My vantage point from Happy Valley
British Summer Time, don’t you just love it? I do and for me, it’s not about leaving work in the daylight or the thought that all those heavy, dark clothes can be mothballed away. No, for me, it’s the reality that spring has finally sprung. You may have noticed nature’s irrepressible alarm clock; you know, the one that wakes you up at 4.30am? The Dawn Chorus, led expertly by the song thrush and blackbird crashes into your sleep telling you to rise and enjoy the spring. Okay, some people, the grumpy ones I find, hate it. They pull their pillows over their heads and attempt to block out the herald. To me though it signals those first few months when the air is full of promise in the shape of new avian arrivals. The warblers and the hirundines arrive in their thousands, filling the air with song and sublime aerobatics.
Even though I had lost an hour for the sake of summer, I decided to get up at 5.00am to prepare for a trip to the Norfolk coast. Norfolk is a migratory magnet for many of the exciting birds that land here by accident. This same magnetism draws hoards of birders to it all year round – with spring being a key period. There were a few reports of swift species being sighted from Hunstanton down to Kessingland. Notably, alpine swifts were numbering 4-5 and pallid swifts 1-2. I opted for Cromer which had one alpine swift but it was lingering and the forecast was good.
It takes about two and a half hours to reach that area of the country from my home so as always, there is a risk that you can arrive with the news that the bird has just left. But this just adds fuel to the adrenalin burner and with other location options in reserve, I set out at 6am in the dark.
The drive seems quick. I don’t know if that was because I was listening to the Australian GP and that sort of does tend to make my foot that much heavier, or maybe it was I was driving towards daylight skies that spread wider as I drove toward it.
Never been to Cromer? No, nor had I. I think I was expecting a dour, worn-out seaside town with grubby amusement establishments and seedy B&B’s. The opposite is true. Cromer became a resort in the early-19th century, with some of the rich Norwich banking families making it their summer home. Visitors included the future King Edward VII, who played golf here. The resort's facilities included the late-Victorian Cromer Pier, which is home to the Pavilion Theatre.
The Hotel de Paris – très posh! Well, once upon a time.
The alpine swift had been roosting in the 14th century parish church, a serious landmark in the town. From there, it would move to an area around the lighthouse, a small, white affair about half a mile out of town and perched on the cliffs surrounded by a neat and tidy nature reserve called Happy Valley.
Church of St Peter & Paul
Alpine Swifts breed in mountains from southern Europe to the Himalaya. They are strongly migratory, and winter much further south in southern Africa. They wander widely on migration, and are regularly seen in much of southern Europe, and Asia.
Annoyingly but not unsurprisingly, my SatNav failed to locate an access routes to the lighthouse even though I had the postcode etc. My SatNav could only direct me to a private golf club which clearly had a strong view on non-member parking so I drove around the stupid one-way system (is there a smart one?) for 20 minutes not sure how it get where I was trying to go. Eventually, and with the help of a translator (Norfolk accents are heavy), a nice man in the petrol station gave me my bearings and I set off along the cliff towards the lighthouse.
Alpine Swift, obviously not my picture if you bother to read on.
500 yards from the lighthouse, I saw it. The alpine swift flew low over my head and out to sea before gliding back towards me and up over the tops of some trees. Seconds later it reappeared and then disappeared. I tried to film the thing but these boys fly fast and on an unpredictable flight path. Little did I know at this stage that that would be the only time I saw it!
I found a good, high spot from which to view the whole of Cromer and with a local birder who kept banging on about how many Essex birdwatchers retire to Cromer, we watched the skies for the swift to return. I really wanted to tell him how much I wanted to retire to Norfolk but decided it would look as though I was taking the piss so I left it. We did see a brambling that flew into a nearby thicket but that was small beer to us.
Apparently, the swift went off to Overstrand and spent the best part of the day there. Thanks swifty, thanks a bunch. So having had enough of this birdwatching lark (pun intended) I decided to play the tourist and wandered off around Cromer.
Even though I didn‘t see any other birds of note, I did see Cromer and that in itself, is what I like about birding. You can choose to go to the same places every year because you know you’ll see lots of species. Alternatively, you can go to where a particular bird has been seen and this might be somewhere you’ve never been before and it’s this that can offer you new experiences and knowledge. Thanks Cromer, I’ll be back next spring.