How better to spend a cold, autumn day on the north Norfolk coast than indulging in a spot of birding, especially following a period of easterly winds at the end of October? With ideal conditions for an impressive fall of migrants, The Ecology Consultancy’s Principal Ecologist Dr. Rachel Saunders made a trip to the small isolated area of woodland and scrub known as East Hills, near Wells-next-the-Sea.
Although the name of the nearest town suggests the sea is close by, it can in fact be quite some distance away. When the tide is out, a vast expanse of saltmarsh extends as far as two kilometres; the widest expanse of saltmarsh on the north Norfolk coast. This marshland is bisected by a network of deep creeks and channels with areas of treacherous soft mud. Approximately one mile off the coast across this marsh lies East Hills, only accessible on foot at low tide. Knowledge of the creeks and their potential crossing points is essential. Miss-time the journey and it would be easy to become stranded by the fast incoming tide.
“Already, evidence of a large fall is all around us. As we make our way across the saltmarsh redwings and fieldfares abound, no doubt taking a well-earned pit-stop before they continue their migration inland. Exotic looking little egrets, seemingly at odds with the winter thrushes, skulk furtively among the creeks as we quietly pick our way through the Salicornia beds; swathes of marsh samphire glowing a deep shade of red. The water levels are low and the maze of creeks that bisect our path are obvious enough for us to avoid though I imagine the chances of making it through without boots once the tide starts to come in, is pretty much nil.
On approaching the dune ridge we see a merlin hawking about the pines and a marsh harrier gliding low over the marsh. The views back towards Wells are beautiful and there is a real sense of isolation with not another soul in sight. East Hills comprises largely pine and sycamore with areas of scrub and more sparsely vegetated, sandy areas. There appears to be a wealth of fungi including earth stars, puffballs, russulas and boletes and beautiful green lawns of lichen are present in the more open areas. Once among the pine and sycamore, there are a striking number number of robins flitting about. There is not a bush or tree on the island that doesn’t hold at least one robin. A constant ‘tic-ticking’ surrounds us and, over the course of the day, we estimate that there must be in excess of 400 on the island. Like the other migrants, the vast majority of these will have recently arrived from Scandinavia; indeed one robin literally fell from the sky at my feet, exhausted after its arduous journey.
Concentrated among the stands of young sycamore are hundreds of chiffchaff, a species usually associated more with the coming of spring than winter. As they frantically glean insects from the leaves it is difficult to keep up with the constant movement of birds, in case closer inspection might reveal a rarer vagrant such as a dusky or Radde’s warbler. In the event, Siberian chiffchaff, blackcap and garden warbler are spied among them.
It was soon time to make our way back to the mainland; the window of opportunity was closing with the encroaching tide. We beat a path back across the saltmarsh in time to be rewarded by a swirling murmuration of starlings flocking low over the vegetation. Two late swallows fly past in a seawards direction, sub-Saharan Africa no doubt in their sights. On approaching dry land we are astounded by the number of blackbirds that line the hedgerows and field edges of Warham Greens. Closer examination reveals that these are not all they seem and in fact many are ring ouzels, a species closely related to the blackbird, but sporting a smart white ’half moon’ across the breast. With 25 spotted along this short stretch of hedgerow in just over an hour, one can only wonder how many made landfall along the whole stretch of Norfolk’s coastline.
And finally, a slow walk back along the lane to the car yields just one more reward; an elusive yellow-browed warbler inconspicuous among a mixed flock of chiffchaff, goldcrest and long-tailed tits. All in all a very successful day and there’s just time for a warming hot chocolate on the way home”.