5th March 2018 – Thaw in the Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. After the snow and cold weather over the last week, warmer temperatures and rain overnight brought a very welcome rapid thaw. It was then a lovely day today – partly cloudy with some nice sunny intervals and the temperature up to 9-10C!

Our main target for the morning was Goshawk. We headed over via a favoured spot first thing, but it was still rather cool and cloudy. A quick stop and scan revealed a Sparrowhawk flying past over the trees, but otherwise there was very little raptor activity yet. So we decided to head off and look for Woodlarks instead first.

By the time we got there, the sun was already starting to break through the clouds. We parked again at the head of a ride and walked into the start of the forest. At the first clearing, we could hear a Woodlark calling. We looked across into the top of one of the tall trees which had been left out in the middle and there were two Woodlarks and a Yellowhammer. We had a quick look in the scope – a good start, but they were a little distant and we were looking into the light.

Another Woodlark was singing further along the ride, so we walked on to the next clearing. A couple more Yellowhammers landed high in a tree by the path as we made our way over there. Here we found the Woodlark in full song flight, fluttering high over our heads, flying round over its territory. It is a wonderful sound, despite the song having a somewhat mournful quality to it, a Woodlark singing over a forest clearing, a real sign of early spring.

As we walked round the edge of the clearing, another Woodlark flew up from the grass out in the middle and landed in a small oak tree by the path, calling. We had a good look at it, but as we tried to get round onto the other side where the light was better, it flew across and landed down in the grass a short distance away.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – flew up and landed in a small oak tree

It was non-stop Woodlark action now. With some warmth in the air, they were making up for lost time, back in full spring-mode after the cold spell over the last few days. We decided to walk along and try to see the one which had just landed in the grass, but on our way we were distracted by the songflighting Woodlark doing another circuit above us.

The other Woodlark then flew up from the ground ahead of us, followed closely by a second bird. We watched as they flew across and landed on the edge of the clearing. By moving slowly and quietly, we were able to follow them and had fantastic views of them on the ground.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – we had great views of one pair on the ground

The Woodlarks were feeding quietly, in and out of the replanted furrows. The female was busy feeding while the male would periodically stop to sing quietly.

Woodlark 3

Woodlark – the female was busy feeding around the furrows

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and left the Woodlarks feeding in peace. The sun was out now and we had a date with Goshawks!

Back where we had looked earlier, it was immediately apparent that raptor activity had increased significantly. There were already several Common Buzzards up in the sky now. Scanning carefully, we picked up our first Goshawk of the day, an adult, grey above and white below. It was rather distant and simply circled up, gradually gaining height into the patches of cloud before drifting off.

When the Goshawk disappeared, we had a bit of wait before we saw what was possibly the same bird circling again. Possibly they were waiting for enough thermal activity in the air because there was then a flurry of action. A young male appeared, catching orange below as it turned, and it started displaying, flying over the trees with deep and slow wingbeats. That prompted one of the adults to respond, and we even had a burst of roller-coaster display, swooping down before turning sharply back up again.

While we were back watching the juvenile Goshawk again, the next thing we knew two adults appeared together. They were both displaying and at one point seemed to have a coming together, grappling talons, chasing each other down into the trees. A fourth Goshawk, another adult, then circled up away to our right, much closer this time, giving us a great view of it through the scope.

As well as the Goshawks, there were lots of Common Buzzards up now. A Red Kite drifted across over the trees and a Kestrel circled up too. We could hear another Woodlark singing here, off in the distance.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – there was lots of raptor activity once the air warmed up

Eventually, we decided to move on. There are small numbers of Willow Tits still clinging on in the forest around here and some feeding stations have been set up for them. We headed over to one site to see if we could find them. As we walked up the ride, there were lots of tits in the trees, Blue, Great and Marsh Tits, but not the one we had come to see.

There were a few people gathered staring at a bird table in the edge of the trees. A steady stream of tits, mainly Coal Tits, were flying in and grabbing a sunflower seed before taking it back into the trees to eat. A Marsh Tit did the same, as did a Nuthatch. It appeared there had been no sign of the Willow Tits.

We hadn’t been standing there very long before we heard a distinctive song coming from deep in the trees. A Willow Tit! It seemed like none of the others there recognised it, so it was hard to tell if it had been singing before we arrived. We walked a little further up the ride, in the direction of the song, which seemed to be coming from behind a second bird table in amongst the pine trees. When the Willow Tit went quiet again, we stopped to see if it was coming in to feed here, but all we could see was another Nuthatch and a couple more Coal Tits.


Nuthatch – making regular visits to the feeding tables

When the Willow Tit started singing again a couple of minutes later, it had crossed the ride and was now in the trees behind us. It was moving very quickly through the trees, so we followed the song. It was quite high up in the dense pines and impossible to see anything beyond a shape moving when it flew, but it appeared to be working its way back towards the ride. Then it shot out, over our heads and back across the ride and disappeared into the trees again.

At least we had heard the Willow Tit singing, and had the briefest glimpse of it, before it now went quiet again. We decided to move on. On our way back to the car, a Goldcrest was singing in the trees and another Marsh Tit was much more obliging than its cousin.

The middle of the day is not the best time to look for woodpeckers, but we decided to give it a shot and have a walk along the river to see if we could find one of the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. After the recent cold weather, we thought they might be extra active today, but it was rather quiet on the way out. A pair of Mute Swans and a couple of Little Grebes were out on the water. We could hear a Woodlark singing in the distance, and a Reed Bunting calling in the reeds.

As we got to the poplars, a small flock of Redwing flew up from the wet ground beneath into the trees, where they perched waiting for us to move on. A Marsh Tit was singing and a Nuthatch climbed down a tree trunk.


Redwing – feeding below the poplars along the riverbank

We had brought our lunch with us, so we sat on a couple of logs which had been cut from one of the recently fallen trees. It was a lovely place to stop and eat, listening to the sound of the water flowing past. At first, there was not much else to hear but all of a sudden there was a burst of activity. The number of tits singing seemed to increase and then a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called. It was deep in the trees on the other side of the river, but at least we now knew where it was.

We hoped that might be the start. A Green Woodpecker laughed at us from somewhere downstream. We waited and then a Great Spotted Woodpecker called too, but its smaller cousin had gone quiet. After we finished our lunch, we walked a little further along the riverbank, but we didn’t hear it again, so we made our way back to the car

Lynford Arboretum was our final destination for the afternoon. As we made our way in along the path, we stopped by the gate overlooking the feeders in the trees. There were plenty of tits coming to feed on the fat balls in the big cage feeder. Lots of Chaffinches were down in the leaf litter when we arrived, but they were very nervous and kept getting spooked – by a Woodpigeon flying over or two Rabbits chasing each other through the trees.


Tits – coming to feed on the fatballs

Continuing on down to the bridge, there was lots of seed mix spread out on the pillars today, but no sunflower seeds. The Marsh Tits and Nuthatches which are usually here were conspicuous by their absence today, possibly not appreciating the food on offer. The other tits were more interested in the feeders – a steady stream of Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits. Several Reed Buntings did seem to be enjoying the selection though.

Great Tit

Great Tit – coming down to the food at the bridge

As we turned onto the path which runs alongside the lake, several birds flew up from the wet meadow beyond the fence. In amongst the Redwings, three slightly smaller birds flashed white in the wing and a white tip to the tail as they took off – Hawfinches! They landed again just before the next fence over and started to feed down in the wet grass. We got a smart male Hawfinch in the scope and had a great look at it.

Unfortunately, just at that moment, a particularly loud group of people walked past along the other side of the paddocks and scared all the Redwings again. There was a large flock of them still here today, at least 60 birds. The Hawfinches flew up with them and disappeared into the hornbeams out in the middle.

We continued on a little further along the path and could see one of the Hawfinches feeding now, down on the ground under the trees. There were lots of other finches feeding there too – several Bramblings in with the Chaffinches and Greenfinches. However, the Hawfinches were very flighty and the next time we saw them they disappeared down below one of the other trees, further back in the paddocks, where we couldn’t see them.

Turning our attention to the lake instead, a large flock of Siskins was feeding in the alders, and flying round calling. The water was still mostly frozen, but a single Gadwall feeding in a patch of open water round one of the islands was an addition to the day’s list.

We decided to try our luck round on the other side of the paddocks and as we stopped to look around the first hornbeam out in the middle, we heard a Hawfinch calling from the next tree over. We hurried along to a gap in the hedge and had great views of it perched in the hornbeam calling. We could see its huge cherry stone-crushing bill and black mask and bib.


Hawfinch – perched up in one of the hornbeams, calling

Then the Hawfinch dropped back into the trees and disappeared. It was that time of the day, when the finches are starting to go to roost. The other birds had also disappeared from under the trees, so we decided to call it a day and head for home ourselves.


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