It had been several weeks since my last out-of-county sortie up to Chesterfield for my thirty seconds of Crag Martin views and I was starting to get that familiar urge again. In this case the object of my attention was a long-staying Pallid Harrier that seemed to be over-wintering at Snettisham in Norfolk. Now, it's been a good year for this once über-rare Harrier, with one at Burpham in Sussex staying for a couple of weeks as well as several other birds throughout the country this year. However, somehow or other up until now I'd never been free or they were just too far away for me to be tempted. Still, this one in Norfolk seemed pretty well nailed down with it being reported several times on a daily basis without fail so I thought that I'd give it a go. Indeed, I was originally intending to go last week but it was just too busy at work or the forecast was too windy and I never went in the end. However, this Monday (generally my preferred twitching day of the week) the forecast was for calm and mild weather so it was game-on for another Gnome outing.
As regular readers will know, I'm not a huge fan of the early morning departure so instead I opted to do my usual trick of heading up on Sunday night and staying at a B&B or hotel nearby. I managed to find a nice hotel which had been heavily discounted (apparently no one wants to stay on the outskirts of Kings Lynn on a Sunday night) and so it was that after dinner I headed off from Casa Gnome into the comparatively deserted Sunday roads along the familiar route to Norfolk. Fortunately Snettisham is on west side of the north Norfolk coast - a great relief as the A149 can be rather tortuous and it takes far longer than you think to get to places along it. I made good time and in about two hours and forty minutes I arrived at my clean and comfortable hotel and settled in for the evening.
The next morning I awoke (far earlier than required as usual) and eventually got up, showered and was out and on the road by 7:30 a.m. Judging from RBA reports, around 10 a.m. was usually the time that the Harrier was seen in the morning so I was in no particular hurry. To pass the time I stopped off at the Wolferton triangle to see if I could score a Golden Pheasant. However, it was by now lighter than I had anticipated and there were lots of cars roaring along the road - not conditions suitable for a shy and retiring pheasant and I gave up after less than ten minutes. Instead I made my way towards Snettisham, detouring into Dersingham to pick up a sandwich at the local Budgens. As I returned to the car in the car park a long skein of Pink-foots hurried over - very Norfolky! I headed on to the reserve, going (more by accident than design) the scenic route via Snettisham itself. En route I passed a small pond with a couple of resident Egyptian Geese, again something that I associate with past visits to this part of the country.
As I drove along the turn-off into the RSPB car park at Snettisham a few Partridges wandered across the road and I was very pleased to see that they were Greys rather than Red-legged. Embarrassingly, this was a personal year tick for what has sadly become far too rare a bird these days. I parked up next to three other cars and got ready. It was amazingly mild today though as it was such an exposed location I still decided to dress up warmly just in case. I set off on the familiar yomp along the path towards the shoreline where I was soon gazing out across the vast vista of the estuary mud flats. The tide was right out on the horizon but there were still birds dotted about in places with Mallard, Shelduck, Wigeon, Redshank and Curlew all to be seen and a flock of several thousand Golden Plover wheeling around acrobatically overhead and throwing shapes almost like a Starling roost. I met a couple coming back the other way who were admiring the Plovers though they didn't know what they were so I helped them out. A family of Brent Geese were loitering by the shore of the nearest creek and some straggler Pink-foot flocks were were going over periodically.
I walked on, starting to feel over-dressed in all my gear so I undid a few zips and cooled off. It was a remarkable distance down to the southern end of the last of the three pits and so it was getting on for three quarters of an hour after I'd first set off that I finally approached the viewing area. I could see a couple of birders in the distance (that accounted for the three other cars then) who seemed to be viewing something intently (always a good sign!). I quickly looked over in that direction to see a Harrier briefly appear in view from behind a hillock at quite a close distance of about 50 yards. With those long narrow Monty-like wings there was no doubting what it was - bingo, the Pallid Harrier was in play! I hurried over to where the other two were and we all watched the bird which by now had shot past us out towards the shore where it was quartering backwards and forwards more distantly. As I watched it I reflected that Pallid's (and Monty's) really do have such a distinctive wing shape - they look so different from Hen's. We watched as it then flew to the right and landed on a branch a couple of hundred yards away. Needing no further invitation we moved nearer to get a better view. One of the two others was a big lens photographer who hurried ahead whilst I chatted with the scope wielding birder who said that the Harrier had just at that moment appeared for the first time so I'd clearly timed my visit to perfection. We got down to a reasonable distance and watched as the bird preened vigorously. I shot some video (which sadly later turned out to be out of focus) and fired off a volley of digiscoped shots whilst it preened, hoping that one or two would turn out OK and luckily I caught one or two with it actually posing nicely
After a few minutes the bird took to the wing again and flew right in front of us before dipping down over the pit, putting up all the Lapwings in the process and then disappearing down below the other side of the sea wall and out of sight. From all that I'd read on the internet, I couldn't really have asked for better views - I'd been expecting much more crappy glimpses of it quartering over the distant salt marsh whereas this had been really superb. Result!
With the Harrier already in the bag and the time just after 9 a.m. I decided to head back and the other birder came with me. We got chatting and it turned out that he lived in Coventry but had a house in Hunstanton that he and his wife liked to come down to regularly. He'd been coming to Norfolk for years and as we watched more Pink-foots going overhead, he explained how they roost on the estuary where they're safe from predators (mostly foxes) unless it's a clear night with a moon when the foxes can easily be seen in which case they'll carry on grazing on the fields.
We met various other birders coming the other way now, presumably all heading down for the 10 a.m. showing. Back at the car park we parted company and I contemplated what to do next. As part of my pre-trip research I'd compiled a list of other possible birds to see. On my list were three Shorelarks and some Twite at Thornham Harbour, a Rough-legged Buzzard at Choseley near Titchwell and an Iceland Gull on the Great Ouse in Kings Lynn. In the end I decided to start off at Thornham (partly because I'd never been there before) and then to move on to the Buzzard afterwards, before stopping in on the Iceland Gull on the way home.
I fired up the Gnome mobile and headed off along the A149 towards Thornham. Predictably I got stuck in a long line of traffic that was behind a slow moving large lorry so we made rather sedate progress. On the way I had a glimpse in a hedge of what to me really looked like a Ring Ouzel. I know that one was seen in Norfolk the previous day so it's not entirely out of the question but sadly I never saw it well enough to be sure. Eventually the Sat Nav app told me to turn off down an innocuous side road and before I knew it I was out on a small bumpy track that lead down to a flint-covered barn by the side of a tidal creek with a few moored boats in. It was all very picturesque in a rather overcast melancholy sort of way.
There were quite a few cars parked up in the small car park so it was clearly a popular place. I got out, tooled up and wandered over to a couple who were scoping the distant estuary. It turned out that they reckoned that they could see the three Shorelarks from here so I had a go at scoping myself though at least one of the birds that they were getting excited about looked to me like a Skylark though perhaps I was looking at the wrong bird. After a while I got bored and went for a little wander along the sea wall a short distance where one had a better vantage point. To walk out to where the Shorelarks were located would have taken the best part of an hour so I decided to hang around and see if I could catch up with the Twite. There were loads of small birds buzzing around and when I managed to see them well enough they always turned out to be Linnets. Another couple turned up, wanting to see the Twite and we searched together for a while before they decided to head off along the sea wall. I mooched about a bit, enjoying the estuary sights and sounds before returning to my original vantage point by the car park where there was now a new birder looking. I joined him and eventually I managed to pick out the three Shorelarks - clearly seeing their head patterns lit up during a period of sunshine.
I carried on my Twite search and eventually spotted a few interesting birds down by the creek near the moored boats. When I finally got my brain in gear I twigged that they were in fact Twite that I was looking at though unfortunately, they flew off before I was able to get a photo of them. Instead I took some snaps of the local Curlew and Redshank that were exploring the various creeks.
In the end I spent far longer at Thorham than I had intended but it was such a nice place that I was happy to while away my time there. I had most of my packed lunch and decided not to bother with the Choseley Rough-legged Buzzard but instead to start off homewards and to pop in for the Iceland Gull en route so this is what I did.
In Kings Lynn after a brief hiccup where the Sat Nat tried to direct me through a private freight yard, I managed to navigate myself down a side road past all sorts of industrial units and factories until I got to the shore of the Great Ouse. There I met up with a birder who'd been there for several hours photographing the Iceland Gull though he couldn't see it at present. I got out my scope and grilled the distant gull flock on the far side of the river but to no avail. Another pair of birders turned up and after a while they found it around the corner loafing on the bank on our side of the river. We all hurried over where we were treated to great views of it as it loafed around, unconcerned by our attention.
After getting my fill I ambled back to the car, finished off the last of my lunch and then decided to head off home. I managed to get only a little lost in navigating myself out of Kings Lynn but after that the journey was uneventful and with Radio 4 to keep me company the time passed quickly enough. At 4 p.m. I was back home at Casa Gnome ready for a welcome cup of tea and to bask in the warm glow of another successful outing.