This was to be our second visit to the wide open landscapes of Hickling Broad which is situated in the upper stretches of the River Thurne.. Hickling Broad is a National Nature Reserve and this natural looking landscape is very much a man made one. In the Middle Ages the Broads were dug by hand by the local inhabitants who were digging the peat for fuel and these excavations later flooded. There is also plenty of on-going management to keep areas open and we did meet a couple of handsome Konik Ponies which are utilised as part of the conservation management.
I'm pleased to say the coach was pretty full despite a few last minute cancellations which were compensated by some last minute arrivals. The weather earlier in the week had been mixed with some snow in eastern England even reaching the London area and several frosty, icy mornings.The day of the trip saw us set off in fine conditions and slightly milder than recent days. Due to a serious road accident we ended up taking an hour long diversion which took us through some fog in central Norfolk though the sun shone and blue skies reappeared as we neared the Broads.
Just before we arrived at Hickling we saw both Buzzard and Kestrel. Though the visitor centre was closed the toilets were open to the relief of many!. Initially as we set off we revelled in the natural beauty of the fens but we wondered where the birds were as it seemed desperately quiet. A party of Long-tailed Tits and a couple of Jays were seen in the woodand and a small group of Siskins were feeding in some small Oaks.
As we continued along the muddy water along the paths we started seeing a lot more birds. Marsh Harriers became constant companions and most of the "lbjs" wereMeadow Pipits with a few Reed Buntings. A flight of a dozen Snipe flew down and out of sight. Some white birds could just be seen in the far distance by one of the windmills and they headed for us. As they approached their identity was revealed and we had a party of 12 Bewick's Swans (including one juvenile) which had probably just crossed the North Sea.It was wonderful to view these birds directly above to be replaced by our first skein of Pinkfeet.
The people with me put our heads into the hide to find out others had already seen four Cranes and we just missed a Kingfisher. Another couple from our group had also seen a Great White Egret (now the third consecutive coach trip to record this former rarity.) and a perched Peregrine.
As the hide was so crowded my large group had lunch standing along the track watching the skies. Large groups of Golden Plover with smaller numbers of Lapwing were seen overhead as were a few Wigeon. Somebody picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier flying low away from us putting up many birds and most of us had good views of this declining raptor. Just as we were getting excited watching this somebody else picked up three Cranes flying low behind us. From a quiet start the birding was now evolving into an exciting winter's day bonanza,.
After returning to the centre most of us headed for the viewing platform at Stubb Mill and saw a pair of Egyptian Geese and a large female Sparrowhawk causing mayhem amongst the birds along the road.
Soon after reaching the viewing area somebody located a Chinese Water Deer browsing in the mid distance. Marsh Harriers and Kestrels were on constant view and I soon picked up a Short-eared Owl quartering quite close to us amongst some shorter turf. This was in broad daylight just after 2pm. Soon after it disappeared somebody thought they had it perched on a post in the same area. Closer scrutiny showed it wasn't. This was a Barn Owl! The excitement was palpable- two owl species seen in superb light. We watched the Barn Owl for much of the next 90 minutes as it hunted over the fields occasionally diving to the ground for prey. The first two attempts were failures but we did see it eating something (probably a Field Vole) with just its facial disc showing above the grass. It needed to be wary as the resident Kestrels were after a free meal and frequently seen harassing the Barn Owl. Kestrels are sometimes kleptoparastic on Barn Owls relieving them of their hard earned meals.
In addition to the spectacle of owls we also saw a magnificent pearly male Hen Harrier pass by, two Merlins, four Cranes flying directly above us and a minimum of a dozen Marsh Harriers coming into roost.
Jeremy had flushed a Woodcock in the woods and I did see one soon after leaving Hickling as it flew in front ofour coach. Perhaps the most bizarre sighting was of a Peacock by Alys.
This really turned out to be a magical day's birding and one I'm sure we'll all remember for some years. A fitting finale to 2012.