Trip Report for Venture to
East Anglia & Yorkshire, UK
May 11 - 23, 2013
I am not sure why the airlines have all moved their US flights from Gatwick to Heathrow, so we ended up all arriving at Heathrow to take the shuttle over to Gatwick and the very (was) convenient Ifield Court Hotel. I love the situation of this older hotel as it’s surrounded by fields and farms; hence the birding can be quite good! We usually get Eurasian Nuthatch in the large oaks and today was no exception. We had great views of 1 investigating a hollow right in front of the lodge.
After everyone assembled at the hotel we drove north through London towards Suffolk, one of the rural eastern counties. Our plan over the next 2 weeks was to explore the beautiful coastline of Suffolk and Norfolk, drive up to Yorkshire to see the southernmost Gannet colony in the UK and return to London via rural Cambridgeshire.
Our first stop was the seaside town of Aldeburgh where we met Nick Green, a birding friend of mine from when I used to live in Suffolk and a brief look at the coastal marshes. Lunch was in one of the old seafront hotels, which was delicious. This was the start of excellent meals throughout our English tour. Our base for the next few days was the Angel Hotel, an historic inn on the main street of the market town of Halesworth. The next day was bound to be one of the highlights of the tour- a full day at Minsmere Bird Reserve, the flagship reserve of the RSPB. The reserve spans coastal heathland, oak forest, beach and freshwater marshes, so the birding can be spectacular – and it was. Warblers sang from the bushes, Black-headed Gulls and Pied Avocets were nesting on the “Scrape” and a small flock of Eurasian Spoonbills was busy feeding in the deeper water. We waited for a Bittern to slowly slink out of the marsh grass and Marsh Harriers flew across the vast reed beds to and from their nest sites. The other local specialty, Bearded Reedlings, flew across the tops of the reeds, but the wind was too strong to get extended views of this beautiful bird. Another great thing about birding in England is having dinner out at all of the historic pubs and tonight was in the Queen’s Head in Blyford- a lovely building in the Suffolk countryside.
The next morning we headed for the small village of Walberswick on the Suffolk coast; another one of my stomping grounds from years ago. Much of the Suffolk coastline is protected as part of the Suffolk Heritage Coast ensuring that the views, culture and natural history will be protected in perpetuity. We hiked across the marshes enjoying Reed Buntings singing from the reed beds, Marsh Harriers and even more surprising was 3 Common Cranes flying high overhead. After lunch at the White Horse the rest of the day was spent exploring Westleton Heath looking for Woodlark, Stonechat and other heathland species. Strumpshaw Fen is another excellent reserve with long walks, large marshes and beautiful bluebell woodland. Unfortunately the weather had become consistently windy and rainy making for some challenging birding. Even the River Yare was rough with white caps! Ducks were quite apparent in the lagoons and we had great views of Eurasian Wigeon, Pochard and Tufted Duck. We heard the explosive song of Cetti’s Warblers coming from the dense undergrowth, but true to form, they stayed well hidden. The woodlands were a little more sheltered but finding the small forest birds was difficult but we did manage views of the smallest UK bird- the Goldcrest, a close relative of the North American kinglets. We spent the afternoon exploring the cathedral and old city of Norwich before heading north to spend the night at the Pheasant Hotel in Kelling on the North Norfolk coast. The Pheasant had been re-vamped since my last visit and was now quite the place with lovely rooms and a very nice restaurant. This part of Norfolk offers wide sweeping views; flint cottages and large agricultural fields and these are coupled with long shingle beaches and large expanses of freshwater marshes, along with a string of excellent bird and nature reserves. The Norfolk Naturalist Trust’s Cley Reserve was our first stop the following morning. The sun was shining as we walked along the raised bank overlooking the reserve. Birds were easy to see as Shelduck fed in the canals and Sedge Warblers sang their rattling songs from the bushes. The hides (blinds) are very comfortable places from which to watch the birds and make great escapes from the often rotten weather. The water levels were quite low (surprisingly!) and we were lucky enough to see 2 pairs of Little Ringed Plovers feeding on the open mud. Several Northern Wheatear were feeding out in the open meadows and were probably en route to their northern breeding grounds and every field seem to have at least 1 pair of European Oystercatchers. That afternoon we explored a little more of Cley as well as walking a little of the saltmarshes at Blakeney, a very attractive North Norfolk village. There had been a report of a Black Redstart on the hotel roof, but it must have left by the time we arrived. A nice surprise was a pair of Brant (Brent Geese) feeding among the boats.
It was off to the excellent Titchwell RSPB reserve the next morning where a drake Red-crested Pochard had been reported. We quickly found this visitor from the Continent as more rain showers and cold wind blew in off the sea. A few shorebirds were sheltering from the wind, including several Grey (Black-bellied) Plovers, Dunlin and best of all, a “blonde” Ruff. The latter was quietly sleeping in the grass alongside the edge of the lagoon and was enjoyed by a hide full of appreciative birders. We had another excellent dinner at The Pheasant this evening before moving up towards Yorkshire for the next few nights. It was mostly a driving day as we had lunch in Scunthorpe, briefly visited the RSPB’s Blacktoft Sands reserve before getting to our Flamborough hotel that evening. We had an excellent meal at the North Star Hotel as the fog blew in off the sea, dropping the temperatures even further.
Yes, it was thick fog again the next morning as we drove to the harbor and watched grey bird-blobs flying off the cliff tops. A Stonechat was barely recognizable in the gloom and was the only one we saw on the whole trip. We hoped that the weather would clear before we visited the spectacular RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs, but the fog still hung around the cliff tops like a white blanket. Birds came and went through the fog like apparitions, and the day looked like a bust. Amazingly the sun then came out and we had about 2-3 hours of good visibility. The Gannet spectacle was incredible as they streamed past the edge often just a few feet away from us. Common Murres and Razorbill also thronged the steep cliffs and both Black-legged Kittiwakes and Northern Fulmars added to the general hubbub of this bird city. With all of the easterly winds, the local bird hotline had reported a Bluethroat very close to us in the little village of Buckton, but alas, we tried twice for it with no luck. It was then off inland and away from the foggy coastline for one of my favorite walks in the area - Forge Valley. The sun was out here and wildflowers carpeted the forest floor accompanied with the delicate songs of Garden and Willow Warblers; a very pleasant and easy walk along a Yorkshire brook.
The fog still shrouded Flamborough and our walk to the lighthouse the following morning was gloomy to say the least. A cold easterly wind had picked up, but this time we packed up and headed up to the Yorkshire Moors National Park – always an atmospheric and beautiful area. Our target bird was Red Grouse and we soon had them sitting around in the thick heaver clumps along the roadside. A Tree Pipit sang from a birch and along the windy road we had our only Spotted Flycatcher and Common Redstarts of the whole tour. I think one of my best memories had to be the display songs of the Curlew as they flew through the mist (yes, foggy and cloudy again!). Lunch was in the beautiful town of Helmsley before we hit the road south, bound for Ely in Cambridgeshire. Our hotel was just out of Ely in Little Downham and was very pleasant and convenient for the Ouse Washes and also the historic center of town. It was cool and breezy again as we hiked along the tow path along the canal. Bird hides were at regularly intervals all along the walk and enabled us to get out of the wind and study the birds out on the marshes.
While there were plenty of birds, some of our target species were strangely absent and we only saw 1 Black-tailed Godwit the whole morning. A Great Spotted Woodpecker on the feeder at the visitor center was a nice bonus as our previous sightings had all been rather brief. After a somewhat unusual lunch in the town of March, we spent the rest of the day exploring Ely and its fine cathedral – a very cultural and historic end to the day. Lakenheath RSPB reserve and the Red-footed Falcon was our last birding of the tour and it’s a terrific place that had been completely redone since my last visit. Trails and hides dotted the reserve and yes, we had excellent views of the Red-footed Falcon, along with several Eurasian Hobby; all catching dragonflies above the reed beds. A Barn Owl was not expected and we also had great views of at least 3 Common Cuckoos, a Common Crane and several warblers that we only had on the “heard” list, including Cetti’s, Reed and Grasshopper. This really is a terrific reserve and the RSPB need to be complemented on having done so much. It was then back to Halesworth to drop off Mum at her house, then to Gatwick, where Imogen could get the train home, while the rest of us spent the night at the Ifield Court again where we enjoyed a nice meal and evening ready for our early morning trip over to Heathrow and back to the US.
Despite the weather we had a very good bird list and a very good trip. The food throughout was excellent; a far cry from the popular remarks about English food.