By Tim Allwood
A family holiday to North Norfolk in the 1980s sowed the seeds of what has become a lifetime addiction to birding. I was allowed to wander the reserve at Cley on my own, and remember being mesmerised by the amount of waders beetling around on the scrapes there. The presence of a Wilson’s Phalarope was an introduction to the excitement and fascination engendered by birds from far-flung places, and I wondered if one day, I too, would find myself settling in a flint cottage in a village on the Norfolk coast.
After spells working for the RSPB, teaching overseas and travelling abroad to see birds, I found myself teaching in Norfolk. Being based in Norwich, it was great to be so close to numerous well-known birding locations, and many of my weekends were taken up driving to the coast for a few hours to lose myself looking for birds in some of the quieter spots I had come across. The frustration at only being able to do this at weekends grew, and eventually I took the plunge and by almost pure chance ended up buying a house in an east coast village called Sea Palling. It wasn’t a flint cottage, nor was it North Norfolk, but it was probably the best decision I’ve ever made!
The village lies just north-west of the centre of the 10km square, TG42. This was to become my local birding patch. Only half of the square is actually land, the coast bisecting it from the north-west corner to the south-east corner, almost exactly. The area is essentially rural, dominated by arable crops, rough pasture, extensive marshland, a few broads and meres, and extensive coastal scrub and cover. You couldn’t ask for a better combination of habitat types to attract a wide selection of bird species, all year round.
Initially, my adventures in TG42 were all about the birds, and I spent long days searching for scarcer migrants. As I began to meet people in different places across the square, I started to make new friends and acquaintances, and my birding walks started to take on an unexpected social aspect. It wasn’t long before I met Andy Kane, a fantastic bird finder, with something of a fearsome reputation among many people. A couple of decent finds in my first autumn, of Radde’s Warbler and Greenish Warbler, helped break the ice and we soon became mates, destined to share many fantastic birding moments. By the end of my first year, in the pub or around the village, I would be asked about unusual birds people had seen, or what “special” birds were around at the time. Striking up friendships with locals had the added bonus of gaining access to some private areas in the square. East Norfolk has a bit of a reputation for unwelcoming landowners and difficult access. However, I found that politeness and patience don’t half work wonders, and before long I was able to bird in a couple of fantastic large gardens, on farmland away from roads, and on the broads by boat, with Andy. Being able to bird such places in peace and quiet, with the real possibility of rare birds just around the corner was a dream come true. I particularly remember evenings on the boat out to Rush Hill and Swim Coots scrapes, wondering how I’d been so fortunate to end up there.
Living on your patch means that birds simply become a part of your daily life. All the time. Whenever I leave the house, birds are at least at the back of my mind, if not right at the front. A Glaucous Gull on the way to the shop, Tundra Bean and Ross’s Geese while digging the allotment, my greyhound plucking a Bittern out of pathside vegetation (both unharmed, the dog much more scared than the Bittern), a Wheatear on a rooftop during the short walk to the pub, a flock of Beeeaters while putting in cabbages, a Yellow-browed Warbler as I pulled onto the drive, or even a Stone Curlew while lying in bed in the dead of night, have all been chance encounters while just going about my daily routine. Even the journey to work can be a delight – especially past flocks of geese and cranes in winter.
The location of the square in coastal east Norfolk makes it particularly good for both migrants and vagrants at virtually any time of the year. Every day has a potential surprise, and to be able to see Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts, Wheatears, and other regular migrants on a short walk from your door just can’t be beaten. Of course, there are lots of days when birds are very scarce, but you know that with continued effort, your luck will change. Over the years, we’ve been very lucky with birds such as multiple Radde’s and Dusky Warblers, several red-flanked Bluetails, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Bonelli’s Warbler, Subalpine Warblers, Tawny Pipits, Hume’s Warblers, Arctic Warbler, Greenish Warblers, a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler that we spent two hours nearly treading on, Black Lark, Pied and Desert Wheatears, Lesser Grey and Isabelline Shrikes, Arctic Redpolls, Beeeaters, and the like. Hickling and associated wetland areas have provided us with Stilt Sandpiper, Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpipers, Kentish Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Squacco Heron, Franklin’s and Bonaparte’s Gulls, Caspian and White-winged Black Terns etc.
The sea at the bottom of my road has obviously been a major part of my birding and I soon became captivated by its unpredictability – both in terms of the birds and also the weather. A day up at Andy’s in our foxhole, behind the windbreak and sitting under the umbrella, with the wind howling and the skuas screaming by, is something to experience. I never get tired of it. Over the years, effort has been repaid with sightings of Fea’s Petrel, Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, Leach’s and Storm Petrels, White-billed Divers, Black-throated Divers, Long-tailed Skuas (probably my favourite species), King Eider, Sabine’s Gulls, and rarer grebes, ducks and waders. Movements of wildfowl, waders and terns, etc., can be as exciting as rarer species, if not more so, as the excitement and interest are prolonged. I remember a day with nearly 1000 Manx Shearwaters, a crazy day with nearly 6000 Gannets streaming past against an angry black sea, almost 2000 Red-throated Divers coming north out of the sun in the early morning in mini-squadrons, large movements of Arctic Terns, Kittiwakes, Arctic and Great Skuas. There’s nothing like the buzz when the birds are coming too quick to keep up with. Thankfully, Andy is highly organised and meticulous in his record keeping. I tend to just get swept up in the moment, but it’s a good mix.
Geese are close to being my favourite birds. The sound of large flocks passing over the house on winter mornings, or the sight of birds feeding in frosty fields are wonderful things to experience. The geese become a fixture of village life for a few months. Standing outside the pub with a few locals in the late afternoon, as the light dwindles and the geese pass over to roost, is always special and everyone gets a little lift from it. A friendly farmer allows me to access his land when the larger flocks appear in autumn, and I’m seldom happier than when I’m searching through pinkfeet for rarer geese, such as Tundra Beans, Taiga Beans, Ross’s and Snow Geese, Greenland Whitefronts, and wild Greylags, all of which have occurred in recent years.
Now, 14 years after moving here, driving more than a few miles to see a bird has become anathema, and if possible, I’ll take my trusty Charge Plug cycle instead. Despite having on paper at least, limited my horizons, I have found that I derive much more pleasure from a deeper understanding of my local square and being part of its life, than from driving to see (or not see!) something on the other side of the county or country that I have no meaningful connection to. An understanding of the climate emergency we are in, has been instrumental in fundamentally changing my approach to both birding and life in general. I stopped flying in early 2007 after a final trip to Arunachal Pradesh, and have pretty much remained birding within TG42 ever since, with a very few trips to other fairly close locations. Low-carbon birding is now an integral part of my life. I cannot teach children about climate change, or talk to other birders about it, if I am not behaving in a way that reflects the message I am conveying. As well as the climate issue, in the time I have been here I have noticed a clear decline in many species of birds. Skua numbers have decreased markedly, Wheatears are seemingly on the way to becoming scarce birds, yellow wagtails are now a surprise on a spring morning, rather than an expected feature, and wader and duck passage on the sea is not what is was. This has made my experiences somewhat bittersweet, as despite the joy I have experienced, I know things are deteriorating and we are entering different times.
Of course, despite the above issues, it is easier to be content with your birding if you live somewhere that still has such rich possibilities as I have described, and I fully understand that. Living on my patch, birding locally, engaging with my local community, adopting low-carbon birding and joining the fight against climate change, have all enriched my life hugely. Along with my teaching, these things have given me direction and purpose in a sometimes confusing and dispiriting world. I’d recommend it to anyone.