East Anglia is one of the best birding areas in the UK; in particular its coast, which is for the large part not greatly built-up and has a fantastic mix of interesting and rare habitats like dunes, reedbeds, lagoons, estuaries, sandy cliffs, shingle and sand spits, saltmarsh, grazing marsh, woodland, heath and broads. I was fortunate enough to spend a summer holiday in Suffolk a few weeks ago and my friend John and I managed to get in a lot of top-quality birding at some of the best sites in the region. The birds we saw included some stunning resident species as well as a few proper-rares that really got my blood pumping. Here are the highlights:
Day 1 – We stayed local for the first day, with a trip to the nearby Hen Reedbeds nature reserve in sweltering heat (which remained sweltering all week). There wasn’t too much about in the middle of the day, but the best birds were undoubtedly the Bearded Reedlings that popped in and out of the reeds occasionally and announced their presence with excited ‘pinging’ calls. We did see a fabulous bonus species in the form of a mammal – a Chinese Water Deer that briefly strode out of the reedbed onto the track ahead of us. It may not be native, but it was a first for me and still somewhat exciting. We returned later in the evening and had better views of the Reedlings as well as a Marsh Harrier and a cracking Hobby, plus another Water Deer that didn’t care much for our being there and howled horribly for ages.
Day 2 – You can’t go to Suffolk without visiting Minsmere, so we went to see what we could find at this famous RSPB reserve. The species list at the end of the day was extensive and included most of the expected regulars such as Marsh Harriers, Bearded Reedlings, various terns and all sorts of waders like Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers. The pick of the bunch though included a Spotted Redshank in full breeding plumage (a stylish jet-black with silver spangles), my first Ruffs of the year, the brilliant sight of no less than 24 Little Gulls (in a mix of plumages) on the scrape and at the Island Mere hide we managed to hear the strange reeling song of a Savi’s Warbler emanating from deep in the reedbed, we failed to spot it though (my 3rd attempt at seeing this species in the UK).
Day 3 – We ventured farther afield this time, going all the way inland to Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve. We were hoping that we might have a chance of seeing the Common Cranes which breed on the reserve, although it proved that this was the worst time of year to try and see them, so despite several hours of waiting at one of the lookouts we left empty-handed. All was not lost however, as we had two sightings of a Bittern in flight, as well as good views of several Marsh Harriers and a Hobby on top of a range of commoner species.
Day 4 – This was our least productive day, as the site we visited – North Warren – was very quiet and probably much more interesting in winter. We did see a Marsh Harrier over the grazing marsh behind the beach as well as another two over a reedbed and there were some Linnets, Yellowhammers and Stonechats on the heath, but otherwise it was dead.
Day 5 – This was a long day out and we drove far, but it turned out (thank the Lord) to be well worth the effort. First thing we drove straight to Titchwell RSPB reserve on the north Norfolk coast, which is superb for waders this time of year and we knew that there was a long-staying American species – a Lesser Yellowlegs – on site; not that that had anything to do with it. A Little Gull was the first bird of note that we spotted sitting in the shallow freshwater lagoon, then in the saltwater pool behind the beach there was an impressive flock of 17 Spoonbill roosting on an island, giving it a continental feel. We then spent quite some time scanning through the Redshanks trying to pick out the Nearctic vagrant with the sun shining in our eyes and all the birds distant. To the amazement of both of us, John and I actually managed to spot the subtly different Lesser Yellowlegs, despite the poor conditions, as it poked about at the back of the pool! Avocets, Ruff and Black-tailed Godwits were very numerous, and amongst the Dunlin we saw a group of four Curlew Sandpipers, still moulting out of their brick-red breeding plumage, very nice indeed. Also of interest was a juvenile Arctic Skua on the beach, some Bearded Reedlings and a Pink-footed Goose which was apparently an injured bird that had been unable to migrate north in the spring.
We then left this superb site and carried on north, into Lincolnshire in fact, where we drove to the other side of the Wash and arrived at another RSPB reserve – Frampton Marsh. This place has become renowned for attracting scarce and rare waders so we were excited to see what we could find on the scrapes and pools here. It was certainly swarming with commoner waders of all kinds and we soon picked out two Curlew Sandpipers amongst the Avocets and godwits. However, before we had reached the first hide we came across a truly breathtaking bird that was totally unexpected – John spotted a marsh tern flying over one of the scrapes and after initially thinking ‘Black’ I then realised it looked a bit different and after a quick check in the book it turned out that we had in fact found a breeding-plumage White-winged Black Tern! These rare (in the UK) and beautiful birds breed only as close as eastern Europe and I had never dreamed of seeing one in Britain, let alone a stunning adult. We were able to enjoy this boldly patterned black and white tern for some time, but according to other observers it had vanished later that evening.
That was not all though, as from the next hide we spotted the Pectoral Sandpiper (an American vagrant), which had been at the site for a few days, feeding with some Dunlin – only the second I’ve ever seen! There was also an out-of-season Whooper Swan here which has been resident since the previous year, having been injured, as well as a single Spoonbill and a Yellow Wagtail feeding amongst some cattle on the marsh.
Day 6 – Probably one of the hardest birds to see in the UK is the Stone Curlew; being scarce, nocturnal and very well camouflaged and sites where it breeds are rarely advertised due to its sensitivity. So you can imagine our astonishment and disbelief when we quite unexpectedly, without even looking for them, came across a breeding pair of Stone Curlew at a site in Suffolk – two adults by a gorse bush which had at least two fluffy chicks! It was easily one of the best birding moments I’ve ever had, certainly in Britain, and it wasn’t a species I had expected to find anytime soon – amazing! Later that day we headed once more for Minsmere, hoping to perhaps get a glimpse of the Savi’s Warbler. One bonus was an almost completely white Sand Martin flying overhead amongst the rest of the colony that breeds there, a fab and unusual sight.
As we scanned the scrape I realised that amongst a group of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were at least five adult Yellow-legged Gulls – a species that replaces Herring Gull in the Mediterranean region but does venture north during the summer – as it happens this was a UK first for me, perhaps not the most thrilling, but considering how regular they are here it was about time I got them on my list. From Island Mere hide again we had a nice view of a Bittern in flight as well as a Common Gull and another Yellow-legged Gull, but despite very thorough searches of the reeds through our scopes we could not pick out the Savi’s Warbler for love or money, despite hearing it’s song quite clearly. I’m not at all bitter about it.
Savi’s – 4, Elliot – 0.
Whilst we were out and about I also noted some interesting flora – notably the scarce and localised Marsh Sow-thistle (a 3 meter tall yellow-flowering beast of a plant) and good numbers of the scarce Marsh Mallow in flower at Minsmere. I also saw a Norfolk Hawker, as well as good numbers of Small Red-eyed Damselflies and a Stripe-winged Grasshopper near the holiday let was a nice first for me. A breeding colony of Little Terns at Benacre Nature Reserve was also very nice to see. Overall the birding exceeded all my expectations and there were some remarkable surprises in both Stone Curlew and White-winged Black Tern – in fact I managed to get my UK year list up to 200 species during the trip. So yeah, East Anglia is pretty good at almost any time of year, I would totally recommend a visit!
I managed to get a short video of the White-winged Black Tern at Frampton which can be viewed HERE if anyone’s interested.