Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Cuckoo Calling In The Distance At Wicken Fen

It's very faint and it only lasts eight seconds but it's the sound of summer at the fabulous National Trust national nature reserve in Cambridgeshire.

And if that's the sound then the carpets of marsh orchids among the reeds are the unmistakeable sight at this time of year. We strolled round the two-and-quarter-mile Nature Trail of wide droves and lush green paths that circle the undrained Sedge Fen. The warblers were out in force but the blustery winds meant the reserve's famous dragonflies were keeping a low profile.

First stop, after a sausage sandwich and a refreshing bottle of Boathouse Bitter from the City of Cambridge Brewery in the cafe, was the excellent visitor centre. One of the wardens was happily holding a very calm Sparrowhawk. With eyes and a bill like that no wonder it's feared throughout the warbler world. As soon as it was released it was straight back into hunter mode.

An insect hunter had also made itself at home in one of the other man-made structures. This Swallow seemed completely unperturbed by the stream of visitors clattering in and out of the Roger Clarke hide, repeatedly dodging the binoculars and telescopes to fly to and from its nest in one of the dark corners. There was no sight nor sound of chicks so presumably she's waiting for eggs to hatch.

Among the other highlights of the walk was this magnificent caterpillar found on the boardwalk by low-level Grace. We had no idea what it was at the time but it didn't take long for Professor Google to reveal that it's the larva of the Drinker Moth - which UK Moths say is a fairly common species in southern England and will take to the wing in July and August.

We'll look out for it.

Monday, 20 June 2011

A 20-Mile North Norfolk Bird And Pub Crawl From Hunstanton To Stiffkey

View Hunstanton-Stiffkey in a larger map

Tried and tested on Saturday.
Required: A designated driver or a Coasthopper bus timetable.
Preferable: Fully Ventilated Drinking Trousers

Start: Hunstanton Beach
Begin the day with a stroll along the beach to look for nesting Fulmars. They're easy to find as soon as you reach the strikingly cream and orange cliffs. They're an awesome, big-nosed sight as they glide to and from the cliff face, their legs often dangling comically as they come in to land.

First Pub: The Ancient Mariner, Old Hunstanton
Nothing to fear here. The suitably-named Camra Beer Guide entrant is about a mile east along the beach from the Fulmars. Apart from the Adnams Suffolk Bitter, the hotel pub's best feature is the decked and lawned beer garden which gives great views of the windsurfers on the Wash.

Second Pub: The Lighthouse Inn, Thornham
A great patio garden with distant sea views to enjoy with the Wherry and guest ales is the highlight of this place a few miles along the coast road. Rated with slightly more detail on this earlier posting.

Next Bird Stop: RSPB Titchwell Marsh
Spotted Redshank at Titchwell
A five-star reserve with a high chance of spotting some of the most iconic Norfolk birds: Marsh Harrier, Avocet, Bearded Tit, Bittern and all the wetland specialities. A fabulous new hide half-way along the 1km path to the beach takes you right into the heart of the lagoons.

Third Pub: The Jolly Sailors, Brancaster
Jolly as sailors in Brancaster
Another short drive is rewarded with a refreshing pint of Brancaster Bitter and/or Oystercatcher brewed on the premises. It's got a spacious, grassy, swallow-blessed beer garden and a play area which attracts a nicely mixed crowd of rugby-types in pink weekend shirts and Jeremy Kyle-style parents urging Ryan and Kianna to "put it down, NOW!"

Fourth Pub: The White Horse, Brancaster Staithe
A couple of miles further east on the left is this posher pub with rooms. The bar serves Woodforde's Wherry and Adnams but the best bit is the terrace at the back with sensational views over the marshes to the distant sea, complete with Little Egrets, Redshanks and Oystercatchers.
The food is also excellent and very modern-British - my battered fish came with nine thick-cut chips stacked in a Jenga-style tower on the plate. Novel.

Time to press onwards to Wells-next-the-Sea but if you can't wait six more miles try the Victoria at Holkham on the way. It's a lovely hotel which recently tied itself to Adnams, so you know exactly what you'll be drinking. Nip into the Holkham Hall grounds up the hill to enjoy the House Martins, Swifts and Swallows hunting over the lake.

Next Stop: The Albatros, Wells
Big sky from the deck of the Albatros on Saturday
Not a pub but a moored, Dutch sailing boat with an S mysteriously missing from its name and very steep wooden steps down to a galley serving Woodforde's Wherry and Nelson's Revenge straight out of the barrel. Make it back up the stairs without spilling it and enjoy the view across the marshes with the option of a wide range of pancakes to soak it all up. Spinach, boiled egg and cheese is among the tastier options for £8. Standard lemon and sugar is half that.

At this point I recommend a detour to the De-Lish deli across the road on Staithe Street. Stock up on some of the tastiest cured meats and spiced fruits and chocolates this side of Ibiza.

Final Stop: The Red Lion, Stiffkey
A few miles further east and another difficult-to-drive-past landmark on the coast road. More Woodforde's choices and a cosy patio garden between the pub and the newish rooms for holiday rent. Very good value food if you fancy it.

And now you'd better call it day and head home for a well-earned snooze. Don't forget your binoculars.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Birding In The London Rain

I think I actually prefer going to the London Wetland Centre in the rain on summer weekends.

It's a guaranteed cheerful-banker whatever the weather but it's usually packed with young families enjoying picnics on sunny Sundays.

Nothing wrong with that, of course - we've been going with our two for years - but sometimes you just want to wander from hide to hide in a bit of peace and quiet and concentrate on the wildlife.

On Sunday I felt like I was the only person there. It rained steadily all afternoon - from the minute I left the house for the 15-minute cycle ride until the minute I got back looking like one of the Water Vole specialities - but all that did was keep the crowds away and dampen the noise of the Heathrow jets overhead.

Little Grebe
The whole place was green and glistening: it was invigorating to puddle past the mooching captive birds in the World Wetlands exhibits then along the summer route through the network of ponds, meadows and reedbeds in the Wildside part of the reserve.

Empty hides meant I could faff about trying and failing to get a decent photo of one of the dozens of F1-quick Swifts without disturbing anyone.

Then a soggy amble to the opposite end of the reserve gave me a chance for a solo sit to watch and snap the Sand Martins flying to and from their nests in the purpose-built sandbank: Sand Martins raising their young across the river from Craven Cottage - fantashtic, as Fulham's new Dutch manager Martin Jol might say.

Sand Martin
And all the time you're surrounded by dripping Grey Herons, Mallards, Parakeets, gulls, Lapwings, grebes, Moorhens, Coots and House Martins with plenty of time to hone in on the rarer visitors - a Green Sandpiper was among the highlights on Sunday.

The main downside of the rain was the lack of decent insects on the wing. The place is usually teeming with dragonflies and butterflies when the sun's out in June.

But there's always next weekend.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Best Pubs and Restaurants in Norfolk: Reviewed And Rated With Birds

Poppies near Roydon Common

The Bridge Inn, Acle Bridge, Acle

Bird Equivalent: Sedge Warbler. An unspectacular but lively summer treat.
Overview: Large, traditional, family-friendly, riverside pub on the main road from the Broads to the coast.
Food Highlight: Excellent £8.95 ham salad featuring generous helpings of potato salad, pasta salad and  hand-carved glazed ham.
Beer: Woodforde's Wherry and Adnams Lighthouse - both well kept.
Service: Cold but efficient.
Bottom Line: £45.95 for four main courses and a round of drinks.

The Lifeboat Inn, Ship Lane, Thornham

Bird Equivalent: Avocet. An uplifting sight on the Norfolk coast.
Overview: Large, rambling village pub/hotel just off the main coastal road with a great outdoor patio garden and distant views of the sea.
Food Highlight: Reasonable bacon & cheese burgers with average chips and a little punnet of relish.
Beer: Woodforde's Wherry and guest ales
Service: Quick and friendly.
Bottom Line: £45.60 for four main courses and a couple of rounds of drinks.

The Kings Head, High Street, Holt

Bird Equivalent: Marsh Harrier. Soaring imperiously above all it surveys.
Overview: One of our favourite pubs. Great food and a great range of well-kept beer guaranteed in the centre of the bustling Georgian town.
Food Highlight: We sat in the lovely new conservatory and ate a deliciously well-done T-bone steak with a jacket potato, salad and onion rings.
Beer: Wherry to start then a bottle of Pinot Grigio.
Service: Not great on the night - it was only 7pm but they'd ran out of chicken and after a long wait chips were presented in a tiny metal basket instead of the ordered baked potato; spud delay resulted.
Bottom Line: £60.40 for two including the booze, a bottle of fizzy water and a latte.

The Crown Inn, East Rudham

Bird Equivalent: Great Crested Grebe. Serving freshly caught fish as a speciality.
Overview: Newly-modernised, chain-owned gastro pub in a village on the main road from Fakenham to Kings Lynn.
Food Highlight: An intricately and deliciously-cooked pollock which had to be unwrapped from its grease-proof paper jacket, served with biriani rice.
Service: Friendly, quick and efficient.
Beer: Adnams Bitter well kept.
Bottom Line: £23.45 for the fish, two pints and a coffee.

Chai-Yo, High Street, Sheringham

Bird Equivalent: Goldfinch. A colourful taste of the exotic amid the ordinary.
Overview: Traditional suburban Thai restaurant in the heart of the traditional seaside town.
Food Highlight: The sort of fresh, crisp, spicy food everyone has come to expect.
Service: Very friendly and efficient.
Wine: Nicely chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio.
Bottom Line: £71.55 for four starters, four main courses and the wine.

Taste of India, Holt

Bird Equivalent: Sandwich Tern. Deep breath, dive in, enjoy.
Overview: Another firm favourite, especially with the kids - traditional Indian food in a nicely modernised, cosy and very busy restaurant. Booking essential.
Food Highlight: The usual gravy-rich masalas, bhunas and tandooris and those frozen desserts that come in lemon peel and coconut shells.
Service: Clinically efficient.
Beer: Kingfisher lager on tap.
Bottom Line: £66.85 (including tip) for four starters and main courses with all the trimmings and a couple of beers.

The Fur and Feather Inn, Slad Lane, Woodbastwick

Bird Equivalent: Not a bird but a Swallowtail butterfly - a wonderful and exclusive Norfolk speciality.
Overview: Not just the best pub in Norfolk but probably the best pub in Britain. A classic thatched roof building in a picture-postcard Broads village. It serves every Woodforde's beer straight out of the barrel from the brewery next door.
Food Highlight: The beers
Service: You might have to wait patiently to get served at the bar but it's worth it.
Beer: Wherry, Admiral's Reserve, Nelson's Revenge, Norfolk Nog, Headcracker, Sundew, seasonal specials.
Bottom Line: worth every penny to sample the ales while Swallows swoop over the beer garden pond.

Three generations taking refreshments at the unrivalled Fur and Feather Inn

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Swallowtail Safari

Our other target species for the Norfolk half-term break was the Swallowtail - one of the rarest and most spectacular British butterflies.

It's a particularly fussy insect and seems to be doing its best to make its very existence difficult. It lives only in the Broads and only breeds on Milk-Parsley.

It almost died out in the 70s before better conservation and new demand for thatched cottages gave the reed-covered fenland and the butterflies a new lease of life.

Around 65 per cent of its caterpillars are eaten by spiders and a further two thirds are eaten by birds - especially the Reed Buntings which are particularly abundant in the areas where the self-contained colonies live.

Reed Bunting at Hickling Broad
But the ones that do survive emerge in early June as some of the most beautiful winged insects you could wish to see.

We've travelled to the broads specifically to see them in the last few summers but only had fleeting and distant glimpses of their powerful flights above the reeds. If it's too cloudy, too wet or too windy they vanish into the stems.

So we weren't overly optimistic when severe winds were forecast on the coast just a few miles away from the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen reserve.

Sure enough we'd almost completed a circuit without a glimpse. But then what looked like a Large White butterfly came careering towards us. And it magically turned into a Swallowtail before our very eyes.

It fluttered very close before spotting another adult and going off in pursuit. Delight all round and we headed off quietly satisfied.

But then as we left the gate of the reserve things got even better. On the flowery borders of a private house a pristine Swallowtail was feeding on the Sweet Williams.

Not only that, the house owner had placed a hand-written sign on the flower bed inviting people onto his lawn to inspect any butterflies that caught their eye. Top bloke.

No single butterfly can have been enjoyed for so long by so few.

After that it was off to the Bridge Inn in Acle for delicious ham salads and lashings of Adnams Lighthouse bitter - glasses raised to the what the French call Le Grande Porte-Queue - The Great Tail-bearer.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Operation Cuckoo

We're just back from our annual pilgrimage to find a cuckoo in Norfolk.

They're back in the news today. BBC Springwatch, the Today programme and the Eastern Daily Press were among the news sources to report on a new effort to find out why one of the most famous sounds of the summer is on the brink of being silenced forever:

"Scientists from a Thetford-based conservation group have attached tiny satellite trackers to five cuckoos to try to find out why their numbers are declining so rapidly."

Let's hope it works. Because the cuckoo population is down by 65 per cent in my lifetime - in 45 years, the number of cuckoos in Britain has gone down by nearly two thirds.

Even since 1994 - the year Kurt Cobain topped himself, Nancy Kerrigan got clubbed on the back of the knee and Brian Horton marched Man City to 16th in the Premier League - the number of cuckoos has declined by 37 per cent.

No-one really knows why. It could be that changing farming methods in their African wintering grounds means there are less insects to eat.

It could be that the declining population of some British moths means there are not enough caterpillars to eat when the birds arrive back in Blighty.

It could even be that climate change means meadow pipits and warblers are breeding earlier so the cuckoo returns too late to find enough suitable nests to lay its eggs in.

But one thing is obvious - we'd better get out and hear them now while we still can.

We got lucky this year. We were leaving our holiday cottage in a rural village near Holt at 6.30pm on that warm Thursday evening to go to the pub when we heard one calling. Those two simple, unmistakeable notes that made everyone stop, listen and smile. It was still calling in the morning through the open window when we woke up.

But hearing one is one thing. Seeing one is a lot tougher. The call is incredibly difficult to pin down. It's as if the cuckoo deliberately throws its voice. You know it's there but it seems invisible. It's nearly as bad as the nightingale we heard but didn't see last month.

So on sunny and windy Friday morning we went to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Holme Dunes near Hunstanton. It's a fabulous place with, as they say, something for everyone: birds for the birders, dunes and a calm, if sometimes distant, sea for the kids.

And a half-hour walk through the marram grass was rewarded with first the call, then a sighting. It flew right in front of us about six foot above our heads. Looking like a small-headed hawk with its pointed wings, broad tail and slate grey back. And calling all the time as it flew.

I got the bins on it and had a fantastic view as it vanished into the tree foliage. It was a bit distant and very difficult to focus on but at least we got a snap for the record.

We toasted our success with a couple of pints of Woodforde's Wherry at the excellent Lifeboat Inn at Thornham.

When we got back to the village, there was no further sight nor sound of the holiday cottage cuckoo. Chances are it's already heading back to Africa.

But we did hear another at Hickling Broad NWT reserve on Saturday and another at RSPB Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk on Sunday.

So Operation Cuckoo was a mission accomplished again this year, thank goodness.

Let's just hope those Thetford-based scientists find there's something we can do to make sure it's successful for many more summers to come.