Monthly Archives: March 2020

16th Mar 2020 – Last of the Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. With Government advice to limit travel and social interactions in the light of the worsening Covid-19 epidemic coming after we finished today, this will be the last of any Bird Tours for the next few weeks, though we didn’t know it at the time. Blissfully unaware, we had a great day out – it was mostly cloudy but dry, with some brighter intervals around the middle of the day, and light winds.

Having met in the car park at Lynford, where a Chiffchaff was singing in the trees, we drove off into the Forest to look for Woodlarks. As we pulled up by a clearing and got out, we could hear one singing straight away and picked it up perched high in a deciduous tree on the far side. There were a lot of dog walkers out this morning though, enjoying the better weather today, and someone walked along the path under the trees where the Woodlark was singing and it dropped down into the middle of the clearing.

Another Woodlark dropped into the trees right behind us now, calling. We got the scopes on it quickly, but it was off again before everyone could get a look at it. It flew over and landed in another tree a short distance down the ride, so we walked down for a closer look. Again, we had a good look at it through the scopes but it was quickly on the move again, flying over us and away over the trees.

The first Woodlark was back in the trees on the far side again, so we decided to set off round in that direction. A Mistle Thrush was singing away in a wood over the field and we could hear a Green Woodpecker yaffling. Before we could get to it, the Woodlark dropped down to the ground. When we got round to where it had landed, we stopped and started to scan. We couldn’t find any sign of it at first, but we did notice a flock of Redwings had flown up into the top of a large tree over by the car park now, so we got the scopes on them.

While we were watching the Redwings, the Woodlark flushed from further along the path and flew off over the clearing. This time it fluttered up into the sky and we could hear it singing high over our heads. We watched it flying round over the clearing, singing, noting its distinctive short-tailed, round-winged silhouette. When it dropped sharply back down to the ground, it landed on the top of one of the young pine trees where this time it lingered long enough to get a better look at it.

Woodlark

Woodlark – landed in the top of a young pine tree

There were lots of Yellowhammers around the clearing too today. On the way back round, a nice bright male was perched in the top of an oak tree by the path. Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, we decided to move on.

As it was not too far from here, we decided to head over to Fincham next. As we drove up along Black Drove, we couldn’t see anything on the wires. A car was parked further up and someone was standing next to it with a scope set up. As we pulled up alongside, he told us the Great Grey Shrike had been around earlier but had just disappeared. We drove further up and scanned the bushes and hedges and by the time we had turned around and come back the shrike had reappeared.

We parked on the verge and got out, setting up our scopes on the Great Grey Shrike which was now perched obligingly on a bare branch on a tree the far side of the field. We watched it for a while, periodically dropping down to the ground to look for food before flying up into the top of another small tree further along the edge of the field.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – hunting from the tops of the young trees across the field

There was lots of other activity here too. Several Skylarks were singing and a pair of Lapwings were displaying out in the fields. Further back, we could see several Roe Deer lying down in front of a distant hedge. A pair of Brown Hares were over to one side of the field in front of us and, when a third Hare came running over the three of them stood looking at each other for a minute for setting off on a chase.

The Hares kept stopping and looking at each other. One did a bit of shadow boxing then there were some full on fisticuffs between a couple of them, all interspersed with chasing round. When the third Hare was finally seen off, the remaining pair chased each other, the male running after the female, but she was not interested in his advances and kept kicking out at him whenever he got close.

Brown Hares

Brown Hares – of the ‘Mad March’ variety

It was brightening up now and we knew this would be our best chance of seeing a Goshawk today, so we drove back into the Forest. It was not ideal conditions, with very little wind, but at least it was warming up nicely as parked overlooking the trees. Good numbers of Common Buzzards were already circling up – we had nine together above our heads at one point, even engaging in a bit of swooping display.

The first Goshawk we picked up was quite distant, circling above the trees away to our left, but it was good to get one in the bag early on. It was clearly a different shape to the Common Buzzards, paler below and greyer above. Then another one appeared off to our right. It was thermalling up with a small group of Common Buzzards and quickly gained height until it was way up in the sky.

The third Goshawk was a little closer, but circled up rapidly too before turning and flying in across the road away to our right. They were not displaying much today, probably, due to the lack of wind, but this latest one did break into a short burst of slow flapping display as it flew across. A very distant Sparrowhawk did put on a bit of rollercoaster display, while a second one a bit closer was just circling up like the Goshawks, but clearly smaller and slighter and with a more pinched in tail.

The surprise of the morning was a Merlin which shot across in front of the trees at the back of the field, disappearing from view before reappearing as it flew over the road and out across the fields behind us. They are scarce in winter this far inland, so this was a real bonus to see one here.

Otherwise, there were lots of Skylarks singing here and Yellowhammers, Linnets and Meadow Pipits flying in and out of the fields. A mixed flock of Fieldfares and Starlings kept dropping out of the pines and into the back of the field behind us.

The Stone Curlews have just started to return to the Brecks and we planned to have a quick drive round before lunch to see if we could find one. Someone else we knew had gone on ahead to do the same, so it was very helpful when we received a message to say that he had found one. We drove straight over and were soon watching it out in a stony field.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – a recent arrival back in the Brecks

By the time we got there, we were told there were actually three Stone Curlews, but the other two were down in the furrows and not visible from where we were standing. Still, we figured one was enough for us and eventually one of the others did stand up so we could see two of them together.

We went round to Brandon for lunch. It was brighter now and it felt rather spring-like eating outside on the picnic tables. A Nuthatch was piping up in the trees and one or two tits were coming and going from the feeders. After lunch, we walked down to the lake. There were five Mandarin here today, a pair on the platform on the outside of the duck house and another three, two males and a female, on the water over the far side, which swam over to join the others as we walked up.

Mandarin

Mandarin – one of five on the lake today

Our final destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. As we walked in, a Nuthatch flew up from the ground by the entrance where some food had been put out and up into a nearby pine tree. In contrast, there was no food left on the ground further along, looking down under the trees from the gate, and there were very few birds here today. We continued on down to the paddocks.

A male Hawfinch was down on the ground under the first hornbeam when we arrived, but it was just over a small ridge and in the long grass we could only see its head up occasionally. A greyer female then appeared under the tree too, a little easier to see than the male.

We could hear the quiet ticking calls of a Hawfinch in the trees and looked across to see two males now in the middle hornbeam. Through the scope, we had a much better view of these before they dropped down through the branches and we lost sight of them.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – there were at least four in the paddocks this afternoon

We picked up a Hawfinch in the ash trees next, but it quickly dropped down and we realised there were at least three now feeding on the ground below. Again, they seemed to know how to hide and were mostly just over a low ridge in the grass. When they flew up into the trees we couldn’t see them from where we were, so we walked up to the far end of the paddocks and found them again in the third hornbeam. They were a bit more distant from here, but they were now not moving so quickly, perched in the branches preening.

There were a couple of Mistle Thrushes in the paddocks too, and we could see them out on the grass from here. A few Redwings flew in and landed high in the trees. Two Grey Herons came up from the direction of the lake.

Back at the bridge, there were lots of birds coming and going from the food on the bridge. We stood for a while and watched and had great views of Siskins here today, with several birds on the feeders, and a selection of tits including Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits feeding on the fat in the coconut shells. A Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Treecreeper didn’t linger long enough for everyone to see them.

Siskin

Siskin – we had great views of them today, coming down to the feeders

The Little Grebe was laughing madly again from the reeds behind us, so we took a quick walk along the path which runs down beside the lake. It was out on the front edge of the reeds at first, but dived as soon as it saw us and then tried to hide in the vegetation. We could just see it in the reeds as it resurfaced. There were a couple of Gadwall in with the Mallards on the water and Canada Geese and Greylags on the lawn in front of the hotel.

As we made our way back up through the Arboretum, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl perched high in its usual tree. There was only one there again today, and it had managed to tuck itself even further in amongst the branches, but with a bit of trial and error we found an angle where we could get a scope on it. A Goldcrest was flitting around high in the trees nearby.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – well hidden in its usual tree today

Back up at the gate, there was still very little activity down on the ground under the trees. Looking in the blackthorn on the other side, on the edge of the orchard, we could see at least seven Yellowhammers in the white blossom. There were several Chaffinches too, but we couldn’t find any Bramblings here today – presumably they were feeding elsewhere, given the lack of food on the ground.

Unfortunately, it was time to call it a day now. It was just a short walk back to the car park, where we had started the day and where we now bade our farewells.

14th Mar 2020 – Back to Breckland

A scheduled group Brecks Tour today. The overnight rain took slightly longer to clear through this morning than forecast, but once it did the rest of the day was mostly dry and even brightened up nicely around the middle of the day.

It was still drizzling lightly when we met down in the Brecks and as we drove round and pulled up by a clearing in the forest. There were no Woodlarks singing when we arrived, so we stopped to scan the paddocks opposite. A small group of Redwings was feeding down on the grass and a single bright male Brambling was in with some Chaffinches.

A Green Woodpecker was yaffling from somewhere in the trees – it was unusually vocal this morning and its calls followed us round continually all the time we were here. A pair of Marsh Tits called to each other but moved through the trees in the back of the parking area very quickly. A Treecreeper paused slightly longer, working its way up the trunks of a couple of the trees before flying off.

Once the drizzle had stopped, we set off to walk round the clearing. There was no shortage of Yellowhammers here this morning – singing, calling, perching very obligingly in the tops of the trees. But we couldn’t find any sign of the Woodlarks, either round the clearing or feeding in the field next door where they can usually be found. Given the weather, they had probably gone off to find somewhere sheltered. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the trees across the field.

We decided to try our luck in the next clearing a little further down the ride into the forest. At first, here too all we could find were more Yellowhammers but as we walked along the back of the clearing a pair of Woodlarks came in over the trees behind us. We watched as they fluttered across, short-tailed, and appeared to drop down on the edge of the ride.

When we got back round to the ride, we could see the male Woodlark perched on a tussock on the verge. We got it in the scopes and had a good look at it, before it walked quietly into the long grass. We then walked slowly down the ride to where it had disappeared and could now see the pair feeding quietly between the rows of young trees. It was a great opportunity to compare the two – the male with a brighter pale supercilium and rustier ear coverts. We could also see the distinctive way their supercilia met in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – we watched the pair feeding quietly in the grass

While we were watching the Woodlarks, a large flock of Redwings came low over the tops of the pines nearby. They have been on the move recently, coming back across the country ahead of making the journey back to Scandinavia for the breeding season, and these were probably migrants which were stopping off here. A Sparrowhawk shot fast and low out of the trees and across the track.

Rather like buses, there were now Woodlarks everywhere! As we walked back along the ride to the first clearing, we could now hear one singing here too. We found it perched in the top of a tree right at the back, but still through the scope we could see its bill opening and closing as it sang. Then another pair of Woodlarks flew up from the clearing and landed in a tree close to us, where we could see the female was carrying nesting material.

When the female Woodlark dropped down to the ground, the male flew to another tree right by the path, where it perched preening and singing quietly. We had fill the frame views through the scope now, with a good look at its extraordinary long hind claws.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – singing quietly in a tree while the female fed on the ground below

Having finally enjoyed such great views of the Woodlarks, we decided to head straight round to try our luck with Goshawks next. It was still very grey and cloudy, with a fresh wind blowing, but at least there was a vague hint of some paler cloud to the west.

As we parked at a spot overlooking the forest, our prospects didn’t immediately look promising. There were not even any Common Buzzards up now. There were several Skylarks singing, a pair of Lapwings displaying behind us, a Curlew feeding in a recently ploughed strip and two Brown Hares in a field. A large flock of Fieldfares flew in over our heads tchacking loudly and landed in the tops of the trees behind us, where we could get the scopes on them. There were a few more Redwings in with them too – we could hear their teeezing calls as the flew over. More winter thrushes on the move.

Gradually, one or two Common Buzzards came up although they were not gaining any great height this morning. A few crumbs of encouragement perhaps. Then the clouds changed from dark grey to light grey and that was all that was needed. A male Goshawk circled up out of the trees. Its white undertail coverts were fluffed out and it started to fly with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, displaying.

That would have been good enough on its own today, but then another Goshawk appeared over the trees closer to us. Through the scopes we could see this one was browner above and more buffy-coloured below, a young bird from last year, now in its second calendar year, and it was big too, a female. It started to display as well, presumably the reason why the male had come up to remind the youngster that this was its territory. We could get both birds in the scopes displaying at one point, and then the male turned and chased after the young female, and we lost sight of both of them behind the trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – this 2cy female was one of 4 up this morning

Scanning over the trees again now, we realised there was another pair of Goshawks up displaying much further over. We had gone from none to four up displaying in a matter of minutes. A distant Marsh Harrier circling up was more of a surprise to see here. Then the young female Goshawk appeared above the tops of the trees in front of us again and we turned our attention back to that. It had clearly not learnt its lesson!

Eventually, when the last Goshawk disappeared from view, we decided to move on. Someone told us there had been a couple of Stone Curlews around earlier, so we decided to go looking to see if we could find them. They are only just returning now. As we drove up the road, several Roe Deer were flushed out of the trees by a truck driving through them and scattered out across the fields beside the road. A couple of Shelduck were on the edge of a flooded dip in a field beside the road.

Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Stone Curlews now (we were warned there had been a Land Rover driving across the field earlier) and all we could find were a couple of Oystercatchers. We tried another nearby field they often favour, but there was no sign of any there either, although we did find a pair of Grey Partridge in the gateway to the field opposite. Back round the other side of the first field, another quick scan failed too. One or two Tree Sparrows were calling in the hedge here.

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way over to Brandon. With the sun now just about shining, it was nice eating out on the picnic tables, where a Nuthatch was piping in the trees. Afterwards, a quick walk down to the lake produced a couple of pairs of Mandarin Ducks, with one of them feeding out on the grass and the other on the water in the reeds. A Goldcrest was singing in the fir trees above us.

Mandarin

Mandarin Duck – a smart drake, one of four birds still today

We didn’t want to run the risk of missing the Hawfinches, so we made our way straight round to Lynford Arboretum after lunch. As we walked in along the track, two people waved at us from the gate to say a Hawfinch was showing from there. When we got over, there was indeed a female Hawfinch down on the ground not very far from us. A great view!

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – this female was on the ground in front of the gate when we arrived

All the birds spooked and flew up into the trees, but after a minute or so the Hawfinch dropped down again, just a little further back. We watched it hopping around, picking at the seed put down in the leaves for a couple of minutes before everything spooked again. We waited for a while, watching all the other birds coming and going, but the Hawfinch did not come back a third time.

There were plenty of other birds here though – with several Bramblings feeding down with the Chaffinches. They have been in short supply this winter, so it is always great to see some and one or two were very close again today. There were several Yellowhammers too, a Nuthatch, and a selection of tits, all coming down to feed.

Brambling

Brambling – good views of several of these too, from the gate

Despite having enjoyed good views of the female Hawfinch from the gate, we still headed down to the paddocks to see if we could see some more. There were at least six more here, including at least four smart males, more richly chestnut coloured than the greyer-brown females. They were all up in the hornbeams when we arrived, so we got the scopes on them and admired their huge, cherry stone-cracking bills.

It was hard to tell exactly how many there were, with some hidden in amongst the tangles of branches and with other birds flying back and forth between the trees. Some of the Hawfinches then flew over to the first hornbeam and dropped down to feed on the ground. We had good views of a male and female feeding together here.

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – we watched some feeding under the trees in the paddocks

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the Hawfinches and we walked back to the bridge. There had been no food put out when we walked down, but we had sprinkled a couple of generous handfuls of sunflower seeds out earlier and there was now a steady procession of birds coming and going.

As well as the ever present Blue Tits and Great Tits, a couple of Long-tailed Tits popped in briefly and a Marsh Tit kept darting in and out. A Nuthatch would have come in too, but some people were standing too close to the pillar and it kept shooting past and not stopping, landing instead in the trees either side. There were several Siskins in the alders here too.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – reluctant to come in to the seed, with people standing too close

A Little Grebe was laughing madly from the reeds in the lake behind us, so we had a quick walk down beside the water. We couldn’t find the Little Grebe in the reeds but we did find another one diving under the overhanging branches in the middle of the lake. We got the scope on a drake Gadwall to admire the intricacy of the patterns of its feathers.

As we made our way back through the Arboretum, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl in its usual tree. There was only one here today, and it was well hidden in the branches high in the tree, but after some trial and error we found a good angle where we could get a half decent view of it through the scopes. A Goldcrest was flitting around high in the fir trees above us while we were watching it.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – just one today, well hidden in its usual tree

We still had enough time to fit in a quick trip up to Fincham to see if we could see the Great Grey Shrike. There was no one else there when we arrived and no sign of the shrike on the wires, but as we pulled up by a gap in the hedge we scanned across the field beside us and could see it perched in the top of a young oak tree over the far side. We all piled out and had good views of it through the scopes. A scarce winter visitor here from Scandinavia, it may not be too long now before it heads off on its journey back north.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – perched in the top of a young oak tree when we arrived

After a while, the Great Grey Shrike flew across to another tree, where we could still just see it through the lower branches of a big oak closer to us. After some last admiring glances, it was time to head back. It was a suitably good bird to wrap up another good day’s birding in the Brecks.

12th Mar 2020 – More Brecks Birding

Another Private Tour in the Brecks today, with a different group. It was a very windy day again, with gusts over 40mph for much of the day. At least it was mostly bright, and the only blustery shower we came across was while we were driving. We had a good day out regardless, as we usually do, and saw a nice selection of Breckland birds.

It was rather quiet this morning, as we pulled up by a large clearing on the edge of the forest, with no birds singing. Scanning the paddocks opposite produced a small flock of Meadow Pipits still. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were out on the short grass further over, by the edge of the trees, and a lone Redwing was nearby.

We heard Woodlarks calling and turned round to see three flying up from the middle of the clearing. They appeared to land over the far side, where it was a bit more sheltered, so we walked round to see if we could find them. Several Yellowhammers flew up from the edge of the clearing and up into the pines. We could hear Woodlark singing quietly and it didn’t take long to find them feeding down in the vegetation.

Woodlark

Woodlark – one of a pair feeding quietly in the clearing

There was a pair of Woodlarks walking around together, the female feeding constantly while the male kept stopping to look around from a low perch, a small tussock or clod of earth, singing quietly. They gradually worked their way closer to the path, and we had a great look at them through the scope – we could see the way their white supercilia met in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck and the black and white feather pattern on the bend of the wing.

Eventually, the Woodlarks flew up and dropped back down further back out of view. We walked back to where we had parked, stopping to look at a pair of Yellowhammers in the trees on our way.

There had been some brighter intervals early on, but it clouded over as we drove round to our next stop, where we had hoped to look for Goshawks. It was exposed here and we could feel the full force of the wind. There were just one or two Common Buzzards up this morning, much fewer than usual, and it looked like we might be out of luck. Still, we found some shelter in the lee of the bus and decided to give it a few minutes. Three Skylarks came up from the field in front and hovered low over the crop and we could see several more over the grass behind us. A single Shelduck flew past high over the trees.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long before a Goshawk appeared over the trees. It came over towards us, a young bird, one of last year’s broods, hanging in the wind. It was up for a couple of minutes, flying back and forth giving us a chance to get a good look at it, before it turned and dropped back behind the trees out of view.

Goshawk

Goshawk – this young bird came up for a couple of minutes

In other circumstances, we would normally stay here for a while watching the Goshawks but given the conditions today we decided to bank that one and head on to try something else. We drove round to Fincham to look for the Great Grey Shrike. On our way, we stopped to look at a large flock of gulls loafing in a field which had recently been cultivated – mostly Black-headed Gulls, but in with them were quite a few Common Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull.

When we got there, we found another couple of people already looking from their cars and we spoke to one of them who had been there for an hour and a half without success. We drove slowly up the road, scanning the wires and the hedges, and we did find a large group of Roe Deer out in one of the fields, several Brown Hares, a pair of Egyptian Geese and some Lapwings.

The shrike had undoubtedly found somewhere sheltered, out of the wind and out of sight of the road. We didn’t fancy sitting in the bus scanning, with no idea if or when it might reappear, so we decided to move on. As we drove slowly back down the road, a Red Kite was hanging over the trees in the distance.

We did find a pair of Grey Partridges in the edge of the field. The male ducked down as we pulled up and tried to hide behind a large pile of mud and stones, but we could still see its orange face looking out. Then both of them ran and flew out into the middle of the field where they ducked down again and were instantly camouflaged against the earth.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – the male ducked down but we could see it looking out at us

We drove through a sharp shower now, but it had passed over and brightened up by the time we arrived at Santon Downham. We walked up to the churchyard, but the tall firs and bushes around the edge were getting caught by the wind.

We thought we might have more luck walking down through the trees, but it was quiet here too. We did have a pair of Marsh Tits feeding low down in the bushes as we got back towards the road. There was nothing on the river from the bridge, but a Nuthatch was calling up in the poplars and a Goldcrest was singing in the firs and showed very well feeding on one of the outer branches.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – showed very well in the fir trees by the bridge

We went round to Brandon for lunch. It was sunny now and sheltered in the trees, so we sat out on the picnic tables and watched the comings and goings at the feeders. We had a nice comparison of Coal Tit and Marsh Tit side by side, on several occasions on the same feeder together. A pair of Nuthatches dropped in, the more richly coloured male co-ordinated against the orange trunk of a Scots Pine. The female took a peanut from one of the feeders, forced into into the bark of the tree and proceeded to hammer at it in situ to break bits off.

After lunch, we walked down to the lake. As well as all the Mallards, there were two pairs of Mandarin Ducks in residence. One pair were hiding in the shade on the platform of the duck house, but the other pair were over under the bank on the far side when we arrived and then swam over towards us, allowing us to admire them in the sunshine out in the middle of the water. Smart birds!

Mandarins

Mandarin Ducks – this pair swam out into the sunshine

While we were admiring the Mandarins, we turned round and noticed a Treecreeper feeding very low down on the trunk of an old silver birch in the lawn behind us. We watched as it picked its way around probing in the crevices and at one point it obviously found something as it stopped to have a really good root around. More typically, it then disappeared round the back of the tree, though thankfully not before we had enjoyed a really good look at it.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – probing in the bark of an old silver birch down by the lake

Our destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. Once again, we made our way straight down to the paddocks to look for the Hawfinches. We had been told on the way down that they were feeding under the first hornbeam, but when we arrived there were no birds at all on the ground there and it looked rather quiet.

We continued on to the next gap in the hedge and looked across to the second hornbeam. Scanning the branches carefully, we found first one and then a second Hawfinch in amongst them, both females. We got the scope on them and watched them for a few minutes, admiring their huge cherry stone-cracking bills, and then a male appeared in between them, more richly chestnut coloured.

Looking across to the first Hornbeam, we spotted two more Hawfinches fly down to feed on the ground below. Two more females, the light was much better looking in this direction although they could be hard to see at times – remarkable how such a large finch could disappear into the short vegetation! One of the birds then flew over from the second hornbeam and perched half way up in the bushes above them.

The others came up too, and we could now see three Hawfinches together, two females and a male. They were perched in the sunshine and it was a really good view of them here now. The male had been feeding on the buds and hopped over to feed one of the females at one point.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – the brighter male perched in the afternoon sunshine

Having enjoyed great views of the Hawfinches, we walked back to the bridge. There were several Siskins flitting around in the trees above and lots of birds coming and going from the seed put out on the various piers and posts. We had good views of a selection of tits, Nuthatch, Chaffinches and a pair of Reed Buntings here.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming down to the food put out at the bridge

We could hear a Little Grebe laughing madly from the lake behind us, so we had a short walk down the path beside it. We could only just see the head of the Little Grebe deep in the reeds, but we did see a smart pair of Gadwall. Continuing on to the back of the hall, there were several Greylags and Canada Geese on the lawn. A Moorhen walking along the far edge of the water looked very smart, its yellowish legs shining in the afternoon sun.

Walking back up through the Arboretum, we stopped to admire the two Tawny Owls which were roosting high in their usual tree. We had a good view through the scope – fill the frame views!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – one of the two roosting in their usual tree again

There hadn’t been very many birds feeding from the gate on our way down, there didn’t look to be much food left on the ground today, but there were more birds in the trees around the orchard. We stopped to admire all the Yellowhammers perched in amongst the white blackthorn blossom and noticed a couple of Bramblings feeding on the buds there. A brighter male kept dropping down out of view, but a female appeared right on the outside of one of the bushes and showed well for everyone.

While we were watching the birds by the orchard, someone now sprinkled a couple of handfuls of fresh seed down just beyond the gate. It didn’t take long for the birds to find it, and we stopped here to admire several smart Yellowhammers which dropped down to feed.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – coming down to food in front of the gate

We still had a short time before we were due to finish, so we drove a short distance to a nearby location to try for Firecrest. We thought it might be sheltered here in the trees, but the firs on the edge were getting caught by the wind and the box bushes underneath were in the shade. It was quiet in the trees, but there were more birds on the edge. We stopped to look at a flock of tits – Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits – but couldn’t find anything else feeding with them, apart from one or two Chaffinches.

It was time to call it a day now. Despite the wind, we had seen a great variety of birds and enjoyed an interesting day out exploring the Brecks.

11th Mar 2020 – Breckland Birding

A Private Tour today, down in The Brecks. It was a bright morning, clouding over a bit in the afternoon but staying dry, with the wind becoming more blustery in the afternoon.

As we pulled up alongside a large forest clearing, we looked over the other side to see a Woodlark in the paddocks. As we got out, another flew over calling, circled round over the edge of the clearing and landed in a tree behind us. We got the scope on the paddocks and could now see there was a pair feeding there in the short grass. While we were watching them, another Woodlark started singing a little further over and we watched it in song-flight, fluttering into the breeze up against the patchy blue sky.

There were some other birds around the paddocks too. A flock of Meadow Pipits was feeding in the grass beyond the Woodlarks and a Mistle Thrush appeared on the track at the front. Two smart male Bramblings dropped down to feed nearby. They have been in short supply this winter, with few comparatively coming over from Scandinavia this year, and the few we have had hear will soon be heading back north.

As we walked along the path on the edge of the clearing, we heard a Woodlark singing above us and watched as it dropped down into the field the other side. It joined a female which was already on the ground and we got the scope on the pair of them as they fed in the short spring crop. They gradually worked their way towards us and we had a good view now of the distinctive head pattern and the black and white patch on the edge of the wing.

Woodlark

Woodlark – we had great views of a pair feeding in the field by the clearing

There were several Yellowhammers around the clearing too, and we could hear them calling and singing and saw one or two perched up in the trees. As we made our way back to the minibus, a Green Woodpecker was yaffling somewhere in the trees.

We had done so well for Woodlarks, and seen them so quickly this morning, that we now had a little extra time to call in at another ride briefly. We could hear lots of Redwings singing in the trees by the parking area as we set off. There were lots of Blackbirds in there too and we could see some of the Redwings flying in and out of a thick tangle of bushes. Presumably they had roosted here overnight.

As we walked in along the ride, a kronking call alerted us to two Ravens flying in, which appeared briefly low over the trees beside us before they turned and banked away out of view. Raven is still a rare bird in this part of the country, so this was a nice bonus this morning. A Chiffchaff was singing in a scrubby overgrown young plantation the other side of the track, the first we have heard this year and possibly a returning spring migrant. A flock of Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests was flitting around in the small trees too.

We walked on into the edge of the pines and stopped by the feeding table. There were lots of tits coming and going, including lots of Coal Tits and several Marsh Tits too. We could only spend a short time here this morning, as our main priorities lay elsewhere, but there was no sight nor sound of any Willow Tits while we were there today.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were lots coming and going from the feeding table

Our next target for the day was Goshawk, so we drove round and parked at a high point overlooking the forest. It was bright, but a bit more exposed and breezier here, chilly in the wind. Still, several Common Buzzards were already up and we didn’t have to wait too long before two distant Goshawks circled up above the trees. One drifted off left away from us, but the other came right, over the back of the trees in front of us, before eventually dropping down out of view behind the tops.

It was a good start, but with the bright conditions we still hoped we might get one closer or in display flight, so we continued scanning. A distant Sparrowhawk came up, much smaller than the Goshawks, and gave us a quick burst of rollercoaster display, giving us more hope, and a Kestrel was hovering out over the field behind. There were several Skylarks in the sky singing too and Yellowhammers in and out of the cover strip in the field in front.

Then another Goshawk circled up out of the trees in front of us, closer this time. It had its fluffy white undertail coverts ‘flagged’, puffed out and wrapped round its tail, which instantly stood out. It started displaying, slow flapping, with deep, powerful, exaggerated wingbeats.

Goshawk

Goshawk – came up displaying over the trees

We watched the Goshawk displaying over the tops of the trees for a couple of minutes, before it lost height and disappeared down over the trees to our left. Great stuff and we hadn’t even had to wait too long today. We decided to move on.

We drove down to Santon Downham and parked in the Forestry Commission car park. We had received a message to say that the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had been very elusive this morning, just heard calling very occasionally over the last couple of hours and not seen since very early first thing. Still we decided to have quick look along the river anyway, as it can be nice along there at this time of year and we thought we might see some different things.

Siskin

Siskin – singing in the gardens by the bridge

A Siskin was singing in a pine tree in one of the gardens, as we walked down to the bridge, and a couple more were on the feeders which have now been restocked. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming from deep in the poplars by the road. As we set off along the river bank, a Kingfisher flew out from the bank as we passed calling, and zipped off downstream.

It was the middle of the day, but it was still rather quiet along here now. We heard a Marsh Tit singing and a Nuthatch calling in the trees. We had a quick listen where the woodpeckers have been seen at times in the last few weeks, but there was nothing happening here. Given others’ experiences this morning, we didn’t linger and walked back for lunch.

We stopped for lunch by the church. The wind had picked up a bit now and was catching the trees in the back of the churchyard, so perhaps not surprisingly there was no sign of the Firecrest. Still, it was a nice place to sit on the bench in the sunshine and eat. A Sparrowhawk zipped through the tops of the firs.

After lunch, we made our way round to Lynford. As we crossed the road, someone had put some food down under a bush by the entrance, and a Nuthatch was trying to come in but reluctant to do so with people passing close by. It perched calling in a nearby tree. We had a quick look from the gate under the trees. There was some more seed out today and more birds coming down to feed, with at least six Bramblings including a couple of bright orange-breasted males.

Brambling

Brambling – at least six were feeding from the gate as we walked down

We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the Hawfinches, so we continued on down to the paddocks. There were a few Chaffinches under the first of the trees in the middle and after scanning for a few minutes one female Hawfinch appeared with them, quickly joined by a second. We watched them for a bit, feeding down in the grass, then everything flushed.

The Hawfinches flew into the next hornbeam over so we walked on to the next gap in the hedge. We could see at least five Hawfinches now and we got the scope on two of them in the tops, before they gradually moved across into the thicker ash trees and got harder to see. There were other birds in the trees here too, a Mistle Thrush and lots of Redwings, to have a look at. Then when we heard a Hawfinch calling back in the first tree, we turned to see a smart male perched right in the top.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – a smart male perched in the top of one of the hornbeams, calling

The male perched calling for a minute or two, then flew across into the ash trees to join the others. Most of the Hawfinches disappeared into the tangle of branches and all seemed to have gone quiet before we picked up two flying out of the back of the trees, heading off to roost. Good timing!

We made our way back to the bridge now, where there were lots of tits coming in to the food on the pillars. We had very good views of Marsh Tits here and a Nuthatch which shot in from time to time to grab a bill full of seeds, mostly when we were looking the other way!

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – eyeing up the sunflower seeds put out at the bridge

There were Siskins in the trees above and a Reed Bunting on the ground by the lake. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling and a Treecreeper put in a very brief appearance. A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers chased each other through the tops of the poplars high above us.

As we walked back, we stopped to look at the two Tawny Owls which were roosting in their usual tree.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – one of the two roosting together in their usual tree

Back up at the gate, there was still lots of activity, with birds coming and going from the seed on the ground among the leaves. We stopped again and watched the Bramblings and Yellowhammers, among all the tits and Chaffinches.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – coming down to the seed in the leaves in front of the gate

There was one last treat in store to finish the day, the grand finale at Fincham. As we pulled into the drove, we scanned the wires ahead of us and there was the Great Grey Shrike, perched a little further up beside the road. We pulled up and got the scopes on it. It dropped down several times and back up again, hunting. Then it flew out to a couple of isolated bushes on the far edge of the field.

We walked a little further up too, and got it in the scopes again. It was still hunting very actively, dropping down to the ground repeatedly. Then on one of its sorties, it suddenly set off low over the ground and we watched as it chased after and caught a bumble bee. It took it back to its favourite bush and after subduing it, dropped down through the branches and impaled it to eat later. Great Grey Shrikes are not known as ‘butcher birds’ for nothing!

Great Grey Shrike 1

Great Grey Shrike – switched to hovering out over the field, hunting

The Great Grey Shrike seemed to shift hunting tactics now, and kept flying out from the bushes and hovering out over the field, a couple of metres up from the ground, scanning for prey. Very interesting to watch. Eventually it flew back onto the wires, just a short distance up the road from where we were standing and we had even closer views of it through the scope.

Great Grey Shrike 2

Great Grey Shrike – flew back to the wires, much closer to where we were standing

It was a great way to finish the day, watching the Great Grey Shrike here. But it was time to wrap things up now and head back, so we left the shrike to its hunting and headed for home.

8th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 3

Day 3 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour, our last day today. It was a rather blustery morning, with the winds dropping in the afternoon, and mostly dry and bright – we managed mostly to dodge the showers. We spent the day up on the North Norfolk coast.

Holkham was our destination for the morning. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of ducks out on the floods on the grazing marsh, mainly Wigeon, with a scattering of Shoveler, Teal and one or two Gadwall. We parked at the north end and as we walked up towards the pines, we stopped to admire a smart pair of Grey Partridge feeding very quietly right by the fence behind the parking attendants’ hut.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – this pair was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

There was a blustery wind blowing, so we elected to go round to the hides first, rather than out onto the beach. As we walked west along the track on the inland side of the pines, there were a few tits calling in the trees. We stopped briefly at Salts Hole, where four Little Grebes were diving out on the water. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were out on the grass beyond.

Diverting up onto the boardwalk by Washington Hide, we spotted a Great White Egret out on the grazing marshes. Its large size was immediately apparent and through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. Way off in the distance, we could just make out a few White-fronted Geese over by the road, behind the hedge, but we hoped to see some closer from the next hide.

A Chiffchaff was calling in the bushes by the track the other side of Meals House – it would be nice to think it might be an early spring migrant, but it was just as likely an overwintering bird here.

The first thing we saw when we got into Joe Jordan Hide was the lone Spoonbill asleep down on the pool below the wood, bright white in the morning sunshine. It did wake up at one point and flash its spoon-shaped bill, revealing that it was an immature bird – it also lacked the shaggy crest of the breeding adults. It then hopped into the shelter of the rushes on the edge of the pool. It was the only one we saw here today, the others possibly hiding from the wind in the trees.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – asleep on the pool from Joe Jordan Hide

There were two more Great White Egrets out on the grazing marshes from here, feeding together out in a particularly thick clump of rushes. It was amazing that such a large white bird could completely disappear in the vegetation at times.

There was no sign of the large flock of wintering White-fronted Geese on the old fort today. Most of the Greylags were sleeping out on the marshes and scanning carefully through we did manage to find six White-fronted Geese in with them. They didn’t hang around though, for no apparent reason waking up and flying off, presumably to find the rest of the flock.

Before everyone got too comfortable, we decided to move on. As we walked out earlier, a runner had mentioned there had been a Short-eared Owl out on the beach, so we thought we would check in case it was hunting along the north side of the pines. When we got out into the dunes, there was no sign of the owl, but we did find three Stonechats flitting around in the bushes, the single male singing quietly, and several song-flighting Meadow Pipits fluttering up and parachuting back down.

The large raft of several thousand Common Scoter which has been in the bay all winter was directly offshore from here today, so we stopped for a quick look through them. The tide was out so, despite them being not too far offshore, they were distant from the dunes and it was very choppy. We did manage to pick out a Velvet Scoter in with them, but it was impossible to get everyone onto it in the conditions. More surprisingly, a pair of Pintail and a drake Shoveler were in with the scoter flock too.

It was more sheltered on the north side of the pines, so we decided to walk back through the dunes. It was a good call as it gave us the chance to scan the beach and saltmarsh on the way. We picked up a pair of Ringed Plovers roosting on the shingle, perhaps not for long given the number of dogs running round loose on the beach. Then we picked up five small birds flying round out on the saltmarsh in the distance. As they turned we could see they were fairly pale with contrasting black tails – Shorelarks!

We had a quick look at them from where we were – there was a spaniel running around out on the saltmarsh and heading in their direction and we worried they might fly off. Then we hurried over for a closer look. The Shorelarks were feeding in the low saltmarsh vegetation, but still remarkably hard to see until they lifted their heads. Then their canary yellow faces and black masks gave them away.

Shorelark

Shorelarks – two of the five which were feeding out on the saltmarsh

When the Shorelarks are not feeding in the cordoned-off area at the other end of the beach they can be hard to find, so it was great that we had bumped into them. By the end of this month, they will probably be off to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia.

Snow Buntings were on the target list for the day too, so we walked east to the cordon to see if we could find them there. Some people we passed had said they were on the beach at the far end, so we headed over there first. There was no sign of them on the beach and it was very windy and sand-blasted here. A quick scan of the sand bars produced a few Sanderling running around on the beach.

Another person further back on the inland side of the dunes waved to us, and as we started to walk over we realised he was watching a small group of Snow Buntings which were feeding between us in a sheltered gap in the dunes. We had a good look at them as they fed. There were six of them at first, but gradually they ran up and disappeared into the dunes.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – six were feeding in the shelter of the dunes

It was then heads down for the walk back, into the wind. It was a relief to get to the Gap and the shelter of the pines. It was time for lunch now, so we took advantage of the Lookout Cafe to get a welcome hot drink and some food, and use the facilities.

The wind seemed to have eased a bit after lunch. It was bright and sunny now and we commented how there was no sign of any of the forecast showers – indeed the forecast had changed and was now not predicting any until mid afternoon. We set off west, but stopped where we had seen the White-fronted Geese very distantly from the other side early this morning.

There were lots of Greylags and Egyptian Geese in the field, and in with them were still at least 50 White-fronted Geese. We parked and got out, being careful not to spook them, and got them in the scope. We could see the white surround to the base of their bills and distinctive black belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – there were at least 50 still in the field this afternoon

Thankfully, we had all had a chance to get a really good look at the White-fronted Geese when it started to spit with rain. How ironic, given the change to the forecast! We could see some dark clouds now out to the west, so we hopped back into the minibus and drove through a sharp shower and back out into the sunshine.

As we drove through Titchwell village, we noticed a Barn Owl hunting the grassy field by the road. We had just pulled up and were about to get out to watch it, when a young Common Gull which was flying over swooped down straight at it. The Barn Owl dropped sharply, clearly as surprised as we were at this act of unprovoked aggression! It then turned and made a zig-zagging beeline for the hedge, where it dropped down under the bushes in the bottom, looking round nervously. After convincing itself that the coast was clear, it flew out of the back of the hedge and straight into the back of the wood beyond.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – hiding under the hedge after being attacked by a Common Gull

Carrying on past Titchwell, we stopped next at Thornham Harbour. There was no sign of any Twite around the old coal barn. A Black-tailed Godwit in the harbour channel was our first of the weekend and a Curlew was feeding on the saltmarsh opposite. With the wind having dropped, we decided to have a quick walk up to the corner of the seawall to see what we could see.

There were plenty of Common Redshank out in the muddy channels and one or two more Curlews. A small group of Linnets kept flying up from the vegetation in front of us and a Little Egret was on the edge of the saltmarsh just below the bank. Scanning further out in the harbour channel, we picked up a much paler wader. Through the scope, we could confirm it was a Spotted Redshank in silvery-grey non-breeding plumage. We could see the prominent white supercilium bridging the base of the bill, which was long and needle-fine at the tip.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – in the harbour channel at Thornham again

Spotted Redshanks winter in very small numbers here – they are mainly passage migrants, passing through in spring and autumn. There have been two commuting between Thornham and Titchwell this winter, but they disappear into the tidal creeks and can be very hard to find at time. Looking further out, we could see a few Knot and Grey Plover on the tidal flats and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser in the outer channel through the sands.

We headed round to Titchwell next, to finish the afternoon. As we got out of the minibus and stopped to use the facilities, we heard the distinctive calls of Mediterranean Gulls and looked up to see a succession of birds flying in and out overhead.

Checking in at the Visitor Centre, there had been no sign of any Woodcock today but we were told that there were three Red-crested Pochard on Patsy’s Reedbed. We went that way first and quickly found them out on the water. The two drakes were already looking resplendent in the afternoon sun, but then they started displaying to the female, with their bright orange punk haircuts raised. One of the males was more successful, and we watched the pair mating while the second drake played gooseberry!

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – displaying and mating on Patsy’s Reedbed

Otherwise, there were not many other ducks on here today. Two or three Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air out over the reedbed or over towards Brancaster. A Chinese Water Deer appeared on the edge of the reeds briefly.

Back round on the main path, there were a few Common Pochards on the reedbed pool. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted from the bushes in the reeds. The water level on the freshmarsh is very high again and there was no sign of the shallow islands which had started to be exposed a couple of weeks ago.

There were lots of Avocets trying to find any shallow water in which to feed and most were gathered right in front of Island Hide, so we went in for a closer look. They were right up to their bellies in the water and either swimming or could just get their feet onto the bottom to kick themselves up to try to reach the mud with their bills.

Avocet

Avocet – trying to feed up to its belly in the deep water

There was very little else on the Freshmarsh apart from the gulls, which have taken over the large ‘Avocet Island’ again this year, where the Avocets are supposed to nest. We walked round to Parrinder Hide for a closer look at some Mediterranean Gulls. Another group of Avocets flew in over the saltmarsh, presumably feeding at the moment out in the harbour channels at low tide, and more were roosting in the water where one of the islands would normally have been.

Inside the fenced-off ‘Avocet Island’ we could see lots of gulls, mostly Black-headed Gulls, claiming the ground ahead of the breeding season. In with them we counted at least 40 Mediterranean Gulls, all adults coming into breeding plumage with white-speckled jet black hoods contrasting with bright white eyelids, bright red bills and white wing tips. It was good to compare the two species side by side.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there were at least 40 this afternoon on the Freshmarsh

Otherwise, all we could find here today was a single Knot which was roosting on one of the few taller bits of island which were above the water. There was no sign of the Water Pipit again, perhaps not a surprise with so little of the water’s edge exposed. We decided to head out towards the beach.

The tide was in now and with a bigger tide today, Volunteer Marsh was under water. As we walked past, we noticed a couple of little groups of Teal next to the path. The drakes were looking stunning in the afternoon sun and they were calling and displaying.

We walked out to the Tidal Pool to see if we could find some more waders. There were several godwits on here – mostly Black-tailed Godwits, with some starting to show some brighter rusty feathering as they begin to moult into breeding plumage.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – starting to moult into breeding plumage

We managed to find a single Bar-tailed Godwit feeding on the edge of the mud – paler and more heavily streaked above that the Black-tailed Godwits – but surprisingly there were not more roosting here given the tide was in. On the spit where they normally gather there were just two Grey Plovers today. There were still quite a few Oystercatchers on the island, together with several Turnstones.

The tide was right in and there was next to no beach left. We had a quick scan of the sea, but all was quiet here – a lone seal and a single distant Great Crested Grebe. As we started to make our way back, a Skylark was dust bathing on the path. It was very confiding and seemed reluctant to stop what it was doing to make way and let us come past.

Unfortunately, we had to get back now, so those with longer journeys back could get away. As we made our way back east along the coast road, a Barn Owl was hunting where we had seen the one earlier, but this time a different paler bird.

 

 

7th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 2

Day 2 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour today. It was rather cloudy and grey first thing, with some brief spits of rain which were not in the forecast. Thankfully it didn’t come to anything, and remained dry thereafter, with some sunny intervals developing from late morning. The wind was very light again first thing, but did pick up a bit through the day. We headed back down to the Brecks in the morning, but finished the day up in North Norfolk.

When we got down to the Brecks it was spitting with rain – not the weather we were hoping for to look for Woodlarks. We parked by a large clearing and as we got out of the minibus a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling. We looked across to the other side to see it perched in the top of a tree. A Green Woodpecker yaffled too. There were several birds feeding in the paddocks across the road – a small flock of Meadow Pipits, mixed finches, a couple of Mistle Thrush and a Redwing.

As we walked round the clearing, it was fairly quiet at first, with activity perhaps curtailed by the weather. Several Yellowhammers were flying in and out of the pines at the back, down into the clearing and back up, calling and singing. Two males spiralled up out of the tops of the trees fighting.

We saw something drop down into the grass in the far corner, so made our way over to see what we could find. We could hear a Woodlark singing quietly now, but couldn’t see it at first. It was down on the ground, hidden in the long grass. Then one flew up from further over, out in the middle of the clearing, and started singing. A second, possibly the one we had been listening to, also flew up and landed in the trees at the back, where we could get it in the scope.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – flew up and landed in the trees at the back of the clearing

There was quite a bit of Woodlark activity now, involving at least three birds. We watched the Woodlark in the tree at the back for a while, before it dropped back down into the grass. We managed to see it on the ground this time, and a second bird nearby calling was possibly a female. When another male flew in, the two of them chased each other back up into the trees. But apart from the first bit of song flight, the males were only singing from perches in the trees or down on the ground this morning.

Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, we drove round to another forest track and walked up into the trees. We were looking for Willow Tit here and there were certainly lots of tits coming and going from the feeding table set up in the pines. We stood and watched for a while, but all the black capped tits we saw were dozens of Coal Tits and a good number too of Marsh Tits. A Nuthatch typically darted in, grabbed a seed, and was back off into the trees.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were dozens coming down to the feeding table

Then we heard a Willow Tit calling in the pines, a distinctive nasal scolding call. It was deep in at first, but gradually came closer each time we heard it again. Eventually it made its way to the edge of the trees and we managed to pick it out, feeding high in the pines. It seemed to be feeding on the cones. A second Willow Tit was still calling, deeper in. The first bird looked like it was making its way towards the feeding table, but it never dropped down and disappeared back into the trees behind. Both the Willow Tits then went quiet again.

The Willow Tits here are a small remnant population: the species has disappeared rapidly from large swathes of southern Britain in recent years and they are still just about clinging on here. They can be difficult to see in the dense coniferous plantations, spending much of their time up in the tops of the trees, so we had done well to get such prolonged views of one today. We decided to move on.

The weather was starting to brighten up and the wind seemed like it had picked up a little, so we headed over to see if we could find a Goshawk. We parked on a high point, overlooking the forest, where several other people had already gathered. While we were getting out of the minibus, someone came over to say there was a Goshawk perched in the top of a fir tree across the field in front. We got the scope straight on it, but unfortunately it dropped down before everyone could get a look and disappeared into the trees. Still, it was a good start.

With the brighter weather, there were lots of Common Buzzards circling up now, including a striking pale one. A Red Kite came up too, off in the distance. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long before another Goshawk appeared. It circled up above the trees, a male, grey above and pale whitish below. It was distant at first, drifting first one way, then back the other. Then it turned and headed straight towards us. It was not displaying today, but flying purposefully, with deep and powerful wingbeats interspersed with short glides. It headed away to our right slightly, crossing the road as we lost sight of it behind some trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a male, flew up out of the trees and in across the road

When all the Woodpigeons came out of the trees, this would normally mean a Goshawk was hunting, but this time a Peregrine appeared instead. It flew out low over the treetops, across the field and over the road. It followed the line of the shelter belt on the far side of the field beyond us, flushing all the pigeons from there too, before disappearing off over the trees behind us. A Sparrowhawk made a brief appearance too and a Kestrel hovering over the field behind us added to an excellent variety of raptors here this morning.

It was almost time for lunch now, but we figured we had time for one more quick stop first. We made our way deeper into the forest and parked at the head of another ride. As we walked in, we heard a Woodlark overhead and looked up to see it fluttering over the trees beside the path singing. It flew round past us and disappeared back over the road, beyond where we had parked.

We had just started to walk back to look for it when the Woodlark came back overhead singing again and dropped down into the clearing further down the track. So we turned round again and walked over to where it had seemed to go down. We were scanning the low vegetation when it walked out from behind a low bank right by the path, just a couple of metres from us. It took off but thankfully landed just a couple of metres further back, and we had a great view of it as it picked its way through the vegetation feeding, stopping on the top of a small clod of earth. Cracking views and a better photo opportunity than the ones we had seen earlier, for the photographers in the group.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – showed very well right beside the path

The Woodlark gradually made its way back into the long grass, so we headed back to the minibus and drove round to Brandon again for lunch and a welcome hot drink.

After lunch, we made our way north to Fincham. A Red Kite was hunting out over the fields as we drove down the road and found somewhere to park. As we got out, we could already see the Great Grey Shrike on the wires a little further up. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – showed well on the wires at Fincham

The Great Grey Shrike was very mobile, dropping down into the field to look for food, and then back up to the wires. It flew across to some bushes along the edge of the field further up, and spent some time hunting from there, then came back up onto the wires by the road. When it flew across the road and went further out across the field the other side we decided to move on.

We had managed to catch up with most of our main targets in the Brecks (and surrounding areas) now, so we decided to head up to the North Norfolk coast for the rest of the afternoon. The wintering Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells had gone AWOL for a couple of weeks but had then reappeared back in its usual bush a couple of days ago, as if nothing had happened. As we pulled up in the layby, we could see it on top of the aforementioned bush.

We got out of the minibus and got the scopes on it, noting the Rough-legged Buzzard‘s very pale head contrasting with a dark blackish-brown belly patch. Several Marsh Harriers were circling up beyond the bank and another Red Kite further back, more to add to the day’s raptor tally. There were lots of gulls on the flooded field in front of the layby, along with a few Redshanks, and a Linnet or two on the near edge.

We walked down the track where we could get a better view of the Rough-legged Buzzard, side on and not so obscured by branches, although we still couldn’t see its rough legs. A Common Buzzard drifted over the track behind us, a much darker bird altogether.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – back on its usual bush

Continuing on over the bank, we stopped to scan the marshes. There was a nice selection of waders out on the flooded grazing marsh beyond, several Ruff flying round with a flock of Dunlin, a single Curlew, lots of Lapwings and a few more Redshanks.

A large flock of Brent Geese kept flying in and out of the old pitch and putt over towards the harbour wall, coming over our heads chattering noisily. Looking through the Greylags out on the grass, we found a single Pink-footed Goose hunkered down behind a line of reeds. Another little group of Pinkfeet flew up calling further back. There was a nice selection of ducks here too, including Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler.

A pre-roost gathering of Pied Wagtails was down in the wet grass in front of the water, along with a single Meadow Pipit. A bigger flock of Meadow Pipits flew in along the bank. Four Brown Hares in the ploughed field the other side of the track chased each other round at one point and even engaged in a brief bout of boxing (it is March, after all!).

It was a nice place to finish the day, scanning the marshes here, but it was time to head back now. We would be spending the day tomorrow along the coast here too, with lots more to see yet.

6th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 1

Day 1 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour today. We were lucky with the weather, mostly bright with sunny intervals and a light N wind, although there was a chill in the air. We spent the day down in The Brecks.

It was a slow journey down this morning, stuck first behind a tractor and then behind a very slow-moving lorry and with a road closure to contend with first thing too. So we were a little later than planned when we arrived at the car park in Santon Downham. A Greenfinch was wheezing in the trees as we got out of the minibus. A Coal Tit was singing down by the road as we walked towards the bridge, but there was no food in the feeders by the road so few birds in the gardens.

As we set off along the path by the river, a Grey Wagtail flew over calling. We could hear a Woodlark singing further back too, and several Siskins overhead. A Reed Bunting flew up and landed in the sallows by the path. We were hoping to find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker this morning, but the small crowd gathered on the bank told us that there had been no sign for at least the last 1 1/2 hours. We stood with them for a while, but with nothing doing here, we decided to walk on a little further.

Our efforts were instantly rewarded with the distinctive ‘kee,kee,kee’ call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker from deeper in the trees. We stopped and scanned but couldn’t see anything and while we were listening to try to hear it again we received a message to say what was presumably the same bird had flown in back where we had been standing earlier. We hurried back, but the first people we got to had lost sight of it, and then next thing we knew it flew out of the tree tops and over our heads, disappearing into the sun across the river.

There was lots of action in the alders across the river, loads of Siskins and Redwings singing. We could see quite a few Redwings flying around lower down in the trees and got one in the scope. A female Mandarin was hiding in amongst the bottom of the trees, where the river had flooded over. But we couldn’t see any sign of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker now.

We waited a while to see if it might come back. We could hear a Marsh Tit singing and the piping calls of several Nuthatches which we saw flying in and out of the trees, above our heads. A Kingfisher shot past upstream. We were just about to leave when we heard the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker again, drumming from deeper in the trees further along and back on our side of the river. But it went quiet again and despite waiting another 15 minutes, it didn’t show itself again.

As we walked back, a Muntjac was grazing on the bank beyond the bridge. We took the path up through the trees towards the churchyard, where a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees and we could see it against the sky.

There had been a Firecrest in the churchyard earlier, but we met some other locals there who hadn’t seen it. We had just stopped to talk to them when we saw a small bird fly in to the sunny edge of trees. The Firecrest! It was low down in a box bush, at about eye level, and gave some great views as it flitted in and out of the branches. The light was perfect too and its bright golden yellow crown stripe was shining in the sun.

Firecrest

Firecrest – showed very well in the churchyard

The Firecrest flew across and landed in a conifer in the corner of the churchyard closest to us. We could see the striking black and white striped face pattern which distinguishes Firecrest from its close cousin, the Goldcrest.

With that target secured so easily, we decided to make our way back to the car park and head off for lunch. When we got out to the road, we noticed a bat flying round, in and out of the trees on the green opposite. Not what we expect to see in the middle of the day in early March! It appeared as if it might have prominent ‘ears’ as it zipped around overhead, but looking at the blurry photos afterwards they were not as obvious, and it was most like a Pipistrelle sp.

We made our way round to Brandon for lunch. There were lots of tits coming and going from the feeders as we ate out in the picnic tables in the sunshine, and a Nuthatch calling in the trees. Afterwards, we made our way down to the lake. A pair of Mandarin Ducks were loafing on the ledge of the duck house but it was hard to get a clear angle on them through the reeds. Thankfully, there was another pair over the far side, out of the reeds along the edge. We walked round and, predictably, they swam straight over to where we had just been, but then more helpfully came out into the open for us as we got back round.

Mandarin

Mandarin – a very smart drake on the lake

Our destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. We met someone in the car park who told us the Hawfinches were showing very well in the paddocks, so we headed straight down there to make sure we caught up with them, in case they flew off. Thankfully, several of the Hawfinches were still feeding in the grass below one of the hornbeams out in the middle and we quickly got the scopes on them and admired their enormous, cherry-stone-cracking bills.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – feeding in the grass below the trees in the paddocks

It was hard to tell how many Hawfinches there were down on the ground here, but we counted at least four, including a couple of very smart, bright, richly coloured males. We could see several Chaffinches feeding with them. There were also a couple of Mistle Thrushes and several Redwings feeding out on the grass beyond, so we got the scopes on those too.

When something spooked all the birds from under the trees, they flew up and across to the next tree over. We walked up to the next gap in the hedge and got the scope on a couple of Hawfinches perched up in the branches in the sunshine. We could see at least three there when another five flew into the back of the same tree, making at least eight Hawfinches in total.

Having enjoyed some great views of the Hawfinches, we made our way back to the bridge. There was some seed spread out on the tops of the pillars, which we had topped up on our way past earlier. There was a steady stream of tits coming and going, and we had some great views of Marsh Tits here, as usual.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming in to the seed put out on the bridge

There were lots of Siskins flying in and out of the trees above the bridge here too. We watched a Treecreeper climbing up the trunks of the alders opposite, before flying down to the base of the next one and starting again. A Nuthatch in the trees wouldn’t come in to the food today – probably put off by a combination of all of us standing on the bridge and a couple of photographers stood very close to the pillars.

We could hear Little Grebes cackling at us from the lake behind us, so after watching the comings and goings at the bridge for a bit, we had a short walk round on the path. We found one of the Little Grebes, hiding in the edge of the reeds. There were several pairs of Gadwall out on the water too, and a mixture of Canada Geese and Greylags squabbling with each other on the lawns behind the Hall. A Great Spotted Woodpecker posed nicely in the top of a tree on the far side of the lake and we had some much better views of several Siskins in the alders along the path.

Siskin

Siskin – showing well in the alders by the lake

Back over the bridge to the Arboretum, the Tawny Owls were in their usual tree, the two of them roosting side by side high in the spruce tree today. We had a look at them from the path, where they were very difficult to see until you knew where you were looking, and then got some better views from the other side.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – the two were roosting side by side in the usual tree today

Walking back up along the path through the arboretum, we stopped again at the gate. The feeders are still empty but there was not much seed on the ground either today. Consequently, there were fewer birds than normal coming and going. One or two Yellowhammers dropped down briefly, but we found more of them in the bushes on the edge of the orchard the other side, perched in the white blossom and dropping down into the long grass between the fruit trees.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – mostly in the trees on the edge of the orchard today

A Brambling dropped down to the pool in front of the gate for a drink and then perched briefly on a branch above. But it flew off before everyone could get onto it. We thought that was it before more appeared higher up in the beech trees and we all got a good look at one or two. There have been very few here this winter – probably they have stayed on the continent this year.

We still had just enough time for a quick look at the gravel pits.  There were several Tufted Ducks, a pair of Great Crested Grebes, and more geese on the first one we checked. A drake Wigeon asleep in the grass at the back was more of a surprise here and a welcome bonus on today’s list. On the pit the other side, a Coot was in with the Tufted Ducks, another Great Crested Grebe was closer in on the edge of the reeds, and a distant Cormorant was busy diving over at the back.

It had been a good start to the tour today, but it was now time to head for home, with a bonus couple of Barn Owls out hunting on the way. We would be back down for more in the Brecks tomorrow!