24th Apr 2017 – Spring in the Brecks

A Private Tour today. It was cloudy with an occasional shower in the afternoon, thankfully mostly while we were having lunch, with some brighter spells in the afternoon. With Stone Curlew the main target, we headed down to the Brecks for the day. On the drive down, a couple of Red Kites circled lazily over the fields beside the road, possibly hanging around looking for some overnight roadkill to feed on.

Stone Curlews can be found on some of the remnant heaths down in the Brecks, but many of them attempt to nest on farmland, with varying degrees of success. We stopped off on our drive down to look for a pair which nest regularly in an area of arable fields. Thankfully, this year, they appear to have chosen an area which has been left fallow, rather than attempting to breed in a crop.

The weeds here are starting to grow fast now, but it didn’t take us long to locate one of the pair of Stone Curlews, tucked down out of the wind among the spring flowers. We had a great look at it through the scope – we could see its bright yellow iris and black-tipped yellow bill. It was very well camouflaged, particularly when it nestled down tighter into the vegetation and went to sleep. There were several Skylarks singing here, always great to hear, and a Eurasian Curlew called from further over too.

IMG_3347Stone Curlew – hiding among the spring flowers

That was a great way to start so, with our first target in the bag, we made our way further south and deeper into the Brecks. We stopped off at some pig fields for a brief look round, which produced a few birds. As well as the commoner Red-legged Partridges, we found a pair of Grey Partridges which scuttled across the field from the verge. There were several Shelducks, crows, gulls including Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Oystercatchers in the fields with the pigs. With nothing else of note immediately obvious, we didn’t hang around.

Nightingale was our next target and as soon as we got out of the car at our next stop, we could hear a couple of males singing against each other. We walked across to where they were and stood for a while marvelling at the complex songs with beautiful fluid notes and phrases. We thought we might see one perched out in the open here, but they were both tucked deep in cover. At one point, one of the two Nightingales did flick across between two bushes and perched briefly on the edge, but it was too quick for everyone to get onto.

A Willow Warbler singing in the top of a bare bush was more obliging. They also have a beautiful song, but poor bird was rather overshadowed by the Nightingales. A Reed Warbler singing from deep in some bushes, miles from any reeds, was rather odd – presumably a bird on its way somewhere more suitable! A Treecreeper sang from the trees nearby.

We made our way over to the other side of the site, with a few Linnets and Goldfinches in the bushes on the way. When we got there, we could immediately hear another couple of Nightingales singing. We followed the sound and were again tantalised with brief views of the birds darting between bushes. However, our perseverance paid off when we came across one perched in a tree, singing away. We stood and watched it for about 10 minutes, getting a great view through the scope, and just enjoying the sound.

IMG_3369Nightingale – perched out singing for us for ages

The clouds were starting to build rather ominously now, so we drove on to the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath Fen, hoping to dodge the showers which we assumed were approaching. We got to the car park just as it started to rain, and made a quick dash for the visitor centre. Thankfully, it was over very quickly, so we headed out to the Washland. A Cuckoo as singing from the bushes as we passed.

There were lots of ducks out on Hockwold Washes, but the first bird we alighted on when we set up the scope was a very smart drake Garganey. We could see the bright white stripe over its eye, curving down the sides of its head, and the ornate black and grey plumes on its back.

IMG_3381Garganey – a smart drake out on the Washes

There has been a Glossy Ibis hanging around here for over two weeks now, a rare visitor from southern Europe. A careful scan and we located it feeding over in one corner. Like a dark heron, with a distinctive long and downcurved bill, we got a good look at it through the scope. Unfortunately, in the overcast conditions we could not see the detail of its glossy bronze plumage. A very nice bird to see here though.

IMG_3392Glossy Ibis – lingering on the Washland for over two weeks now

There were lots of other birds out here too, so having found the two main species we had wanted to look for, we started to scan through the others. We quickly located a Common Tern perched on some vegetation out in the middle of the water, preening. A flock of Black-tailed Godwits flew round and landed down at the front. A Grey Heron flew along the river. There were lots of Swallows and House Martins hawking for insects low over the water.

We looked over our shoulders and saw some more black cloud almost upon us, and at that moment it started to rain again. We made a quick dash back to the visitor centre for an early lunch. From the warm and dry, we watched the comings and goings at the feeders. There was a steady stream of Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and tits coming in to feed today, while we ate our sandwiches inside.

6O0A8128Reed Bunting – several were coming down to the bird table by the visitor centre

After lunch, it seemed to brighten up a bit, so we made our way out to explore the reserve. On the walk out, we could hear various warblers singing from the vegetation – Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers from the reeds, a Common Whitethroat from the brambles, a Blackcap from the trees. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted its song at us as we passed. Another Cuckoo was singing from the poplars – Reed Warblers beware!

We stopped for a while at the New Fen Viewpoint. A Little Grebe was laughing maniacally from the reeds, but the smart summer plumage Great Crested Grebe stole the show. A pair of Coot were feeding their five young, with bright red bald heads, over at the back. A Gadwall and a pair of Tufted Ducks on here were both additions to the day’s list.

There were lots of hirundines hawking for insects over the reeds, including some brown-backed Sand Martins. We could also see several Common Swifts further back, over the edge of West Wood, the first we have seen here this year. But there was no sign of Bittern or Bearded Tit here, so we carried on across the reserve.

A brief look in at Mere Hide was very quiet. However, we did see a pair of Marsh Harriers from just outside the hide. We had enjoyed great views of a grey-winged male by the road as we drove down to Lakenheath earlier, but otherwise the Marsh Harriers seemed a little subdued here today, possibly due to the weather. A Yellow Wagtail flew over calling. As we walked on towards the Joist Fen Viewpoint, another smart Great Crested Grebe was on the pools by the path.

6O0A8141Great Crested Grebe – looking very smart now, in summer plumage

From the Joist Fen Viewpoint itself, we could see at least seven Hobbys hawking out over the reeds. They seemed to have found a spot over one of the pools where they were finding lots of flying insects, and they were a little distant, but fantastic to watch as they swooped back and forth. Recent arrivals back from Africa, they might have been regretting their decision given the weather today!

The pair of Cranes which are often visible from here seem to have disappeared at the moment – reserve staff are exploring various theories as to what might have happened to them. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to go further afield looking for any others, and the weather conditions were not conducive to being too adventurous today. So we made our way back.

We had intended to pop in to explore Weeting Heath on the way past. With a particular interest in Stone Curlews, it seemed appropriate to try to have a look at them in their more natural habitat. However, a quick chat at the visitor centre and we learned that they had not been showing all day today, since very early in the morning. Breeding activity seems to be on hold for now – one of the pairs here seems to have already lost their egg and has not yet got round to another attempt. With that in mind, we decided to do something else instead. Fortunately, we had enjoyed good views of Stone Curlew earlier this morning.

We had wanted to have a quick look in at Lynford Arboretum today, and this gave us an opportunity to visit there now. Unfortunately, it clouded over a bit as we drove back there so, even though it was nice and sheltered in the trees, it was rather gloomy too. There were several Goldcrests singing from the conifers as we walked round, but we couldn’t hear any of the Firecrests – it was not really the weather for it. It started to drizzle a little, on and off, but it was only light so we carried on anyway to see what we could find.

There had been some seed put out on various of the benches in the Arboretum, so we decided to go down to the bridge for a look there. As we walked down the hill, we could see a bird high in the tops of the trees. It was a male Common Crossbill. It stayed there for some time, calling softly, presumably having come in to drink. Through the scope we got a great look at it, noting its distinctive crossed bill tips. A nice bonus!

IMG_3414Common Crossbill – a male, high in the trees above the bridge

There was a small amount of bird seed scattered around the bridge still, so we stopped to see what was coming down to feed. As well as several Blue Tits and Great Tits, we got a great look at a Marsh Tit here. There were several Reed Buntings coming down to the seed, both black and white headed males and streaky brown headed females, giving great close-up views. A pair of Siskin came down to drink briefly at the edge of the lake.

While we were standing on the bridge, we heard a distinctive reeling noise, rather like a cricket. It was a Grasshopper Warbler singing from the edge of the meadow just beyond the lake. This is not where we would normally expect to find a Grasshopper Warbler, so it was a bit of a surprise. We tried walking along the path by the lake to see if we could see it, but there is very little cover for it along here at the moment and it stopped singing and disappeared as we approached.

We had already seen a pair of Little Grebes on the lake, chasing each other round looking from the bridge. As we walked down the path, we could see a few Mallard on the far side, along with a couple of Canada Geese and a Mute Swan. Another small duck swam out from under the trees along the near bank ahead of us – a stunning male Mandarin Duck. It stopped just long enough for us to get it in the scope and admire its amazing multi-coloured plumage, before it swam off around the back of the island.

6O0A8164Mandarin Duck – a stunning drake down on the lake

As we made our way back to the bridge, a Grey Wagtail was feeding under the overhanging trees on the other side of the lake, before flying off across the water. A Jay disappeared off through the trees, flashing its white rump. Back at the bridge, a Nuthatch appeared in the trees and flew in to a branch above us, where it spent a minute or two hacking away at the bark with its dagger-like bill. A Sparrowhawk flew fast and low through the trees, scattering all the birds and causing a couple of Mistle Thrushes to call loudly in alarm.

6O0A8189Nuthatch – feeding in one of the trees above us, down at the bridge

It had been a very productive little session around the Arboretum, despite the weather – well worth the visit. Unfortunately, it was now time to start making our way back. We had enjoyed a nice introduction to the delights of the Brecks in late spring and seen some great birds today as well.

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