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.
Siskin – 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.
Grey 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.
Woodlark – 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.
Great 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.
Goldcrest – 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.
Fat 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.
Nuthatch – coming down to food at the bridge
Long-tailed Tit – also taking advantage of the fresh delivery
Marsh 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!
Treecreeper – 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.
Hawfinch – 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.
Kestrel – 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.
Little 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!