The best thing about winter is that wildlife photography at dawn does not require such an early start! However, last Saturday my alarm was still set for 03:45 as I had planned a weekend in Norfolk to see the grey seals and, with any luck, a starling murmuration. I roped in Andy and friends Sharon and Darren to join me.
After a three hour drive we arrived at Horsey Beach just after dawn, where conditions were bright but more than a little chilly. After donning boots, hats, gloves and down jackets we set off with our bulging camera rucksacks. We walked behind the dunes to the farthest viewing point, with the plan to have the place to ourselves for the first couple of hours.
On route to the viewing point were notice boards with questions about grey seals and a lid to lift to reveal the answer. Some of our guesses were near the mark, although our estimate of a grey seal pup drinking 40 litres of milk a day rather than the correct answer of 2.5 litres was, on reflection, somewhat unlikely…
Grey seals give birth from November to January, when females haul out on the beaches at Horsey to have their pup. The seal colony there has been going from strength to strength with numbers increasing each year. Current count of pup numbers as of 30/11/17 was 962. Friends of Horsey Seals look after the area, with volunteer wardens monitoring the seal population and patrolling the paths above the dunes to ensure the public do not stray down to the beach for a ‘seal selfie’. A grey seal can be dangerous and give a nasty bite, with bull seals weighing more than 300kg. Disturbance may also cause the mother to abandon her pup.
After walking for twenty minutes we reached the far viewing area and climbed the steps to the top of the dunes to be confronted by the sight of hundreds of black, grey and white lumps sprawling across the beaches as far as the eye could see – adult seals and their white fluffy pups. Just in front of us in the dunes was a fluffy pup with no mother in sight, which we were somewhat concerned about as it kept mewing and wriggling towards us, further and further from the sea. However, it was quite large and it was likely that this pup was weaned so the mother had left. During this time, the pups moult their soft white coat for a mottled waterproof one and will not feed, relying on the fat built up by feeding from its mother. When the pups get hungry enough they make their way to the sea and learn to feed themselves.
Further along the dunes was a huge intimidating bull seal close to the path. We photographed from a safe distance, keeping a wary eye on it in case it moved any closer.
The early morning light was excellent, lighting the white fluffy seal pups beautifully and shining off the wet skin of the adult seals. There was much activity with females protecting their space and pup. Bull seals fought, hoping to mate with any females whose pups had been weaned.
After a few hours at Horsey, we had a warming pot of tea with cake at nearby Poppylands Café which had a Dad’s Army theme (filmed nearby). We then moved on to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. Walking around the site we spotted chinese water deer, long tailed tits, marsh harriers and a kestrel sitting on a tree branch in beautiful afternoon light. As dusk approached we headed back to the hide near the entrance, where we witnessed the amazing spectacle of a starling murmuration – thousands of birds flying in formation to avoid predators as they came in to roost in the reed beds.
Out of the thousands, we only saw ONE being caught – it got grabbed by a sparrowhawk, who flew off with it squawking in its talons. That’s one unlucky starling!
I have always wanted to see a proper murmuration, so I was absolutely chuffed to end the day in such a spectacular way. Thank goodness I had spent the previous week phoning around all those 20000 starlings to make sure they turned up at the right time and place…
© Cathy Marsters