Herb Cottage - A tastefully converted cart barn with beamed open ceiling; furnished to a very high standard in traditional country style. Herb Cottage is a self-catering holiday let sleeping two people in a double bed and is located in the conservation village of Gunthorpe, Norfolk. Email Steve Mills for more details
Norfolk is second to none as a county to see birds all year round. It is not renowned for just the sheer quantity of good birds to be seen but also for the quality of them. This is certainly helped by the fact that Norfolk holds a great variety of habitats within its boundary. From the flat Fenland in the west, the freshwater Broads in the east, to the dry Brecklands of the south and the coastal dunes and marshes in the north. Each habitat supports its own special birds. Many resident species are either not found elsewhere or are localised. Add to this the regular appearance of scarce migrants or national rarities and it is obvious why birders return time and time again to Norfolk at all times of the year, year after year.
Below follows a month by month summary of birds that have been encountered in recent years, some being regular winter or summer visitors, passage or scarce drift migrants or extreme vagrants / rarities. This should go some way in helping you to either arrange a visit in order to anticipate seeing a particular species or make the most of a visit when you are here. Either way I hope it is of some interest.
January & February
For most birders the slate is wiped clean in order to begin a new year, and what better place to start than in Norfolk? ‘Sammy’ the Black-winged Stilt, being resident at Titchwell for some years now, is a must to add to any year listers list early in the year. Just how long will he be there before his demise or departure? Other resident birds that are easier to see at this time of year include Common Crane, Hawfinch and Golden Pheasant. A trip to one of the winter raptor roosts should also produce Hen and Marsh Harriers, Merlin, Short-eared and Barn Owls, and who could forget the Pallid Harrier that took up residence in the county over the winter of 2002/03?
In the west of the county you have the mass of wildfowl that visit Welney each winter, the highlight being the throng of Bewick’s and Whooper Swans. Whilst visiting the west it is possible to see the three sawbills, Smew, Goosander and Red- breasted Merganser in one day. Snettisham is also a must in order to see the phenomenal sight of thousands of waders coming off The Wash at high tide in order to roost safely before wheeling off in huge ‘swarms’ once again as the tide recedes.
In the North of the county who would want to miss the spectacle of 70,000+ Pink-footed Geese fly out of their roost just after sunrise on a crisp winter’s morning? When settled, feeding during the day, they can be searched through in the hope of finding other species amongst them. Flocks often host White-fronted and Greenland White-fronted Geese, and Barnacle, ‘Tundra’ Bean and vagrant Canada Geese may be encountered. Please remember to try and stay in your car to view the flocks as if you approach too close on foot the Sentinels of the flock will surely see you and will alert the flock to take flight.
Black Brant records are certainly on the increase and in most winters up to three can be found in the county. Titchwell is your best bet to catch up with this species. They often feed on the saltmarsh, which can be a bit of a challenge to see them amongst the vegetation. It is best to wait for the flocks to fly onto the freshmarsh where they come to bathe.
Holkham Bay holds the regular flocks of Shore Larks, Twite and Snow Buntings on the saltings, whilst offshore the wintering flock of Common Scoter may number in excess of two thousand birds. Amongst the bobbing ‘slick’ Velvet Scoter usually run into double figures and a King Eider was found within the Common Eider one winter.
The east of the county holds one of only two sites in the UK that ‘Taiga’ Been Geese can be found wintering in numbers, whilst Rough-legged Buzzard is often on Haddiscoe Marshes. Mediterranean Gulls are easily found on the beach at Great Yarmouth and the roost of Pied Wagtails in Norwich City centre has numbered in excess of two thousand at this time of year.
January is also the month to catch up with Black-bellied Dipper as one often turns up at the beginning of the year although it can never be said that they are regular.
If it is a Waxwing winter then they can usually be found somewhere in the county and it is a bird that you have a fair chance to ‘find’ yourself.
A cold winter will also pull in Redpolls and amongst the Lesser and Mealy, Arctic Redpolls test your identification skills.
Scarce migrants or rarities in past years have included:- American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Ferruginous Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Grey Phalarope, Spotted Sandpiper, Great White Egret, Richard’s Pipit, Hume’s Yellow-browed Warbler, Serin, White-billed Diver, Hoopoe and Red-breasted Goose.
Along with many of the species that can be encountered during the first two months of the year a warm southerly will bring with it the first spring migrants. Time can be spent searching for resident or wintering birds whilst keeping an eye open for the likes of Northern Wheatear, Sand Martin, Swallow, Chiffchaff or Garganey that usually spearhead the summer invasion. Any Bluethroat found in March (or April) has more than a fair chance of being a ‘White-spotted’, so a walk along the North Norfolk Coastal Path may just see one disappear into the sueda a few yards in front of you! Great Spotted Cuckoo has also been recorded in March so you never know your luck.
March is also the time to take a trip into the Brecks to try for Goshawks that will be undertaking their tumbling display flights in order to attract a mate. Crossbills and Siskins should still be plentiful also.
Pied-billed Grebe, Black-throated Thrush and Rustic Bunting have also been recorded along with many of the rarities previously mentioned in January and February.
Snettisham Country Park is the place in Norfolk to see Ring Ouzel in spring. The whole area is a migrant trap and an early morning visit working the scrub should produce a host of common migrants. These should include the likes of Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Grasshopper Warbler (as several pairs breed at the site), Whinchat, Wheatear, Cuckoo, Turtle Dove, Tree Pipit, Redstart, Garganey and Yellow Wagtail. Of course, there is always the possibility of finding something special yourself and Hoopoe would be a likely candidate here.
With migration starting to get into full swing spring overshoots are always expected. April is a good month to try for Kentish Plover and Spoonbills usually start to make an appearance.
Scarce migrants and rarities that have turned up in recent years have included:- White Stork, Laughing Gull, Savi’s Warbler, Purple Heron, Serin, Penduline Tit, Ferruginous Duck, Richard’s Pipit, Squacco Heron, Grey Phalarope, Black-throated Thrush (at Snettisham!), Surf Scoter, Green-winged Teal, Woodchat Shrike, Little Bunting, Red-throated Pipit, Ortolan Bunting, Dotterel, Wryneck, Great Grey Shrike, American Wigeon, Short-toed Lark, Red-rumped Swallow, Little Bittern (at Snettisham!), Bluethroat, Arctic Redpoll, Sardinian Warbler, Alpine Swift, Black Kite (I have found one in April myself) and Long-billed Dowitcher.
Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, surely trained by the SAS to hide during the rest of the year, give away their presence by drumming on dead tree branches (probably the only way a mate could find them!). The area of trees around the monument in the Deer Park surrounding Holkham Hall is a good place to track them down. The added bonus of this site is that a roost of Tawny Owls can be found in the Cedar tree next to the monument. The trees surrounding the car park area of Felbrigg Hall is also a fantastic place to find them. Both sites have Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers in the vicinity also and both should be seen quite easily. One thing to remember is that Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers seem to stop drumming by 11am, when they turn back to SAS training!
April is also a very good month to catch up with two of Brecklands specialities – Stone Curlew and Woodlark. Both are on their breeding grounds and are easy to see at the NWT reserve at Weeting Heath.
Well, where do you begin when May promises and delivers so much? As in April, migrants dominate the scene with new arrivals seemingly pouring into the county daily. Common migrants are everywhere, both in the bushes and on the wader scrapes. One hundred species in a day can be achieved in all months but in May it is not difficult at all.
Nightingales serenade the first two weeks of the month before they fall silent and Nightjars churr on the heaths, both only a few miles from Herb Cottage.
Honey Buzzards return to take up territory, and one of the raptor watchpoints in the county, set up to view this species, is only a couple of miles away. (I have recorded all three species of Buzzard in the village in recent years). The raptor watchpoints also provide excellent views of Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard and occasionally Goshawk. Once again I have recorded Goshawk in May twice from the cottage in recent years.
If raptors are your thing then Norfolk also holds Montagu’s Harrier from mid-May onwards and Red-footed Falcon has been putting in a regular appearance at Hickling Broad during several recent springs. Up to four birds were present together during May 2003. Hobby is very common at Hickling also and with Bitterns in the reedbeds and a reliable site to see Swallowtail Butterfly it is surely worth a visit. The Broads also hold good numbers of Cetti’s Warblers and their explosive song is hard to miss.
The Brecks not only hold Stone Curlew and Woodlark as mentioned for April, these are now joined by the likes of Golden Oriole, Tree Pipit and Nightjar.
Scarce migrants and rarities turn up with surprising regularity and May is a very good month for:- Great Reed Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Tawny Pipit, Short-toed Lark, Bee-eater and Red-throated Pipit – all of which have turned up time and time again in recent times.
Just about anything can put in an appearance:- Slender-billed Gull, Red-backed Shrike, Laughing Gull, Franklin’s Gull, Black Kite, Savi’s Warbler, Pectoral Sandpiper, Woodchat Shrike, Hoopoe, Dotterel, Night Heron, Serin, Calandra Lark, Siberian Stonechat, Bluethroat, Common Rosefinch, Isabelline Shrike, Collared Flycatcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Wryneck, Grey-headed Wagtail, Whiskered Tern, Purple Heron, Black Stork, White Stork, Temminck’s Stint, Ortolan Bunting, Collared Pratincole, Spoonbill, Marsh Warbler, Red-necked Phalarope, Red-rumped Swallow, American Wigeon, Sardinian Warbler, Cattle Egret, Rustic Bunting, Marmora’s Warbler, Alpine Swift, Blue-winged Teal, Rock Thrush, Little Bittern and Lesser Yellowlegs to name but a few!
Norfolk is a well watched county but all of these birds have to be found by someone. If you put in the effort, especially on a weekday when there are less birders in the field, you really can find your own rarity. I have found Red-rumped Swallow in May by specifically going out to search for my own birds.
June & July
June and July are usually thought of as quiet months on the birding calendar. However, Norfolk is blessed with a multitude of rare or localised breeding species and the summer month’s offer a great opportunity to catch up with them during the long warm days. Days can be spent enjoying the search for Golden Orioles, Stone Curlew, Woodlark and Tree Pipit in the Brecks or Avocets, Bearded Tits, Little Egrets, Arctic and Little Terns and Egyptian Geese in the north of the county. Combine this with other breeding species in the county such as Montagu’s Harrier, Honey Buzzard, Nightjar, Little Ringed Plover, Kingfisher and Grey Partridge and you can justify a visit to see breeding species alone.
June and July are the months to catch up with one of the most prized species on the British List. Quail visit us for the summer and whilst most keen birders have at least heard the ‘Whip-A-Whip’ call of this highly elusive species a high percentage of them have never seen one. I have spent much time over the years investigating how best to see Quail and I can now state that Quail can be seen if you know how. I have managed to see eleven birds in three years, even down to finding them in Gunthorpe.
June is the month to see Common Rosefinch in the county, and June and July have often produced Caspian Tern. Spoonbills take up summer residence and can usually be found in some numbers. July has also produced a string of records for White-winged Black Tern.
Waders breeding further north who have failed in their breeding attempt start to appear in July and stragglers must account for some records in June. Waders from the west also seem to put in an appearance at this time of year so the wader scrapes are certainly worth searching. June and July have produced the likes of:- Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Kentish Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Collared and Black-winged Pratincoles, Long-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Terek Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover, White- rumped Sandpiper, Buff Breasted Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint and Baird’s Sandpiper.
Other scarce migrants or rarities that have occurred at this season have been:- Marsh Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Red-footed Falcon, Little Bittern, Whiskered Tern, Laughing Gull, Cattle Egret, Bee-eater, Woodchat Shrike, Bluethroat, Serin, Purple Heron, Red-backed Shrike, Rosy Starling, Black Kite and Great White Egret.
August sees migration really starting to pick up. On the wader front, along with the returning Curlew, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers are occasionally seen hiding amongst the Dunlin. Little Stints passing through may contain the odd Temminck’s and on one occasion a Red-necked Stint was found. White-rumped Sandpipers have also put in several appearances during August and other waders seen have included Red-necked and Grey Phalaropes, Lesser Yellowlegs, Dotterel and Marsh Sandpiper.
Scarce migrants usually guaranteed in August include Barred Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Icterine Warbler and Wryneck. Greenish Warblers have also been discovered at the tail end of the month. Titchwell has produced Spotted Crake on several occasions during late August and September.
On the rarity side Caspian Tern, Ortolan Bunting, Purple Heron, White-winged Black Tern, Two-barred Crossbill, Pallid Swift and Rosy Starling have all made stopovers.
We must not forget that seawatching starts in August also. Shearwaters may be seen in the right conditions and Skuas start passing through. August can produce goods records of Long-tailed Skuas trying to pass undetected with the usual Arctic.
September is one of the big months in the Norfolk birding calendar. In addition to all that August can offer, and all that has gone before during the year, September just keeps on producing quality birds. The seawatching passage is at its height, when all four Skuas can be seen and with them, in the right conditions, they are joined by the likes of Sabine’s Gull and Leach’s Petrel. The sea is alive with birds. Where seawatching in some parts of the country produces good birds but few species, Norfolk produces both. Divers, Grebes, Ducks, Geese, Gulls, Terns and waders all join the melee.
Land birds are not to be outdone either! September is a very good month for scarce migrants, with it usually producing Barred Warbler, Ortolan Bunting, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike, Richard’s Pipit, Wryneck and Yellow-browed Warbler.
Common Rosefinch, Red-necked Phalarope, Bluethroat, Dusky Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Little Bunting, Pectoral Sandpiper, Spotted Crake, and Hoopoe also occasionally make an appearance.
Birds more associated with Fair Isle have been recorded. Paddyfield Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Citrine Wagtail, Siberian Thrush, and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler have all stopped off in this magical county. Great Snipe, another Fair Isle speciality has also made landfall on several occasions. I just wonder how fruitful it would be to take in a deep breath and spend some time away from the rarity chasing in order to focus on a search for this species. Who knows you might just happen to flush one from a stubble or set-aside field or rough pasture, or I suppose you could be unlucky enough to find a Lanceolated Warbler or a Pechora Pipit!
Rarities from all points of the compass grace our shores. From the west waders dominate. Lesser Yellowlegs, American Golden Plover, Baird’s Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope have all been recorded. American Wigeon and Surf Scoter have also appeared.
From other directions it seems as though anything can land within the county’s borders. Ferruginous Duck, Radde’s Warbler, Siberian Stonechat, Marsh Warbler, Great Grey Shrike, Arctic Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Dotterel, Short-toed Lark, Grey Phalarope, Night Heron, Aquatic Warbler, Booted Warbler, Lesser Grey Shrike, Rosy Starling, Rustic Bunting, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Tawny Pipit, Great White Egret, Red-throated Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit and Squacco Heron to name but a few!
October is the month that the ‘ Seven-striped Sprite’ hits our shores, and Norfolk has an amazing track record for this species. The bird in question is, of course, Pallas’s Warbler. It must be one of the smartest warblers seen in the British Isles. Both Dusky and Radde’s Warblers have also performed strongly in this month and Yellow-browed Warblers can still be seen most years.
Rarer still, and once held as one of the Holy Grail birds, Red-flanked Bluetail has also been recorded more than once in October.
The sea heralds much the same as September but from across it Rough-legged Buzzards start to appear from over the horizon. The first Little Auk of the autumn may also be a brief fly-by within a flock of starlings coming in off the sea!
The list of scarce migrants and rarities is like September – endless! New species still add themselves to the list however. Pied Wheatear, Pallid Swift, Isabelline Wheatear, Pine Bunting, Isabelline Shrike, Blyth’s Pipit and Two-barred Greenish Warbler all having been seen. For those hardy enough a day working the sueda along Blakeney Point can be highly rewarding.
November & December
Once again Pallas’s Warbler is worth coming to Norfolk for as November is another good month for this species. Dusky Warbler has also put in many appearances in November.
The sea still holds much interest and the Little Auk passage is usually concentrated during November.
Desert Wheatears turn up at this time of year if at all and when they do they usually stay long enough to allow time to catch up with them.
Waxwings start to appear giving an indication of whether it will be a waxwing winter.
Stragglers of the rarity kind include anything that has already been mentioned under the lists of September and October, although the Black-and-white Warbler that turned up in 1996 was a surprise. Even more so when you think that it was actually the second record of this species for the county!
Some resident species now become more apparent once again. Common Cranes now start to be seen with less effort as they feed on the sugar beet tops that are left in the fields as the crop is harvested from November onwards. Golden Pheasants are much easier to locate. It is usually easier to see them on a week day when they are less disturbed.
In the Broads the ‘Taiga’ Bean Geese start their three month stay once more and now the beaches of Great Yarmouth have seen the last sandcastle wash back into the sea Mediterranean Gulls are not difficult to locate.
If you fancy undertaking a little Christmas shopping in Norwich, then the Pied Wagtail roost in the city centre is well worth visiting.
The year may end with you looking at Penduline Tit or White-tailed Eagle. With birding in Norfolk you just never know. And if you don’t see the bird you wanted this year, well what better excuse do you need to come back and visit us next year!