Day 3 of a three day Private Winter Tour today. After a frosty start, it was a glorious clear sunny winter’s day, even if we could have done with more than the breath of wind on offer. We spent the day down in the Brecks.
We travelled in convoy down to Swaffham today, where we left cars so everyone could have an earlier get away at the end of the day, although that did mean we were a little later than normal starting birding. We had a quick look in a clearing, but it was rather quiet this morning. A couple of Yellowhammers perched in the trees calling, but there was just a single Pied Wagtail in the paddocks today. Our focus was on Goshawks this morning – and given the lack of wind today we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss them. We decided to head straight round there, rather than go for a walk first.
It was rather slow at first, with less raptor activity than usual, despite the bright conditions. Three Common Buzzards came up above the trees behind us, but quickly went down again. We could see another Common Buzzard perched in a tree in the sunshine, showing no sign of wanting to take off yet.
There were lots of finches coming and going from the cover strip in the field opposite, periodically coming up onto the bushes by the road. Several Bramblings were in with the Chaffinches, and we got the scope on one or two of them. There were a few Yellowhammers here too. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the top of a tree away to one side and a few Fieldfares dropped down to the ground at the back of the field, with two Song Thrushes on the grass nearby. A few Red-legged Partridges and Stock Doves were down in the bare field too. A Reeve’s Muntjac was lurking along the far edge.
We could hear a Woodlark singing and looked up to see it coming in high over the shelter belt to our right, distinctive with its short tail. Several Skylarks circled up too, over the grassy field behind us.
Eventually our patience was rewarded. A couple of Common Buzzards started to circle up over the trees, a good sign that the air was starting to warm up. Then a young male Goshawk came up from behind the trees too and started displaying. We watched as it flew over above the forest with deep, exaggerated wing flaps, stopping to circle between bouts of displaying. We got it in the scopes and had a good view of it now.
Another Goshawk came up under the first, the resident adult male this time, paler grey above and much whiter below. It chased after the young male, dinked at it a couple of times, and then shadowed it as it flew off its territory, before we lost sight of them behind the trees.
After a couple of minutes, the young male Goshawk reappeared, further over this time and out of the adult’s territory. It started circling in a thermal with two Common Buzzards now, and a second juvenile male Goshawk joined the kettle. We watched as the four birds climbed higher and higher. The two Goshawks started to tussle with each other, chasing, even talon grappling at one point. Their bout caused them to lose a bit of height and they drifted further away before stopping to thermal up again. Eventually they drifted away out of sight.
Mission accomplished, we drove down to Santon Downham next. We walked in along the track by the railway, but despite the sunshine it was disappointingly quiet here today. Someone was flying a drone over the track, which probably didn’t help. A male Stonechat appeared briefly by the underpass but flew over the railway line and we then saw it again on a post the other side.
We had intended to walk a short way along the river bank but someone coming the other way told us that the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had still been showing further down not too long ago. They are often only seen early in the morning at this time of year, but it was such a nice day perhaps they were more active today. It was already midday, but we decided to chance our luck.
A Treecreeper was singing as we made our way along the bank and a Jay flew through the trees and across the river. We could hear a Nuthatch calling and a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming a couple of times from somewhere over on the Suffolk side. A couple of Red Admirals were basking on the bank, brought out of hibernation by the weather, and flew up as we approached.
Down at the far end, a small crowd was gathered on the bank, staring into the trees. Unfortunately they hadn’t seen the woodpeckers and it didn’t sound like they had been heard or seen for some time now. We stopped for a couple of minutes and listened but all was quiet. We decided to walk slowly back, listening on the way. Two Redwings flew across the river past us and more were chattering in the trees the other side. Several Siskins flew over calling.
We headed over to Brandon for lunch. Before we sat down, we had a quick look down at the lake. Three Mandarin were standing out on the grass, two smart drakes and a female. A rather odd looking aberrant drake swam across and came out to join them. These birds will be down along the river, looking for nest sites in the trees next month, but they always look slightly out of place here.
After lunch, we drove back up to Lynford. There were a few people standing by the gate and we stopped to look too. There were lots of Bramblings coming down on the seed around the old pond now, and we counted at least nine down at the same time at one point. There were several smart Yellowhammers coming down too, plus a Nuthatch and a succession of tits.
We didn’t linger too long at the gate today, and continued down over the bridge to the paddocks. It was good that we did. Nine Hawfinches had apparently been feeding down on the ground just before we arrived, but had flown up into the ash trees. We got the scopes on them and could see them in the branches, before they flew and disappeared off south.
Scanning again, we could still see three Hawfinches in the ash trees, a male and two females. We had longer views now – the male spent some time preening, and we could see its ornate primaries. Then they moved deeper in before flying across to the hornbeam behind. We could still see them but partly obscured now, so decided to walk further up to try to get a clearer view. As we did so, they flew off south too. Any later, and we would probably have missed them.
We had a scan of the trees from the far end of the paddocks but couldn’t see any Hawfinches left there now. A Mistle Thrush was out on the grass. We decided to make our way back to the bridge.
Someone had put some food out on the pillars, so we stood and watched. A Nuthatch came in briefly, and a variety of tits including good views of Marsh Tit and Coal Tit, plus Blackbird and Robin. Several Dunnocks were in the bushes behind and a few Siskins in the trees above. A Little Grebe was laughing from somewhere deep in the reeds. A Kingfisher landed briefly in a small tree by the pool in the cattle field but didn’t linger and shot off back into the trees.
As we started to walk back, a flock of Long-tailed Tit flicked across the path in front of us. A quick stop confirmed the Tawny Owl was still in residence in its usual tree – we had good views of it through the scopes, high up in the pines. A good bird to round things off and a nice way to end the day.
We made our way back up to the car park and drove back to Swaffham where we bade our farewells. It had been a very good three days seeing some of the best birds and the variety of birding that Norfolk (and Suffolk – just!) has to offer in winter.