Monthly Archives: March 2016

25th March 2016 -Early Spring Sun

A Good Friday day tour today in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was for blue skies and sunshine, and so it turned out, even if there was still a lingering chill in the wind at times. It really felt like spring – at last!

We started the day at Blakeney. On the walk out along the seawall, a very smart male Marsh Harrier drifted across the freshmarsh towards us and across the path just ahead of us, flashing its silvery grey wings with black wingtips. The tide was in and it was quite a big tide today. A flock of Oysterctachers was roosting up on one of the dry saltmarsh islands and several small groups of Brent Geese were flying round the harbour.

We could see a small crowd gathered down by the gate as we approached – a phalanx of photographers waiting for the Lapland Buntings. We joined the line and it wasn’t long before we spotted one creeping around in the grass in front of us. Helpfully then it stopped and perched up on a small ridge of bare earth. It preened itself briefly and then started singing. This is a rare treat, to hear Lapland Buntings singing in the UK. The song itself is not really anything to write home about though!

It was not a great view of the Lapland Bunting in the grass, but thankfully one then flew out and landed on the path right in front of us, giving us amazing views. The local photographers have been liberally sprinkling seed around the area and the Lapland Buntings have been happily taking advantage. Even though they are normally rather skulking birds, they can be very tame and certainly these do not seem concerned unless people get too close.

IMG_0925Lapland Bunting – we had some great views of them today

We stayed a while and watched the comings and goings of the Lapland Buntings. There were at least 8 here today. Some of the males are rapidly developing their summer plumage now – their faces are going increasingly black. One male in particular was singing continually from behind us, out on the edge of a large puddle.

IMG_0845Lapland Bunting – a couple of the males were singing

IMG_0902Lapland Bunting – some of the males are now getting very black faces

IMG_0828Lapland Bunting – the females are more subtly coloured

There were other birds taking advantage of the seed and we had great views of Skylarks and Reed Buntings coming down in front of us too. Unfortunately, a Jack Snipe was less accommodating. It flew up from the long grass and disappeared over the seawall and down the other side, before anyone could really get onto it. A Stonechat perched up more distantly on a post and a male Marsh Harrier started displaying high in the sky above the reedbed.

IMG_0867Skylark – also coming down to the seed

With such a clear day, we had hoped there might be some more obvious signs of visible migration, early birds on the move along the coast. But the only two birds we saw which appeared to be migrants were two Pied Wagtails which flew in along the line of the seawall and continued on west without stopping. Perhaps the lingering chill in the air was just enough to keep a lid on things.

Eventually we decided to tear ourselves from the Lapland Buntings and move on. Out in the harbour, the tide had started to go out. There were more waders now out on the mud, a scattering of Knot and Dunlin, a few Grey Plover and some distant Bar-tailed Godwits. Some of the Brent Geese were now out on the mud too and scanning through them we found a single Pale-bellied Brent with all the regular Russian Dark-bellied Brents. A smart Lesser Black-backed Gull was standing on the muddy edge of the harbour when we got back to the car, its yellow legs glowing in the sun.

P1190207Lesser Black-backed Gull – showing off its yellow legs

It seemed like a good day to look for some early migrants. We drove round to Cley and walked along the north side of the Eye Field, but there was no sign of the hoped for early Wheatear, just Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and a flock of Starlings feeding out on the grass. A quick look at the sea as we walked back produced a handful of birds moving – a Knot, 2 Dunlin, 3 Brent Geese and a distant Red-throated Diver, all flying W. A quick look at Salthouse failed to locate any obvious migrants either.

A tip-off about a Little Ringed Plover saw us walking out along the East Bank next. There were lots of Lapwings and Redshanks out on the wet grazing marshes below. Both breed here and the Lapwings are displaying now. Further along, on the Serpentine, we found several Ruff – a group of three included one white-headed male, another male with a regular dappled grey-brown head, and a smaller female (a Reeve).

IMG_0979Ruff – a white-headed male on the Serpentine

It took a careful scan to find a Little Ringed Plover – it was further over, well camouflaged with its back to us on the mud at the back. While we were watching it, a second Little Ringed Plover appeared with it. It was hard to see their yellow eye-rings from this distance, but they are smaller and more elongated in the rear than Ringed Plovers, with a longer, dark bill. At the other end of the same pool, we then found a third Little Ringed Plover – there has obviously been a big arrival of them in recent days, as they are only summer visitors here. A pair of Pintail upending on the Serpentine were a nice addition to the day’s list.

IMG_0997Pintail – a pair were still on the Serpentine

Further along, at Arnold’s Marsh, there were lots more waders. A good number of Avocets are feeding out here at the moment, along with plenty of Dunlin and the usual selection of Oystercatchers, Redshank and Curlew. On one of the stony spits we found a couple of Ringed Plovers – despite the heat haze, we could see their shorter black-tipped orange bills. A flock of Linnets was down at the front on the saltmarsh.

There were several Marsh Harriers over the reeds on Pope’s Marsh and one perched in the top of a bush out in the main Cley reedbed. Scanning the ridge inland, we could see lots of Common Buzzards circling up. One which drifted towards us over the grazing marshes looked like a candidate for a possible migrants, until it folded its wings back and dropped sharply into North Foreland wood. Then it was time to head back for lunch.

In the afternoon we drove over to Holkham. This was not without an amount of trepidation, as the car park can get extremely busy on a sunny bank holiday, and so it proved as Lady Anne’s Drive was packed. Thankfully our gamble that some people would be leaving now was also correct and we managed to find a space not too far from the trees. A quick scan of the grazing marshes either side produced a small group of Pink-footed Geese. The vast majority of the birds which spent the winter here left in February, but small numbers linger in the area for a while longer, so we took advantage to get a good look at them in the scope. A Red Kite circled over the grass just in front of us.

The vast majority of people were just walking straight out to the beach and back, but we turned west along the path on the inland side of the pines, which was much quieter. We hadn’t gone too far before we heard a Chiffchaff singing from the trees. Some overwinter here, but this was most likely a returning summer migrant. Chiffchaff is generally the first migrant warbler to hear singing, a real sign that spring is just around the corner. A Jay perched in a tree nearby seemed to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine.

P1190220Jay – enjoying the afternoon sunshine

We stopped to have a look at Salts Hole. A raft of ducks out on the water consisted of no less than 17 Tufted Duck, plus a couple of Wigeon. Nearby, a couple of Little Grebes were diving continually. Six Common Buzzards circled high over the trees, calling, but were most likely just the local birds enjoying the warmth in the air.

P1190226Goldcrest – lots were feeding in the Holm Oaks along the path

Just past Salts Hole, the Holm Oaks alive were alive with Goldcrests. The trees here were in full sun, out of the wind, and we could see lots of small insects around the leaves. The Goldcrests were having a field day, picking at the leaves or making little flycatching sorties out from the branches. We stopped to watch them and checking through them carefully we found a Firecrest which appeared briefly in the top of a pine tree. Unfortunately, it promptly disappeared out over the tops of the Holm Oaks.

We walked back a short distance to see if the Firecrest might appear the other side of the trees, and when we turned round and carried on our way, it had reappeared again where it had first been. This time, it dropped down out of the pine into the front of the Holm Oaks just in front of us, at eye level. We got fantastic views of it now, picking at the underside of the leaves and flycatching between the branches. Firecrests really are one of the most stunning little birds.

P1190280Firecrest – came out to feed in the Holm Oaks just in front of us

There were several butterflies out in the sunshine along the path too. A bright orange Comma was basking in the sunshine on the grassy bank in front of the trees and a Small Tortoiseshell was doing the same on the mud from the gate a little further along. We continued on along the path to Joe Jordan Hide.

P1190237Comma – out in the spring sunshine

There were lots of Greylag Geese loafing around on the grass from the hide. Scanning through them, we found a group of six smaller geese in amongst them. These were White-fronted Geese. There is a flock of them here all winter and although many seem to have departed, a small number seem to be lingering still. A more careful scan through the Greylags with the scope revealed there were 12 in total at first, but a few more flew in to join them later, so there were at least 20 when we left.Through the scope, we could see the white blaze around the base of their bills and their distinctive black belly bars.

Several Marsh Harriers were flying in and out of the trees or landing down in the tall grass between the hide and the pool. A Kestrel appeared and started hovering over the bank in front of us, but it seemed to lose interest quickly and flew back into the trees. It then kept dropping down onto the grass in front of the pines, picking up and eating earthworms – obviously much less effort than hovering! A Barn Owl flew out of the trees as well and started quartering the rough grass down below us. It seemed to have more luck than the Kestrel, because it dropped down to the grass and the next thing we knew it had a vole in its bill which it promptly swallowed whole.

IMG_1013Barn Owl – caught a vole down in the grass

We had heard a Mediterranean Gull calling as we walked out and from the hide we heard the same call again. Looking over to the water to the left of the hide, where there were lots of Black-headed Gulls, we could see a pair of Mediterranean Gulls flying back and forth, flashing their pure white wing tips. They landed on the water and through the scope we could see that they were two smart adults in summer plumage, sporting extensive jet black hoods.

A good number of Pheasants appear to have survived the shooting season and were feeding out on the grass. A pair of Red-legged Partridges appeared too, and started calling. They were obviously having a shout-off against their neighbours, because we could hear another Red-legged Partridge calling back from further over. By comparison, the Grey Partridges were much quieter. They could easily have been overlooked, creeping around in the grass below us, looking rather like the molehills they were in amongst, but the male stood up at one point so we could see his orange face and kidney-shaped blackish-brown belly patch. The drabber female continued to feed quietly nearby.

IMG_1027Grey Partridge – a pair were creeping around quietly on the grass

We had hoped we might see a Spoonbill here, as they have started to return after the winter (talking to one of the wardens later, up to 8 are now back). At first, all we could see in the trees were Cormorants, loafing around on their guano-stained  nests. Then a Spoonbill flew up, but all too briefly as it disappeared again before anyone could get onto it. We waited patiently and even when a Marsh Harrier flew low into the trees, it just managed to flush eight Little Egrets out from exactly where the Spoonbill had landed. Finally a Spoonbill gave itself up properly, flying up out of the trees and circling round in full view of everyone before it dropped back in. That was a nice note to end on, so we walked back slowly in the sunshine to the car.

22nd March 2016 – Bright in the Brecks

Back to the Brecks again today. It looked like it would be a glorious day, as it dawned bright & clear, with lovely blue skies. Great weather to be exploring the Brecks.

P1190145Santon Downham – the river in early morning sunshine

We started with a walk along the river at Santon Downham. From the bridge, we could see a pair of Grey Wagtails picking along the edge of a small patch of exposed stony mud down along the bank. As we walked down the steps, a Kingfisher called but we didn’t see it – presumably it had flown off the other way from under the bridge as we approached.

One of the local Starlings was singing outside a nest hole – with a very commendable impression of Lapwing thrown in to the mix. A Treecreeper was calling from high up in the poplars nearby. A pair of Siskins flew up from the edge of the ditch on the other side of the path and started feeding in the alder overhanging the river. We could hear several Siskins singing as we walked along, and saw more pairs zooming in and out through the treetops as they like to do at this time of year.

P1190154Siskin – a pair were feeding in the trees beside the river

As we walked down beside the river, we could hear Mandarin Ducks calling from the trees on the other side. They were obviously on the move, with the sound going back and forth behind the alders until they circled out of the trees and flew upstream along the river above us.

A Green Woodpecker was calling from the Suffolk side of the river as we walked out. Eventually it flew across to our side, landing briefly in the poplars before disappearing off back over the railway. There was a surprising lack of Great Spotted Woodpecker activity here today – there is normally no shortage of them here. Eventually one called and flew cross the river. Those were all the woodpeckers we managed here this morning, but we didn’t stay long. The air was now warming nicely and we had somewhere else we wanted to be this morning.

We drove on into the Forest and parked up by a suitable ride. The walk out through the commercial plantations was fairly quiet, apart from a few tits, especially Coal Tits, several of which were singing, and Goldcrests. A pair of Treecreepers were exploring the bark of a large old oak tree beside the path.

When we got to a small clearing, we could hear a Woodlark singing. A quick scan and we found it down on the ground on the path along the other side. It perched up on the fence briefly before flying down out of view, followed by a second Woodlark. We were just wondering whether to walk down to try to get a better look, when another Woodlark appeared in the top of a small fir tree much closer to us and started singing quietly. This one we got in the scope and had a much better look at.

IMG_0689Woodlark – perched in the top of a fir tree, singing

Further on, as we arrived in the main clearing, a dark male Pheasant, glossy bluish-purple and green, ran off into the trees. These so called ‘tenebrosus’ variant Pheasants are released in large numbers for shooting on some estates, which select different captive-bred forms based on their flight characteristics, but this is the first time we have seen one deep in the Forest.

We had not got much further, when we stopped to scan the trees and found two Common Buzzards circling up in the distance. Then one of the group spotted a different raptor circling nearby, very pale white below and silvery grey above as it caught the light, a Goshawk. It drifted over towards the Buzzards and started to circle with them, then as it climbed above them it had a couple of short stoops towards the Buzzards, pulling up just above them, as if warning them to be careful where they wandered!

After gaining a bit of height, the Goshawk started to glide away from them towards the other side of the clearing, where it clearly found another thermal as it started to gain height rapidly. It was very hard to keep track of against a clear blue sky, with no points of reference. It was getting closer but going much higher when we eventually lost sight of it high above us.

We walked round to the middle of the clearing, from where we could get a better all-round view. A Woodlark flew up from beside the path and circled round behind us, landing briefly on one of the fence posts nearby. There were several Woodlarks around here as usual, but they were rather slow to get going today. We could hear them calling and see the odd bird or pair flying back and forth, but it was comparatively late in the morning before they started to sing and songflight. Woodlarks are very early to return to their breeding sites in the spring and it is likely that some of them are already well established here. The Skylarks were rather more vocal in comparison.

We waited a while to see if the Goshawks would perform again. Despite the bright day and the warmth in the air, even the Common Buzzards were a little restrained today. There were several little groups of three or so we could see circling above the trees. Eventually, another Goshawk appeared over the trees, but it only circled up for a minute or so before folding its wings and dropping sharply back into cover. A Sparrowhawk circled up as well nearby, noticeably smaller and darker, with more rapid bursts of wingbeats and tighter circles as it spiralled up.

There were a lot of things we wanted to do today so, with our main target seen, we decided to move on. On the way back through the trees, one of the group saw a bird fly up from the ground along one of the side tracks. It perched on the branch of a pine tree over the path, half hidden amongst the needles, watching us and waiting for us to go past. It was a Grey Wagtail, a very odd bird to see in the middle of the Forest, more at home by the river as we had seen them earlier. It wanted to drop back down to the puddles in the ruts in the path, but was reluctant to do so while we were there. Presumably it was a migrant which had stopped off to feed here.

IMG_0702Grey Wagtail – surprised feeding by a puddle in the middle of the Forest

Our next stop was at Grimes Graves. The Great Grey Shrike was easy enough to find, in its usual clearing. Perched right on top of the bushes and small trees it really stood out, a bright white bird catching the sun. There was a surprising amount of heat haze here today and the Great Grey Shrike was a bit distant at first. We watched it repeatedly dropping down to the ground from its high perch, before flying up to the top of a different bush. Eventually it worked its way a little closer to us. There was a little bit of cloud in the sky now too, and when the sun went in the haze dropped sufficiently for us to get a better look at it.

Great Grey ShrikeGreat Grey Shrike – a recent photo of it here

While we were watching the Great Grey Shrike, we heard the distinctive ‘glip, glip, glip’ calls of Crossbills. Unfortunately we couldn’t see them – and no sooner had we heard them than the sound disappeared over the trees behind us. Time was getting on now, so we headed off and round to Santon Downham for a late lunch.

After lunch, we walked up to the churchyard. As we were making our way up the road, we could hear Firecrest calling in the trees and then it broke into a quick burst of song, despite the fact that it was getting increasingly cloudy now. We cut in along a path and could see it flitting around. It perched in full view for a second, but it was hard for everyone to get onto it, before it disappeared further in. We followed it back out and onto the sunny edge by the road, but it had climbed back up into the tops of the trees now, where we could see it flicking in and out, occasionally doing little sallies into the air after small flies, but it was not ideal viewing. Then we heard the distinctive call of an F16 approaching and two jets came low overhead on their way towards USAF Lakenheath.

The Firecrest went quiet and disappeared into the trees for a minute or so, before we heard it singing again further up the road and back deeper in the trees. We chased after it and this time caught it feeding only about five metres up in the ivy round the trunk of a fir. Now we had great views of it, singing and calling but feeding all the time, picking at the leaves or making little flycatching flights, working its way up and down the tree. We could see its bright yellow crown stripe, its black and white-striped face which is the main distinguishing feature from the similar Goldcrest, as well as its brighter, cleaner white underparts and bronzey-gold patch on the sides of the neck. Firecrests are really stunning little birds!

FirecrestFirecrest – a photo from last year of one in the Brecks

Our last stop of the day was at Lynford. We made our way down along the track and stopped briefly by the feeders. There was not much food out today, but a steady stream of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits were attaching the fat balls, which are all but gone already. Amazing how quickly they have got through them! There were a few Chaffinches on the ground but still no real sign of the Hawfinches coming in here this year. We didn’t linger here long, but did stop a little further along to admire a smart male Bullfinch which was feeding on the buds of the bushes nearby. It perched in full view for a few seconds, but then retreated deeper into the vegetation when the cameras came out, where we could still just see it feeding amongst the branches and blossom.

P1190165Blue Tits & Coal Tit – the fat balls are almost gone already!

Down at the bridge, the food delivery for the day was just arriving – a selection of biscuit crumbs and seed mix was being liberally sprinkled about the posts and pillars. We carried straight on towards the paddocks and were surprised to see a line of cars beside the path. A tractor and trailer were nearby laden with fenceposts and we could see a gang of people working around the small overgrown wet grass area on the other side of the path from the paddocks. Needless to say, there was a huge amount of noise – knocking posts in, chainsawing the posts, then the tractor started up – we could barely hear ourselves think!

Above all the racket, we could just about hear a Hawfinch calling from the trees in the paddocks. We just managed to get it in the scope before it flew off towards the trees. We thought we could still hear another Hawfinch calling from the hornbeams, but it was impossible to work out where the sound was coming from with all the din behind us. There was a Hawfinch distantly in the trees behind, and we did get that one in the scope and get a better look at its huge nutcracker of a bill. It was slightly silhouetted against the light, so we decided to head round the other side where the light would be better, but there was no sign of it when we got there. We watched and waited for a while – we could hear Hawfinches calling at first and two flew across between the trees, but then it all went quiet. We decided to walk back to the side of the paddocks to see if they had gone back there to feed again.

IMG_0719Kestrel – in the trees and on the wires round the paddocks as usual

Even though it was now much quieter, as the working party had now abandoned the fence posts and gone, there was no sign of the Hawfinches back in the hornbeams. We waited a while to see if they might be feeding down below, but we could neither see nor hear them here. There were a few other birds around. The usual Kestrel was on the wires and in the trees. A smart Mistle Thrush perched up in the top of one of the hornbeams and a Song Thrush was singing nearby. Several Redwings also flew up from the grass and landed in the bushes. A pair of Jays flew in and one perched up nicely for us.

IMG_0737Jay – a pair flew in to the trees in the paddocks

We decided to make our way back to the bridge, where a variety of birds were now coming in to enjoy the food put out for them. We had particularly nice views of a Marsh Tit which landed on the bridge close to us. The smart male Reed Bunting was back down on the food today – obviously the latest menu was more to its liking! We could hear the Little Grebes calling from the lake and see two of them diving for food out on the water. Then it was time to call it a day and head back.

 

21st March 2016 -Broads Bound

A Private Tour today in the Norfolk Broads. Although many of the wintering birds have now departed, and the summer breeders have yet to arrive, there are still plenty of things to see on a day out in the Broads, and some fantastic scenery to enjoy.

P1190024Peacock – greeting your arrival at NWT Hickling Broad

Our first stop of the day was the NWT reserve at Hickling Broad, once we had negotiated our way past the Peacock on the entrance track.! We met in the car park and set off down the track behind the visitor centre. There were a few geese on the grazing meadows, Greylags and Canada Geese, with a pair of Tufted Duck on the water and a lone female Pochard standing on the bank nearby. We were just scanning the reedbed when we heard a Common Crane call and turned round to see two flying towards us from the direction of the Broad.

P1190028Common Crane – two flew overhead this morning

It was as if they felt the need to announce their imminent arrival to us, as they did not call again once we had seen them. The two Cranes flew slowly past, head and legs outstretched fore and aft, and disappeared off towards Stubb Mill. It was a great way to start the day.

As we approached Bittern Hide we could hear Marsh Harriers calling. We had already seen several on the way there, and we sat in the hide and watched more of them flying back and forth over the reeds. A pair at the back engaged in a short bout of talon-grappling. There didn’t seem to be much else in front of the hide at first, but when a Common Snipe dropped into the cut reeds along the side, a closer look revealed a Water Pipit creeping back into the vegetation.

At first, we could just make it out through the scope. It was preening and it had its back to us. But then the Water Pipit walked back to the water’s edge and came out into full view. At this point we could see that it was moulting into summer plumage, mostly now lacking streaking on its underparts and with a delicate pink flush across its breast instead. It picked around on the little patches of exposed mud for a couple of minutes before something spooked it. As it flew off calling, a second Water Pipit came up from the cut reeds to follow it.

IMG_0594Water Pipit – moulting into summer plumage

IMG_0551Water Pipit – its breast now mostly unstreaked and washed with pink

We took our leave and continued on, round towards the edge of the Broad. A male Marsh Harrier was calling high overhead and we watched it start to display, tumbling and swooping, gradually losing height until it dropped down into the reeds. A second Marsh Harrier, a young male, started to display nearby and the next thing we knew three were circling up together calling. The sun had just broken through the clouds and there as a bit of warmth in the air, just enough to get them all going.

Hickling Broad itself appeared fairly quiet at first, but we stopped at the screen for a closer look. A small group of Common Pochard were preening along the edge of the reeds, including three smart drakes. Further out, a Great Crested Grebe was swimming in amongst a small group of Coot. We were just looking at the Grebe when we spotted a different duck further back still and through the scope we could see it was a Common Scoter. More normally found out on the sea, this was a bit of a surprise out here but they do occasionally wander inland.

We made our way back round to the car park and drove on. Just out of the village, we heard Redwings call as they flew out of the hedge beside the road. A little further on, we could see into the field beyond and the short-cropped grass eaten down by the sheep was covered in Redwings and Fieldfares. There have been good numbers of Fieldfares particularly around here all winter, but our winter thrushes are now getting ready to fly back to the continent and feeding up near the coast.

The drive around the coast road south from Sea Palling was rather quiet today. Gone are most of the winter geese, though we did manage to find a couple of Pink-footed Geese still. One of them looked to be injured, with a drooping wing, which might explain why it was still here. There was still some standing water in the fields the other side and a little flock of Dunlin was flying round between the patches of exposed mud. The Golden Plover further over were hunkered down and looked to all intents and purposes like clods of earth themselves. We meandered our way round, with no sign of more Cranes in any of the fields where we have seen regularly them over the winter.

Our next destination was Filby Broad. We had just walked across the road to start scanning the open water when we noticed a large bird fly up across the road ahead of us. This was then followed by a second and then a third. They were White Storks and normally the sight of three White Storks circling up into the sky would be a source of much excitement. However, these are free flying birds from a local wildfowl collection which are often seen around the area here.

P1190060White Stork – a free flying bird from the local wildfowl collection

We turned our attention back to the Broad and started to scan the water from the boardwalk. There were quite a few Tufted Duck and a handful of Goldeneye out on the water, as well as lots of gulls and Coots. Working our way through them all methodically, we managed to find the Red-necked Grebe which has been here now for some time. It was a long way over, but through the scope we could see that it was starting to come into summer plumage, looking very bright now with white cheeks and a rusty red foreneck and breast.

IMG_0618Red-necked Grebe – looking smart in summer plumage, though rather distant

The Great Crested Grebes were much more obliging. There were several pairs out on the Broad and one swam right past in front of us. They too are looking stunning in their summer plumage now. A Kingfisher kept zooming back and forth from one edge of the Broad to the other, flashing electric blue as it went.

IMG_0637Great Crested Grebe – there are always lots on the Broads

With our key target here achieved, we made our way on to Strumpshaw Fen next. There are not so many ducks on the pool in front of Reception Hide now, although still a nice selection of Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler.

P1190070Shoveler – a nice selection of ducks was visible from Reception Hide

By this stage of the day, the cloud had thickened again and it was rather cool and grey. As a consequence, the walk out to Fen Hide was rather quiet. We did hear a Water Rail squeal from the reeds and several Cetti’s Warblers shouting at each other. There has been a Jack Snipe seen from the hide on and off in recent weeks and we had hoped we might be able to find it today. It was not to be and all we could locate here were two Common Snipe instead.

IMG_0647Common Snipe – two were hiding in the reeds in front of Fen Hide

There are so many places for Snipe of any variety to hide here, and even the two which were initially in view eventually flew off and dropped back into the reeds out of sight. Two Coot decided to have a fight out on the water, leaning back and flapping their feet at each other, with two others in close attendance. A Chinese Water Deer was picking quietly around at the edge of the reeds.

We decided to carry on down to the river bank and make our way along to Tower Hide. There has been a Penduline Tit around the reserve for almost a month now, but it seems to have been seen or even just heard on only 3-4 occasions in all that time. It had been reported again early this morning, but had apparently flown over the river at that point. We scanned the heads of reedmace around the edges of the reedbed as we walked along, but we didn’t hold out much hope of coming across it given the history of its appearances.

We were almost at Tower Hide and had pretty much given up when we heard the Penduline Tit call twice, a rather thin, drawn out ‘tseeeu’. Unfortunately we were in just the spot where the trees are thickest between the path and the reeds and we simply couldn’t see through to where the call was coming from. It seemed to have stopped calling now, but we made our way the short distance further to Tower Hide and from the end window there we could look back across the reeds the other side of the trees. There was lots of reedmace down there, but no sign of the Penduline Tit. We waited a while to see if it might reappear, entertained by the local Marsh Harriers displaying over the reeds, but there was no further sight or sound of it.

As we walked back along the river bank, a Treecreeper flew past us and started working its way up the trunk of a nearby tree. There had been a few Chiffchaffs singing this morning apparently, although they had gone quiet now, but we found one feeding in the top of a willow. As we made our way back along Sandy Wall, a Marsh Tit was singing on the edge of the wood and we saw it flitting around in an oak.

We still had one more place we wanted to visit. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard around Haddiscoe Island over the winter and it had been reported again in the last couple of days. We drove round to one of the places from which it is possible to look over the site and we were just getting into position when we spotted a bird flying away from us, low over the grass, flashing a white tail – the Rough-legged Buzzard. It perched briefly on a gatepost, before flying off even further and disappearing out of view.

IMG_0650Rough-legged Buzzard – perched briefly on a gatepost

We walked round to where we could get a different angle across the grazing marshes. There were several Common Buzzards of various shades in view, on gateposts or standing around on the ground. One in particular was strikingly white underneath. Everywhere we looked there were also Chinese Water Deer out on the grass.

We had hoped we might get another look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, but just when we least expected it it flew back in across the grass in front of us, landing briefly on another post behind the reeds. When it took off again, it started to hover, flashing its mostly white tail with a couple of black bands towards the tip. It hung there in the air for ages, allowing us to get a great look at it, before it turned and flew back out to the gatepost it had been on earlier.

P1190140Rough-legged Buzzard – hovered close by, flashing its mostly white tail

There several enormous flocks of Starlings out in the grass – we could see them occasionally fly up and move across. At one point a male Marsh Harrier had a go at them, dipping down into the group and scattering them, before flying off. The Starlings all immediately resumed what they had been doing. Then suddenly they all took to the air and the flock started to make amazing shifting shapes as they twisted and turned. A few seconds later and we could see why as a Peregrine stooped down through the murmuration, splitting it instantaneously into two.

The Peregrine turned and climbed through the flock before stooping again. This time a single Starling stupidly split off and started flying towards us. The Peregrine set off after it and was immediately joined by a Marsh Harrier, the two of them taking turns to have a go at the poor Starling. It looked like it was certainly a goner until it dropped sharply into a small patch of reeds. The Peregrine immediately lost interest, but the Marsh Harrier tried a couple of times to continue the chase, dropping down as if it was going to land into the reeds.

P1190090Starlings – pursued by Peregrine (at bottom of flock here)

The flocks of Starlings had now disappeared and the Peregrine landed on a gatepost out in the grass where it perched looking round for several minutes. Then it took off and flew away from us, climbing high up, over towards Breydon Water. It had gone some way before we could see why, as the Starling murmuration appeared again from behind a bank, way off in the distance. The Peregrine began a shallow dive, powering down hard, towards the Starlings again, scything through the flock once more.

We watched the Peregrine for a while, attacking first one flock. Then, when it had scattered, flying up high and back across to find another group to stoop at. It was great stuff, all action, even if the Peregrine did look as if it wasn’t going to get any supper. Eventually we lost sight of it and a look at the time confirmed we would have to call it a day. Still it was a great way to end.

19th March 2015 – Fen & Forest

A Private Tour today down in the Brecks. We wanted to visit a couple of different areas today, with a trip across into the Fens as well as some birding around the Forest. The forecast was for it to be grey and cold all day, but at least we avoided any rain and even saw some brief sunny intervals.

Our first stop was at Lakenheath Fen. As usual there was a lot of activity around the feeders, with a steady stream of tits and finches, mainly Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a couple of Greenfinches, and there were plenty of Reed Buntings in the bushes and reeds as well. We could hear Siskins and Redpolls calling, seemingly coming from the alders further along the path, but the latter had gone quiet by the time we got there and we only saw the Siskins as they flew off back towards the trees by the car park.

Reed BuntingReed Bunting – regular on the feeders at Lakenheath, here’s a recent photo

It was cold and windy up on the river bank at the Washland Viewpoint, and there is still a lot of water on Hockwold Washes. There was a good selection of wildfowl on view – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler – and a gang of Tufted Duck on the river. We could see several Little Egrets, but no sign of the Great White Egret on here today. We had quite a lot of ground to cover if we wanted to explore the whole of the reserve this morning, so we didn’t linger too long and set off back round to the main path.

Out at the New Fen Viewpoint, the newly opened out areas of open water and cut reed look very promising, but on our first scan we couldn’t see much around the pools, a few duck, several Coot and a pair of sleeping Canada Geese. However, our attention was drawn to a very smart male Marsh Harrier hanging over the reeds further back, calling. We could see his pale silvery grey and black wingtips, and pale head and breast contrasting with rufous belly underneath. A female Marsh Harrier appeared from the reeds and started to circle below him, slightly larger than the male. The two then proceeded to mock talon grapple, the male dropping repeatedly towards the female, who would then turn upside down and raise her talons, classic Marsh Harrier display activity and great to watch. Spring is in the air and the breeding season is now upon us!

Another scan across the fen revealed a head come up out of the reeds. It had to be a tall bird and indeed it was – a Common Crane. We got it in the scope and had a great view – the black face and foreneck contrasting with white neck sides and the bright red patch on the top of the head. The bird kept bending down to feed, then stretching up again to look around.

IMG_0309Common Crane – a head appeared above the reeds

While we watched, a second head then appeared next to it, slightly smaller, not as tall as the first. They were a pair of Common Cranes, the smaller bird being the female. They were obviously in a small clearing in the reeds and made their way slowly across, briefly passing across behind a thin line of lower reeds where we could see more of them, before disappearing out of view again.

IMG_0315Common Cranes – a pair in the reeds together

That was a great start, so we continued out across the reserve to see what else we could find. There were lots of Cetti’s Warblers singing unseen from deep within the reeds, and plenty of Reed Buntings calling, but it is still a month or so yet before the reedbeds will come alive with the songs of the returning Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers. As we walked down towards the West Wood, we could hear Bearded Tits calling though. A male appeared briefly in the top of the reeds, but it was hard to pick up amongst all the seed heads blowing in the breeze and dropped down again all too quickly before we could get the scope onto it.

A Kingfisher was perched in the reeds across the pool in front of Mere Hide when we arrived. The glass windows are a bit dirty at the moment, with lots of greasy fingerprints, and when we tried to ease one open very quietly it unfortunately flew off round the corner out of view. However, we were glad we had the window open a few seconds later as it meant we had a great view of a cracking male Bearded Tit which flew across the water right below us.

As we approached the Joist Fen Viewpoint, we heard what sounded like a single boom from a Bittern. We stopped to see if we could hear it again, but annoyingly it had gone quiet again. We continued to listen from up at the viewpoint. Looking out across Joist Fen, there were several more Marsh Harriers circling over the reeds and a Cormorant standing on the tall post. We had a look in the paddock for any Cranes but all we could see in there today was a few Greylag Geese.

We turned round to scan the reeds behind again, just in time to see two enormous birds flying round the back of West Wood over the river. Two Common Cranes, perhaps the same two we had seen earlier on New Fen? Even better, they then turned slightly and headed straight for us, flying over the Viewpoint and almost over our heads! We had stunning views as they flew towards us in one of the rare moments of sunshine.

P1180992Common Crane – this pair flew over Joist Fen Viewpoint…

P1180995Common Crane – they came almost overhead at one point…

P1190012Common Crane – before dropping down into the reeds beyond

From there, we decided to have a quick look round from up on the river bank. The first white shape we looked at was a Mute Swan, but a second one further along was a Great White Egret. It was rather distant, and there was no real desire to walk further along for a better view, but through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill when it stopped preening and raised its head briefly.

IMG_0338Great White Egret – visible distantly from the river bank

A Little Egret nearby was much more obliging, posing for photos before flying off over the bank the other side, where another three Little Egrets were seen flying around.

IMG_0331Little Egret – much more obliging!

That all made for a very successful early season look round the reserve this morning, particularly on such a grey day, so we made our way back to the Visitor Centre. Lakenheath Fen is a large reserve and it takes a bit of time to explore, so the morning was already all but gone by the time we headed off into the Forest.

The walk down one of the rides through the commercial pine plantations was fairly quiet as usual, until we were almost at the clearing. Then the distinctive ‘glip, glip’ call of Common Crossbills echoed through the trees. We had a scan of the sky above the ride ahead, but they obviously didn’t come our way and we couldn’t see them through the trees.

It was rather cold and exposed out in the clearing, and there was not much activity at first. A couple of Mistle Thrushes flew off as we arrived and a pair of Skylarks flew across and landed not far from us. We made our way across to the other side and could hear Woodlarks calling. One fluttered up across the back of the clearing briefly, singing rather half-heartedly  – and it seemed like that would be the sum total of their performance today. Fortunately, as we walked back round, another Woodlark flew up and perched on a post where we could get it in the scope and have a better look at its key distinguishing features. At that point, we heard the ‘glip, glip’ of Crossbills again and this time we saw them come flying across, over our heads and away over the trees beside us.

WoodlarkWoodlark – one perched on a post today, just like this recent photo

The raptors were rather subdued today, in the cold and grey weather, but we did see six Common Buzzards circle up over the trees at one point. It was not ideal weather for Goshawks, and with a lot to pack in today we decided not to wait here long. As we made our way back via a different route, we flushed another two pairs of Woodlarks from beside the path. One pair landed in a small clearing nearby, where we could see them creeping through the grass.

IMG_0347Woodlark – one of two pairs by the path on our way back

Our next destination was Grime’s Graves and the Great Grey Shrike was obligingly on view as usual, as soon as we arrived. It was a little distant at first, but easy to pick up. Even though rather small, a little shorter in length than a Blackbird and slighter in build, it really stood out as a bright white dot perched high in the top of a small bare tree. Through the scope, we could see more detail – the black bandit mask and black wings contrasting with the very pale silvery grey upperparts and bright white underneath.

The Great Grey Shrike flew across to the top of another taller tree and then seemed disinclined to do very much. It remained perched there for ages, looking round, not flying down to the ground repeatedly, looking for food, as it normally does. Having seen it so quickly, and not bad views through the scope, we decided we would move on. However, as we walked back it suddenly became more active again and started flying around between the bushes. It even had the decency to come much closer to us, and we had great views of it now from the path.

IMG_0387Great Grey Shrike – showed very well again, in the end

We drove round to Lynford Arboretum and walked out along the track, stopping by the gate to look at the feeders. Lots of seed was spread on the ground today, and the birds were mostly feeding on this rather than the fat balls. A steady stream of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits dropped down to forage in the leaves. There were plenty of Chaffinches but there has still been next to no sign of the Hawfinches using this area, so we didn’t stop here too long. We had a quick walk around the arboretum. There were several Goldcrests singing in the fir trees but very little else in here this afternoon. Down at the bridge, there was no food put out today so activity here was rather more limited than usual. However, a Marsh Tit appeared right in front of us, which was a nice addition to the day’s list.

Marsh TitMarsh Tit – one was by the bridge today, this photo from last year here

At this point we heard the news that 10 Hawfinches had been seen a little earlier around the paddocks, so we made our way down there to see if we could see them. There have been small numbers feeding in the paddocks on and off all winter, but generally no more than 3-4 (and sometimes just a single female), so this would be a very good number for here this year. It is not so long ago that it was possible to see 30+ Hawfinches here, but this is a species that has been declining everywhere, including at strongholds such as this.

As soon as we arrived we could hear Hawfinches calling, and we were just in time to see them all fly up from beneath the trees. Several small groups flew round in different directions, and we watched as one party of four flew off high away from us and disappeared into the distance. Thankfully others remained in the trees around the paddocks, or in the tops of the trees in the distance beyond, and we could hear Hawfinches calling everywhere, and see birds flitting around in the hornbeams or flying back and forth. At one point we managed to count nine in view at the same time, so assuming the four had not returned unseen that would imply at least thirteen.

Three Hawfinches flew across from one of the hornbeams to the trees by the lake, so we walked along to try to get a closer look at them. We could hear them calling, but unfortunately just at that moment a jogger came along the track towards us and we didn’t see which way they went. As we walked back to look in the paddocks again, six Hawfinches flew out in a group – but we couldn’t tell if the earlier three had flown back in to join them or not. They circled round and landed in the tops of the trees by the bridge. At the same time, at least one bird was still in the treetops beyond. It was great to see and hear so many around here today, but it was hard to know just how many there were, there was so much activity!

IMG_0465Hawfinch – a bright male

We walked down alongside the paddocks and a single Hawfinch was still calling from deep in the trees. As we stood a while, more started to fly back in and this time several perched up for a while in full view. We got them in the scope and got fantastic views of them now, both bright males and slightly duller brown females with less extensive black face masks around their still very hefty bills.

IMG_0419Hawfinch – a slightly duller brown female

In between all the Hawfinch excitement, we found a little time to look at some of the other birds here. The Little Grebes were cackling away as usual on the lake. The Kestrel was flying around the paddocks, perching up on the wires again. A flock of Redwings flew up from the damp edge of the paddocks to perch up in the alders by the lake. We had a walk round to the end of the paddocks, and it was getting late in the afternoon now. With a long drive home ahead, we had a request to call it a day, so made our way back to the car park.

However, we were still not completely finished. On our way back over the bridge, we could hear a Hawfinch calling and looked up to see one perched in up in the trees beside the lake. We couldn’t resist a final look at it in the scope, before it flew off back across the paddocks. A great way to end the day, after such a fantastic Hawfinch performance.

IMG_0500Hawfinch – bidding us farewell, as we walked back to the car

17th March 2016 – Spring in the Brecks

A private tour to the Brecks today. It was another slightly foggy start, but thankfully the fog was burning off already by the time we met up, and it looked like it was going to be a beautifully bright and sunny day.

Our first stop was down by the river at St Helens. Although the sun was shining now, it was still a little cool in the valley and it seemed like the birds were a little slow to get going. We walked along the river bank towards Santon Downham and there was no sign of any Grey Wagtails here at first. The Siskins were not singing or displaying this morning, but several were still buzzing round the tops of the alders with a little group of Goldfinches. However, it would have been hard to hear anything singing at first, with the roar of a succession of USAF jets from Lakenheath airbase taking off and flying off low overhead.

Between the noise of the jets, two Marsh Tits were singing against each other, one on either side of the river bank. We stopped to look at the one on our side, picking at the bark of one of the tree it was in between bursts of song. Further along, a pair of Treecreepers appeared in one of the poplars beside the path – one ascending on each side of the trunk! We could hear Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Green Woodpecker called from the trees on the Suffolk side, but those were the only woodpeckers we could find along here this morning.

IMG_0199Gtey Wagtail – singing on the footbridge

As we walked back towards the footbridge, a Grey Wagtail flew up and landed on the handrail. We had a great look at it for a few seconds as it stood there singing, before it dropped down to the slipway just beyond. As we walked up onto the bridge, a second Grey Wagtail appeared and the two flew off upstream together. A pair of Pied Wagtails were around the bridge too, and were even more obliging – the female perching up in a tree only a metre or so in front of us as we crossed to the other side.

We could hear the chattering of a large flock of birds in the trees just over the bridge as we walked down to the river – the large flock of Redwings that have been hanging around here for some time now are getting increasingly vocal as the weather warms up. Unfortunately, there was a lot of human activity down around the horse paddocks this morning, which meant that they were not coming down to feed here today.

With the weather warming up, we decided to move on and make our way into the forest. As we walked down the ride through the trees, we stopped to scan over a small open area and a pair of Woodlarks flew up from behind us calling. Otherwise, the walk out was rather quiet, just a few tits and Goldcrests singing from the plantations either side. As soon as we arrived in the clearing, another pair of Woodlarks flew across in front of us and landed on the other side. We made our way round, hoping to get a better look at them, but they were very hard to see down in the furrows – we got a couple of brief views in the scope. They seemed to be more focused on feeding this morning, than singing or displaying. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were much easier to see down on the ground.

The sky above us was blue, with only patchy cloud, but although it had warmed up considerably, there was still a chill in the light NE wind and some lingering haze over the trees. We took up a position where we had a good all round view of the clearing and waited for the raptors to appear. A Sparrowhawk appeared first, but disappeared straight out over the trees at the back. Slowly the Common Buzzards started to spiral up, with six circling together at one point, but perhaps even they were a little half-hearted and didn’t seem to gain much height before dropping down to into the trees again. Maybe the thermals they were looking for were slow to get going. Another Common Buzzard had a tussle with a Kestrel over the clearing in front us.

The Woodlarks finally started to get a bit more active. Two briefly landed on the fence in front of us, so we could get them in the scope quickly before they flew off again. Some were starting to sing now, and we could see one circling out over the clearing in front of us in full voice as four more flew off over the trees. The Skylarks were singing too, and it was good to contrast the joyful sounding song of the Skylark against the more mournful tones of the Woodlark. We heard Crossbills flying over as well, but unfortunately they didn’t stop.

The Goshawks kept us waiting today and then, like buses, arrived all at once! We were watching some Common Buzzards circling other the trees when a different shaped raptor appeared – its narrower wings angled down rather than raised like the Buzzards and its longer tail fanned. It was a little distant into the sun, but it climbed rapidly and effortlessly up past the clouds, with barely a flap of its wings. Trying to get everyone onto it, we realised there was a second Goshawk circling up nearby and then a third further over.

One started to head off over to the back of the clearing in a long glide – we watched it head over that way and disappear. A few minutes later, what was presumably the same Goshawk was circling up again, this time a little closer. The air was still a bit hazy, but we could see its bright white undersides and pale silvery grey upperparts alternately as it turned. Looking back, what was presumably the first Goshawk was also closer now, still circling over the trees. It looked to be several shades of grey darker on the upperparts than the one we had just been watching – probably a younger bird, most likely in its 3rd calendar year. It too turned and started a long glide across over the trees and over towards the back of the clearing before it was lost to view.

With out main target here duly achieved, we started to make our way back. We hadn’t got very far when a pair of Woodlarks flew across and landed by the path a bit further on ahead of us. Moving slowly forwards so as not to disturb them, we got quite close and had a great and more prolonged view of them this time. The male was also now doing what we had hoped he might have done earlier – he perched up on top of a small mound of earth, singing quietly and preening, while the female fed quietly in and out of the furrows nearby.

IMG_0218Woodlark – finally gave us great views as we were about to leave

We had bumped into some friends in the clearing who told us that the Great Grey Shrike was showing well at Grimes Graves this morning, so we headed round there next. It was easy enough to find – mostly pale silvery grey and white, it shone in the bright sunshine as it perched right on the top of the bushes and small trees. It was a little distant at first, but as we stood and waited in the trees it gradually worked its way a little closer, flying down to the ground and back up to the top of a different bush.

IMG_0268Great Grey Shrike – came much closer to the path as we were leaving

When the Great Grey Shrike started to work its way back away from us across the clearing, we decided to take our leave, but as we walked back on the path, we found it had moved to a bush quite close to the fence – giving us great views from here.

It was lunchtime now, so we stopped at Santon Downham for a break. We were just packing up when a Treecreeper appeared in the trees behind us and proceeded to poke around in the bark low down in several of the birches in the sunshine.

P1180949Treecreeper – joined us for lunch today

Afterwards, we walked up to the churchyard. It seemed a little quiet here at first, apart from the piping of the local pair of Nuthatches and the roar of the occasional jet from Lakenheath again! We stood for a few seconds at the gate to the churchyard, where the treetops were in full sun but sheltered from the wind. We were surprised to see a small bat, probably a pipistrelle sp, flying in and out of the tops of the firs. Not what you would expect to see flying round here in the middle of a sunny day!

P1180960Bat sp – flying round the treetops in the middle of the day

We were distracted by the bat, when we heard a Firecrest singing behind us. It was up in the top of a fir tree where it made itself impossible to see, then it dropped out of the back. We followed the song for a bit and eventually it appeared in an ivy-covered tree. It came onto the outside a couple of times, briefly perching out in full sun, but you had to be quick to get onto it and not all the group could see it.

The Firecrest went quiet for a while, but we stuck with it and finally it started singing again lower down in the ivy around the trunk of a fir tree. The ivy wasn’t as thick here and down at eye level it was much easier to see. We had some great views of it as it flitted around in and out of the leaves, though you still had to be quick – Firecrests rarely stay still for long!

Our last destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. The trees were rather quiet as we walked in, but it was mid-afternoon now. A Coal Tit was singing and a few Siskins were calling from the tops. We stopped by the gate briefly – once again, there had been no sign of the Hawfinches down here, for whatever reason. There were lots of Blue Tits and a few Great Tits coming down to the fat balls, which are disappearing fast with all the activity.

P1180980Blue Tits – eating their way through the fat balls very quickly!

We walked down to the bridge, where a selection of fruit cake and brown bread had been spread on the posts today. There were lots of Chaffinches and a steady stream of Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits coming down to feed, but no sight of the Nuthatches here – they could be heard calling in the trees instead – and a comparative absence of the Marsh Tits and Reed Buntings. Today’s food didn’t seem as popular as other recent offerings!

P1180989Long-tailed Tit – coming down to the food put out on the bridge

We turned onto the path by the lake and had a scan of the ground beneath the hawthorns and hornbeam in the paddocks. It looked rather quiet under there today, although it is always hard to see birds when they are feeding on the ground here. The Little Grebes were laughing maniacally behind us, so we carried on a bit further along the path to get a look at them.

One of the Little Grebes was diving on the edge of the reeds and we were just watching it, when we heard the distinctive call of a Hawfinch. Turning back towards the bridge, we could see it perched in the top of the trees just above. A photographer on the bridge was completely oblivious, just out of earshot from us to point it out to him! We got the Hawfinch in the scope and it remained, obligingly, up in the trees in full view for a minute or two, so we could all have a very good look at it through the scope, admiring the huge nutcracker of a bill. Then it flew off over the wood away from us.

IMG_0271Hawfinch – perched up obligingly in the trees by the bridge

We continued on round the lake to see if we could find anything else around the edge there today. The pair of Mute Swans look like they are nesting already and there were several pairs of Gadwall around the lake. We stopped to admire a drake in the scope – one of the most underrated of ducks, lacking in bright colours but delightfully and subtly patterned.

IMG_0296Gadwall – a beautifully patterned drake

There was nothing else of note around the lake today, but we did find the male Reed Bunting. Eschewing the food on offer at the bridge, he was feeding down in the overgrown vegetation between the path and the paddocks. He flew up as we passed and perched in a nearby tree in the afternoon sun. The Kestrel was also moving around the wires across the paddocks again, dropping down into the grass occasionally as usual.

IMG_0306Reed Bunting – enjoying the afternoon sun by the lake

Heading back to the bridge, we made our way down the path along the edge of the paddocks. We could see a Hawfinch distantly in the tops of the trees beyond, but we were looking into the sun, so we carried on round to the far end in the hope of getting a better view. Unfortunately, by the time we got round there it had disappeared again. We waited a while in case it should come back, but all was seemingly quiet. We had already enjoyed good views of Hawfinch earlier, so we decided to head back.

We should have hung on a few more minutes, because we glanced up as we walked back down the side of the paddocks to see a Hawfinch silhouetted in the tops again. We got it in the scope and when it flew across to another tree, we could see there were actually three Hawfinches together before they dropped down out of view. As we walked on past the hornbeams, we could hear another Hawfinch calling and we saw a female briefly hopping about in the trees – so there were at least four Hawfinches here this afternoon.

Then it was back up to the car and time to call it a day. What a glorious day it had been – it really felt like spring today in the Brecks.

15th March 2016 – Misty Brecks Again

Another Brecks Tour today, and after the sunshine of the last couple of days it was back to misty and cold. Undaunted, we set off to see what we could find.

We started the day down along the river at Santon Downham. We parked at the picnic area at St Helens and walked down to the footbridge and along the footpath that runs beside the river. There were lots of Siskins in the trees here, twittering away and zooming round through the tops, rarely sitting still. We stopped to watch a male song-flighting, with circling round with fluttering wings similar to a Greenfinch. Later we managed to get another male Siskin in the scope as he perched in the very top of an alder, singing.

IMG_0008Siskin – singing in the alders by the river

There seem to be quite a few Grey Wagtails along the river here at the moment, though as they were zooming up and down the river it was hard to say how many we saw. A male was singing from up and down the banks as we walked down towards Santon Downham and a pair came up from the river and flew off the poplar plantation as we neared the road. When we got back to the footbridge, the male was singing from the bank here and was later joined by a second bird when they flew off together.

IMG_0035Grey Wagtail – there were several along the river again this morning

There were other birds here too. A few Starlings were prospecting for nest sites and singing in the poplars. A pair of Nuthatches were in the trees as well, picking off the bark from the dead branches and looking for something to eat hiding underneath. We came across several Great Spotted Woodpeckers – one was drumming away in the poplars with a second calling close by – but no other woodpeckers along the river this morning.

From the footbridge, we ventured across into Suffolk with just a short walk down to the horse paddocks. We could see a few Redwings flitting around in the tops of the trees as we crossed the river and hear a constant chattering of song. A small number were feeding down in the paddocks and as we stood and watched for a few seconds, more dropped down out of the poplars to join them. Only part of the throng had descended before they were all spooked by something and flew back up into the trees again.

As we walked back to the car, we could hear a Woodlark calling. It flew into view and circled ahead of us over the open grass for a few seconds. We hoped it might be about to land but it turned back over the trees, then away over the railway and disappeared from view.

We thought we would try for a better view of a Woodlark, so we drove round to a nearby forest ride and walked out to a small clearing. It was very quiet here, with no sign of anything, and rather cold and damp. The Woodlarks were obviously feeding elsewhere today. The second clearing we tried was more successful, and we could hear Woodlarks calling as we were walking out. As we made our way up to the fence, one flew off from grass nearby, where it had been lying low unseen.

We could still hear Woodlarks calling and three more flew up from the grass and circled over behind us. They seemed to be having a territorial dispute, as two of them seemed to be chasing each other, but one eventually peeled away. When they flew back down to land on the grass in front of us, a fourth appeared and joined the lone bird – it looked liked there were two pairs. We watched them feeding quietly down in the grass and one perched up briefly on a fence post for us. There were also several Stonechats along the fenceline, two males and a single female.

IMG_0057Woodlark – perched up for us on a fence post

There was no sign of any Goshawk today, not a great surprise given the cold and misty conditions, and we didn’t really wait to see if one appeared – the participants were getting cold too, standing in the open! On the walk back, a Woodlark started singing overhead, fluttering up high, bat-like, with broad wings and a noticeably short tail. Its slightly melancholy song accompanied us as we strolled along the path beneath. We were almost back to the car when we heard the distinctive ‘glip, glip’ call of Crossbills flying over. Unfortunately, the plantations of pines here are very thick and we could not see them through the trees before they headed off into the distance.

There had been no reports of the Great Grey Shrike this morning, but we went round to its currently favoured clearing to see if we could find it. There was no sign of it initially, as we walked out, but suddenly it appeared in the top of a small tree. It kept dropping down to the ground, before flying back up to the treetops, at one point reappearing with a beetle which it quickly devoured.

A tit flock made its way across the clearing and when it got to the tree where the shrike was perched, the birds seemed to take offence, and started a little bit of mobbing. The Great Grey Shrike eventually made itself scarce, but reappeared a little later back on top of another bush. We had good views of the shrike through the scope again today, but it was always a little more distant, possibly seeking shelter from the nagging cold breeze in the lee of the taller trees.

IMG_0109Great Grey Shrike – in its usual clearing again

We drove back round to Santon Downham for lunch and afterwards walked up the hill to the church. It was still very cool and cloudy, not great conditions for a Firecrest to be singing, but as they are starting to perform now we thought it worth a go. As we arrived at the churchyard, a Goldcrest flew down and started feeding on the low branch of a fir tree right in front of us. We got a great look at it down at this level.

P1180800Goldcrest – helpfully feeding on the low branch of a fir tree

Then we heard a Firecrest singing quietly, from high up in the trees. It sang a couple of times before the inevitable roar (here) of USAF jets flying low overhead, which drowned out everything. The Firecrest decided it couldn’t compete and went quiet. We heard it call a couple of times, and saw a shape flitting around in the firs. Then it started to sing again, a couple of short bursts before more planes came over. With such sporadic vocalisations it was hard to follow, and it was obviously keeping tucked well into the trees. As we were about to give up, it started singing again, and we could see it moving quickly through trees. Unfortunately, it was very hard for the rest of the group to get onto it, hiding high up in the pines today. It was just a bit too cold for it to really come out and show itself properly.

With the afternoon getting on, we decided we were best to concentrate our efforts elsewhere, so we drove round to Lynford Arboretum next. As we walked along the path, it seemed fairly quiet from gate. There was no seed left on the ground today and most of the feeders were empty. All the action was on the fat balls, which were still fully stocked. Lots of tits were coming and going constantly. At one point, we counted 12 Blue Tits, 2 Great Tits and a single Coal Tit all clustered on the outside of the feeder! There were also two Great Spotted Woodpeckers flying around in the trees, but once again no sign of any Hawfinches here.

P1180847Fat Balls – the tits were all clustered on the feeder

We carried on down towards the paddocks. The bridge was just being restocked with food as we walked down the hill and the birds started arriving immediately. There was a constant succession of tits, Nuthatches, Reed Buntings and Chaffinches. It was great to get such good views of all of them, including several Marsh Tits.

P1180937Nuthatch – coming down to food at the bridge

P1180901Long-tailed Tit – also taking advantage of the fresh delivery

P1180926Marsh Tit – nice to get really good views here again today

We stopped a while to watch all the activity, and for several of the group to try to get some photos. A Treecreeper appeared on the tree beside the bridge, then flew across onto the concrete plinth, before climbing its way up one of the wooden bridge posts. It seemed to know exactly what it was doing – it stuck its head tentatively above the top rail, then climbed up onto the side of the post just below the cap and started eating the crumbs from on top. That is something you don’t see every day – a Treecreeper eating cake!

P1180885Treecreeper – eating cake put out on the bridge!

After watching the feeding frenzy for a while, we carried on along the path down the side of the paddocks. We hadn’t got very far when we could hear a Hawfinch calling quietly. We scanned the trees but we couldn’t see it from here. We walked back round to the other side to try a different angle, along the path nearest the lake, but by this stage it had gone quiet again. As we stood here for a while, scanning through the trees, we did manage to pick up two very distant Hawfinches in the tops of the trees beyond. We got them in the scope and got a good look at them, before they dropped down out of view.

We turned our attention back to the trees in front of us just in time to see the first Hawfinch, the one we had heard calling, fly up from the ground below. It hopped up through the branches and into the bigger hornbeam. We could just about see it in the scope, though it was partly obscured in the thickest part of the tree in among the branches. Then it flew off across the paddocks and seemed to land in the next tree along.

We walked back round to the other side, and it took a bit of scanning before we found the Hawfinch perched in the middle of the tree, through the back. We adjusted our position so we got a better view, and could see its huge nutcracker of a bill surrounded by black with a small black bib and mask. It was a female, not as richly coloured as a male, but a very smart bird nonetheless. We watched it for about ten minutes as it sat there calling, we could see its bill moving and just hear the surprisingly quiet ‘ticking’ calls.

IMG_0148Hawfinch – perched in the paddocks calling

Eventually the Hawfinch decided to move. It hopped up to the top of the tree and the next thing we knew two more appeared with it, presumably the same two we had seen earlier in the treetops beyond. Then they were off, flying in the direction of the Arboretum and we lost sight of them behind hedge.

We walked back round to the lake, in case they had landed down by the first hornbeam again, but it seemed to be all quiet around the trees there. We carried on down the path beside lake, where the usual Kestrel was to be found on the wires and dropping down into the grass below, although once again it didn’t seem to catch anything.

IMG_0177Kestrel – on the wires across the paddocks again today

We could hear the Little Grebes on the lake, cackling like madmen, and eventually managed to find one lurking in the reeds. We had a look at it in the scope – looking very bright now, rusty around the face and with a yellowish spot on the gape – before it started swimming quickly through the reeds. There appeared to be a spat brewing, because a second Little Grebe appeared and swam off quickly round the back of the island. The first then came out of the reeds and started diving for food.

IMG_0188Little Grebe – in brighter breeding plumage now

As we started to walk back, a Kingfisher flashed across the edge of the field the other side of us, behind the trees towards the bridge, unfortunately disappearing too quickly to be picked up by most of us. Several of group had walked on ahead, when those lingering at the back were treated to brief flypast from a pair of Mandarin Ducks, which circled around the lake calling before heading back through the trees.

We stopped briefly at the bridge again to admire all the birds still coming in for the food put out there. Then we headed back to the car park to finish a very successful day, despite the rather cold and misty conditions again today. Still, spring is just around the corner!

13th March 2016 – Goodbye Fog, Hello Sun

A group tour today, once again down in the Brecks. There was thick fog this morning on the drive down, although the sun was doing its best to burn it off already in places. The Met Office had promised it would clear this morning and they are always right, aren’t they? Well, thankfully for once they were!

We met at Lynford Arboretum. We might have gone first down to the river at Santon Downham, but it is always foggiest in the river valley and latest to burn off there, so we opted for a walk around the Arboretum instead. It was still pretty foggy here first thing, but at least there were signs of brightness appearing.

P1180776A foggy arboretum – first thing this morning

As we walked into the arboretum, we could hear Nuthatches piping and Goldcrests singing. From the gate, the remains of yesterdays seed mix was still on the ground, though not much had escaped the attention of the hordes. Still, there were plenty of Great Tits, Blue Tits and Coal Tits picking around among the scraps. There were more tits on the huge cage of fat balls and several Long-tailed Tits were picking round there. Once again, there was no sign of any Hawfinches here today, and it looks like they will not be using this area to feed this year, for whatever reason.

With the fog still thick in the valley beyond, we had a walk around the top of the arboretum where the fog seemed to be slowly starting to clear. We could hear lots of Siskins calling and zooming around the tops of the trees. Eventually we caught sight of a male singing in the very top of a tall conifer. He dropped down into the fir to feed and when he reappeared on the front edge, he perched out in full view in the first rays of sunshine, his yellow underparts shining bright. Very smart.

We saw a couple of Mistle Thrushes fly through the trees calling, and as we walked back, one had started to sing. We stopped to listen to it for a second – a fluted phrase, a long pause as if deep in thought as to what to say next, and then another phrase a little different from the previous one. As we walked further round we flushed a couple of Song Thrushes from the grass which flew into cover in a low laurel hedge. As we approached, we could see them down on the ground in the vegetation. One of them then flew up and perched nicely for us in a bare tree. A Treecreeper appeared low down on one of the trees and we watched it singing as it climbed up the trunk – we could see its bill opening and closing in time to the song.

IMG_9852Song Thrush – perched up nicely for us

The fog was now starting to burn off nicely, even down to the lake, so we walked on down the hill. We could hear a Little Grebe calling, like maniacal laughter coming from the water. Round at the bridge, a pair of Reed Buntings were picking at the scraps left from yesterday’s food.

We decided to have a quick look at the paddocks. We were a bit later arriving here than ideally we would have been, due to the fog, but there was an outside chance we might still come across a Hawfinch flying in to feed with the sun now shining. There were lots of thrushes here – they are all feeding down in the grass in the paddocks at the moment. A Song Thrush was singing and a Redwing perched up nicely in the sunshine. As we stood scanning the trees, we could just hear a ticking Hawfinch, but it seemed to be coming from low down in the tangle of trees already and we just could not see,  it in there. Then it went quiet. We waited a while in case it should reappear, but there was no sign.

IMG_9854Redwing – enjoying the morning sun after the fog lifted

With the air warming up noticeably now the sun was shining, we wanted to make sure we got into forest in good time, so we headed back to the car. We knew we would have a better opportunity to see Hawfinches later. We drove deeper into the forest and walked out along a ride deep into the trees. A couple of Yellowhammers were singing against each other from a small clearing on the way, but we could not see either of them today on their favoured perches.

We eventually found ourselves at a larger clearing. There were Skylarks singing and fluttering round over the grass, but the Woodlarks were a little more subdued today. There was a definite chill in the light breeze blowing across the open ground, which perhaps was still keeping a lid on activity. We could hear a Woodlark calling softly as we walked across the clearing and a careful scan found a pair on the ground, picking around in and out of the vegetation. We had a look at them in the scope, although they were hard to follow as they made their way along the furrows. We assumed that the Woodlark activity levels would pick up as the temperature rose, but that was not to be the case while we were there today.

It was quiet at first in the sky over the clearing, too. A Sparrowhawk circled up distantly, over the trees, before dropping away from us quickly. It took a while for the Common Buzzards to get going today. Eventually we started to see a few of them taking to the air, and that was the cue for the Goshawk to show itself too. It circled up over the trees at the back, flashing very bright white below, especially around its undertail coverts, and alternately pale silvery grey as it turned in the sunshine.

GoshawkGoshawk – a recent photo of one over the cleaing

It could obviously see a thermal rising, because it circled across to the side of the clearing and started to gain height more rapidly, climbing way up into the sky. Then it turned and started a long glide high over the clearing to the other side, before circling up again and drifting away out of view. In all the that it was on view, we barely saw the Goshawk flap its wings, such effortless mastery of the skies. We waited a while, watching more Common Buzzards circling up, even displaying tentatively. A little later, the Goshawk  appeared again just above the trees, a bit closer this time, and circled for a while before drifting away from us out of view.

There was still very little activity from the Woodlarks, but as we started to walk back round the clearing, a pair flew up from the ground in front of us. They circled round above us, giving us a great view of their short tails and broad wings, the male singing quietly. Then they dropped back down into the clearing. We watched where they landed and walked round to where we had the sun behind us. What was presumably the male was standing on the top of a small mound of earth, keeping watch. We had great views from here, noting as it turned its head from side to side the way the pale supercilia on the sides of the head met in a shallow ‘v’ on the back.

IMG_9885Woodlark – stood for some time on a small mound of earth

On our walk back to the car, a report came through that the Great Grey Shrike was again at Grimes Graves, where it seems to have settled in recent days. Just in case it might decide to leave later, we headed straight round there next. It was a little distant at first, and there was now a surprising amount of heat haze, but we could still see it clearly as soon as we arrived, a distinctive bright pale grey and white bird perched right on the top of a small tree. It kept flying down to the ground, before flying up to the top of a different tree.

It gradually worked its way a little closer to us, before disappearing over towards the fence on the edge of Grimes Graves, out of view behind the trees. We thought that might have been the best of it for today, until we noticed two photographers climbing into the Grimes Graves compound. As they walked along the grass, they suddenly realised the Great Grey Shrike was quite close to them, because we saw the cameras pointed in the direction of where we assumed the bird to be. The next thing we knew, it appeared from behind the trees, right in front of us.

IMG_9931Great Grey Shrike – hunting around the clearing again

We stood quietly where we were and were treated to great views of the Great Grey Shrike flying around between the low hawthorn bushes and small trees in front of us. At one point it flew down and caught something, which it still had in its bill as it flew back to a bush, although we didn’t get a chance to see what it was – long and thin, too big and pale for an earthworm, perhaps a freshly emerged small reptile? It disappeared with it down into the base of another larger bush, and reappeared shortly afterwards without it. Perhaps it had stashed it in a larder for later. It was completely unconcerned with our presence amongst the trees and only when it eventually moved further away did we retreat and leave it to continue feeding in peace.

We drove round to Santon Downham for lunch, and afterwards walked up towards the churchyard. This is often a good spot for Firecrest, but they are slow to start singing in the spring (compared to the local Goldcrests). With the sun now shining it felt like a lovely spring day, so it seemed there was a chance there might be one singing today.

P1180689Nuthatch – ever present today, here’s one from yesterday

It was a little quiet at first, apart from a noisy pair of Nuthatches in the trees above our heads and a succession of cars up and down the road, but suddenly we heard a Firecrest singing quietly, high up in the fir trees behind us. We stared hard at the area where the song was coming from but couldn’t see anything moving there. Then a Goldcrest started singing as well from the same place – and that more obligingly flew out onto the sunny side of the trees in front of us and started flycatching around the branches.

The Firecrest sang again, from further over. It seemed to be moving unseen through the tops of the trees at the back of the churchyard. Several crests chased each other down through the trees, but they all appeared to be Goldcrests – presumably a couple of rival males were fighting, because one perched up in a bare deciduous tree with its crest fluffed out, the fiery orange feathers in the middle of its yellow crown stripe raised up and positively glowing in the sunshine.

Finally the Firecrest sang again and this time appeared in the front of an ivy-covered fir tree. It flicked around in and out of the foliage for a minute or two, flycatching a couple of times, and after one sortie it perched up beautifully in the clear where picked we could get a great look at it. Then it flew back across churchyard and disappeared into the trees again.

We walked down to the river to see if anything was along the banks, but there was a lot of disturbance here now, with plenty of people out enjoying the sunny afternoon. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker calling, and one flew out of a tree and disappeared off ahead of us. We decided to head back round to Lynford, to have a proper go at seeing the Hawfinches instead.

There were no more seeds down on the ground by the feeders as we walked past, but a Marsh Tit had joined the other tits in trying to make the most of what food was left. It kept darting in and out, grabbing a beakful of food before disappearing back into the trees to deal with it. A Nuthatch was doing the same and a Great Spotted Woodpecker appeared briefly in the trees above. Down at the bridge, the food had similarly not been replenished today, though one of the group tried to supplement what crumbs were left with a few handfuls of nuts from his pocket!

There was a small crowd gathered on the path the other side of the lake, looking into the sun towards the nearest trees. They had seen a Hawfinch drop down on the ground but it was only giving occasional glimpses of a bill or part of a head in amongst all the vegetation. There were several Chaffinches feeding in there too, and a selection of thrushes in the wet field in front. We had a quick look but could hear the Little Grebe cackling out on the water, so went along for a look at that instead. It was looking very smart now, but quickly disappeared back into the reeds to feed.

IMG_9805Little Grebe – in the same place as yesterday, as seen here

When we came back to the small crowd, the Hawfinch was still down on the ground, but it was getting time for the birds to finish feeding. It flew up, first into a hawthorn, then into the taller hornbeam beyond, but it was hard to see in amongst all the branches and into the sun. We walked round to other side of the paddocks where we were not looking into the light, though it was still partly obscured. As it hopped around through the tree and by constantly adjusting the position of the scope, we gradually got some better views. We could see the huge nutcracker of a bill.

Eventually the Hawfinch flew across to the next hornbeam, so we walked along a little further. It was very hard to see in here at first, though we could hear it calling all the time now. It hopped down through the tree, then up again, mostly partly obscured from view still. When it got up towards the top, we managed a much better view when it hopped out next to a Mistle Thrush. This time we could see that it was a female, noting the big head and black bib and mask. The resident female Kestrel was also still flying around between the wires which cross the paddocks and we had a nice close look at her too.

IMG_9950Kestrel – around the wires across the paddocks as usual

At this point we spotted another Hawfinch distantly in the top of the trees beyond, silhouetted against the sky. When the first Hawfinch flew over to the back of the next group of trees, out of view, we decided to walk up to the end of the paddocks to see if we could see this second bird. There was no sign of it when we got there, but looking back across the paddocks we could see the first female right in the top of one of the trees. From this direction, with the light behind us, we could get a really good unobscured view of it for the first time. We could also see it was still calling – its bill was moving.

IMG_9966Hawfinch – finally giving better if distant views

Our perseverance was paying off and we were gradually getting better and better views of the Hawfinch. Then it flew across to the tops of the pines in front of us and it was better still. We could see the very short, white-tipped tail, and the combination of greys and browns in the body colours. We watched it for a while, flitting around between the tops of the pines, enjoying the late afternoon sun. But it was always on its own and there was no sign of the second Hawfinch we had seen earlier of any other birds.

IMG_9984Hawfinch – finally rewarded with great views in the afternoon sun

Then suddenly the Hawfinch flew up and headed off strongly south. We watched it as it flew – the distinctive, bounding flight action, the heavy head and short tail, the bold white wing-stripe. The as it disappeared over the trees beyond, we decided it was time for us to call it a day too. It was a great way to end.

 

12th March 2016 – Misty Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. It was a misty start, but it was meant to brighten up during the day, or at least that is what we had been told. We started at St Helens. It was a bit of a long shot, but with the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker having been seen a couple of times here in the last few weeks, it seemed like a good place to look first.

A Grey Wagtail was feeding down on the river, on an island of trapped vegetation around a fallen tree. We had a quick look at it in the scope. When it flew, we realised there were two of them, and then a third flew up from the bank too. We stood for a while by the footbridge and two of the Grey Wagtails kept coming back, the male landing a couple of times briefly on the handrail and even perching in the tree above our heads singing at one point.

We walked over the river into Suffolk. We could hear Siskins twittering in the trees above us, and several Redwings flew along the edge of the trees by the paddocks. We continued further on to get a better look at them, and realised there were actually quite a few down on the grass. The longer we stood there, the more came out of the trees, until there were at least 100 Redwings spread across the paddocks, feeding on the short grass. We were just trying to count them when a couple of Carrion Crows flew over calling loudly and all the Redwings fled back to the trees. We could hear them chattering away there, but they seemed reluctant to come out again. A Green Woodpecker called from the pines beyond, but there was no sign of any other woodpeckers here.

IMG_9740Redwing – a flock of at least 100 were in the paddocks

We headed back to the village and walked up towards the church. A Goldcrest was singing nearby and another was feeding in a small conifer by the path but the churchyard itself was rather quiet. It was still very misty, particularly so close to the river, and cold with no sign of the sun. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called as it flew overhead. Later, we could see three flying through the tops of the trees by the river and one perched up where we could see it.

We had been hanging on hoping to see some signs of the mist burning off before heading deeper into the forest, but in the end we decided to make our way over there anyway. The walk out along the ride was quiet, with dense commercial pine plantation either side. There was not much life around the clearing either at first. A Skylark was singing and a Common Buzzard dropped out of the trees and flew off over the tops.

We walked further along the track, but all we could see at first was a pair of Skylarks feeding quietly on the ground. We had a good look at them in the scope. Then we heard a Woodlark call and a pair flew in and landed on the fence ahead of us. One, presumably the female, quickly dropped down to the ground to feed while the male stayed on the fence where we could get a good better look at it.

IMG_9749Woodlark – one of a pair on the fence briefly

When the male Woodlark dropped down onto the ground too, we edged a little closer. We could see there were actually three Woodlarks together, feeding in and out of the furrows and in amongst the tree stumps and broken branches. A fourth flew in to join them and they split off into two pairs, eventually flying off in different directions. We could hear the male Woodlark singing as he flew, more mournful than the Skylark but still equally beautiful.

We waited a while in case a Goshawk might still appear, despite the mist which left a distinct chill in the air. However, the only bird to come up out of the trees was a female Sparrowhawk, which circled over the clearing, with bursts of rapid-fire wingbeats. It seemed unlikely that a Goshawk would be out here today, so we made our way back. As we drove back along the road, a line of Fallow Deer came running out of the trees and across the road, with two pure white ones bringing up the rear.

After an early lunch, we made our way round to Grime’s Graves. There has been a Great Grey Shrike around the area here on and off all winter, but it is very mobile and can be hard to track down at times. There had been no reports of it today, but we thought it was worth looking around its favoured clearings anyway. After we walked in through the trees, we stopped to scan the bushes and the first bird we set eyes on was the Great Grey Shrike, right on the very top of a quite tall young oak tree.

IMG_9764Great Grey Shrike – about the first bird we saw here this afternoon

It was a little distant at first. Then suddenly the Great Grey Shrike took off and started to fly towards us, before stopping and hovering high up, above treetop height, out over the grass. It hovered for several seconds before flying over and landing on the top of another tree, this one rather closer to us. We had a really good look at it in the scope – noting its hooked bill. There it remained for some time – in the end, we decided to move on and leave it where it was.

We wanted to get to Lynford Arboretum in good time – with the cool and misty weather, it seemed like the Hawfinches might go into roost quickly today. We stopped by the gate for a quick look at the feeders first. The fat balls have been restocked and there was a lot of seed on the ground again today. The tits were taking full advantage of all the food, with a steady stream of Great Tits, Blue Tits and Coal Tits. A Nuthatch kept dropping down to the ground as well. We had enough time for a quick chat with the owner of the house here, before continuing on down towards the bridge.

There was lots of food put out for the birds on the fence posts and brick pillars of the bridges as well today. Here too, a variety of birds kept flying in to feed. The photographers in the group were keen to get some photos of all the activity, but we hadn’t been standing here too long before we heard a Hawfinch calling from one of the trees in the paddocks, the closest one to us. We walked down to the path on the other side of the lake and scanned the tree, but we just couldn’t see it from where we were standing. Then it flew out towards the lake.

We thought the Hawfinch might fly off up to the arboretum, but instead we could hear it calling from the trees a little further along the path in front of us. We didn’t want to walk along, in case we flushed it, but after creeping forwards a little, we managed to find it sitting in the back of the alders. We got it in the scope – not the best view, but a Hawfinch at least. Then someone came walking along the path towards us from the other end, and it was off.

Again, we assumed it would fly away, but this time we could hear it calling again from behind us. A quick scan and we found it perched in the top of the trees back beyond the bridge. Finally, a Hawfinch was perched out in the open and we had a really good look at it through the scope as it sat ‘ticking’ away. Then it flew off towards the paddocks again.

IMG_9771Hawfinch – finally came out into the trees by the bridge

We walked round to the other side of the paddocks, just as a large group was leaving. They told us they had just seen six Hawfinches in the distant treetops behind the paddocks, but when we got there we could only see four of them. They dropped back out of view and it seemed like they might have gone off to roost early, until we heard one calling again in the paddocks. We were scanning the trees for it when there was a loud, deep ‘boom’, which reverberated around through the trees. The heavy artillery was starting up on the battle area! The birds all scattered and we just caught the back end of the Hawfinch as it dropped down into the pines.

After that, it seemed to go very quiet around the paddocks, bird-wise, even if we were treated to a succession of loud ‘booms’ of artillery fire, followed by the incessant rattle of machine guns. We walked back towards the bridge and resumed our attempts to photograph the birds coming down to feed there, which eventually seemed to recover from the shock and resume their normal activities. The tits were coming in from all directions – all the ones we had seen earlier, plus several Long-tailed Tits.

P1180706Long-tailed Tit – picking seeds from the top of a post

The Marsh Tits seemed a little shy here today, but one eventually could not resist the lure of the food and gave itself up for the cameras.

P1180737Marsh Tit – eventually showed very well

The stars of the show here were the Nuthatches, which kept coming in for more, before flying off into the wood to stash their food. A Treecreeper appeared in the trees by the bridge too.

P1180747Nuthatch – kept coming back for more

One of the group saw a flash of blue as a Kingfisher zipped round the island in the middle of the lake, so we decided to walk down that way along the path to investigate. There was no sign of the Kingfisher, but we were treated to great views of a Little Grebe diving out on the lake.

IMG_9801Little Grebe – diving for food on the lake

At this point, finally, the sun came out – only about 5-6 hours later than forecast! We were just thinking about making our way back to the car, when a last glance over at the trees way off  the distance beyond the paddocks revealed two plump blobs in the top of one of them. We were looking straight into the light now, but a quick look through the scope confirmed they were Hawfinches. Given they often like to perch up in the afternoon sun, and no one had anywhere they needed to be in a hurry, we made our way back round the paddocks once again.

By the time we got round to the end of the paddocks, there was no sign of them there any more at first. However, from the other side of the pines we didn’t have to wait long before one Hawfinch reappeared. With the afternoon sun behind us now, we had cracking views of it through the scope, a female. We admired its huge nutcracker of a bill.

IMG_9824Hawfinch – lovely views in the afternoon sunshine

It perched in the tops in the sunshine for some time, then we heard another Hawfinch calling and it flew over to join it. We had to reposition ourselves to see them – this time we could see a brighter coloured male too. When they flew again, we discovered there were actually three together now. They kept flying round between the treetops for a bit, but when they dropped down again out of view, we decided to call it a day and head for home. It was a great end to the day – watching the Hawfinches flying round and perching up in the sun.

 

8th March 2016 -Brecks Bonus

A Brecks Tour today. We started the morning at Lynford with a quick look round the arboretum.

The Nuthatches were piping away and the Goldcrests were singing as we walked down the path. A Green Woodpecker called from away in the trees. We stopped by the gate to have a look at the feeders. There was very little food left on the ground and the main feeders still look empty, but at least the fat balls had been restocked. The cage containing them was coated in tits – mainly Blue Tits and Great Tits. A few Coal Tits dropped down onto the ground to search for any remaining seed there and a Marsh Tit joined them briefly.

There was no sign of any Hawfinches here again, and it looks increasingly like they will not make any meaningful use of these trees this spring. The reasons as to why they have deserted this as a feeding site remain unclear. Consequently, we didn’t hang around here too long but made our way straight down towards the paddocks. This used to be the most regular feeding site for the Hawfinches in previous years, but had fallen out of favour. One or two Hawfinches have now taken to feeding in the paddocks regularly again, so we hoped to catch up with them this morning.

It was the right decision to head straight for the paddocks. As we walked down the hill towards the bridge, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over our heads and landed in the trees on the left of the path ahead of us. A second bird flew in behind it had landed in the top of a tree – a Hawfinch. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, as it perched there. We could hear it calling, a soft, sharp ‘ticking’.

IMG_9472Hawfinch – our first of the day, on the way to the paddocks

One of the group had gone to make use of the ‘facilities’ behind us, but still emerged in time to see the Hawfinch through the scope, before it flew on ahead of us. It appeared to be heading for the paddocks, so we made our way swiftly along there. There was another birder there already but he had not seen any sign of it. Presumably it had dropped into the trees without him noticing.

We waited a short while to see if it might fly back up into the trees again, but there was no further sign while we were there. There is no way to see the Hawfinches when they are feeding on the ground here, so it was probably down there already. Still, there were lots of other things to see here. A couple of Song Thrushes were singing from the trees. A Mistle Thrush and a couple of Redwings perched in the tops as well, before dropping down into the grass to feed.

Several Jays flew out of the trees, calling noisily. The Kestrel was on the wires again, showing off for the cameras. It kept dropping down into the grass, but we didn’t see it catch anything while we were there.

IMG_9478Kestrel – perched on the wires over the paddocks as usual

We had an appointment deeper in the Forest and with the sun starting to poke through the early morning cloud and a bit of warmth in the air, we decided to move on. A Siskin was singing from the trees by the entrance to the arboretum and we couldn’t resist stopping to listen to it for a few seconds. It appeared on the edge of one of the bare deciduous trees where we could get it in the scope, and watch it singing away, a rapid jumble of trills and twittering. It is the time of year when birds in the Forest are getting down to the business of the breeding season already.

IMG_9503Siskin – singing away at the entrance to the arboretum

We drove on deeper into the Forest and parked up at the start of one of the forestry rides. The walk in through the trees was fairly quiet, the dense blocks of commercial pine plantation can be fairly lifeless places at times. A Muntjac walked out onto the track ahead, and looked at us nervously before slipping back into the dense, dark block of trees from which it had just emerged. A few Coal Tits called from the trees along the edge and we heard a Treecreeper as well but couldn’t see it.

We emerged into a large clearing and were immediately greeted by the sound of Woodlarks singing. We could see one perched on a post on the deer fence ahead of us. As we went to get the scope onto it, a second Woodlark appeared on the wire next to it. The two of them perched with crests raised and tails fanned, showing off their white tail tips nicely. The reason soon became clear, when a third Woodlark flew up from the ground below and one of the birds from the fence had a quick tussle with it before it could land on the fence.

IMG_9543Woodlark – one of several which perched up on the deer fence

It soon became clear there were several Woodlarks along the fenceline. Another pair flew in from across the clearing. At one point there seemed to be about six birds in a small area. We decided to walk over for a closer look.

Unfortunately, as we walked round the clearing to the fence, a band of darker cloud came over and any trace of the earlier sunshine was lost. The Woodlarks went quiet and there was no sign of them along the fenceline by the time we got round there. A pair of Stonechats appeared on the fence instead, before disappearing out over the clearing.

We had come here particularly to look for Goshawks, though an early shout of ‘raptor’ over the trees at the back of the clearing produced our first Common Buzzard of the day instead. It was when we looked over that way in response to that call, that we spotted a small pale bird sitting right on the top of a small pine tree. It could only be one thing, the way it was perched there, and a quick look through the scope confirmed we had just found a Great Grey Shrike.

IMG_9529Great Grey Shrike – a ‘new’ bird, deep in the Forest

Regular readers will know that there has been a very mobile Great Grey Shrike in the area around Grime’s Graves for most of the winter. However, we were a long way from there today, and it seemed highly unlikely that bird would have come all this distance, despite its wandering habits. The question was answered unequivocally when a report came through that the Great Grey Shrike was still present at Grime’s Graves at the same time that we were watching ‘our’ bird. So, we had found another Great Grey Shrike – a real bonus for the day.

Great Grey Shrikes are regular winter visitors to the UK from Scandinavia and further east in rather small numbers. The wintering population in the UK is estimated at just 60 birds, although the number varies from year to year. It is likely that many go undetected and our bird may have been hunting around the deserted clearings deep in the Forest for much of the winter, without being found before.It was a great bird to stumble across like this, and we watched it for some time, mostly perched motionless on the top of the small fir trees, scanning the ground below for suitable prey. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, our Great Grey Shrike slipped away unseen.

With the darker clouds above us, it turned noticeably colder again and there were even some spits of light rain, so the activity of the Common Buzzards tailed off. One of them perched in the top of a tall pine where we could get it in the scope, but the others disappeared into the trees. We waited a while in the hope that a Goshawk might still put in an appearance, but it seemed unlikely that they would be dislpaying now. It seemed like our luck had run dry after the shrike, so we decided to make our way back towards the car.

In typical fashion, the sky had started to brighten up a little just after we had set off. We were half way back when we stopped by a small clearing to wait for a couple of the group to catch up. There is normally a pair of Woodlarks here, so we had just started to scan the area when we noticed a large raptor appear above the trees behind. Silvery grey above and strikingly white below as it turned, it was a big female Goshawk.

GoshawkGoshawk – here’s one taken in the same area recently

We shouted to the others and watched as the Goshawk circled up slowly, before turning and starting a bit of half-hearted display, flying across with exaggerated, deep wingbeats and white undertail coverts puffed out. It disappeared behind the trees again, but we could still see it from time to time between the tops as it headed off in the direction we had just come.

While we were watching the Goshawk disappear, we heard a Yellowhammer singing in the distance and following the sound could see a bright yellow bird perched right in the top of one of the fir trees left standing in the middle of the clearing. The pair of Woodlarks flew across as well and dropped down into the grass.

After an early lunch at Santon Downham, we had a walk up to the churchyard. This is often a good place for Firecrest, though it is still perhaps a little early for them to start singing in earnest. Our attempts to hear them were also thwarted by a steady succession of F-15 aircraft heading in to land at nearby USAF Lakenheath, flying in low over our heads and firing up their engines as they did so – not particularly conducive to hearing the quiet notes of crests in the trees! We did manage to find a couple of Goldcrests flycatching in the tree tops and just about hear a Marsh Tit singing.

Back down at the river bridge, another Marsh Tit perched in a low alder nearby, giving us a great view. We walked downstream along the side of the river in the hope of possibly catching a woodpecker or two, but early afternoon is not the best time to look for them and the best we could manage was a Green Woodpecker which flew across the river. The trees were pretty quiet, apart from several Siskins. A couple of Redpoll flew over calling. A Treecreeper worked its way ahead of us between the trees beside the path.

There was not much activity on the river either today – a couple of Mute Swans and several pairs of Mallard – plus a few noisy Canada and Greylag Geese on the bank the other side. However, the highlight was a Kingfisher which flew ahead of us on the walk out, giving us brief glimpses through the trees as it perched or flew along. On the way back, we did even better and had good views of it through the scope as it perched in the low branches overhanging the edge of the water.

KingfisherKingfisher – along the river at Santon Downham

We finished the afternoon off back at Lynford Arboretum. Again, we headed straight down towards the paddocks, stopping only briefly by the feeders where a family of Long-tailed Tits and a Nuthatch now seemed to have found the refilled fat balls. We didn’t stop long at the bridge either, although with lots of food spread on the wooden posts and brick pillars there were now lots more birds coming down here.

We just had time for a quick look through the trees in the paddocks, where there were still several Song Thrushes. About a dozen Redwings flew in and landed in the tops before dropping down into the grass. Then a scan of the trees beyond revealed a Hawfinch perched right in the tops. It was a bit distant from here, so we walked further along, to where we could get a better view.

IMG_9603Hawfinch – in the tops of the trees

Although we were a lot closer from here, the Hawfinch seemed to be interested in something the other side of it and spent most of its time looking the other way. When it finally turned round, we could see it appeared to be a female. While we were looking at it through the scope, a quick scan of the tops revealed another Hawfinch, further back in a gap through the trees. This one was perched side on, a much better view if more distant, and another female.

IMG_9630Hawfinch – a brighter male, the female hiding below him in the tree

We were just lining up to try to get a photo when two more birds flew in and ousted this Hawfinch from its perch. They settled down in the top of the same tree and we could see a male Hawfinch up towards the top and a female lower down in among the branches – presumably a new pair had flown in to join the first two. We had a good look at the male Hawfinch in the scope – noting his brighter colouration, more contrasting black mask and bib and particularly the club-shaped inner primaries.

On the walk back, we stopped by the bridge to look at the birds coming down to the food put out there. We got great views of Marsh Tits coming down to the brick pillars right in front of us, and had a chance to look at the differences from the Coal Tits close up. A Treecreeper flew into the tree beside us and worked its way up several of the trunks in turn before flying off into the wood. A male Reed Bunting appeared on the edge of the trees as well – obviously hoping to take advantage of all the seed put out here.

We walked back to the car park to find we had managed to acquire a puncture, probably just as we drove in – a shard of flint sticking out of the edge of the tyre. The person parked next to us returned a little later and told how they had driven into the car park after us to hear all the air hissing out. Not a perfect way to end, but it had been a really good day in the Brecks with a great selection of the local speciality birds and the added bonus of finding a Great Grey Shrike!

 

7th March 2016 -Snow Business

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. It was snowing on the way down to the rendezvous point at Titchwell Manor hotel, and that set the scene for the morning’s weather at least. We decided to make our way east and do some birding from the car while we waited for the worst of the snow and sleet to pass through.

We stopped at Brancaster Staithe first. The harbour is normally full of waders, but it was rather quiet today, not helped by the poor visibility due to the snow. We could see a few Bar-tailed Godwits over the other side. A little group of Teal were paddling round in the mud and a pair of Wigeon were doing the same further along. Presumably most of the birds had found somewhere to shelter from the weather and there was no sign of the Red-necked Grebe. We had to come back this way later, so we reasoned we would have another go when the weather had hopefully improved.

P1170925Brancaster Staithe – poor visibility in the snow

Our next stop was at Holkham. We couldn’t even see across to the freshmarsh from the road at first, so we drove down to Lady Anne’s Drive to see if there were any geese in the fields there. There weren’t, but we did see lots of Wigeon, Redshank, Dunlin and Oystercatcher around the floods out on the grass.

It seemed to be brightening up at one point, so we drove back to have another go looking out at the freshmarsh. At least this time we could see across to the pines! It stopped sleeting briefly, so we got out to scan the grazing marshes. We just managed to see a group of White-fronted Geese down on the grass and a handful of Pink-footed Geese fly past before the sleet started falling again.

Thankfully, that was probably the low point in the weather. As we drove along towards Wells, we could see that the sky was getting brighter to the north. By the time we got there, the sleet was starting to abate again. We didn’t even have to get out of the car to find the Shag, resident here for the winter but by no means always present, sleeping on the pontoons in the harbour. It helpfully woke up and had a preen as we drove up and got the camera out.

P1170996Shag – back in Wells Harbour again

There were also a few Brent Geese out in the harbour channel further out. A couple of Ringed Plover were running around on the sandbank. A Little Grebe was diving out in the water in the middle. With a window of better weather presenting itself, we decided to make our way over to Blakeney. The surprise of the day was a Kingfisher battling to fly over the main road just east of Wells. We wondered what it was from a distance – it was hanging in the air about 20 feet up over the middle of the road. When we got closer, we could see it was struggling to make any progress against the wind before it gave up and flew back over the hedge.

When we got to Blakeney, it had stopped sleeting and there was even a small patch of blue sky away to the north, heading our way. It was still a cold walk out along the seawall in the biting cold NW wind. We had not even got to the gate before we could see several small birds flying around down below us, including at least one Lapland Bunting. As we got to the corner, four Lapland Buntings flew up from the grass by the fence and landed again just beyond the gate, so we quickened our pace and made our way over there.

IMG_9349Lapland Bunting – kept returning to the grass to look for seeds

We spent the next 45 minutes or so watching the Lapland Buntings come and go. Someone has now put seed down for them in the grass and on the path, and they kept returning to a patch of grass just out from the gate. We got some stunning views of them through the scopes, at times they were too close!

IMG_9328Lapland Bunting – almost too close at times!

Once the blue sky made it overhead, it was not so bad with the sun on our faces and the wind at our backs. There were other things to see here too – Rock Pipits, Reed Buntings and Skylarks on the ground. A selection of waders out in the harbour behind us – Dunlin, Knot, Grey Plover, Curlew.

There were still dark clouds passing either side of us, but despite the fact that we were still in the clear we started to make our way back. A pair of Stonechats flew ahead of us, working their way along the fence beside the path.

P1180061Stonechat – male and…

P1180020Stonechat – female, working their way along the fence by the path

We had a drive around Cley next. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese in the fields beside the Beach Road. We stopped to look through them, but could only find Dark-bellied Brents in the group today.

Down at the beach, we tucked ourselves in the shelter as a brief squally shower came in off the sea and had a quick scan of the water. There was not a lot happening offshore today but we did manage to find a nice selection of different birds passing by – a few Gannets, a single Kittiwake, a lone Common Scoter. There were some distant Red-throated Divers on the water, though they were hard to pick up in the choppy swell, and a few others were more easily seen as they flew past. We just had a quick look at the sea and then, as the weather improved again, we moved on.

We made our way along past the reserve as far as the Iron Road, scanning the grazing marshes to see if we could see any more geese, or anything else, but it was very quiet along here today. Presumably the birds had gone somewhere more sheltered. So we headed back to the visitor centre for lunch.

Afterwards, we started to make our way back west. Our first stop was at Holkham again. This time, conditions were much improved and we got significantly better views of the White-fronted Geese this time. There were still 150-200 here today, no sign of numbers having dropped significantly yet, although they were hard to count accurately with many hidden from our view behind the hedge.

IMG_9363White-fronted Geese – still 150-200 at Holkham today

In contrast, numbers of Pink-footed Geese have declined substantially from their mid-winter peak. Eventually, we found four out on the grass. There were also lots of raptors out enjoying the improvement in the weather – several Marsh Harriers hanging in the air and a Red Kite flew leisurely down from the Park towards the pines, where another was already circling. A Barn Owl disappeared behind the hedge before everyone could get onto it.

Back at Brancaster Staithe, we picked up the Red-necked Grebe immediately this time and got a really good look at it in the scope. It is still in dull winter plumage, with no sign of its eponymous red neck appearing yet, but a very smart bird nonetheless.

IMG_9442Red-necked Grebe – no red neck yet!

The tide was coming in fast now and the Red-necked Grebe was swimming hard to try to stop itself being swept in along the harbour channel. It was joined in its endeavours by a Goldeneye – we had the two of them in the scope together at one point, before the latter gave up and swam upstream. A drake Red-breasted Merganser just swam straight in past us.

IMG_9389Red-necked Grebe & Goldeneye – swimming against the tide together

There were more waders here now, too. The Bar-tailed Godwits were back feeding in the mud along the edge of the car park. Some Turnstones had rejoined the Oystercatchers on the pile of discarded mussles, while others were cadging crumbs from the cars. A couple of Dunlin were following the tide in as well.

IMG_9399Bar-tailed Godwits – back around the car park this afternoon

It had been fairly bright up until now, but another dark cloud swept in off the sea towards us, so we packed up and moved on. We had hoped to find the Rough-legged Buzzard this afternoon, but it felt like we might have missed the best weather window now. We drove inland from Brancaster, scanning some of its favoured hedges and trees, but it wasn’t here so we headed round to try Chalkpit Lane instead.

There were loads of Brown Hares in the fields here, over 20 together in one spot, although they were all hunkered down against the weather rather than chasing each other round and boxing today. There is no shortage of Red-legged Partridge here – lots of them have obviously evaded the guns – but a pair of Grey Partridge which ran out from the verge right beside the car was a nice bonus. There are good numbers of them still here, but they can be elusive at times.

P1180063Grey Partridge – a pair ran out into the field from the verge

There were a few of the local Common Buzzards out now. Having probably been confined to quarters this morning in the snow, they were making the most of the improved conditions. Our hopes were up that the Rough-legged Buzzard might be doing the same. As we drove along Chalkpit Lane, we picked up a shape disappearing over the ridge towards the coast. From up on the top, we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard hanging in the wind halfway down the slope towards the sea between us and Brancaster.

It spent some time hovering, circling round  and hovering again. As it caught the sun, we got a great view of its bright white tail with sharply defined black terminal band. Then it turned headed back inland, carried quickly along by the wind. We could see it land in one of its favoured trees over towards the Brancaster road, so we made our way back round there. It gave us the run around for the next few minutes – it wasn’t in the tree when we got round there, but was back hovering over the fields to the north. Back at Chalkpit Lane, it was not hovering there any more, but had flown back to the tree again. When we got up onto the ridge to look for it there, it had flown off once more.

Then we spotted the Rough-legged Buzzard again, hanging in the air away to the south of us, catching the sun. It hovered and circled a couple of times, before flying towards us, landing in a tree although half obscured. Then it flew towards us again and did a lovely flypast – we could see the very pale, whitish head contrasting with the large blackish-brown belly patch. Great stuff!

IMG_9458Rough-legged Buzzard – over the fields at Choseley

We had a last drive round the fields via the drying barns at Choseley. There were lots more Brown Hares and Red-legged Partridges. The hedges below the barns were full of Chaffinches and the cover strip the other side of the hedge held a large flock of Goldfinches, but we couldn’t find anything else here.

Our last target for the day was a Barn Owl. No sooner had we reached the main road again than we found one hunting over the field the other side. We found a convenient gateway and stood watching it as it made its way back and forth over the grass. It dropped down a couple of times and the second time took a while to come up again – when it did, it was pursued by a Kestrel, the two birds talon grappling at one point. Kestrels will happily steal food from a Barn Owl, but we couldn’t see if it succeeded in getting something this time. The Barn Owl promptly ducked back through the hedge and moved off to hunt further over.

P1180146Barn Owl – hunting by the coast road

That was a great way to finish, and it was just a short journey back to Titchwell Manor to end the day. Once again, the weather hadn’t ruined a great day out on the coast.