A week ago I was trudging along a pebble beach in North Norfolk. The morning clouds had been blown away but the biting cold wind was still strong. After what counts a long spell of rain in Norfolk – 36 hours – I was keen to get out and explore the wide-open landscape which is Cley Marshes. This was to be a proper walk so the camera was in my rucksack rather than slung at my side. There is a narrow road from Cley to the beach and a little car park carved out of the shingle. From there a path stretched out in a straight line south, and it linked with a few paths into the wide marshland between the beach and the road – known amongst bird watchers as one of the best places for migrating rarities in England.
With water levels exceptionally high there were few reports of interesting sightings, but there was one regular winter visitor here which, if not a rarity, is certainly special: the Snow Bunting, known affectionately amongst the twitchers as “snobs”. I had photographed these enchanting birds in their breeding plumage in Iceland where they are common, and the pebbles are bigger!
There were reports of a group on the beach here, but I was not specifically looking for them. It’s hard work walking along pebbles and I veered away from the path to an area with some vegetation which offered a better footing. As I approached it did occur to me that this looked like a good place for a snob, but I was still surprised and delighted when a small group of birds took briefly to the air just in front of me. What so delighted me was that I had seen this patch as territory, as an environment. Before that moment all I knew was that these birds liked pebble beaches, but I didn’t know why. Before I saw the birds I guessed that this scrappy vegetation provided food in the form of seeds and some shelter.
It was clear they weren’t going far so I took off my pack and assembled the camera – Canon 90D – and lens – 70-200 f2.8. I slowly moved forwards and was soon surrounded by them. As soon as I hit focus I realised there was a wonderful extra bonus to this bit of habitat: it offered perfect camouflage: food, shelter and safety. These birds nest closer to the north pole than any other and have flown thousands of miles to reach this scrappy bit of beach.
What a privilege to be amongst them.