seeing off a goshawk earlier in the morning. Then it was off to the seaside, Cromer cliffs to be exact for some views of fulmars, sparrow hawk and sandmartins all enjoying the thermals of a now much warmer day than had been experienced in the early hours of the morning. Next it was off to revisit our night time stop at Felbrig Hall to spot a pair of Garganey
Garganey a rare and handsome summer visiting duck.
We drifted round the coast picking up heathland specialist the dartford warbler and an outstanding common bird the linnet which was new to my year list not just my race list surely a sign of a species dropping in numbers nationally. Next on the triplist was Kelling water meadow which saw the 100 species tick round and gave great views of a short eared owl as well as the usual stonechats, wheatears but alas no ring ouzel despite a long walk and it being seen by everybody we spoke to. Next we travelled along the coast picking up spoonbill and marsh harrier at Holkham and then a couple of missed highlights from earlier in the day yellow wagtail and whinchat at Cley.
Yellow wagtail Credit: Asaru Kariyil Photography via Compfight cc (actually it has been correctly pointed out that this is indeed a citrine wagtail but it gives the idea and in the heat haze through binoculars at a distance its fair game for a point eitherway.)
Last stop of the day for a now tired team was the birdwatching mecca of RSPB Titchwell and the species total soon started rising again with new birds including pochard, dunlin, ruff, black and bar tailed godwit ringed and little ringed plover, turnstone, sanderling, merganser, whimbrel nicely in flight with a curlew. Final bird of the day was grasshopper warbler reeling away in the sedge near the entrance taking us to a total of 123 species for the day.
It was an amazing day in great company with huge thanks to captain Ian Dearing for the driving planning and picking out stuff I wouldn’t have noticed. Also Chris for his time and planning and Nigel and Mark for their company on the day. Alas we didn’t win with the winning team hitting over 140 birds it still saw some great memories and treasured moments. It is great to see that the benefiting charity of the day Waderquest raised their total but feel free to top it up for a worthy cause.