Since becoming a birder, I’ve barely dipped my toe into the ornithological delights of Norfolk, often hailed as the best county in Britain for birdwatching. I’ve skimmed the shorebird sanctuaries of the northern coast, venturing as far as Titchwell, but never strayed far into the heart of East Anglia. Until last weekend, that is!
After a brilliant Saturday at RSPB Minsmere, my partner and I moved up into Norfolk on Sunday to explore the Broads. Specifically, we were headed to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad. Unusually for us, the main target was not a bird but a butterfly, arguably the most beautiful of it’s kind to be found in the country: the Swallowtail.
However, not wishing to break too far from tradition, we first stopped off at Potter Heigham to track down the breeding pair of Black-winged Stilt. Anticipating a quick stop to admire these long-legged beauties, we were somewhat frustrated when, two hours later, we had still not located them. We’d found plenty of great birds, including Cattle Egret, Spotted Redshank and 14 Spoonbill, and even had a brief and unexpected glimpse of our first ever Swallowtail! But no stilts.
The problem was, we had no idea where to go. There were scrapes and flashes in every direction, most barely viewable behind tall vegetation. It wasn’t until another birder arrived, and explained that the stilts were on the far side of the site, that we even realised there was a circular walk around the marsh! We quickly followed this newly revealed (and exceedingly overgrown) path and picked up the two adult stilts with ease – unfortunately the four juveniles proved too elusive, hidden by the vegetation on the near-side of the flash.
Finally, flushed with success, we completed the circular walk and celebrated by paying a much needed visit to the burger van at nearby Lathams. Ten minutes later we were pulling into the carpark at Hickling Broad. Having already seen a Swallowtail at Potter Heigham, we felt a little like the pressure was off – if we saw another, great; if we didn’t, at least we’d seen one earlier. What we never expected was to find one that was this cooperative!
In fact, despite the breezy and overcast conditions, there were plenty of insects on the wing. Most excitingly for me, after the Swallowtail, was a single Norfolk Hawker that buzzed by my head, but Black-tailed Skimmer were far more abundant. It was actually a little quiet on the bird front, but we had great views of a Bittern flying above the reeds, and even better views of a party of Bearded Tit – one juvenile even sat still long enough to get the scope on it! The only bird that sat still long enough to digiscope was this beautiful Marsh Harrier.
And then the rain came! Sudden, unexpected and surprisingly heavy, just as we were at the furthest point from any hide. Huddled beneath a tiny umbrella barely big enough for one, we shuffled back towards the visitor centre, serenaded by a Sedge Warbler as soggy as we were. It was a much quieter day than Saturday in terms of species count, but there were some definite gems on the list! Just as with Minsmere, we were already planning a second trip to Hickling Broad.