21st May 2019 – Breck & Fen

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks and neighbouring Fens. It was a lovely clear, sunny day, nice and warm out of the wind, which was a fresh north-westerly.

With an early start to the day, we headed into the forest and parked at  the top of a ride, by a large clearing. As we got out of the minibus, we could hear a Tree Pipit singing, and we looked across to see it perched in the top of a tree across the far side. We had just got the scope on it, when a second Tree Pipit flew up from the grass in the middle of the clearing. It fluttered up, singing, and then spiralled down towards us and landed in one of the trees right in front of us.

The Tree Pipit perched in the tree for a minute or so, singing quietly on and off. Then it launched into another song flight, fluttering up again and spiralling down to the top of another tree a bit further along.

Tree Pipit

Tree Pipit – singing from the trees by the parking area

A Yellowhammer was singing nearby too, and that flew in and landed in the trees in front of us briefly. We decided to walk a bit further on down the track, in the hope of hearing a Woodlark, but they are busy nesting now and have gone rather quiet. Another Tree Pipit was singing further on, from the top of a tree out in the middle of the clearing.

Looking back behind us, a Barn Owl had appeared out over the clearing, hunting. It was still quiet early, but it had already been light for several hours, so presumably it had a hungry brood somewhere which it needed to feed. We watched it flying round an round over the grass silently.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – out hunting this morning, probably with hungry chicks to feed

It is a bit more wooded further on, and we stopped to listen to the tits in the trees – we saw a couple of Coal Tits fly up into the tops of the pines, and several Long-tailed Tits crossing the path. We had a lot we wanted to pack in this morning, so we started to walk back. A Garden Warbler was singing from deep in the bushes.

Our next target was Stone Curlew. We drove round to a stony field which they like and it didn’t take long for us to find one. It was rather distant though, and although it was still early there was already quite a lot of shimmer. We tried another field a little further on, and this time we found a slightly closer Stone Curlew. There was still a bit of haze from the stony field, but we had a nice view of it in the scope.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – our second of the morning

There was also an Oystercatcher in the field, and a Shelduck in the one next door. A Lesser Whitethroat was singing from some bushes along the hedge line between the two.

As we drove on, we spotted another Barn Owl still out, quartering a grassy field beside the road. It is that time of year when they have to work harder. Our next target for the morning was Nightingale. It seemed very quiet when we arrived. The birds have been in a while now, and are singing much less as they get down to the business of breeding. We walked up to the top of the hill, which is often a good spot for them. As we walked through the bushes, we flushed a Green Woodpecker from the grass. A Common Whitethroat was singing in the brambles.

Just as it seemed like we might be out of luck here, we finally heard the distinctive song of a Nightingale away in the distance. We followed the sound and eventually got to where it was singing, deep in bushes. We stood and listened – a wonderful sound. Then another Nightingale started singing nearby. Perhaps that was the trigger, but shortly afterwards the first Nightingale appeared deep in a holly bush. We could see its body shaking as it sang.

Nightingale

Nightingale – singing from deep in a holly bush

As we turned to go, a third Nightingale started singing behind us. And as we walked back down the hill, we heard another two, but just giving short snatches of song rather than in full voice. It is good to know they are back in good numbers again. A Willow Warbler was singing from the top of a tree too, and then a Reed Warbler started up in some bushes. An odd place for it, miles from any reeds, but not unusual for late arrivals to turn up in odd places.

In the morning sunshine, there were lots of Speckled Yellow moths fluttering about over the short grass, and we found a single Latticed Heath as well. There were plenty of butterflies too – including our first Painted Lady of the year, and good numbers of Common Blue.

Before it got too hot, we wanted to get over to Lakenheath Fen. As we walked out from the Visitor Centre, a Cuckoo was calling from the willows but we couldn’t see where it was. We could hear lots of warblers singing – Reed Warblers, Common Whitethroats. A Garden Warbler was singing from the elders over by the railway line.

We stopped to scan over the reeds from New Fen Viewpoint, but it looked pretty quiet. There were a few ducks out on the water, including a couple of Tufted Ducks. A Great Crested Grebe appeared. A Kingfisher zipped from the trees the other side of the viewpoint and disappeared away over the reeds. The path on the top of the bank, which was open last year and gave a good view out over New Fen, is closed this year. So we had to walk down along the main track, which is much lower and the view is not so good. We could get up to the top of the bank again at the corner of West Wood. A Cuckoo flew out across the reeds and two more Cuckoos were singing in the trees. A distant Marsh Harrier over towards the river was mobbed by Jackdaws. A Red Kite drifted over, and a Common Buzzard circled up too.

We had a look in at Mere Hide, where a Grey Heron was stalking the newly opened out area of reeds to the left. A family of Coot were right in front of the hide, the adults pulling up weed and carefully feeding the four chicks – youngsters which only their parents could appreciate! A Great Crested Grebe was diving behind the reeds, but then made its way right out into the pool in front of the hide. One or two Reed Warblers zipped back and forth across the water.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – in front of Mere Hide

There was still no sign of any Bitterns by this point, and none on the edge of the reeds from the hide. While we were sitting there, we looked out towards Joist Fen and a Bittern flew across. We watched it flying away from us, before it dropped down into the reeds somewhere beyond the main track.

Having at least seen our first Bittern of the day now, we decided to continue on up the path towards Joist Fen, to see if we could improve on the views we had already had. There were lots of ducks asleep in the area of newly cut reedbed by the main track –  Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler. Three smaller ducks were lingering Teal. A couple of Redshank and Lapwings were enjoying the areas of bare mud.

As we walked up along the path, we spotted another Bittern distantly over the Joist Fen reedbed. We were heading that way, and had almost got to the Joist Fen viewpoint when two more Bitterns came up from the reeds right next to the path. They circled round and round calling right next to us, almost directly over our heads at one point, and low too. What views!

Bittern 1

Bitterns – these two circled up from the reedbed right beside us, calling

The Bitterns looked to be a male and a female. Looking at the photos, we realised that the female was ringed. We have seen this bird in almost exactly the same place for the last two summers. It was originally picked up exhausted as a juvenile near Stevenage in September 2016, and after a couple of days was deemed fit for release at nearby Rye Meads. We then photographed it here in June 2017, before it was back in Herts at Amwell later that year. It was then photographed back at Lakenheath again in May/June 2018.

So it was great to see it here again for another year today. We watched the two Bitterns as they circled slowly back towards Mere Hide and dropped down into the reeds.

Bittern 2

Bittern – the female was ringed, and has been here the last two summers

After all the excitement, we continued on to Joist Fen viewpoint. There were lots of Hobbys up, mostly distantly out over the reeds, and we counted at least twenty in the air together, probably more. Lakenheath Fen is a great place to see large aggregations of Hobbys in the spring, but they are already starting to disperse now, heading off to breed.

There are more dragonflies out, now that the weather is finally starting to warm up. We had seen a few on our way out, but on the walk back we saw more – a couple of Hairy Dragonflies and lots of Four-Spotted Chasers. Azure, Large Red and Red-eyed Damselflies.

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser – there were more dragonflies out today, in the sunshine

Passing the Visitor Centre, we walked straight on to the Washland Viewpoint. Hockwold Washes are drying out fast now – apparently the owners (it is not owned by the RSPB) may be chasing some grant money for wet grassland creation, so have drained it. If so, it is a great shame. There were just a few commoner ducks, Black-headed Gulls and Rooks on there now. A Hobby circling over provided a nice distraction.

Hobby

Hobby – circled over the Washland viewpoint

It was time for lunch now, so we made use of the picnic tables by the car park. Afterwards, we headed back into the Forest. We had a listen for Firecrest at Santon Downham churchyard, but all we could hear was a Goldcrest singing.

Walking into the trees, a Treecreeper was feeding, climbing up the tree trunks. We heard Blackcap singing, and found another Goldcrest flitting around in some fir trees. Down by the river, a pair of Mandarins were swimming just below the bridge.

Mandarin

Mandarin – a pair were on the river just below the bridge

We still hadn’t found a Woodlark, but they can be difficult at this time of year, as they are less vocal and more secretive when they are breeding. We parked and walked down a ride where they are often found. It seemed very quiet, not helped by it being the heat of the afternoon too. But scanning the open patches of ground we found a Woodlark feeding quietly on the short grass. It eventually flew up and round behind us, calling softly.

Woodlark

Woodlark – feeding quietly in the short grass

We stopped at another clearing on our way back round. The trees here were quiet, but there were lots of Rooks, Jackdaws and Starlings feeding in the short grass. A pair of Cuckoos landed in a large hawthorn bush. We flushed a few butterflies as we walked round – including Small Copper and Small Heath.

Our final destination for the afternoon was Lynford. We were hoping activity might have picked up again but the Arboretum was quiet. Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers were flying around the feeders by the cottages. We found one or two Goldcrests, but no sign of any Firecrests here. As we walked down towards the lake, we could hear the Little Grebes laughing.

As we made our way round the paddocks, a Siskin came out of the pines singing and we watched its fluttering songflight. A Blackcap was feeding in the trees by the path. Finally we found a Firecrest – we heard it singing first, then saw it flitting around quite high in the fir trees. With that target accomplished, we walked back round to the lake, where a Grey Wagtail was gathering insects on the weir.

Back at the bridge, birds were coming down to bathe and drink now. First a Siskin dropped in, then a mixed flock of tits. Two Nuthatches were with them and we watched them climbing up and down the trees nearby. We followed the flock back up the hill, and were rewarded with a brief view of a Marsh Tit too.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – a pair were in the trees by the bridge on our way back

It had been a long day with the early start this morning, and unfortunately it was time to pack up and head for home now.

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