Hoping for Harriers

Walking Diary - Norfolk 1.

Sea Thrift  - image Kruse 2019
It’s Wednesday 1st May 2019, May Day, the day my daughter and I used to celebrate as the ‘Great Mother’s Birthday,’ when we would go on a mini adventure, picking flowers and greenery to decorate our house and celebrating the beauty of nature.

On this May Day though it is dusk and I am sitting beside a vast salt marsh on the Norfolk coast, 4 days in to a planned three month adventure of walking and exploring natural Britain. In front of me a snowy white Little Egret stalks the marsh with fastidious, delicate steps. Skeins of geese ripple overhead and the first moths flit ghostly through the gloom. After 4 days of blue skies and sunshine, dawn rain is predicted and white clouds are drifting up from the horizon. The brilliant day has softened into a grey evening, a palette of mushroom, sage and palest yellow, silvered where the last light catches the water. I am alone and brimful of happiness.

4 days earlier I stepped off the bus at Sheringham, a typical English seaside town 30 miles from Norwich and started my walk along the Norfolk coast. Sheringham was cheerfully busy and I had that excited nervousness new adventures always start with. I wandered down to the coast path, which I would be following to Weybourne, 4.5 miles north along the shingle. The tide was in, so for the first half mile out of town I walked along a deserted promenade, past painted beach huts and concrete shelters. I stopped at a tiny two-table cafe to get an ice cream and got involved in the rescue of a toddler who had escaped his ditzy father and was climbing purposefully down a flight of concrete steps to the shingle bashing sea.

Coast path between Sheringham and Weybourne  -  image Kruse 2019
When baby was safely back with dad, heart pounding I climbed steep switchback paths to the dunes and onto a snaking, narrow path through marram grass and pink-flowered sea thrift. On the brow of the highest dune a vintage wooden coastguard hut loomed like a destination in Myst III. Ahead sand dunes and shingle beach stretched as far as I could see, my home for the next week. On my left Skylarks rose, singing hallelujahs into the blue, on my right Sand Martins whipped figure eights up and over the cliff face and as I walked on I saw with disbelief and joy an Avocet wing overhead.
The Pied Avocet is the emblem of the RSPB and an iconic Norfolk bird. The species became extinct in Britain in the 19th century, returning during the Second World War when East Anglian salt marshes were re-flooded as defences against enemy invasion. Since then, the bird has become a symbol of positive conservation action, although it is still a Schedule 1 protected bird in the UK, with only about 1,500 breeding pairs here (to put this number into context, there are around 5,100,000 breeding pairs of Blackbirds in the UK). Avocet can be seen all year round at selected sites on the East coast and on the Lancashire coast, with winter visitors also seen along the coast in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. I grew up knowing this bird as a rare and beautiful creature but one I was unlikely to ever see, living in the very centre of England. Yet here I was, just beginning my walk along the Norfolk coast and an Avocet flies low over my head; an auspicious blessing on the trip?

I was lucky the bird flew over so low as I had to come on this trip without binoculars. My own battered, much loved pair of Zeiss 8x30’s are heavy. Because of my physical limitations I’d tried to make my pack as light as possible, choosing an ultralight tarp over a tent and taking the minimum items of clothing. But that decision to leave my binoculars at home would come to haunt me repeatedly over the next few weeks as I peered myopically at numerous avian wonders.

One avian wonder I hoped to see was a Marsh Harrier, an even rarer bird than the Avocet, with only 400 breeding pairs in the UK. I love raptors but I’m not sure exactly why I do, being a pacifist vegetarian, song-bird-loving human.  But raptors are beautiful, in their colouring and in their form. While all birds possess a superpower in their ability to fly, the raptors have the most superpowers, from the peregrine’s astonishing, dive-bombing, world’s-fastest speed, to the goshawk’s incredible forest flying prowess or the kestrel’s gravity defying hover. Thrilled by the Avocet sighting my birding/wildlife excitement was cranked up to ten, so when I saw a large raptor hanging in the wind over the edge of the dunes I was convinced it was a Marsh Harrier. Bigger than the ruddy backed Kestrel and seeming to hover in a similar way, this was a greyish hawk. I enthusiastically texted my daughter who lives in Norfolk and has seen Marsh Harriers with details of the sighting. She was not convinced, explaining that Marsh Harriers are big, nearly as big as Red Kite. I realised later that what I had seen was most likely a female Kestrel, which is larger and greyer than the male. It hanging against the wind whipping up from the cliff edge had slightly confused the issue too, but generally, if you see a bird almost stationary in the sky, it’s a Kestrel.

Still, it was a beautiful sighting and honestly every bird is a pleasure and a thrill to see, with the possible exception of Wood Pigeons, who are masters of disguise and often pretend to be cuckoos or sparrowhawks or even owls (at least to this very amateur birdwatcher).

Alexanders - image Kruse 2019
Eventually my path turned from the coast down a narrow lane bordered with the yellow-green flowers of Alexanders, past a beautiful restored windmill and almost straight into Weybourne Village Stores and Cafe, where I had my mandatory post-walk pot of tea. 

Sheringham - image Kruse 2019
The next day I caught the bus back to Sheringham and took a walk up to Sheringham Hall and gardens. The grand house is not open to the public, but the gardens and woods are, which is a treat as they are filled with the most spectacular trees and a national collection of gaudy, glamourous rhododendrons. It was a beautiful walk, through the village of Upper Sheringham with it’s gorgeous flint cottages and impressive village well, then up through a hanging wood to a temple/folly on top of the hill. I brewed up a coffee and sat in the sunshine looking across the valley to the distant sea. This was a lovely day, with walks through a beautiful garden, woods and field-side footpaths and no-vehicle tracks to the sea. I watched jackdaws and magpies, a green woodpecker and a jay. Overhead flew a buzzard and the woods were cacophonous with song birds. 

Sheringham - image Kruse 2019

At the end of each day I sit outside my tent and write up my diary. Bats fly overhead and I’m hoping for owls. Norfolk has so far been spectacularly beautiful. I sit and sip my tea hardly believing I’m really here.


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