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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

North Norfolk: On the hunt for Seals

Bad bird-watching at its best. We know Norfolk is an incredible place for wildlife. But, we had no expectations. Just a rough plan, and an intent to enjoy whatever we see and do. We even forgot to take binoculars. The only species we had specifically mentioned prior to leaving on our two nights of marshmellows and sleeping bags were the grey and harbour seals of Blakeney.  

We set up camp in the late afternoon of Monday. After kindly being offered to use someones mallet to hammer our tent pegs into the solid ground. Then for the bbq. Clearly in distress once again, another gentleman came to our rescue with a pair of tongs. Reassuring us that some people can actually be quite nice and thoughtful. Love thy neighbour and all that. And as a special thank you, Paul decided to burn some plastics, which smelled absolutely vile for Tim and I sat in the car upwind of the bbq, let alone the poor ladies face the smoke was piling into downwind in the tent next to ours. 

Looking up at the sun, two rainbows of light shone from each side. Sundogs are basically rainbows formed when light refracts through ice crystals in the sky, and on rare occasions forming a complete halo around the sun. 

If you liked the sundogs, check out my sun halo in a previous blog whilst on Cap Finistere.

After food, we headed off in the cooling climate of the evening to RSPB Titchwell. A fantastic reserve of mixed marshes, wetland and lagoons. First bird on our little list... robin! Followed by numerous sightings of tiny froglets emerging from the pools around the walkways. In for a real treat, we spotted three fluffy, grey birds foraging in the first lagoon. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be avocet chicks ! The second time I have seen avocet in the wild, and the first I have seen chicks. Needless to say, our thighs were thoroughly rubbed...



Another beautiful avocet!

We continued to explore the reserve. Beyond the grassy banks of the reserve the sun began to set. Little egret waded in the shallows of the lagoons, Canadian geese, lapwing and bar tailed godwits on the islands.

Sun behind the grass

Shelducks wading in pairs, little gulls soaring around the site, knots in tiny flocks before they go to roost.



 Strolling towards the beach, a large white bird, with a huge bill flew out from the reeds and above us.


The spoonbill flew across the sky, and faded into the distance. We carried on to the beach, crossing the dunes where we were greeted with endless sands and a sun setting beyond the wind turbines on the horizon of the North Sea.

Skyline over the North Sea

Setting sun

The ball of flames vanishes into the misty depths just above the horizon. As it disappeared, the sun left us with a dusty scattering of pastels across the clouds. 

North Sea

Searching for Seals
Day 1

Up early, before the sun baked us inside our tent. We headed straight for Blakeney. On our way there, we pulled over to watch a barn owl as it quartered in the early sun, catching and carrying a rodent presumably back to their nest. Spectacular. Having not planned properly, we made the mistake of attempting to walk the spit from the wrong side. With no access to the actual coast, we circumnavigated the marshes, walking through the rich and diverse grassland. Hundreds of butterflies and bees thriving in this wonderful habitat.

Small tortoiseshell

Meadow Brown
I am no bee expert, but a quick look through my guides, and this beautiful bee that really stood out for us, turns out to most likely be a yellow headed variety of the fairly common Red-tailed bumblebee.

Bombus lapidarius?

Small Skipper
The dried muddy banks cracked under our feet
The light and agile kestrel flew across the marsh, hovering occasionally before taking rest on the perch opposite. Then, from beyond the hedgerows, a much heavier bodied and deep winged bird of prey came soaring across the marshes.

Marsh Harrier
Having made it to the hottest part of the day, walking along a road back into Blakeney, we decided to stop at Holkham Hall on the way back after lunch. We rescued a few ringlets that had been hit by cars on the main road. Poor little blighters!

Holkham Hall

The afternoon was spent enjoying the shade provided by the woodland around Holkham Hall. Speckled wood fluttered amongst the nettles.

Speckled Wood
A toad, crossing the pathway, spotted us and immediately stretched out its legs, puffed up its belly and took this peculiar threatening stance.

Common Toad

Common Toad
It was nice to see some ringlets mating in the grasses, carrying out their true purpose of their imago phase.

Ringlet mating
And then a spooked herd of fallow deer dashed through the undergrowth, followed by a few fawns. The woodland hosted a whole load of new insects we had not seen in the previous marshland habitat.

Fallow Fawn

Large Skipper 
Peacock Caterpillar


We made some errors in terms of planning the seal search, but we managed a great wildlife haul. We saw things we had never seen. Heard things we had never heard. Felt things we had never felt... Maybe day 2 would prove more successful... Now for beer, and marshmellows!

Search for Seals
Day Two

Being our last day, we had to shower, eat, pack up and sign out of the campsite before we set off. Inevitably, it was a lot later than planned, and had already begun to prove to be the hottest day of the year so far. Perfect for a short (ish) stroll along a hot pebbly beach and through baron dunes to find the seals. A stoat ran out into the road on the way to Blakeney, chasing something, catching it, turning and running back into the hedgerow. Incredible sighting first thing!
The walk to find the seals turned out to be between 10 and 12 kilometres. Paul was not impressed!

The terns balancing with their spindly wings in the wind, and long pointed bill aiming down, frequently made dives into schools of fish at the surface of the water. Eventually, we made it to the end of the spit. Seeing a seal trip boat turn up, unload people and not even have a seal in sight, was a massive heart break. But as you may have already noticed from the photo below... we saw seals on the long, intensely hot, sweaty walk back to the car park...

Grey Seal

Harbour Seal

Harbour Seal

What beautiful mammals! With not a single building, and rarely a person, in sight, it was shocking to find a Frankie and Bennies balloon strewn across the beach. Balloons. Please do not get me started on balloons. Especially helium filled balloons in the hands of the irresponsible. Because they tend not to stay in their hands for very long. The threats to wildlife, and in particular marine life, are devastating. We burst this balloon, and binned it.

As a last special treat, the sky was filled with little terns. Beautiful.

As unsuccessful and poorly planned our trip seemed in terms of watching seals, the wildlife we saw, sounds we heard were incredible. We saw the seals, which was awesome, but we used the seals as an excuse to explore and discover new wild experiences. It is amazing what happens when you just take a little extra time to open your senses to the natural world we were born into. Next time you need a few pints of milk or a newspaper, take a walk to your local shop, go via a park and count the birds you see. Listen to the sounds they make, spot differences. Forget about driving your kid 10 minutes up the road to the primary school in the same village, get up fifteen minutes earlier, leave your car and walk. Make a bit of time to enjoy the hustling and bustling lives of the animals and plants we share the world with. And please do not buy helium balloons. Or at least, make sure they do not end up released into the wild. I am pretty sure my childhood would not have been hindered by their absence. In fact, they did not bother me much anyway.

Oh, and my sister found this incredibly small caterpillar in her bed... Any ideas ?? I am going to take a guess at some kind of moth species...

Thanks for reading, I know it was a long one! Hope you enjoyed reading/looking at photos, and a special thank you to everyone who takes the time to comment, it is much appreciated :) . Til' next time ya'll! Expect lots of butterflies! 


  1. Sundogs are fascinating!! I love the one on this post but the halo on the linked post is incredible also :)

    Avocets in evening sunlight... definitely provoke a phwooaar moment :)

    Yellow-headed red-tailed bumble-bee now that is a name and a half for a tiny little creature! Deserves it though - what a colourful critter.

    I do realise that I am frankly just saying I like all your photos individually, but I do think the cheeky harbour seal is cute too :) I don't like the balloon one though.. a subject which like-wise makes me cross!

    Finally, the caterpillar looks like a little alien!

    Lou :) x

    1. Thanks Lou :)

      The trip was packed with tonnes of sightings that were incredible - I could not include them all, otherwise it would have been even more of a drag to get through !

      Was really nice to see the seals in the end, we had given up hope!

      Thank you for reading :)


  2. A great post Tom and a mighty read. I started it last night but had to stop as I was too tired. I love all the photos, and as I was going through them and reading your text there were lots of oohs and aahs. Avocet chicks, beautiful sun sets, I think you got the lot! However I have never seen a toad display like that and the first photo has to be my favourite image of them all.
    I agree that people should walk to school, Brixham is very small, friendly and safe and they still drive their kids.....madness!

    1. Thanks Suzie! Haha, it certainly was a long one! Apologies for the length - I think I need to work on doing shorter blogs, more regularly! The toad was amazing! Thank you for reading :)


  3. Hi Tom. I just want to say that I came across your blog yesterday, and I have really enjoyed reading it. The photos are excellent too.
    I live fairly close to you and so am familiar with many of the places you write about. Please keep it up
    Regards, Michael.

    1. Hi Michael, thank you very much!! I will keep plugging away :)

      Glad you enjoyed it,

      Thanks again! Tom