Saturday, 9 January 2016

Norfolk the first time

Number 3 in an occasional series that focuses on my first visits to well known birding locations continues with the North Norfolk Coast. You can read the previous two that dealt with Dungeness and Beddington Sewage Farm by clicking on the locations.

Cley was something of a scary place to me as a teenage birder. It was where proper birders went, blokes who knew their stuff, found rare birds, and, in the common parlance of the mid 1970s, were shit hot. They travelled the world, lived on the roads across the breadth of the UK whilst embarking on heroic twitches and did not suffer fools gladly. Did I want to go there? Yes! Did the thought of doing so unnerve me? You bet it did. There was one figure that loomed over North Norfolk (and Cley in particular) that had cultivated his own folklore, and that was Richard Richardson (RAR). Apparently he could identify tricky birds with ease and at vast distances. Just a whiff of a feather brought forth his expert, and correct, opinion. As much as the thought of standing next to him on the famous Cley East bank was exciting, the actually chance that I might just do so filled me with dread - I could easily make an identification faux pas in front of the great man and kill off my birding credentials before they had even started to develop.

It was not until late October 1977 that I got my chance. Local birding/twitching chums Tim Boultwood and Nick Gardner were going up to North Norfolk for a long weekend, and asked if I wanted to come along too. Did they really need to ask? However, a chance to meet the great RAR would not be possible, as he had died earlier that year. But Cley was still full of characters and places such as The George Pub and Nancy's Cafe. Our journey from south London through the evening of Friday October 28th was full of Nick and I grilling Tim (some 10 years older than us and a Norfolk veteran) about what we should expect and getting him to relive some of his past experiences there, which included seeing an Indian Tree Pipit* the previous year. I'd never even heard of one...

We arrived at Blakeney Church shortly before midnight, and did what came naturally to many birders back then - we dossed in the vestibule. Sleep didn't come easily, partly because of the cold stone floor but also because of my mounting excitement. We were up and away early, arriving at the fabled Cley as the dawn was breaking. What I then saw has long remained in my memory, as, in the half-light, birders were emerging from tents, cars and shelters. Bent double, coughing, lighting cigarettes and munching on left over snacks from the previous night, the ornithological army were pulling up the collars of their greatcoats and heading out into the field. The birding machine had awakened!

Tim knew many of the characters, I stood mutely to the side as 'name' after 'name' was revealed, no longer just an exotic (or weird) nickname to me, but now a recognisable face. Most of them were not the sort of person that I had thought would be attracted towards birdwatching, more to be found involved in petty crime, the frequenting of pubs or queueing up outside of dole offices.

The early morning scout around produced a Short-eared Owl coming in off the sea, plus an unforgettable flock of 250 Snow Buntings feeding on the shingle bank, that frequently transformed into a blizzard as they moved around. 10 Twite were hidden among them. Out on the marsh' 'vast' numbers of Wigeon were present, along with 400 Golden Plover.

A lunchtime visit was made to Nancy's Cafe. Walking into the back room, finding a free table and ordering my beans on toast and mug of tea, I felt as if I had truly arrived. Birder's were coming and going, swapping information, all looking and sounding earnest in their endeavour. The telephone kept on ringing and one particular birder (who seemed to be sitting by the phone with the sole purpose of answering it), seemed to be keeping to a script:

"Nancy's. (Pause). No, nothing so far. Any news from elsewhere? (pause). OK."

Within a few seconds the phone would ring again. Although the incoming call was invariably someone asking the standard question of "Anything about?", the hope was that the caller would be phoning from a call box just up the coast with news of a great find.

We then moved onto Salthouse, where more Snow Buntings were the only highlight. Weybourne was better, where I saw 'George' the Glaucous Gull, a bird that had been coming back to the area for so long that (he) had been given a name. Walsey Hills was quiet, save for a few hawking hirundines. Our final stop was Wells Wood, which was bereft of eastern phylloscopus warblers but did provide me with my first ever Crossbill. The day hadn't been a great success, with no anticipated rarity, but being in the area was enough for me. It was as if having gone through an ornithological baptism.

The initiation into North Norfolk was not yet complete. That evening we went to The George at Cley, the place where the birding fraternity gathered for beer and swapping of 'the gen'. I got to put more names to faces, hear yet another telephone ring itself off of the wall, and watch with envy and admiration as a group of wild looking men regaled us with tales of recent twitches, including a Spanish Sparrow on Bryher. The Scilly Isles! Now, what would they be like...

The following day saw us repeat our itinerary, with additional highlights of 4 Lapland Bunting and 6 Shorelark at Salthouse, plus 3 Long-tailed Duck and 4 Slavonian Grebe at Weybourne.

* Indian Tree Pipit, now commonly known as Olive-backed Pipit.

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