A Private Tour in the Brecks today. It was forecast to be a day of two halves – dry in the morning, but with increasing risk of rain in the afternoon. We set out to make the most of the weather while it lasted.
Our first stop was at Santon Downham. It was rather cold and breezy again today down by the river. The Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have become rather elusive in the last few days, perhaps not a surprise given the weather, which has felt a little like a return to winter. Still, the group were keen to have a go anyway, and there are often lots of other things to see along here. It turned out to be a good call.
As we walked along the path, we could hear Mandarin calling and looked ahead to see a pair flying towards us along the river. They landed a short distance in front of us, partly hidden behind the bushes, but then swam towards us. The female led the way, followed by the drake, which had puffed up its head and neck feathers and kept craning its neck up and forward, displaying to her.
Mandarin – this pair were displaying along the river
When the female Mandarin was just opposite us on the river, she stopped and the male quickly caught up. He started to swim round her, at which point she stretched out her neck and put the tip of her bill into the water. This was an invitation to the male to say that she was receptive and after a few seconds looking at us nervously, he started to mate with her – not something you see very often, Mandarins mating!
Mandarin – the pair then started mating
A little further along the path, we could see ripples out in the middle of the river some way ahead of us. A quick look through binoculars and we caught sight of an Otter just as it dived. We made our way quickly and quietly towards the area it had been. When we got there, we stopped for another scan and could just see movement through the undergrowth at the base of an alder tree on the near bank – an Otter cub was resting on the shore. Unfortunately we couldn’t see it clearly, given all the vegetation, and after a few seconds an adult Otter joined it and the two of them swam quietly off away from us.
Otter – the cub, resting on the branch of a fallen tree in the river
Thankfully, the two Otters stopped again where a large tree had fallen across the river further downstream, by the opposite bank. This time, we could see the cub more clearly, standing on a mat of floating vegetation trapped among the branches. We walked up until we were directly across from it and realised the adult Otter was diving repeatedly in amongst all the branches, presumably looking for food. It noticed we were watching and stopped to look at us several times when it surfaced.
Otter – the adult kept surfacing and stopping to look at us
There were a couple of Mute Swans building a platform in amongst the branches too, and whenever the adult Otter surfaced next to them the male swan would hiss and crane its neck towards it. Eventually, the adult Otter seemed to lose interest in us and started feeding under a mat of floating vegetation over by the far bank the other side of the fallen tree. Eventually, the cub came out to join it, and pulled itself out onto another log nearby, in full view.
Otter – the cub pulled itself out onto a floating log
We watched the Otters, fascinated, for several minutes. At one point, they were joined by a pair of Grey Wagtails, which flew in and landed on the same fallen tree. Eventually the Otters disappeared under some overhanging vegetation on the far side, so we left them to it and continued on our walk.
There were lots of Bramblings, Siskins and Redpolls whizzing about overhead in ones and twos all the time as we walked along beside the river, but it was hard to see any stopped still at first. That was because they were mostly hiding down in the sallows. Only when something spooked them did we realise how many were there – at least 70 flew up from the trees. Finally, we spotted two Lesser Redpolls perched in an alder tree and got them in the scope – one was a smart male with a pinkish red wash over its breast.
There was comparatively little woodpecker activity along the river today. We heard several Green Woodpeckers calling and managed to see a couple – one which landed high in a tree directly above our heads and another more obligingly on a large dead tree in front of us. However, we only heard one Great Spotted Woodpecker call briefly. The Nuthatches were not put off by the cooler weather, and several were piping loudly from the trees.
It had been well worth the walk here this morning, but we had other things we wanted to do today. We set off to walk back, stopping to look at a Honey Bee nest in a tree on the way. It looked like something had tried to open up the nest and we could see the honeycomb inside and the bees coming and going. While we were admiring the bees, a Siskin came down to drink in the ditch nearby.
Siskin – came down for a drink
The weather had also just brightened up a bit, so we made our way over to a site to look for Goshawks next. As soon as we arrived and had our first scan over the Forest, we spotted our first Goshawk up, but it was very distant. At least it was a good sign, that the birds were active despite the cold wind. There were several Common Buzzards enjoying the breeze here too, and a couple of Red Kites.
While we were waiting for more Goshawk action, we had a closer look at the field behind us. We were soon rewarded with two Stone Curlews. They were very well camouflaged, hidden in among the flints in the field – one was sitting tight, but the other had its head up and we could see its staring eye with bright yellow iris and the distinctive yellow-based bill.
Stone Curlew – one of two, hiding in a stoney field
There were also a few Lapwing and Skylarks in the field too. A flock of Fieldfares flew in and landed among the stones. They are on the move now, heading back towards Scandinavia for the breeding season.
It wasn’t too long to wait before another Goshawk appeared. It came in low over the trees, towards us, disappearing behind the tops before coming back up again. It appeared to be a young bird, a juvenile born last year, and a female too from the size of it. When it got to a block of taller trees, it started to gain a little more height and even broke into a quick burst of display, flying slowly, with exaggerated, deep wing beats. This prompted a second Goshawk to emerge from the trees, noticeably smaller than the first, an adult male. Just its presence seemed to encourage the youngster to move off today and the two of them disappeared back over the trees and away.
Goshawk – this juvenile female was displaying briefly
Given the cold wind, it was good to get such a nice view of a couple of Goshawks. It all seemed to go a little quiet after that. The clouds thickened again and even the Buzzard activity dropped off. We decided to move on.
Our next stop was at Cockley Cley. As we parked, we could see a large mixed flock of finches in the trees above the car park – Bramblings, Siskins, Lesser Redpolls, Goldfinch and Chaffinch. However, the clearing opposite was quiet, with no sound of Woodlark singing at first today.
We set off along the ride to look for the Great Grey Shrike which has been here for several weeks now. On our way down, we met some people walking back who said it was still present, although had flown off across the clearing. When we got to the clearing it has been favouring, however, there was no sign of it and several people milling around looking lost. We decided to have a quiet walk round to a more sheltered area and were soon watching the Great Grey Shrike hiding in a plantation of young pine trees, out of the wind.
Great Grey Shrike – found a sheltered spot out of the wind today
We found an angle where we could get a clear view of the Great Grey Shrike and got it in the scope. We could see the hooked tip to the bill clearly. It was looking around all the time, presumably trying to spot some prey, but perhaps it was harder going today, with a lack of wasps, beetles or lizards out and about.
It started to spit with rain now, so we made our way back towards the car. On the way, we walked carefully round the edge of one of the other clearings and were rewarded with a couple of Woodlarks. The first we spotted walking quietly through the grass, but just as we tried to get the scope onto it, it flew up and started singing, fluttering away and landing much further over. Thankfully, that stimulated a second Woodlark to start singing a little further along and that one we were able to get a better look at, perched on the top of a tussock for a minute or so, before it dropped back down into the vegetation out of view.
While we ate lunch back in the warmth of the car, it started to rain a little harder. After lunch, we drove round to Lynford Arboretum and thankfully the rain had eased again by the time we got there. Walking across the road from the car park, we heard a Firecrest singing, but we couldn’t find it and it immediately went quiet again.
The area under the trees by the feeders looked rather quiet today, but a quick stop here was rewarded with lovely close views of a Treecreeper. There were not so many finches feeding down in the leaves though. We could hear Hawfinches calling in the trees, so we walked a little further along.
At first, the Hawfinches gave us the run around – one calling in the top of a fir tree in the Arboretum flew off just as we tracked it down, and a couple of others were hiding deep in the trees behind the chicken run. Eventually we saw a Hawfinch land high in the trees above the feeders and just had time to get it in the scope so everyone could have a look at it, before it flew off, closely followed by two more. It seemed they might be put off by the rain – at least it wasn’t raining hard now, but it was damp and spitting. There were several Redwings perched around in the treetops too.
Hawfinch – perched in the top of the trees calling briefly
We could still hear Hawfinches calling further along the path, so followed the sound. They seemed to be gathering up in the tops of the pine trees today, based on all the calls we could hear. Standing underneath, we got the odd glimpse, but they are hard to see when in here. The pine cones are opening at the moment, so there is a bountiful supply of seed easily available – presumably the Hawfinches were helping themselves with all the others.
There were lots of other finches in the pines too. When the birds spooked occasionally, a large flock of finches burst from the trees, mainly Bramblings and Siskins. Several of the Bramblings landed in a large deciduous bush on the edge of the pines. As we stopped to look at them here, we found two Bullfinches in the same bush too, including a smart pink male, feeding on the buds.
Brambling – feeding mostly in the pines today
As we walked down the hill towards the bridge, we could still hear more Hawfinches calling. We managed to find one, perched high in a deciduous tree, but half hidden behind a branch. Then a second flew in, a bright male, which perched out more obligingly for us. Another large finch in the tops of the trees here was a streaky juvenile Common Crossbill. Through the scope we could see its not yet fully grown crossed mandibles.
Hawfinch – perched up obligingly for us as we walked down towards the bridge
Despite there being some food out for the birds here, it was rather quiet again down at the bridge, perhaps due to the weather. A Reed Bunting was the only bird of note. We walked down to the paddocks, but there was no sign of any Crossbills here on our way past, and none feeding in the pines by the path today. A Marsh Tit called and perched up obligingly in the hedge, giving us a good chance to note the distinguishing features which set it apart from Coal Tit, which we had seen just a few seconds earlier.
We did make our way over to admire the Long-tailed Tit nest again, now complete and occupied – we could just see some black and white feathers of a Long-tailed Tit curled up inside.
Long-tailed Tit nest – now complete and fully occupied
As we walked back towards the bridge, we could hear a Common Crossbill calling as it flew towards us across the paddocks. It landed in the top of a small tree just in front of us, just long enough for everyone to get a look at it in the scope. It was a very smart, deep red male. Then it flew up into the tops of the poplars, where it was joined by several more Crossbills.
From the bridge, we could get a great view of the Crossbills. We got a male in the scope again and watched it preening. There were also several more streaky juveniles here. However, at this point the rain started to spit a little stronger, and we decided to start making our way back.
Crossbill – this male was preening just above us at the bridge
It was already late afternoon by this stage, and we were lucky that the rain had not been too bad until this point – it certainly had not significantly adversely affected our visit to the Arboretum, or the birds we had seen. We had enjoyed great views of Hawfinch and Crossbill here as usual. As we got back to the car park, the rain seemed to be easing once more, but it was time to call it a day. A Firecrest was singing from the top of a fir tree, but a Goldcrest was more obliging, fluttering around lower down in a pine above the car park. It was a nice way to end the day.