Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today, and down to the Brecks. Thankfully, the weather forecast was right for once and there was no snow – just a bright and mostly clear day, though a little on the cold side.
We started at Santon Downham. A Greenfinch was singing in the car park and a couple of Chaffinches were doing the same over by the river. There were also several Bramblings in the trees around the houses, including a couple of males starting to get their black heads, though still with plenty of brown fringes to the feathers showing. A Song Thrush was singing in the bushes by the bridge. Hopefully, all this vocal activity is a sign that spring is on its way!
Along the river bank, the ground and the ditches were still frozen. A Water Rail scuttled across the path ahead of us and another flew across to the near bank – presumably encouraged out by the icy conditions. We saw several more as we walked further along by the river this morning – about five in total.
A Kingfisher flashed along the river and perched up ahead of us briefly. It stayed one step ahead of us all the way along – and back – and we eventually got good views of it perched up in the trees by the bank. There were lots of other things to see as well – Nuthatches calling, a pair of Marsh Tits feeding in the alders, loads of Siskin zooming about overhead. Four small ducks flew up from the river bank and circled round – Teal. Then another two ducks flew overhead and turned to drop down into the damp scrub – but these were Mandarins!
The sun was doing its best to try to warm up the air, but with a cold north-easterly straight from Russia it was fighting a losing battle. Despite the birds singing, the woodpeckers were slow to get started. We had heard a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers calling as we walked out, but it was not until mid-morning that we heard any drumming. Even then it was a bit half-hearted. A Green Woodpecker was calling from across the river as well. But that was it and unfortunately we had an appointment elsewhere.
We drove to another part of Thetford Forest and positioned ourselves for the vigil. No sooner had we got ourselves ready than a hawk flew up from the trees ahead of us and started to circle up. Unfortunately, it was too small, and flew with rapid wingbeats, despite its best efforts to look more interesting in the sunlight. A Sparrowhawk. There were several Common Buzzards around, but they were not up too much – perhaps it was just a bit too cold. They would circle up for a short while, before dropping back into the trees. A couple landed in the pines in front of us and sat there looking like they had had enough already. A Kestrel circled overhead, several Skylarks were singing and a flock of Fieldfare flew over heading north.
Just as we started to think we might be out of luck, all the pigeons erupted from the trees, scattering in all directions. One of the Common Buzzards was flying round with them, but surely that wouldn’t spook them in such a fashion? Then another bird appeared. It was big – almost the same size as the Buzzard; it was powerful, with deep wingbeats; it was steely grey above and very white below; it was the prize we were waiting for – a Goshawk. It circled for a while, in the same view as the Common Buzzard – a great opportunity to see them side-by-side, as it is always hard to judge the size of a lone bird in the sky. We watched in awe. Then it turned and with a couple of deep downbeats of its wings it powered down into the trees. Wow!
With that one in the bag, we decided to head for Lakenheath Fen for lunch. We didn’t have enough time to explore the whole reserve today, but we had really come to have a look at Hockwold Washes (and use the facilities!). Lots of Reed Buntings were around the feeders at the visitor centre. A couple of Stonechats were in the reeds by the river. From the river bank, we could see lots of Mute Swans and gulls on the water (Black-headed, Common and Lesser Black-backed Gulls), a few ducks including Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal and a couple of Wigeon; a Marsh Harrier flew over; and a Redshank and a Little Egret fed on the margins.
Then, along the other riverbank to the east, we picked up an altogether bigger egret. A Great White Egret or two have been here for the last few weeks and this was just what we had come to see. At one point a Little Egret flew down and landed just along from it – and was completely dwarfed by it. The Great White Egret stood and preened for a while and stretched its neck up – such a long neck! We could see its long yellow bill as well. Then, while we were scanning the other way, it flew past us (having been flushed by a dog walker on the other bank), and landed just along to the west. We could see its long legs and dark feet as it flew.
We headed round to Lynford Arboretum next. There was a large posse of photographers clustered round the gate talking loudly. It appeared that a couple of Hawfinches had been feeding there earlier but they were there no longer. Not to worry – we set off for a walk round. Unfortunately, the birds are not seen in the paddocks as often as they used to be these days. It was quite windy in the open, but as we were walking back towards the arboretum, we picked up a shape sitting in the top of a fir tree, being blown around. A quick look through the bins confirmed our suspicions – a Hawfinch. We got it in the scopes, but rather than drop down out of the wind, it sat there for ages, turning round to show us its better side. A cracking bird.
Having watched that for a while, we left it where it was and walked on to explore the arboretum. A Grey Wagtail was by the lake in the trees. There were also lots of Siskin in the alders, singing and calling, a constant chatter, and we finally got a better look at one.
The bridges are often adorned with birdseed and other treats, and today the restaurant was open and the diners were flocking in – a couple of Marsh Tits, plus Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Nuthatches, Chaffinches and more! A couple of Treecreepers fed in the trees overhead – at one point right above our heads.
We were about to leave when someone spotted a flash of blue across the lake and a Kingfisher perched up in the trees close by. We were just admiring it in the scope, when it took off and flew straight towards us. It almost landed in the tree right next to us, veering away, but still landing close by. It looked absolutely stunning in the late afternoon sun.
With the sun sinking in the sky and the temperature starting to drop, we still had enough time for one more treat. We walked over to have a look at the lakes. The first was fairly quiet, just a little flock of Tufted Duck out on the water and a few Gadwall in the reeds. The other one looked empty as well, at first, but a white shape over by the trees caught out eye. A beautiful drake Goosander, with a redhead female swimming nearby. A great way to end the day.