Category Archives: Brecks

11th July 2021 – Summer Tour, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Summer Tour, our last day. It was cloudier than forecast, particularly in the afternoon, warm & slightly muggy, but it was generally bright and it stayed dry all day. We spent the day down in the Brecks.

On the drive down, we diverted round via some likely areas looking for Stone Curlews. At our first stop, two Eurasian Curlews flew up alarm calling as we got out of the minibus. They landed again in the field opposite. Not quite the ‘curlews’ we had hoped for, but nice to see, particularly as the breeding population of Eurasian Curlew here is so small. A covey of Red-legged Partridge walked out of the crop and into an open ploughed area.

Curlew – not the one we were looking for!

Our next stop was by some pig fields. As we looked out we could see a Stone Curlew preening out in the middle. A great start, we got the scope on it, and while everyone was taking a look, we continued to scan across. We realised there were lots more there too! In the end, we counted at least eleven Stone Curlews scattered around the field, although there may have been more hidden behind the small ridges of dirt and vegetation. They are already starting to gather together post-breeding.

Stone Curlew – 2, with an Oystercatcher

There were a few Oystercatchers in the field with the Stone Curlews too, and several Egyptian Geese. Scanning the bushes in the middle, we noticed a couple of Tree Sparrows perched in the top of one. We got the scope on them for a closer look. When they dropped down out of view, we heard one calling much closer to us and looked up to see another Tree Sparrow on the wires by the road a little further up. Tree Sparrows used to be common here but have disappeared from most of Norfolk now, as they have from much of southern Britain, victims of agricultural intensification. An increasingly rare sight here, so good to see there are some clinging on.

Tree Sparrow – perched on the wires by the road

That was a great way to start the day. Having enjoyed some excellent views of the Stone Curlews, we moved on, driving over to Lakenheath Fen next. We stopped for a coffee break at the Visitor Centre, overlooking the feeders. There were several Blue Tits, Great Tits, Goldfinches and 1-2 Greenfinches in the bushes, coming and going.

As we set off to explore the reserve, it had clouded over now – not what we were expecting. Despite the cloud, there was still a good selection of insects – Blue-tailed and Common Blue Damselflies, diminutive skippers on Viper’s Bugloss which refused to sit still and allow us to see the underside of their antennae, Meadow Brown and Ringlet, and a smart Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata).

Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata)

We stopped at New Fen Viewpoint and scanned over the reedbed from the benches. We could hear Blackcap and Common Whitethroat singing in the poplars behind us. A Reed Warbler kept flying in and out of a small island of reeds in the middle of the pool.

A Bittern came up out of the reeds towards the far corner of the reedbed, flying across behind the bushes, before it dropped back in. We saw Bittern flights several times over the next few minutes – this is the best time to see them, when they are feeding young – but it was hard to tell how many birds were involved. One Bittern flew up from the back again, and headed out towards the river. We expected it to land back in the reedbed, but instead it continued over the riverbank, and appeared to drop down just beyond. There are some pools along the river here, so we headed over straight over to see if we could find it.

By the time we got there, there was no sign of it. Perhaps it continued on upstream, or maybe it was just hidden out of view. We stopped here to scan, hoping it might come out of the vegetation or come back from wherever it was feeding. One or two Common Terns were commuting up and down river – one flew past carrying a fish, presumably to feed a hungry youngster on the Washes.

Common Tern – flying up and down the river

A Cuckoo called from the willows across the river. Most of adults have gone south already, many are already in Europe and some already in Africa, so this one was rather late to still be here. We couldn’t see it in the trees and it went quiet. We did then see another Cuckoo, flying across between the woods right over on the other side of New Fen, but it was too distant to tell whether it was an adult or an early fledged juvenile.

A young Marsh Harrier, dark chocolate brown with a rusty orange head, was exercising its wings, circling back and forth across the river, waiting for its parents to bring in food. A Hobby flew in, hawking for insects ahead of us, low over the washes beside the river, then it flew up over the bank, across over the back of the reedbed and up over West Wood. A Kestrel was hovering behind us too, and then we got the scope on it when it landed in one of the willows across the river.

Marsh Harrier – a juvenile, waiting to be fed

Continuing west along the river bank, we finally had good views of a family of Sedge Warblers in the edge of the reeds below us. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew into the edge of West Wood, but disappeared into the trees. The other side of West Wood, some of the group saw two Kingfishers chasing over the reeds just beyond, but they had disappeared before we could all catch up.

We cut back in to the reserve at Joist Fen, and got out the sandwiches. We had brought lunch with us today, so we wouldn’t have to hurry back. There were some distant Marsh Harriers out over the reeds and a Red Kite circled high over the railway line. More Reed Warblers zipped about, and another Sedge Warbler flew in and out of the big elder by the last bench, singing. A Kingfisher whizzed low over the reeds across in front of us, before dropping down into the channel where it was lost to view. Almost immediately, it was followed by a second Kingfisher – possibly the two which some of the group had seen earlier.

After lunch, we decided to walk slowly back. Another Kingfisher shot across the path just in front of us, and out over the reeds. We called in at Mere Hide, which is open again, although we had to wait a few minutes to all get in (there were already some people in there and there were six just of us). There were a couple of Greylag families on the water, one with lots of almost fully grown juveniles and the other with only one, before they flew off. Several Reed Warblers were flicking around the water’s edge. There were not so many dragonflies and damselflies flying round the pool today, perhaps not helped by the cloud.

The rest of the walk back to the Visitor Centre was fairly uneventful, and we rewarded our long walk with a sit down and ice cream when we got there (rhubarb & ginger today!). We had to ensure a prompt finish today, so people could get away in good time, but we still had an hour or so of the day left. So on our way back to where we had left the cars this morning, we diverted into the forest.

We stopped by a track, which leads down to a large clearing. For some reason the gate at the top of the track was locked today, so we couldn’t drive in. Instead, we parked by the next ride and walked down through the forest. It was hot and muggy and the mid afternoon lull now, so the trees were rather quiet. We could hear a Nuthatch calling, and a flock of Long-tailed Tits in the pines. The gate into the clearing at the far end was locked too, so we couldn’t get into the clearing, and we had to scan from the fence. A family of Stonechats were on the gate, a female and two juveniles, with the male further down along the fenceline.

We circled back through the trees. There were lots of butterflies on the flowers along the track, Meadow Browns and Ringlets and several skippers. One eventually stayed still long enough so we could get a look at the tips of its antennae – pale on the underside, a Small Skipper.

Small Skipper – not showing the undersides of its antennae here

A little further on, we heard a bird calling quietly, and looked up to see a Tree Pipit in the top of a dead tree ahead of us. We got it in the scope and had a closer look at it – it was pumping its tail up and down as it called, and we could see the yellow wash behind the heavier breast streaking, white on the bellow, with pencil fine streaks on the flanks. It flew and landed again on another dead tree right next to us, then flew back and we lost site of it over the trees.

Tree Pipit – calling quietly above the track

Tree Pipit was one of the birds we had hoped to find down by the clearing. We had been thinking we might have to try to squeeze in one last stop to get it somewhere else on our way back. But we had succeeded at the last here, which meant we could have an unhurried journey back and finish on time. A very enjoyable three days.

31st May 2021 – A Day at the Fen

A Private Tour to go looking for Hobbys, and anything else we could find, at Lakenheath Fen today. It was a lovely warm sunny day – the first really warm day we have had for some time – with a light easterly breeze.

We met mid-morning in the car park. As we walked up towards the Visitor Centre, a Willow Warbler was singing in the trees and helpfully flew in to a oak right next to the path, where we were standing. While we queued to get in, we could hear two Cuckoos calling, one either side. Then we headed straight out onto the reserve – we had to be back to meet someone for lunch, so we planned to make a quick dash out to Joist Fen and back.

Willow Warbler – singing above our heads

Walking up the track, we kept stopping to listen to various warblers singing. A Reed Warbler was singing half-heartedly from a sallow by the path, where we could see it flitting around, before it dropped down into the reeds and started to sing more strongly. A couple of Common Whitethroats flitted around a little further along. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the reeds. A Blackcap was singing in the poplars.

We stopped at the viewpoint at New Fen. A pair of Great Crested Grebes looked like they might be displaying – facing each other, one and then the other preened a feather on their backs, then one picked up a piece of weed from the water, but changed its mind and threw it away. Both then swam forward, snorkelling, but it came to nothing.

A pair of Bearded Tits flew low across the water and disappeared into the reeds. Another Cuckoo had been calling in the poplars behind us, but now came out onto the edge, high in the tops. We just had a quick look at it, before it flew deeper in again, chasing after another Cuckoo. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds, and a very distant Hobby was high over the trees on the other side of the river but it was impossible to get onto it. A promising start though.

A Bittern boomed. It sounded like it was quite close, so we walked up to the dragonfly platform to see if we could find it, but two people were already there and said it was still hidden in the reeds. We stopped and scanned, but couldn’t see anything either. We decided to head on to Joist Fen. We paused to watch two female Marsh Harriers as they circled up calling, and then noticed a male coming in high carrying something in its talons. It circled with one of the females and then passed the food to her. There were lots of dragonflies in the reeds by the path and flying back and forth in front of us – several Scarce Chasers and a couple of Hairy Dragonflies.

Scarce Chaser – basking on a reed stem

It is always a nice place to sit out at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, and as we rested out legs we spotted a Hobby out over the reeds. It was already quite distant, but as we watched it, we realised there were lots more Hobbys much further back still, very high up, and hawking for insects. We counted at least 17, but some were little more specks and they were very dispersed, so there were probably more. Mission accomplished in finding some Hobbys, but we would have liked better views.

There were more Marsh Harriers, distant too, and a Cormorant on its usual post out in the reeds. Then we got a message to stay the person we were meeting had arrived. It was a quick walk back and then a break for lunch on one of the picnic tables in the shade of the trees.

After lunch, we headed out again, this time up to the Washland Viewpoint. There was a good selection of ducks out on the water, including two drake Garganey. One was still in full breeding plumage, but the other was already moulting, well on its way to drab eclipse plumage, with a patch of grey feathers on the flank and a hint of the white stripe over the eye. There were a few waders here too – a few Avocets, some Lapwings and a Redshank. A male Stonechat was perched on the vegetation just across the river.

Marsh Harrier – circled over the river bank

Walking on up the river bank, a Grey Heron flew past the other side. We could hear Cuckoos calling and Reed Warblers and one or two Sedge Warblers still singing. As we passed New Fen, a Marsh Harrier flew in from the other side of the river and circled right beside us, before flying round us to get to the Fen.

As we got to the far side of West Wood, a Bittern appeared from behind the bushes and flew round over the reeds, across in front of the trees, and dropped back in again further back.

Bittern – good flight views

We dropped down off the river bank to Joist Fen Viewpoint again for a rest. The Hobbys were still there, still very distant. So we decided to try our luck walking further down the river bank, so see if we could get some closer views. As we walked on along the bank, a Lesser Whitethroat was rattling in the bushes. A closer Hobby appeared briefly from behind the poplars, but by the time we got out of the trees, it had disappeared. Still it was encouraging.

We could still see several Hobbys further up, so we walked on a bit further. A Cuckoo was calling in the bushes by the path and we stopped to look at it in the scope. Suddenly four or five Hobbys drifted back our way and started hunting for dragonflies over the reeds. The wind picked up a little, and one or two of them came in low over the river, really close now. We stood and watched as they caught and ate their prey right in front of us and even right overhead at one point. Stunning views!

Hobby – stunning views
Hobby – almost over our heads
Hobby – we were being watched too!
Hobby – supremely fast & aerodynamic
Hobby vs dragonfly – homing in
Hobby vs dragonfly – brace for impact
Hobby vs dragonfly – there could only be one winner!

We spent about an hour marvelling at the Hobbys catching dragonflies in front of us. Then we had to tear ourselves away – it was time to head back. A Common Tern was feeding along the river too. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling in West Wood as we passed. A Cuckoo flew right over our heads by Trial Wood and the Common Swifts were lower now over New Fen in the breeze.

Cuckoo – flew right over our heads

A very memorable few hours at Lakenheath Fen!

1st May 2021 – Nightingales & Forest Birds

A Private Tour today, down in Suffolk to look for and listen to Nightingales singing this morning, then back into Thetford Forest in the afternoon. It was a foggy start to the day, but thankfully the fog cleared just as we arrived. Bright and sunny during the morning, it clouded over progressively by the afternoon, but thankfully the showers held off until after we had finished for the day.

As we parked up and got out of the vehicles, a Blackcap was singing in the trees beside us. The melodic, fluted tones of a Nightingale singing just carried to us from the top of the hill, our main target for the day, so we decided to head up that way first. A Jackdaw was ripping at a large piece of discarded paper in the grass, presumably gathering litter as nest material.

A the top of the hill, a Yellow Wagtail called once as it flew over. Two Chiffchaffs were flitting round in a mostly bare oak, the leaves only just starting to emerge. Three Blackcaps were chasing round between the trees, two males and a female, the former presumably arguing over the affections of the latter.

A little further along, we heard the Nightingale again, but it was only half singing and in a fenced off area, so there would be no chance of seeing it. We stopped to listen to it for a few seconds, then as it moved further back, we carried on. We found another Nightingale singing from a dense area of brambles and bushes where we can often see them, so we stopped again to listen. A Willow Warbler was singing here too, its distinctive descending scale.

The Nightingale went quiet, and the next thing we knew it sang briefly behind us. We turned and just caught it silhouetted on the outside of a hawthorn, before it dropped down out of view. It seemed to go down close to the main path, so we walked round out of the bushes, but a dog walker was just ahead of us and the Nightingale then started singing again back in the bushes.

Nightingale – sunning itself in a hawthorn

We stood out in the open and listened to the Nightingale singing. It was moving around as it sang, and then suddenly it appeared on the outside of a leafy hawthorn in front of us. We got in the scope and had a great view of it, perched face on to us, singing in the sunshine. It turned back on and fluffed up its feathers a little, probably warming up in the sunshine, still singing on and off.

It dropped down back into the bush out of view, and we thought that might be it, but after a minute or so the Nightingale appeared on the outside again. More great scope views followed, as it stayed singing in full view for a good time. Then it flicked back in and, with a flash of its bright rusty tail, it was gone. We stood listening to it still singing but from back deeper in the bushes again now.

Nightingale – spent some time singing on the outside of the bush

A third Nightingale was now singing a bit further over, on and off. This one is in a very thick area of scrub and we thought we were unlikely to see it, but we walked over and stood on the path nearby. As we were listening to it, it flew in and landed in a tree much closer to us. It was half hidden behind the emerging leaves, but we got it in the scope too, before it dropped back down into the undergrowth.

A pair of Linnets were flitting around in the bushes by the path. The female flew in and landed very close to us, carrying some dried grass in its bill, presumably trying to build a nest in the bushes, so we moved away.

Linnet – carrying nest material

Having heard several and had great views of two different Nightingales, we decided to explore more of the site to see what else we could find. A Lesser Whitethroat was singing in a low hawthorn ahead of us, a rattling song but this one had added a short scratchy warble to the end. As we walked up we could see it working its way through the leaves, and it came right out onto the sunny side in front of us.

Lesser Whitethroats can be very hard to see, as they tend to hide deep in dense thorny bushes, but this one had obviously not read the manual. We had fantastic prolonged views of it, as it picked around the flower buds on the ends of the branches. It was obviously finding lots of food there.

Lesser Whitethroat – fantastic views feeding on flower buds in a low hawthorn

When we eventually moved on again, a Common Whitethroat was feeding in another low hawthorn nearby. A good comparison with the Lesser Whitethroat we had just been watching, we could see the browner upperparts and bright rusty edges to its wing feathers. Two Yellowhammers appeared in the same bush with it.

Yellowhammer – the male of the pair

Another Nightingale was singing just ahead of us, so we stopped again. This one was hard to see, moving round, and after a while we realised that it was singing from down on the ground. As we walked on round the bushes, it flew up from in amongst some low mahonia and disappeared back into the bushes. A Cuckoo was singing in the distance behind us.

We stopped again in another area favoured by Nightingales, a small bowl of trees and a sunny edge out of the wind. Sure enough, one was singing from the dense privet understory here too. We waited to see if it might come out onto the edge. Several Starlings were zooming around between the trees and one landed on the open grass, collecting insects in its bill.

The Nightingale wasn’t coming out, and appeared to move deeper in, so we walked round to the other side of the trees. We had a couple of brief glimpses as it flew between the bushes or dropped down to the ground briefly underneath. Then it flew into a particularly dense area of privet, and launched into full song. We stood for a while and listened to the amazing variety of the phrases – beautiful melodic whistles, gurlges, clicks – interspersed with pauses in between. Unforgettable!

The Nightingales had certainly exceeded themselves today – at least seven singing males heard and two seen well. We decided to call it a wrap. We walked back to the cars past a large paddock, where two Grey Partridges were feeding, with a Skylark singing overhead. Lots of Brown Hares were over in the next field beyond. A Kestrel was hovering nearby over the verge, its head perfectly stable as it focused intently on the ground below.

Kestrel – hovering over the verge back by the cars

The original idea was to head to Lakenheath Fen for the afternoon, but now there was a change of plan. Instead, we made our way back into Norfolk, towards Thetford Forest. A Barn Owl was out hunting by the road as we passed, despite it now being close to the middle of the day.

We stopped briefly at Weeting to use the facilities. The hides were occupied (and you have to book in advance at the moment), so we had a quick scan of the fields but there was no sign of the Stone Curlews – presumably they were tucked down somewhere out of view, asleep. Two regular (Eurasian) Curlew were out on the grass though, with several Swallows hawking back and forth too.

Our next destination was Santon Downham, hoping to find Crossbills here. A pair of Stock Doves was on the lawn of one of the houses as we walked down to the bridge. We could see a pair of Mandarin just upstream, so we walked down to get a closer look. Another pair of Mandarin flew over calling, and disappeared off towards St Helen’s.

Mandarin – one of several along the river this afternoon

Back by the bridge, a couple of Marsh Tits were flitting round in the low trees across the river. A Treecreeper appeared too, working its way up the trunk of a small elder. A male Siskin started singing and we watched it songflighting overhead. We heard a Crossbill, but it flew over the trees calling where we couldn’t see it. At least it meant there were still some around!

A Grey Wagtail was singing just the other side of the bridge. It was perched in a low tree by the path, but flew before we spotted it. Thankfully it landed on a tangle of branches in the middle of the river, where we could get a better look at it.

Grey Wagtail – singing down by the river

Another pair of Mandarin were on the river along here too. As we approached the tangled remains of a fallen tree in the river, a Kingfisher shot off ahead of us in a flash of electric blue. Another Crossbill flew over calling, but again we couldn’t see it for the trees. We could hear tapping across the river and eventually a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew out. A smart male Reed Bunting perched up in a small sallow on the bank ahead of us. There were not many insects out today – this cold spring we are having this year has really held back activity – but we did see a Large Red Damselfly along the river bank.

When we heard the next Crossbill calling overhead, this time we looked up to see it land in the top of one of the poplars overhanging the path. More flew in, a small flock, and now we could see at least ten Crossbills perched in the tree high above our heads. We got them in the scope – we got them in the scope and could see their distinctive crossed mandibles and a good view from underneath of the dark arrowheads on their undertail coverts.

We watched them for a while. Some of the Crossbills appeared to be feeding on the poplar flowers, others dropped down through the branches and started picking at the bark. One or two were very red males, others were orange, some with patches of yellow, and quite a few were green. The colour in Crossbills derives at least in part from their diet, but it was clear there were quite a few immature birds in the flock. Then suddenly they all flew off, and we realised there had been at least thirty of them spread over the tops of several of the poplars.

Crossbill – there were at least 30 along the river

Mission Crossbill accomplished, we were getting hungry now. On the walk back, we heard a late Brambling calling, which flew out of the trees and over the river. The Grey Wagtail was still feeding around the tangle in the river, before flying a little further up and then flycatching from a bare branch overhanging the water. Then it was back for a late lunch on the bench in the car park.

To finish the day, we headed round to Lynford. We were hoping to find a Firecrest but walking round the Arboretum it was very quiet now – they are always most vocal earlier in the day and we had hit the mid afternoon lull. We tried several different places where we know they are, but a single Goldcrest was the best we could locate now. Continuing down to the lake, we could hear a Little Grebe laughing, and looking into the reeds we could see one on a nest platform built between two bulrush stems.

Little Grebe – on its nest platform in the reeds

There was more activity down at the bridge, with food having been put out on the brick pillars again. A succession of tits flew in and out, including one or two Marsh Tits. A Nuthatch flew into the trees nearby and watched for a while, before flying down and grabbing a couple of sunflower seeds, which it then took back into the trees to wedge into the bark for later.

We heard more Crossbills calling in the tops of trees high above, which dropped down out of view. When we got to the pool just over the bridge, three were perched in the low trees by the water. There were a couple more in the trees nearby and one by one they dropped down to the waters’ edge to drink. It is thirsty work feeding on pine seeds. Then as quickly as they had appeared, they were off across the paddocks opposite.

Common Crossbill – coming down to drink at the pool

There were three Grey Wagtails around the pool too, flycatching over the warer, and one or two Pied Wagtails as well. A Song Thrush dropped down to the near bank of the water and a Mistle Thrush flew up briefly into the trees. A Garden Warbler was hopping around on the edge of the trees just beyond the water. Two or three Siskins were chasing round the trees by the bridge and a nice bright male perched in the top of an alder by the path to sing.

Then it was time to call it a day and head back.

5th Sept 2020 – Early Autumn Tour, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day, small group, socially-distanced Early Autumn Tour in Norfolk. It was mostly bright with some sunny intervals and although it clouded over for a bit around the middle of the day, the rain (which wasn’t in the forecast!) skirted round to the west and north of us. Another nice day to be out birding.

Our first destination for the morning was Stiffkey Fen. As we walked down along the permissive path beside the road, a Common Buzzard flapped up out of the copse ahead of us. As we got into the trees, a Chiffchaff was singing – not too unusual at this time of year, and possibly a young bird practicing.

There were more warblers in the trees down by the river, as we came across the back end of a mixed tit flock, Blackcaps, more Chiffchaffs and a brief Reed Warbler. Warblers will often join up with the roving tit flocks at this time of year. The flock was moving quickly through the trees and we tried to follow them. They crossed over to the Fen, where we caught them a couple of times through a gap in the vegetation and at one point we had several Long-tailed Tits feeding in one the sallows above us. A Bullfinch was piping plaintively further back.

It was quite breezy this morning, but sheltered down beside the river. There were lots of insects along here – several Speckled Woods and a smart orange Comma butterfly basking on the bushes. A couple of Migrant Hawkers were hawking back and forth across the path and one of two Common Darters were enjoying the sunshine on the vegetation.

Comma butterfly – basking on the bushes by the path

When we got to the point on the path where you can look across to the Fen beyond, we could see a sizeable collection of large white blobs over towards the far corner. Spoonbills! The vegetation is quite tall now though, so it is hard to see clearly from here, so we continued on and up onto the seawall. There were lots of Linnets and Goldfinches on the bushes as we walked out and looked back across the Fen.

We had a much better view of the Spoonbills from here, and we could see that there was indeed still a good number of them. Most were doing what Spoonbills seem to like to do best – sleeping – but one or two were preening and a juvenile was relentlessly pursuing an adult nearby, bobbing it head up and down and demanding to be fed. It was hard to get an accurate count with so many asleep in a tight bunch, but there were at least 44 Spoonbills here and probably a few more than that.

Spoonbills – we counted at least 44 still on the Fen today

The Spoonbills gather here at the end of the breeding season, with most of the birds probably coming from the breeding colony at Holkham. It has become quite a spectacle to see them at this time of year. They will be heading off south at some point this month, so it was good to find we hadn’t missed them yet.

Close to the Spoonbills, a group of pale looking waders were roosting in the shallow water, ten Greenshanks waiting out the high tide here. There was a big flock of roosting Black-tailed Godwits on the island and a group of Common Redshanks over at the back. A scattering of Ruff were feeding on the muddy edges and scanning round the margins of the Fen, we found two Green Sandpipers. We walked a bit further up and looked back to the other side, which produced five more Greenshanks to add to the total.

There were lots of Greylag Geese on the Fen and plenty of ducks, mostly moulting Mallard, the drakes in drab eclipse plumage, but also with a few Wigeon and Teal. A small group of Shoveler were feeding, heads down, in the deeper water in the far corner.

Black-headed Gulls were coming and going, with a large group loafing on the islands and others preening in the shallow water. A single Common Gull in with them allowed a good opportunity to compare. A grey-winged male Marsh Harrier came up out of the reeds at the back and landed briefly in one of the trees.

Looking out across the harbour, the tide was in. It was a big tide today too, so the saltmarsh was flooded with just the tops of the taller bushes poking out above the water. Two Kingfishers shot across, flashing electric blue, following the course of the channel before cutting across the saltmarsh towards the harbour.

There were a few more Redshank out here, and some Curlew out here, and we could see two Knot trying to roost on one of the shingle islands in the distance. There were lots of seals hauled out on the end of Blakeney Point, and we could even hear one barking at one point.

News came through that the Wryneck had been seen again at Weybourne Camp, so we decided to head over there and have a go for that, and we thought we might possibly pick up some things over the sea at the same time. We parked at Weybourne beach and walked west along the coast path. The sea looked disappointingly quiet, but as we got almost to the small group of people gathered staring over the fence across the Camp, we did come across a single Wheatear in the short grass.

Wheatear – feeding on the short grass on the edge of Weybourne Camp

There was no sign of the Wryneck and we were told it had not been seen for the last hour, but there were lots of other birds. Several Stonechats were flitting between the bushes and the short grass, including a couple of still streaky juveniles. One or two Common Whitethroats and a Lesser Whitethroat popped up out of the brambles from time to time.

A Guillemot was pulled out on the beach, lying on the shingle some distance above the receding tide now. It looked like it might be unwell, but could perhaps have just been resting.

Guillemot – pulled out on the beach at Weybourne

There had been a Spotted Flycatcher seen here earlier, and after a while it reappeared on the front edge of the pines, perching on a dead branch where we could get it in the scope. It kept flying off and coming back. There had apparently been a Pied Flycatcher seen on the Camp too this morning, but it is private land, fenced off with a particularly aggressive barbed wire fence, and the bird was not visible from the coast path.

Still, it all hinted that there were some migrants around today, which was supported by the Meadow Pipits which came in off the sea and or our heads, a couple of singletons and a small flock of seven, fresh arrivals coming in for the winter.

Then someone called that the Wryneck had appeared – it had flown up and was perched in some dead branches sticking out of one of the bramble clumps. We got it in one of the scopes quickly, and it stayed just long enough for most of the group to get a quick look, before it dropped down again. We waited a short while to see if it would reappear again, but it didn’t. Those who hadn’t seen it were not fussed about missing it, so we decided to move on. As we walked back along the coast path, a small flock of Knot flew past just offshore – more migrants on the move.

Knot – flew past offshore as we walked back

We drove round to the Visitor Centre at Cley to make use of the facilities and have our lunch on the picnic tables there. Scanning Pat’s Pool from the picnic area, we could see that the three juvenile Curlew Sandpipers we had seen yesterday were still present, albeit they were very distant from here.

After lunch, we could see some rather ominous dark clouds to the west and it was clearly raining offshore. It was forecast to remain dry here all day (not that this means anything!), and we figured the worst of the cloud should miss us, so we decided to head back to Kelling to walk down the lane to the coast. With some migrants around this morning, we hoped we might find something in the bushes here this afternoon.

It was rather cool in the lane with the grey cloud and the freshening breeze. There is normally a good selection of butterflies and dragonflies along here, but the only thing we came across today was a single Willow Emerald damselfly hanging on an overhanging wild rose branch. A single Chiffchaff hooeeted from the copse, but otherwise there were disappointingly few birds on the walk down.

Willow Emerald damselfly – hanging on a rose branch over the lane

There were a few ducks on the Water Meadow – Teal, Wigeon, Mallard – and a few gulls flying in and out from the water. The best birds on here today were two Little Grebes. Three Egyptian Geese flew over and landed on the Quags as we carried on along the cross-track.

The bushes above the track to the Hard produced just a single Stonechat and there was only one Pied Wagtail out on the short grass on the Quags. We walked a short way up the permissive path towards the gun emplacements, and stopped to scan the sea. Another Stonechat was in the bushes here but we couldn’t see anything passing offshore.

It was clear there were no migrants to be found here, so we decided to head back and try something different. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over and landed in the top of one of the trees by the school when we got back to the minibus.

It was a bit of a drive from here down to the Brecks, but when we got there we pulled off the road to scan a large area of pig fields. Almost as soon as we got out, we could see a Stone Curlew out in the middle. They can be remarkably well camouflaged down in the bare stony ground and there is restricted visibility from here, but the more we scanned, the more we found, until we could see at least six.

One Stone Curlew was not too far out, so we got it in the scope and had a closer look, its bright yellow iris, black-tipped yellow bill and rather knobbly yellow legs all helping to give it a rather prehistoric appearance.

Stone Curlew – one of six we could see from our first stop

The Brecks is the most important breeding area for Stone Curlews in the UK, and they traditionally gather together at the end of the breeding season, so it is another must see sight at this time of year. There was a Wheatear feeding out in the pig field here too.

Driving on, we scanned some other fields but couldn’t see any more Stone Curlews at first. Then we stopped at another gateway and scanned the pig fields from here more distantly. They were a long way off from here, but we counted another 15 Stone Curlews giving us over 20 in total, a respectable total, particularly given there are probably only just over 200 pairs in the Brecks.

There was a huge flock of sparrows feeding in the weedy vegetation on the front edge of the pig field. It was impossible to make out any detail when they were feeding down in the vegetation, and not much easier when they weren’t given the distance and a lot of shimmer coming off the stubble field in front. But when a small group of them flew across and landed in the top of a nearby bramble bush, we could make out several Tree Sparrows in with the fifteen or so birds in view. How many might there be in the whole flock?

It was unfortunately not quite as windy here – either the wind had dropped, or it was not as strong inland as on the coast – but we decided to have a quick look to see if there were any raptors up enjoying the breeze. We stopped somewhere with a good vista looking across the forest and got out to scan over the trees. All we could see from here were just one or two Common Buzzards.

We hadn’t been here very long when one of the group saw a large black bird flying over the field away to our right. A Raven? Unfortunately, it disappeared behind the trees just as the rest of us turned to look. We walked round and scanned the sky the other side and had another glimpse of it as it appeared to drop down to the fields beyond the next hedge. It did look like a Raven, so we hopped back in the bus quickly and drove back up the road.

Sure enough, there was the Raven in the field. We got it in the scope and could see its massive bill. At one point, it was harassed by a Carrion Crow, which looked tiny next to it. It was a nice bonus to end with – Ravens are spreading east but are still scarce birds in Norfolk. With a long drive back, we unfortunately had to call it a day.

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.

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!