North Norfolk - Spring 2011
With a birthday, a wedding anniversary & Mother’s Day just past and the weather set fair for a while, we took the opportunity to have a few days pampering with some early spring birding thrown in. The pampering came with our choice of hotel, Morston Hall which comes with a reputation of refined elegance and a “Michelin starred” kitchen; so fine dining was assured. The birding came in the guise of the north Norfolk reserves, where early passage birds mingled with lingering winter visitors.
We left home at 7am on Sunday 3rd of April. Our first stop was at the Little Chef, Wisbech, where we were served up the poorest “early starter” breakfast we have ever had. We have noted over many years the steady decline of this once British institution. The restaurants have become tired, with threadbare carpets and poorly maintained seating. The staff have changed from mature women (in the main), who took a pride in the service they provided, to youths who give the impression they would rather be anywhere other than serving old farts on a Sunday morning.
By mid morning we were walking down the newly surfaced access path onto Titchwell reserve. Chiffchaff were very much in evidence, especially from the car park to the visitor centre. A gathering of birders peering hard into their scopes by the first hide heralded our first birding treat; a pair of Garganey obscured by the small clump of reeds they had chosen to snooze in, hence the gathering. A Spotted Redshank was our next treat, a bird showing intermediate plumage, neither winter nor summer, feeding adjacent to the hide, oblivious to the antics of the gaggle of birders on the path above.
Once in the hide many duck species were evident, with several male Pintail resplendent in fresh plumage being the pick, followed closely by feather-fresh male Shoveler. A Reeve was noted feeding very close to the hide, again its plumage heralding the onset of summer. A quick scan revealed several other waders including male Ruff, Common Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Avocet, Ringed Plover and Lapwing. A large flock of Brent Geese wheeled overhead, undecided whether to land or not.
Our next port of call was the hides which have recently been built in conjunction with the realignment of the new sea defences. To our minds, from a distance they appear architecturally pleasing to the eye, blending in with the scenery without overpowering it. The mass use of concrete makes it a different story close up, giving a very stark, almost austere appearance. We can only assume they were built this way so as not to compromise the integrity of the structure, once the old sea wall has been breached, allowing the sea up to the new defence.
On arrival at Morston we were confronted with trying to find a parking space. It was “Mothering Sunday” and the hotel was packed with diners relaxing after their celebratory meals. “What austerity measures?” We were warmly greeted by the staff and shown to our room which was on the second floor in what might be called the attic space. The room was accessed through a second set of stairs behind a lockable door. It was well furnished with nice views over the garden and the saltmarsh beyond. Blakeney Point was also visible in the distance and basking seals could be made out using binoculars. The en suite bathroom was across the landing; it had been constructed in the eaves so roof space was at a premium. All the low beams were strategically padded. A tile TV was novel and the roof light gave great views over Morston Quay and saltings. It also gave tremendous views of the starry sky, should you be afflicted like myself with the need to use the bathroom in the dead of night. “Less wine with the evening meal, perhaps!”
Morston Hall is a very friendly hotel, owned and run by the Blackiston family. The atmosphere is relaxed and all the staff, including the owners, are very friendly and most accommodating. It is situated in the centre of the village of Morston, just a couple of minutes walk from the Quay and saltings with their many public footpaths. The hotel boasts a Michelin star and the chef is Galton Blackiston, famous for his appearances on several TV cookery programmes.
I suppose the first thing that strikes you about the hotel is that it is set out primarily to maximise dining potential. There is a small lounge with soft furnishings, but in the main, all the seating areas are potentially dining areas, with dining chairs arranged around tables. The hub of many small hotels is the bar where patrons can relax, meet other guests and pass the night away with convivial chat. Morston Hall doesn’t have a bar, so participants of both pre-meal canapés and post meal drinks are cast to the four corners of the hotel, making “nodding acquaintances” the order of the day.
Evening meals are a protracted affair starting at around 20-00hrs and usually finishing a little after 22-00hrs. Canapés are served in a seating area of your choice. The menu is set, although dietary requirements are taken into account. I have an aversion to shellfish so I was served a cheese soufflé instead of a fish dish containing scallops. The meals consisted of a pre-starter dish, followed by the starter course, a fish course, a main, and a sweet; alternatively the cheese board could be chosen at this point. Coffee and delicious home made macaroons were served either in or out of the dining room. Each meal was served on an elaborate array of dishes, with the waitress listing all the component parts of each dish as she served them. In most cases it took longer to describe the dish than to eat it. With the exception of the main, most dishes would sit comfortably on a tablespoon. The main would be 2, possibly 3 tablespoons. Don’t get me wrong, the dishes were attractively served and in the main very tasty. We have to say that after 3 days, we yearned for vegetables that could be recognised, rather than puréed smears on a plate, sprinkled with “this” jus, or covered with “that” foam.
The wines varied in price; I stuck to the house white which was £25-00 a bottle, this being at the lower end of the price bracket. Wine could be bought by the glass starting at £5-00. Measures tended to be poured into large wine glasses and the amount was difficult to ascertain, although they did appear rather meagre.
Breakfast was also waiter-served and consisted of a choice of cereals, fruit juices and fresh fruit; porridge and kippers needed to be order the previous evening. A “full English” was offered and was made up from a selection of the following:- eggs, to your taste, sausage, bacon, grilled tomatoes, kidney, black pudding, mushrooms and toast. The kidney consisted of a half kidney as did the dark gilled mushroom. The staff appeared to have no concept of what toasted bread should look like; we have never been served toast that is totally devoid of colour and even after requesting to have the bread toasted a little longer it was served slightly singed around the edges. The small Viennese Whirl biscuits in the room were not replaced once eaten.
We had a great time at Morston and would recommend it to anybody who wanted a short break, being pampered. However, at nearly £900 for 3 nights we would struggle to say it is good value for money.
After a pre-breakfast walk along the saltings, where little was seen except for a few Brent Geese, Redshank, Lapwing, Mute Swan and various gulls, we made our way to Cley. With the visitor centre not opening until 10am we concentrated on the areas with public access. Our first port of call was the West Bank car park (the old café car park). Several birders were already scanning the sea for passage birds. We took the path leading to the NWT hide, passing the small pool at the rear of the car park, where a Redshank & Turnstone plied the margins. Skylark and Meadow Pipit were busy display flying and several Wheatear and Oystercatcher were noted in the adjacent fields.
With little birding activity, we made our way to the Salthouse car park, where we were informed by a very kind birder that several Common Crane were flying some distance away, in the east. We were grateful when they changed course and flew directly overhead, giving great views. Half an hour spent in and around the car produced very little, so we cut our losses and drove back to the East Bank car park. The sheep fields adjacent to the bank held hundreds of Black-headed Gull. A scoping over these gulls produced 2 Mediterranean Gull, resplendent in their summer plumage. Greylag, Brent, Canada Geese, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Shelduck and Redshank were also noted. We were informed that Bearded Tit were showing in the reeds adjacent to the bank but a very slow walk up to the shoreline drew a blank: “no change there then”. A male Marsh Harrier was display flying to 2 females, who appeared more interested in transporting material to their chosen nesting sites than paying any attention to his cavorting. Several Avocet, more Redshank and Lapwing and a small flock of Starlings were also noted.
At the end of the path we met a couple of birders who informed us that they had been watching several Shore Lark, feeding on the landward side of the shingle bank. We found the location described and almost immediately picked up 4 Shore Lark some 100yds ahead. After about 20mins we were joined by a birder who had driven from Birmingham that morning. He had already “done” Titchwell and was intending to “do” Weeting Heath before returning to Brum that night. He was very keen to see the Shore Lark as they were a “lifer”, it wasn’t long before “got um” was muttered and a broad smile ensued. Other birds of note were Sandwich Tern, Ring Plover, Curlew and Rock Pipit.
With the visitor centre in full swing we had a coffee, obtained a reserve ticket and took ourselves down to the central hides: more of the same bird-wise, with the exception of a flock of Pink-footed Geese mixing with both Brent and Greylag. We left Cley late that afternoon returning to the hotel for a welcome cup of tea and a well earned rest.
Like the previous day we opted for a pre-breakfast walk onto the saltings, but there the similarity ended; the temperature was 10 degrees colder and the wind was gusting to 40mph. Terminating our walk a little sooner than intended, we returned to the hotel for breakfast.
A chance meeting with a photographer during our pre-breakfast walk the previous day, gave us a new birding location, “Stiffkey Fen”. He informed us that Mediterranean Gull were using the fen as a wash-and-brush-up stop. As I want a good photo of the gull for my Photographic Bird Library we decided to make the fen our first port of call. There are two ways to approach this reserve. Firstly, you can park on the pay and display at Morston Quay and walk along the sea defences for approximately 2 kilometres (this approach can be muddy after recent rain). Or, secondly, you drive towards Stiffkey; after you have gone over 2 bridges about 50mtrs apart you drive a further 100mtrs uphill and park on the right-hand verge adjacent to some barns. You cross the road and walk down the public footpath back to the first bridge, cross the road and follow the way marked footpath to the raised flood defences where you have a panoramic view over the reserve. We hadn’t been informed that access to the reserve was prohibited, so views had to be obtained from the path on the adjacent earth bank flood defence.
No Meds were present during our visit, although we suspect they had completed their ablutions long before our arrival. Views are somewhat distant, so getting decent shots of the gulls was probably beyond my photographic kit anyway. I had taken some shots of the gulls the day before at Cley, but they were so poor, had I published them, I would have probably had my camera confiscated. Birds of note at the Fen were several Red-legged Partridge on our walk to the reserve, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Avocet, Little-ringed Plover, Shelduck, Widgeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Yellowhammer and Chiffchaff.
By mid morning we had returned to Titchwell. This was a change of plan as we had intended to go to Snettisham, but thought better of it, due to it’s exposed position and the very strong wind blowing. The weather also had an effect on Titchwell as there were fewer than a dozen cars on the car park. A visit to the fen hide, which we hadn’t called at on our previous visit, produced very little in the way of birds. A mixed flock of Swallow and Sand Martin, a displaying male Marsh Harrier and a distant female Goldeneye were the only noteworthy birds. However, a chance meeting with one of the wardens in the hide gave us a fascinating insight into all the new work taking place on that part of the reserve as well as what the reserve was like when he started visiting in the early 1960’s.
With the wind still blowing strongly most of the birds on the reserve seemed to be hunkered down on the leeward side of any obstacle. A quick scanning from all the hides produced no new birds so we made our way down to the beach - ” brave souls”.
Shining like new pins after being sandblasted, we left the beach for a warming cup of coffee at the café. On our return to the hotel we stopped at Holkham Pines, walking down to the elevated hide. Wren, Chaffinch & Dunnock were noted and Coal Tit were heard. There was little on the open water in front of the hide except for Coot and Tufted Duck, but a large flock of Widgeon grazed in company with both Brent and Greylag on the pasture beyond. 2 pairs of Magpie were engaged in territorial skirmishing and a couple of Grey Heron emerged from time to time in the reed beds.
With the light rain and the strong wind still blowing, we abandoned any thought of further birding. The optics were packed, an early breakfast was had and we set off for home.
82 species were seen during the 3 days spent birding. The weather wasn’t as kind to us as the Met Offices 5 day forecast had promised, but it didn’t seriously impact on our birding.
The birding highlights for the trip were Common Crane, Long-tailed Duck, Mediterranean Gull, Shore Lark and the displaying male Marsh Harriers, closely followed by all the waders turning from winter to summer hues. Not a common sight for us poor birders land-locked in the Midlands.
Pat & Judy Hayes
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