Back to the Brecks for another Tour today. It had been raining overnight, at least in North Norfolk, but brightened up on the drive down, so there was blue sky when we met up in Mundford.
We headed for Lynford Arboretum first. It seemed like a really good morning, with the sun shining and patches of blue sky overhead. However, the Arboretum seemed a little quiet compared to recent weeks. It was a bit cold, despite the sun, so perhaps that was keeping a lid on activity. There were lots of Siskin buzzing round the larches near the entrance. From the gate, there were plenty of Chaffinches already down in the leaves and more Siskin coming to drink, but no sign of any Hawfinch. We stopped to watch the tits coming to the feeders and a Nuthatch landed on the path nearby.
We started to walk further along the path, and could hear a Firecrest singing in the pines nearby. However, it only sang a few times before going quiet and we never did get to see it. Frustrating. We decided to have a look round the Arboretum. Round the other side, we heard another Firecrest singing. This one seemed a little more persistent and after a minute or so, we managed to find where it was, flitting around in a pine tree. We got a great look at it, admiring the flashes of orange in its crown as it sang, particularly when it moved into a holly and dropped down lower, coming out onto the near edge in the sunshine. Stunning birds, one of my all-time favourites.
We could hear a Hawfinch calling from the tops of the trees in the Arboretum, but it went quiet and we couldn’t find it. A little further on, and we heard it again, but still couldn’t track it down. It seemed to head over towards the gate, so we went back over but there was still no sign of any there either. With the sun shining, we thought it might be a good time to look for Goshawk, so decided to move on. As we headed back to the car, we could hear yet another Firecrest singing from the fir trees.
We headed over to one of the regular Goshawk sites. With the sun shining it seemed promising, but it was bitterly cold in the north wind once we got out of the trees. Perhaps that was why the Arboretum had been so quiet. Raptor activity was a little subdued as well – there were at least a dozen Common Buzzards up, but not really displaying as they might otherwise have been. A Red Kite drifted low across the field behind us and dropped out of view. There were a few Sparrowhawks about, but even they were keeping low, and a couple of Kestrels. And that was about it. We decided to try elsewhere, but there was no sign there either. Just as it seemed to warm up a little, the wind blew through and took the warmth out of the air. It was time to try something else.
The first Stone Curlews have returned in the last week or so. There had been five around first thing in the morning, but by the time we had returned, we couldn’t find any. Some of the regular fields they like to hide in have been ploughed or cultivated and the vast bare expanses now look much less attractive. Surely not another one was going to elude us today? Then we spotted one. A Stone Curlew stood up briefly and walked a foot or so across the field, before sitting down again. When it sat down, it was nigh on impossible to see, it was so well camouflaged. But we got it in the scopes and then everyone got to see it.
We moved on and walked out into a clearing in the Forest. The Great Grey Shrike which has been spending the winter locally has been pretty reliable in recent weeks, but it made us work too today. It was not where it would normally be, but after looking for a while we found it eventually. It was perched in a tree – not on the top for once – and thankfully its white breast caught the sun, giving it away. We watched the Great Grey Shrike for some time. It spent quite a lot of time sitting still, but was mobile and was clearly out on the hunt. It was amazing to watch it hovering for lengthy periods out over the grass, presumably looking for small mammals.
We could hear some Woodlarks here as well, and got a glimpse of them flying round the Great Grey Shrike while it was hovering out over the grass, but they were always distant. So we decided to try somewhere else to try to see them properly. We walked out to a site where we have seen a pair very regularly in recent weeks, but even they were not playing ball today. There was no sign. They have flown off from here occasionally, so we followed the ride in the opposite direction.
A Yellowhammer perched up in a tree calling, but we could hear nothing and see no movement. We were just thinking our luck would be out again, when we heard a short burst of distinctive song. It sounded distant, but Woodlarks have a remarkable ability to throw their voice – they can sing or call quietly and sound much further away than they are. We immediately stopped still and two Woodlarks flew up from the grass not far ahead of us. The male fluttered up singing, and circled overhead, but the female flew straight to a nearby tree and perched unobtrusively in the branches. We got it in the scopes and had a great view – the striking white supercilia meeting in a shallow ‘v’ on the nape, the rusty cheeks, the whitish underparts with delicate black streaking on the breast. They are lovely birds and such a delightful song, though so mournful compared to a Skylark.
We headed over to Lakenheath Fen next. We stopped in the car park and a small group of Redwing dropped into the poplars nearby. We got a good look at them through the scope before they flew off north.
Once again, there was no time to explore the whole reserve, but the Washland has been a very productive spot in recent weeks. On the walk out, a Cetti’s Warbler sang loudly from the reeds. We got a quick glimpse of it once again, as it flew across the tops, before dropping back in out of view.
Hockwold Washes was packed with birds. There were loads of ducks – Shelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Teal, Shoveler and Tufted Duck. Scanning through them, we found the male Garganey again. He was feeding with his head underwater most of the time – far more obvious with his head up, flashing his white head-stripe.
There are always lots of Mute Swans here, but further away along the river, two swans flashed a bit of yellow on their bills. A closer look confirmed a pair of Whooper Swans were still feeding on one of the flooded pools. It must be about time, if not already a bit late, for these birds to be heading back north. Unfortunately, the Greylags and Canada Geese are staying with us!
There was a good selection of waders on the Washes as well. The muddy margins held lots of Snipe, at least a dozen in view at any time. A lone Dunlin weaved its way in and out amongst them. There were four Redshanks and an Oystercatcher as well today. A larger wader lumbering across the river and round over the Washland was a surprise – a Woodcock had been flushed from the reserve by a member of staff and flew round in front of us, before flying back and dropping down into the poplars. A couple of Water Rail squealed from the reeds.
With energy levels flagging a little, we headed back to the visitor centre for a cup of tea and a piece of cake. Outside the window, the feeders were also busy with birds refuelling as well. There were lots of Reed Buntings – a good chance to look at the variation in males and females – plus a good selection of finches and no shortage of the tits.
There was still just about enough time to have another look at Lynford Arboretum before we finished. We walked up to the gate, but apart from Chaffinches and Siskin, it was still quiet. Walking around the Arboretum, we could hear a Hawfinch calling, but it flew off as we rounded the corner – we could just glimpse it disappearing over the treetops. Perhaps this was not going to be our day for Hawfinches?
There was one last thing to try, and we walked over to check out the trees where they like to sit sometimes in the afternoon sun. Unfortunately, it had just clouded over, so perhaps they wouldn’t be there today. We rounded the corner and there, perched up in the tops, was a single bird. It looked small in the distance, but was clearly large compared to the Chaffinches nearby. The short-tailed shape and upright stance could only be one thing – a Hawfinch. This one we got in the scope. At last, and right at the finish.