A wild goose chase, super Shorelarks and elusive Snow Buntings!
Updated: Feb 7, 2022
A weekend trip to look for North Norfolk bird specialities: wintering geese, Shorelarks, Snow Bunting and anything else we could find!
Day 1 Welney WWT
Friday morning and we drove over to Welney WWT. A few Red Kite and Kestrel on the way, as well as large flocks of Lapwing with some Golden Plover mixed in on the large open arable fields in Cambridgeshire. Just south of Welney we found our first flocks of Whooper Swans. Typically two or three hundred in each flock and quite distant, but showing well through the telescope. We arrived at Welney at lunchtime and decided to head straight on to the reserve, leaving tea and cake for later!
Distant Whooper Swans, just south of Welney WWT
On the reserve there were masses of duck, dominated by Pochard close to the hide in the hundreds and almost uncountable numbers of Wigeon and Teal further out. Mixed amongst them were a few Whooper Swans allowing close views of their bill patterns, as well as a handful of Gadwll and Tufted Duck and quite a few Pintail. Waders were a little limited, with only Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing and four Snipe noted. However four Great White Egret along with a few Little Egret were nice to see.
Whooper Swan at Welney WWT
Whooper Swan shaking its head dry!
However the star bird was the Tundra Bean Goose, with nine present in front of the main hide. We had left the comfort of this heated hide to stand underneath in the “basement” section which provides better views and watched the largely sleeping geese, with occasional glimpses of the head and bill pattern when one raised its head. We waited for some time, but eventually gave up and walked the rest of the reserve. Nice views of the same species list and also a Marsh Harrier drifting over the reserve which upset the duck and waders.
Eight of the nine Tundra Bean Geese at Welney
We returned at about 3pm prior to the usual afternoon feed. The Bean Geese were still asleep, but eventually started to wake up and preen and then moved to the water to drink and swim around. Lovely views of this scarce winter visitor. This and the closely related Taiga Bean Goose (probably they are subspecies based on recent genetic studies) have declined in numbers in the UK in recent milder winters.
Nice views of Tundra Bean Geese later in the day
Finally we left and headed north towards Old Hunstanton and the very comfortable Le Strange Hotel. However we stopped on the way to look for Golden Pheasant at the Wolferton Triangle, but could only find three Woodcock on the roadside as dusk turned to darkness. A well-earned dinner and a couple of pints after a great start to the trip.
Day 2: Holkham and Cley
An early full-English and we headed off inland to Docking and then zigzagged along minor roads in a wild goose hunt. Sadly we couldn’t find any Pink-footed Geese, but did find a covey of Red-legged Partridge which showed well. Better still, a few hundred yards down the road a pair of Grey Partridge showed beautifully right next to the car. A very attractive bird and one that is becoming harder to see.
Red-legged and Grey Partridges near Docking
We arrived at Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham and were a little disappointed to find no geese in the fields, only masses of Wigeon and a few common waders. Greylag Geese flew over, but still no Pink-footed or Brent Geese. The weather was making things difficult though, with strong winds gusting to over 50mph, likely the geese had taken shelter elsewhere. So we headed out on the beach and mixed areas of sand and saltmarsh. The first species we hoped for was Snow Bunting and, after about 20 minutes we picked up a flock of about 20 feeding alongside a group of 9 Sanderling. We started to move closer as they were very distant, but annoyingly a dog walker went right past them and we watched the Snow Bunting take off and fly over the trees and headed inland. Lovely views of the Sanderling was slight compensation.
Sanderling, lovely close views but where were the Snow Bunting off to?!
We circled round the beach, finding many Skylark and Meadow Pipit, and headed to the quieter western side of Holkham gap and were pleased to bump in to some Welsh birders we knew who had found the four over-wintering Shorelarks. We then had great views of this lovely species. The number of Shorelark overwintering in the UK has plummeted in recent years and we hadn’t expected to be so lucky to see this main target of the weekend, let along get such great views as they fed on a wet channel just inland from the dunes.
Highlight of the weekend, the now very scarce Shorelark
Despite searching we failed to find any more Snow Bunting and made our way back to the car, finding Linnet and more Skylark and Meadow Pipit and briefly a Water Pipit with the latter. Another Grey Partridge was seen from the parked car just before we left, heading further east along the coast. We found, at last, a small group of about 200 Pink-footed Geese and stopped to enjoy watching these in case we failed to find any bigger flocks (we need not have worried, see below!).
Our first Pink-footed Geese just west of Holkham
Just outside Wells we found a flock of about 500 Brent Geese which we scanned through but could find no rare subspecies or dare we hope, a Red-breasted Goose! Then after a quick shopping stop, we headed off to arrive at Cley NNT and parked at the end of East Bank. We braved the wind and went down to the sea, but it was way too choppy to find anything and again, we failed on Snow Bunting. Arnold's Marsh did hold some nice waders though, including Grey Plover, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Dunlin and Redshank, along with common species of duck and Little Egret. On the walk back we watched a Marsh Harrier hunting over the reedbed, battling the wind far better than we were!
Brent Geese at Wells
We then drove along to the Eye Field at Cley Coastguards and found the Brent Geese flock. Surprisingly quickly we picked up two Tundra Bean Geese in amongst them and scanned through for any other species or subspecies. However the geese had other ideas and after 10 minutes or so the Brents lifted up en masse and headed out over West Bank and on the saltmarsh. An amazing sight, with well over 1000 geese noisily flying right over our heads at low height! We were left with a near empty field with just the two Tundra Bean Geese remaining and also a couple of Golden Plover.
Brent Geese heading straight at us!
Then passing right by, about 800 or maybe over a 1000, how do you count!
It was starting to get late so we decided to head off west, again taking minor roads instead of the bust A149. This time we got lucky and, near Stanhoe, found a simply huge flock of Pink-footed Geese spread out over two huge open fields. An incredibly impressive sight and we estimated over 12000 geese by counting groups of 100 at a time. Also in the field were some obliging Fieldfare, but we barely looked, enjoying such an amazing wildlife wonder of this huge flock of geese. As it was getting dark we left and headed back to the hotel for dinner and suitable beverages to celebrate such an excellent day. Only the Snow Buntings hadn’t played along!
Just part of a 12000+ flock of Pink-footed Geese. Amazing!
Close-up Pink-footed Geese
More Pink-footed Geese!
Day 3: Holkham and Snettisham
Our last day before heading back to Wales and we left before dawn hoping to arrive at Holkham when it was quiet and the Snow Buntings weren’t moved off. This turned out to be a very good decision as we were treated to an amazing mornings birding. We headed east along the A149 and found another huge flock of Pink-footed Geese. Stopping safely in a small lay-by we watched the birds preening and appearing to be waking up, with small groups flying up and circling round. It looked like they were about to make a move to areas for feeding and then almost as one flock, the thousands and thousands of geese flew up right in front of us with the burning sky of sunrise as the backdrop. This was both a visual and oral wonder to watch as the incredibly noisy flock flew around forming in to groups and gradually appearing to head towards the coast, presumably to feed.
Oh wow, masses of Pink-footed Geese passing right in front of us and backlit by the blood-red sunrise. A true wildlife wonder.
After the geese eventually left we quickly headed on, but were stopped again by a Barn Owl sat on a road sign right in front of us. We stopped and watched it with the pastel colours of sunrise behind before a magpie chased the owl away and it flew low off over the fields. What a start to the day!
Beautiful pastels setting off the lovely view of a Barn Owl so well
We arrived at Holkham and were grateful for a largely empty car park and hence less disturbance. The wind had completely dropped and we headed hopefully out onto the beach. We went west and quite quickly found the Shorelarks again! They showed even better than the day before, simply gorgeous to watch them feeding so close to us. We searched again for Snow Bunting, but, yet again failed. However we picked up three Twite, an unexpected species for the trip, feeding at the edge of the dunes before they flew out over the dunes and on to the beach. More Linnet, Skylark and Meadow Pipit and a better view of a Water Pipit, but all too soon it was time to drive back for breakfast at the hotel. On the way we found more Pink-footed Geese to round off a lovely early morning visit.
After breakfast we checked out and started the journey back home. However we decided to stop at Snettisham for our final site of the weekend, driving down to park in the beach car park and head on south to the reserve itself. Huge flocks of waders were feeding out on the mud, with 1000s of Knot and also many Dunlin and Curlew. A few Brent Geese flew past, but best of all we found a flock of 33 Snow Bunting! They were rather flighty and were scared off by a dog which we had watch run out on to the mud scarring off some nearby Knot (the owners found this funny, the birds did not). This time however we saw where the birds landed and hurried on ahead of the annoying dog walkers. The Snow Buntings showed beautifully over the next 45 minutes or so before we had to leave. What an amazing end to the weekend!
At last! Well-worth the effort, gorgeous views of 33 Snow bunting at Snettisham
We sat down for 10 minutes near the car park and watched a close group of Knot, before walking to the car. Guess what? The Snow Buntings flew in to the car park itself to sip from a puddle briefly! I like to think they were saying goodbye!
Knot, one of the masses of this species that typifies the wading bird spectacular of Snettisham
Overall we saw over 80 species of bird on the trip, together with several sightings of Hare, some Muntjac Deer and some Red Deer. The birding highlights were the Shorelark, geese and finally the Snow Bunting, with an excellent supporting cast of waders, partridges, Whooper Swans and many more.
Muntjac deer at Snettisham.