Shore Lark – Holkham Gap, Norfolk

After breakfast we stopped again at Wells Quay so that Peter could see the Rough-legged Buzzard. Just like the previous evening we had seen the buzzard before we’d even stopped the car. Once we had walked to the gate for the best viewing position I noticed that the Rough-legged Buzzard had landed in a small tree fairly close by. While we were there we saw five birds of prey – Rough-legged Buzzard, Red Kite, Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard and Peregrine and we also saw six Grey Partridges.

After the Rough-legged Buzzard next stop was Holkham Gap. We parked at the end of Lady Anne’s Drive, paid for 4 hours and walked north along the boardwalk and onto the salt marsh. Shore Lark was my key target for the trip. Five Shore Lark had been reported here on five out of the last seven days but they weren’t reported at all yesterday. On all but one of these sightings the Shore Lark were within the roped off area 500 yards east of Holkham Gap.

We began the walk out passing several birders coming back the other way. As the next group of birders passed us we asked if they had had any luck with the Shore Lark. They were quick to say yes but that they were at the far end of the roped off area. As we thanked them and carried on I heard her say that there were loads of them and I then realised that they had been talking about the Snow Buntings which winter here in much larger numbers, close to 100.

I also asked the next birder if he had seen the Shore Lark, he said no sign at all today and that one birder had been here looking since 7:30am. He also said that they hadn’t been seen yesterday either. I knew they hadn’t been ‘reported’ yesterday but it seemed they hadn’t been ‘seen’ either. This was my key target for the trip and this was bad news. Aside from the roped off area (itself a football pitch in size) the rest of Holkham Gap is a huge area comprising low sward salt marsh plants and sand dunes.

The flock of Snow Bunting were visible just up ahead, around 100 of them and Dad and Peter carried on to photograph them. The last birder we spoke to said he had meticulously scoured the roped off area but that there was no sign of Shore Lark. The area next to the roped off area was also of fairly low salt marsh vegetation although it was three times the size of the roped off area and the vegetation was slightly taller and so I didn’t have much confidence I would be able to find any Shore Lark in there. This feeling of hopelessness was enhanced by the fact that I subsequently realised that there were eight Grey Partridge hiding in there but I could only see their backs and only the occasional head when they stood up.

Nevertheless I scanned for 30 minutes as carefully as I could. A stray dog charged across the area and flushed 20 Skylarks none of who I had seen up until then, this made me realise what an impossible task it was.

Peter came back from the Snow Buntings and we discussed strategy. Shore Lark flocks can be very mobile and may forage across several kilometres of suitable coastline but they often have their favourite spots. In January he had seen Shore Lark 2km to the west in the dunes on the other side of Holkham Gap, the dunes here run along the edge of the sand and shingle beach. We decided to head there and on the way we walked through the huge area of shin-high salt marsh plants hoping that we might flush the Shore Lark, no luck, just Skylarks and Linnets.

Another birder waved us over and asked had we seen the Shore Lark. He lived in Birmingham, had caught a very early train to Kings Lynn and then a bus to Holkham arriving at around 8am and had been looking for Shore Lark ever since. He was keen to join us. We walked together across to the dunes twice the distance to the west as the roped off area was to the east. The plan was to check out the dunes and if there was no sign (as seemed highly likely) then we would head back east walking along the dunes on the east side of the gap before checking the roped off area again. I decided to walk along the top of the dunes as this gave me an aerial view but it was more undulating and so I began to fall behind a little.

I called Dad several times to tell him what we were doing. He was probably still photographing Snow Buntings and his phone went to answer message. It was around now that I saw a group of birds pick up from inland of the dune ridge and in the sunlight I caught a flash of yellow and black in their faces and there were five of them.

They flew towards me but I was looking into the sun and it was difficult to keep up with the focusing as they were flying towards me very quickly and they were soon over my head. I was certain that these were the Shore Lark and shouted out to Peter and pointed in their direction. They continued to fly in a large loop coming back past us but then continued to head further west. It was important to keep them in the binoculars as re-finding five small crouching and creeping passerines in this huge area would be very difficult. They gradually lost height and it appeared they were about to land when they were lost to view around the corner. 

I rang Dad and got through this time but with it being a 2km walk and with the birds not pinned down yet he decided against following us. I submitted the sighting to RBA as I knew that lots of birders had tried and failed already today.

Our new friend from Birmingham was over the moon and thanked us and shook our hands before heading for his bus. Peter and I carried on in the direction we had last seen them. After another 200 yards I picked them up flying again and thankfully they landed on the shingle ridge just 50 yards in front of us. They looked a little flighty but they remained settled for five minutes or more allowing me some sketches and Peter some photos. They picked up and flew a few times but thankfully landed close by each time. The low winter sun behind us really saturated their vivid yellow faces.

After half an hour I noticed a group of birders (who had reacted to my RBA message) making their way over to us, we managed to get two dog walkers and their three Whippets to detour slightly so that the birds were still on show when the birders arrived. It was a great relief to see Shore Lark, not seeing them would have really taken the edge of the trip and the fact that I found them 2km from the roped off area made it all the more rewarding.

Shore Lark are scarce winter visitors from Scandinavia predominantly in coastal habitats on the east coast of England and in southeast Scotland where they feed on the tideline and amongst salt marshes and adjacent sand dunes. Holkham is a favourite area for them with a huge flock of 31 recorded here in November 2010.

The majority of birds from Scandinavia winter around the Wadden Sea which borders the Netherlands and Germany. The Wadden Sea is a very important migration stopover and wintering site for many bird species and only a very small proportion of the Wadden Sea wintering Shore Larks cross the North Sea to Britain. Colour ringing has shown that birds wintering in Britain in one year may winter in the Wadden Sea the next and vice versa.

Shore Larks have also been found in suitable breeding habitat in parts of the Cairngorms although breeding has been confirmed in only two years, most recently in 2003. With around 75 wintering in an average year this is only the 4th time I have seen them in the UK, this includes one probable American race Horned Lark in 2001.

Merlin – Warham Greens, Norfolk – 7th December 2019

After the Shore Lark at Holkham Gap we stopped at Cley and visited the new centre and had a late lunch before heading to Warham Greens for the Harrier roost. The targets were Hen Harrier and Merlin and Merlin would be new for the year. We joined another birder who knew the location well and he pointed things out regularly. First a ring-tail Hen Harrier, then an adult male Hen Harrier, then a 2nd calendar year male Hen Harrier before a Merlin which was lost to view almost immediately. I had good views of all of these birds other than the Merlin. Soon afterwards he picked up the Merlin again, a female type, perched on a low bush. A little later he also picked out a male Merlin perched on what he said was his favourite post. The light began to fade quickly and we left with the Merlin still perched up in the semi-darkness.

A good day with two year ticks, Shore Lark and Merlin taking me to 262 for the year.

Long-eared Owl – Deeping Lakes, Lincolnshire – 8th December 2019

After breakfast on the Sunday morning we headed home via a Smew which had been seen on and off for nearly two weeks at Summer Leys NR in Northamptonshire. We had dipped a Smew in Cambridgeshire on the way up to Norfolk. Halfway to the Smew I noticed a field of swans and remembered seeing this field of swans on the way up to Norfolk just after we had dipped the Long-eared Owls. I then realised that we must be very close to the owl site again and so we made a brief diversion to see if we could see them this time.

Dad stayed in the car and I jogged out to the hide at Deeping Lakes. I joined four other birders in the hide but there was no sign of the owls. I searched carefully for 20 minutes before giving up again. I jogged back to the car and we headed off for the Smew.

Smew – Summer Leys, Northamptonshire – 8th December 2019

We parked up at Summer Leys NR in Northamptonshire and made our way out to the main lake. RBA reported that there were now two red head Smew on the reserve, one on the main lake and one from access point 2, whatever that meant. We went to the main hide first and spent 30 minutes looking. There were good numbers of Tufted Duck, Pochard, Shoveler, Wigeon, Teal and Gadwall but no sign of either of the Smew.

I then left Dad and walked to the western edge of the lake where there was a viewing screen. Dad walked further around in the other direction. I found a male Red-crested Pochard but again there was no sign of Smew. While we were separated Dad spoke to a birder who said that despite there being lots of lakes in the immediate location the Smew was almost always seen on the main lake other than one occasion when it was seen on nearby Mary’s Lake.

When I got back to Dad we headed back to the car and drove around to Mary’s Lake. There were lots of diving duck species including Goldeneye and Tufted Duck, but again no sign of the Smew.

On our trip to Norfolk we had dipped Long-eared Owl and Smew on the way up and also on the way back!

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