Category Archives: Brecks

6th June 2018 – Heath, Fen & Forest

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. It was a cloudy start but brightened up through the morning to blue skies and a lovely warm afternoon. A great day to be out birding.

With the risk of heat haze if the sun came out, we went straight to Weeting Heath this morning to see the Stone Curlews. As we got out of the car, a Treecreeper was singing in the car park. We made our way straight down to the West Hide where, as soon as we opened the flaps, we could see our first Stone Curlew.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – one of several on show this morning

The grass here is very long at the moment – the rabbit population has dropped precipitously in recent years, which is proving to be a major issue. Despite this, we had good views of one adult Stone Curlew walking around in a more open patch not far in front of the hide.

A careful scan revealed three more Stone Curlews, hiding in the grass away to the right. As they moved across to where the grass isn’t so thick, we could see they were a family, two adults and a well grown juvenile. It has been a much better year in 2018 so far at Weeting, with two pairs currently raising three youngsters. We couldn’t see the second pair today – they seem to have disappeared off into the long grass at the moment!

A regular Eurasian Curlew was out in the grass too, flashing its long down-curved bill – and looking very different from its namesakes. The two are unrelated – Stone Curlew is named just for its call, which sounds rather like a Curlew, but it is actually a member of the Thick-knee family. Eurasian Thick-knee doesn’t have such a good ring to it!

Having enjoyed great views of the Stone Curlews, we decided to turn our attention to the trees. We had a look for the Spotted Flycatchers just outside the hide but couldn’t find them here today. As we walked up to the small hide overlooking the feeders at the west end, we could hear a Yellowhammer and a Mistle Thrush, both singing across the road.

There was a lot of activity on the feeders. Blue Tits and Great Tits were coming and going and a family of Marsh Tits was perched in the bushes just behind. A Nuthatch made several repeat visits to the seeds too. Several Goldfinches dropped into bathe in the pool in front of the hide.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming in regularly to the feeders

A quick walk back and down to the East Hide failed to reveal any Spotted Flycatchers that end either, though we did see a pair of Coal Tits high in the pines and a family of Long-tailed Tits which flitted quickly through the bushes. The Treecreeper finally gave itself up in the top of one of the pines too.

With a busy morning planned, we headed over to Lakenheath Fen next. A Brown Argus in front of the Visitor Centre was a nice start to our butterfly list. A male Reed Bunting came in to the table below the feeders the other side, where a Reed Warbler was singing from the reeds by the pool, the first of many we would hear today. A Common Whitethroat was singing from the sallows on the walk out, along with Blackcap and a Cetti’s Warbler which shouted at us from the reeds.

There were lots of damselflies in the vegetation by the path. They were mostly Azure Damselflies and a few Blue-tailed Damselflies, but as we walked along, we kept a close eye to see if we could find any others. It didn’t take too long before we found a Variable Damselfly – when it settled, we could see its darker thorax with broken antehumeral stripes, and the distinctive black ‘goblet’ pattern on the segments at the base of its abdomen. A Hairy Dragonfly was patrolling in front of the trees here too.

Variable Damselfly

Variable Damselfly – among the many Azure Damselflies by the path

Continuing on to New Fen Viewpoint, we could hear a Cuckoo singing in the poplars. Rather than linger at the viewpoint itself, where there didn’t seem to be much happening at that moment, we took the path along the bank on the south side.

There were more dragonflies along here and one of the first we found was a smart male Scarce Chaser resting on a reed leaf. We had a good look at it – as well as the blue abdomen with a black tip, we could see the black bases to the wings. There were lots of Four-spotted Chasers along here too and several Red-eyed Damselflies.

Scarce Chaser

Scarce Chaser – a male resting on a reed leaf

It wasn’t only insects on view along here though. A little further on, we spotted a Hobby flying quick and low, skimming the tops of the reeds. We stopped to watch it and it put on an impressive show, hawking back and forth in front of us, swooping low over the pools catching dragonflies, climbing up and then eating them on the wing.

The sun was starting to come out now and the Hobby gradually started to gain height. A second Hobby appeared even higher above it. However, rather than drift off, the first Hobby then came straight towards us and started to hunt higher over the reeds just in front of us, almost over our heads at times. Fantastic stuff!

Hobby

Hobby – hawking for insects almost over our heads

We were so transfixed by the Hobby, we almost missed a Bittern which flew across the channel in front of us. Thankfully we got a quick sight of it, before it then crashed into the reeds the other side and disappeared in. A Marsh Harrier drifted in over the reeds and dropped down over the back. There were Bearded Tits calling here too, but they remained stubbornly hidden in the reeds out of view.

Continuing on, we stopped to listen to two Cuckoos singing in West Wood. They were singing against each other and provided us with a great stereo performance. One was moving around in the poplars in front of us and eventually came closer to the near edge where we had a quick view of it flying between trees. A Black-tailed Skimmer was basking on the track.

We had a quick look in at Mere Hide, but it was rather full with photographers camped out hoping to get a look at one of the Bitterns which has been feeding here periodically. There was no sign of it, so we moved on. The pair of Great Crested Grebes with four stripy-headed juveniles was still on one of the pools by the path, though only one of the youngsters wanted a ride on its parent’s back this morning. One of the adults was busy finding food – catching damselflies above the water surface, to feed to its young.

Great Crested Grebes

Great Crested Grebes – the pair with four stripy-headed juveniles

Joist Fen Viewpoint provided a welcome rest for a few minutes. There were lots of Reed Warblers and Reed Buntings in the reeds here, appropriately enough! Several Marsh Harriers circled up, mostly some way over but a female drifted towards us and across the reeds in front. Three more Hobbys were feeding much higher now, off in the distance.

It was already one o’clock, so we needed to be getting back for lunch. Rather than just follow the main path, we decided to walk back along the bank on the south side of New Fen, hoping for a Kingfisher. As we got up onto the bank, someone there was just pointing out a bird to another couple and as we walked up they informed us that there was a Bittern showing.

We looked across to see the Bittern perched with its neck stretched up, half way up the reeds over below the edge of West Wood, trying to look just like a bunch of reeds. It stayed there for several minutes, giving us a chance to get a great look at it through the scope. The pale blue skin at the base of its bill shone in the sun.

Bittern

Bittern – perched up in the reeds at New Fen

The Bittern had a preen and a shake, and then set off over the reeds, flying right across to the other side before dropping back down into the reeds. We continued on our way back. A Kingfisher called and appeared briefly in a small tree out in the reeds, but flew up out of view before we could all get a look at it.

With the stop for the Bittern, we were rather later back than planned. We had to pop in to Brandon to pick up some food, and after battling with the traffic it was time for a rather late lunch. Santon Downham churchyard provided a convenient location close by to eat. A pair of Grey Wagtails were collecting insects on the roof of the church, presumably to take off to their hungry brood somewhere, presumably down at the river, and a couple Goldcrests were singing in the trees.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – a pair were collecting insects on the church roof

After lunch, we set off to explore the Forest. Our first stop was rather quiet – we had a short walk along a ride to a clearing where Woodlarks breed, but it was hot and sunny now and everything seemed to be in hiding!

At our next stop, we were more successful. We walked along the edge of an army firing range – large swathes of the Brecks are used for battle training. Again, it seemed rather quiet at first. That was, until the heavy artillery started up just the other side of the fence! There were repeated volleys – Boom! Boom! – as the big guns fired and the air reverberated around us. Not great for trying to find birds you might think, but the Woodlarks were as surprised as we were and took off from the trees just the other side of the fence.

The artillery went on for ages and the Woodlarks wouldn’t settle again. They kept flying round, calling. Every time they landed, they were spooked by the next volley. The only benefit was that, eventually, they flew and landed on the fence in front of us. They stayed just long enough for us to get a good look at them in the scope, and then they were off again.

We decided to retreat. There were lots of butterflies in the grass along the path as we walked back, mostly Small Heath which fluttered up ahead of us. Another Brown Argus perched briefly on a flower to feed.

Small Heath

Small Heath – there were lots in the grass today

Even though it was still hot and sunny and in the mid afternoon lull, we decided to try our luck with a brief visit to Lynford Arboretum. We heard a couple of Siskins flying round calling over the pines as we walked in and a Stock Dove was whooping from the trees, but there was nothing of note in the garden of the cottages today and it was fairly quiet as we walked down towards the bridge.

Down at the bottom of the hill, some movement in the trees caught our attention and we turned to see a small bird swoop out from a branch, loop round and then land back on the branch again. It was a Spotted Flycatcher. We stopped to watch it for a while, hunting for insects from the trees in a small clearing on the edge of the wood.

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatcher – hunting for insects on the edge of the trees

While we were watching the Spotted Flycatcher, we caught a glimpse of a small bird flying up into the fir trees opposite. We walked up and found it feeding in one of the outer branches, a Goldcrest. A quick look round the lake produced lots of Common Blue Damselflies, a couple of Emperor Dragonflies and a Little Grebe hiding in the reeds, as well as the regular other wildfowl.

There was still time for one last stop before we were due to finish, so we headed back into the Forest. We parked up by a ride and walked in to a clearing. The Tree Pipit kept us waiting a tantalising couple of minutes before it gave in and started singing. It landed on the wires in its usual place and sang from there for a while – we had a great view of it through the scope here.

Tree Pipit

Tree Pipit – singing from the wires again

A second Tree Pipit started singing behind us, from a young oak just the other side of the path. The two of them matched each other song for song for a while, until the first launched itself into the air and fluttered up singing, before parachuting down into the grass just across the path directly opposite the oak tree. The second Tree Pipit responded – not a full on song flight, but fluttered down singing to the ground nearby.

Unfortunately, given the height of the vegetation, we couldn’t see what went down, but after a couple of minutes the first Tree Pipit fluttered up singing again and parachuted back down onto the wires where it had been before. Territorial boundaries re-established? A smart male Yellowhammer was singing from the edge of the trees too.

It was a lovely way to end the day, listening to the Tree Pipits singing in the clearing. It had been another great day in the Brecks, so we set off for home.

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3rd June 2018 – Early Summer, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of Early Summer Tours, our last day, and we would be heading down to the Brecks today. It was meant to be brighter with sunny intervals today, after the overnight mist burnt back to the coast, and it was eventually although it took a bit longer than forecast.

Our first stop was at Weeting Heath and we made our way straight out to the West Hide. As soon as we opened the flaps, we could see there were plenty of Stone Curlews on view – it was more a questions of how many! The closest birds were a pair with two well-grown juveniles. We had a good look at them through the scope. We could see their large eyes with a prominent yellow iris. The juvenile Stone Curlews were still slightly smaller than the adults and with less well-marked face patterns and wing bars.

Further over were four more adult Stone Curlews, presumably non-breeding birds, at least so far. Two of the birds appeared to be trying to pair up, bowing in display to each other. This had attracted the attention of the other two, who stood tall nearby. There was lots of running round and some calling too.

Stone Curlews

Stone Curlew – a pair bowing to each other while a third looks on

While we were watching the Stone Curlews, a Eurasian Curlew flew in calling and landed out on the grass with them. Stone Curlews are not really related to Curlews at all – just that their calls sound rather similar, which is why they got their name. They look very different too. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were lost in the long grass, but helpfully flew across in front of the hide.

As we came out of the hide, we noticed some movement high in the pines. A pair of Spotted Flycatchers were flying round in the trees, catching insects. They were high up and hard to follow at times. After a while they disappeared back into the pines and we lost track of them. There were also a couple of Coal Tits in the trees here, and we could hear a Treecreeper singing. We had a busy morning planned, so we couldn’t hang around here too long today.

We made our way on to Lakenheath Fen nest, which we wanted to explore before lunch. As we came out of the Visitor Centre, a Kingfisher flew from the reeds, out of sight just below the boardwalk. It headed off back across pool, a streak of electric blue catching the light. It landed briefly on the post at the back and appeared to have something in its bill. Unfortunately, it didn’t hang around and was straight off back over the reeds beyond.

As we walked out along the path, we could hear a Cuckoo singing. It flew out of the poplars ahead of us and out over the railway, the first of several we would see here today. There were Reed Warblers and a Sedge Warbler singing from the reeds beside the path. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us too. And a Common Whitethroat and several Blackcaps were singing in the trees.

From New Fen Viewpoint, we could see an adult Great Crested Grebe. A large stripy-headed juvenile swam out to join it, pestering it for food or a lift, with little success. There was not much else of note visible though, so after rest, we set off again.

As we walked along the bank, scanning the pools and the reeds, our first Bittern of the day flew up over the reeds in front of us. It flew across past us, before eventually dropping back down into the reeds behind us. A great start! We could hear another male Cuckoo singing further along and when we got there, we found it flying in and out of the sallows.

Cuckoo

Cuckoo – flying in and out of the bushes, singing

The male Cuckoo perched up nicely a couple of times, and seemed to be focusing its attention on one large sallow bush. Then we realised it was chasing a female Cuckoo which was hiding in there. The two of them emerged and chased each other in and out a couple of times, perched up briefly, and then headed away over the reeds.

It was starting to warm up, even if it was still cloudy. There were good numbers of dragonflies out now – lots of Four-spotted Chasers in the reeds by the path, occasionally flying up before returning to their favoured perch. In amongst them we found a couple of female Scarce Chasers too, lacking the four extra spots on their wings. Several Black-tailed Skimmers were basking on the path, and kept flying off ahead of us before resettling further along. We saw a couple of Hairy Dragonflys and an Emperor here as well.

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser – there were lots of them in the reeds today

There was a nice selection of damselflies here too. A smart male Banded Demoiselle fluttered across the reeds in front of us. There were lots of Azure Damselflies in the vegetation by the path and looking carefully through a small selection of them we managed to find a Variable Damselfly with them. The vegetation also held plenty of Blue-tailed Damselflies and a few Red-eyed Damselflies too.

As we got to the junction with the path to Mere Hide, we spotted a Hobby coming fast and low over the reeds. It was after the dragonflies too. We watched it swooping back and forth, occasionally swooping up or skimming low just over the reeds, dropping down over the Mere Hide pool. We got a great look at it as it passed right in front of us a couple of times. Then it flew up and disappeared into the West Wood.

Hobby

Hobby – chasing dragonflies over the reeds in front of us

Continuing on up the path, we stopped to watch another pair of Great Crested Grebes on one of the pools. They had four juveniles, quite a bit smaller than the one we had seen earlier. The youngsters were chasing around after the adults, trying to hitch a ride. One adult Great Crested Grebe kept diving to get away from them, but the other eventually stopped preening and relented.

The juvenile Great Crested Grebes climbed up onto the adult’s back. It appeared there was only room for three though – we could see their heads poking out from under its wings, but the fourth juvenile swam round beside them.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – three of the juveniles hitched a ride, but no room for the fourth

It was all action here, we didn’t know where to look. While we were watching the grebes, another Bittern flew towards us the other side of the path. We turned in good time to see it coming and watched as it passed by us just a short distance away. We had a great view of it, like a brown speckled heron, with a fatter neck.

From the photos we could see the Bittern was a ringed bird, probably the same one we also saw here in pretty much the same spot last year.

Bittern

Bittern – we had a great view as it flew right past us

There was a dapper male Reed Bunting singing on the other side of path, perched up on the top of a reed stem demanding our attention too. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from all the birds here and we continued on up to the Joist Fen Viewpoint.

From here, we could see several Marsh Harriers circling up over the reeds, and a couple of them perched in the sallows out in the middle. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted from the bush just beside us. We were just discussing how we would only see it if it flew out, when it did just that, flying right across in front of us to the elders the other side.

After a rest, we set off to walk back. We called in at Mere Hide on the way. There had been a Bittern on the edge of the pool earlier, but it had gone back into the reeds now. However, while we were there another Bittern flew across over the reeds in front of us and yet another one was booming in the reeds out to the left of the hide. Bitterns everywhere! There have been 10 booming males here this year, a record for the reserve. Not bad considering there were just 11 in the whole of the UK in 1997, at their lowest point.

It was just a quick stop in Mere Hide, as we had to get back for an already late lunch. The sun was out now, and it was getting quite hot as we walked back. It was nice and cool in the Visitor Centre, so we ate in there today. Most of the group could not resist the cold drinks from the fridge and the ice cream went down very well too!

After lunch, we made a quick visit to Lynford Arboretum. We were hoping for a few woodland birds to add to the list, but it was rather quiet here in the heat of the afternoon. We stopped by the gates to look into the walled garden and hear a Nuthatch calling. We looked up to see it in the pines at the back. It was carrying some food in its bill, and then dropped down to a nestbox on the wall, where a nestling’s head popped out to be fed.

Shortly after we had watched the young Nuthatch being fed, a Kestrel swooped low across the grass in front of us pursued by a couple of Swallows. It crashed onto the front of the nestbox and then sat on the top. It looked like it might have been after the Nuthatch nestlings, although without the adult there they were presumably not at the hole on the front. After sitting on the top of the box for a couple of minutes, the Kestrel flew off again, chased by the Swallows once more.

Kestrel

Kestrel – was it after the Nuthatch nestlings in the box below?

While we were watching all the action in the garden, we heard a Grey Wagtail flying over behind us. When we got back onto the path, it was standing in the middle just round the corner, back towards the road. It stood there for a few seconds preening, before flying off.

As we made our way down to the lake, we could hear several Siskins flying round high above the trees. A Goldcrest was calling in the firs down at the bottom of the hill and we had a nice view of it when it came out onto the branches on the edge. Another Nuthatch flew across the path and up into the trees where we could hear it piping.

Round on the lakeside path, the pair of Mute Swans had brought their two cygnets out of the water and the male would not let us pass. Eventually, he gave in to the pressure of us trying to walk on and led them back into the lake. A Little Grebe laughed from out on the water, and we saw one surface out on the lake among the lily pads. The walk back through the Arboretum was uneventful, apart from a Common Lizard which was basking on the path and scuttled off ahead of us.

There was one last target for the day – Tree Pipit. So we drove back into the forest and parked by the start of a ride. The walk in and round the first clearing was quiet, apart from a Garden Warbler singing from bushes. There were more butterflies out now in the sunshine – as well as several whites, we saw a couple of Orange Tips, one or two Painted Ladys, a few Common Blues and a Large Skipper.

Large Skipper

Large Skipper – there were lots more butterflies out this afternoon

We walked on through the trees to a second clearing, and could immediately hear a Tree Pipit singing towards the back. As we made our way round to the other side we could see it song flighting, towering up singing and then parachuting back down to into the top of one of the trees. After one flight, the Tree Pipit landed on some wires, and we got it in the scope. We had a great view of it, even noting the strongly curved hind claw.

Tree Pipit

Tree Pipit – singing and song-flighting from the wires over a clearing

Another Tree Pipit started singing away in the distance. Then one of the group noticed a small bird flying across the clearing behind us, which landed on the top of a tall tree stump out in the middle. We got it in the scope and could see it was a Woodlark. When they aren’t singing they can be very hard to find here, so this was a very nice bonus. It perched for a while before dropping down into the tall grass below.

It was now time to start walking back. On the way, a small flash of colour sped past us, not right for any butterfly. It landed down in the grass briefly and we could see it was a Cream-spot Tiger moth, its black upperwings marked with bold creamy splodges. Then it was off again – revealing its bright red abdomen and yellow underwings. They are not a common moth and in Norfolk are found mainly in the Brecks.

It had been a very successful last stop, a great way to finish off the three days. We had seen some really good birds and some other interesting wildlife too.

1st April 2018 – Easter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a two day Spring Tour over the Easter weekend. After more rain overnight, it was meant to stop in the early hours and then brighten up this morning. It was a bit slow coming, remaining stubbornly cold, grey and misty until midday, but at least it was mostly dry, just spitting with rain from time to time. Then the sun came out early afternoon, which made for a very welcome change, and we were quick to capitalise on it!

Our first destination for the morning was Santon Downham. As we walked down to the bridge from the Forestry Commission car park, we could hear Bramblings wheezing in the trees and we managed to find a couple around the garden with the feeders.

Brambling

Brambling – in the trees by the garden with the feeders again

 

We took the new path down beside the river. A Green Woodpecker laughed at us from somewhere in the distance and a Nuthatch was piping high in the poplars. A Grey Wagtail was singing quietly around one of the tree trunks in the middle of the water. We watched as it fed around the piles of vegetation washed up around the branches, before it flew off back towards the bridge.

Their squeaky calls announced the arrival of a pair of Mandarin Ducks, which flew towards us along the river. They gained height and landed in the branches of the poplar tree just opposite us, on the other bank. There seems to be a very good number of them along the river this year and we were never far away from a pair all morning, mostly to be heard flying up and down the river and through the trees.

Mandarin

Mandarin Duck – one of several we saw along the river this morning

 

Carrying on down the path, we could hear Redwings chattering and singing in the alders across the river and looked across to see lots of them perched in the tops of the trees. A female Siskin was trying to come down to the ditch beside the path to drink or bathe, and kept flying further along ahead of us, until we got to the corner where it stopped and we could have a closer look at it. There were several Long-tailed Tits along here too and we could hear a couple of Marsh Tits singing from the other side.

Our real target here was Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but as we got to one of their favoured areas all seemed very quiet. We stood and listened for a while, as we scanned the trees, but not even the Great Spotted Woodpeckers were up to anything this morning. In the cold and damp, nothing was singing and there were generally few birds in the poplars.

We continued on a little further and stopped again. Three Grey Wagtails flew past us, heading downstream, one of the males singing as they passed and a little while later they came back the other way. One of the males then returned alone and stopped to sing on one of the fallen trees lying across the river close by – possibly he had been chasing off a rival pair which had entered his territory. A Kingfisher flew in and perched on the fallen tree too, for a minute, before zooming off upstream in a flash of electric blue.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – singing from one of the fallen trees across the river

 

Eventually a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers appeared. The first was silent, and flew off over our heads and across the river, but it was quickly followed by a second which called as it landed in the poplars and stayed for a minute before flying off. There was still no sign of the promised brighter intervals!

We were about to give up when we heard too brief bursts of drumming, the distinctive faster, longer drum of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. It was coming from somewhere back along the path, though we couldn’t tell which side the river. By the time we got back to where we thought it might have been along the path, which was muddy again and slippery from all the rain, it had gone quiet once more. We waited a while to see if it would do anything again, but it was clear we weren’t going to get much of a performance given the weather this morning, so we headed back.

On the walk back along the path, a Yellowhammer was calling from over by the railway line and we got it in the scope, a smart male. Another pair of Yellowhammers were on the ground under the feeders back in the garden by the bridge.

We paid a brief visit to St Helens picnic site to see if we could find the Woodlarks there, but the field next to the car park was empty today. A Grey Wagtail was singing down by the river, we heard another pair of Mandarin Ducks, and there were large numbers of Redwings in the poplars across the river here.

It seemed to be drying out a bit and the darker grey clouds appeared to have lifted a touch, so we decided it was possibly our best chance of finding a Goshawk now. We could also eat lunch while we waited. We were encouraged by the sight of several Common Buzzards starting to circle up as we arrived and then a Goshawk appeared low above the trees. Unfortunately it dropped quickly back behind the treeline, before everyone to get onto it. Very frustrating – would that be it?

Thankfully, as we were scanning the trees to see if it would reappear, one of the group noticed a raptor high overhead and we watched as an adult Goshawk flew across in front of us. It started to display, flying with slow, deep, deliberate wingbeats, then stopped to circle for a few minutes away to our left, before dropping away behind the trees.

The weather continued to improve as we ate our lunch – some patches of blue sky appeared and we could even finally feel a bit of warmth from the sun. We were then treated to an impressive performance from the Goshawks. First, what was presumably the same bird we had just been watching reappeared, circling up with a second Goshawk away to our left. They both appeared to be adults, and we watched as they started to display and chased each other back behind the trees. Then we picked up a different adult Goshawk, away to our right, which circled up and had a brief tussle with a couple of Common Buzzards.

Next, we spotted two more Goshawks displaying away in the distance – this time one of them was a juvenile, orange-tinged below and brown above as it turned in the sun. It appeared to be a big bird, presumably a female, and it chased after the adult which was with it.

Goshawk

Goshawk – one of several birds which put on a great show for us

 

Unfortunately we only caught the back end of one of the Goshawks as it dropped down into the trees right in front of us, but helpfully it circled back up after a few minutes, giving us our best views of all, before it flew off away from us. We thought it was the same bird which we noticed circling further back a few minutes later, but through the scope we could see that this one was a juvenile, possibly a young male, with gaps in its wings, so different from the juvenile we had seen earlier.

There were other birds to distract us here too, when we weren’t watching the Goshawks. A Red Kite circled lazily behind us and a Sparrowhawk flew up from the trees, with bursts of rapid flapping, very different from the Goshawks. A Curlew called a couple of times and then burst into its delightful bubbling song as it circled down into the grass behind us. There were several Skylarks singing constantly now, but then a Woodlark flew in overhead calling and dropped down into the grass too, where we could get it in the scope.

It was a really impressive display from the Goshawks today, and far better than we could have dreamt of in the cold and damp weather this morning. After lunch, we decided to head off and try our luck elsewhere. With the sun shining now, we figured the Willow Tits might start singing and we were quickly rewarded. As we walked into the plantation with the feeding tables, one started singing almost immediately.

We followed the song, as we thought it might come out on the sunny edge of the trees, but the Willow Tit moved deeper into the plantation. We could hear it singing and occasionally calling too. Then it went quiet. We walked back to the feeding tables, figuring it might do a circuit, and watched all the commoner tits and Nuthatches coming in to the seeds. A Marsh Tit put in an appearance too.

When the Willow Tit started singing again, it sounded like it was heading slowly back towards us, so we watched the edge of trees hoping it would come out. Then it went quiet for a minute and the next thing it started up again on the other side of the track, behind the second feeding table. It carried on singing but was moving deeper into the plantation away from us again.

The plan was to spend the afternoon at Lynford Arboretum, so we headed over there next. As we walked in along the track, there were a few tits and a Nuthatch coming to the fat balls in the cage in front of the gate. A few Chaffinches were feeding on the ground and a Marsh Tit dropped in briefly too.

The Hawfinches have been seen most reliably in the paddocks in the last few weeks, so we decided to make our way straight down there. Down at the bottom of the hill, before we got to the bridge, we heard Goldcrests calling and looked up in the top of a couple of tall fir trees to see them flycatching, after lots of small midges buzzing around the branches.

There was a sharper call too and then a Firecrest started singing from the deciduous trees behind us. We had a great view of it as it flitted around in the bare branches.

Firecrest

Firecrest – singing down by the bridge

There was not too much seed left out on the pillars of the bridge, although a smart male Reed Bunting was feeding on one. We added a couple of generous handfuls of sunflower seeds and then continued on down towards the paddocks, figuring we would come back and see what was coming in to the seed on our way back.

When we stopped at a gap in the hedge to scan the paddocks, we could see lots of Redwings down in the grass. Something spooked them and they flew up into the trees out in the middle. Scanning through the tops, a Hawfinch appeared with them,  in the top of one of the hornbeams. It was a smart male, rich chestnut coloured and with a neat black mask and bib. We got it in the scope and admired it massive cherry stone-crusher of a bill.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – a smart male in the trees in the paddocks

After we had all had a really good look at it, the Hawfinch eventually dropped back down towards the ground under the biggest clump of trees. The Redwings were mostly down here too and, scanning through, we could see several Chaffinches and a smart male Brambling too. A Treecreeper appeared on one of the trunks in amongst them.

When something spooked all the Redwings again, they flew off towards the Arboretum. We expected to find the Hawfinch up in the trees again, but there was no sign of it this time. Perhaps it was still hiding somewhere on the ground. We decided to walk back.

There was very little on the lake today – although a couple of Little Grebes laughed maniacally at us from the reeds – so we headed back to the bridge. As we stood and watched, a steady succession of tits came in to the sunflower seeds we had put out earlier. We had great close views of the Marsh Tits here in particular.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming in to the sunflower seeds at the bridge

There were two or three Nuthatches coming in and out here too – always great birds to watch and nice to see them up close.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – close views down at the bridge again

 

There was still one last thing we wanted to try to do this afternoon, so we made our way back to the car. We wanted to try to find a Stone Curlew, so we headed over to an area where we have seen some in recent days. We had a quick look in some pig fields first – which produced a couple of Oystercatchers, a few Shelduck and a group of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The Stone Curlews were in here late in the afternoon last week, but not today.

Then we went to look in another field where the Stone Curlews can sometimes be found. There was no sign of them here either at first, just a couple of Red-legged Partridges. But scanning really carefully, we spotted the top of a head just poking out in some stubble. We got the scope on it and eventually the head of a Stone Curlew appeared. We could see its bright yellow iris when it opened its eye and its black-tipped yellow bill.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – almost impossible to see in the stubble

The Stone Curlew was incredibly well camouflaged, perfectly coloured against the faded yellows and browns of the stubble. Until it moved, it was almost impossible to see. Then we realised there was a second Stone Curlew nearby when it moved! After watching them for  while, it was time to head for home.

It was a wonderful way to end the tour, watching the two Stone Curlews. Looking back, we had enjoyed some great birds over the two days we were out together. The weather hadn’t made it easy at times, but it just goes to show what you can find when you get out and look!

27th March 2018 – Brecks Birding Again

A Private Tour down in the Brecks today. The forecast earlier in the week was for heavy rain all day, which by yesterday was tempered to heavy rain clearing mid morning. As it was, we didn’t get any heavy rain at all, although it did rain in the morning and stayed stubbornly grey and misty all afternoon. Still, the weather almost never stops us getting out and seeing some good birds.

Our first target for the day was Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. As we parked in the Forestry Commission car park it was drizzling still, so we donned boots and waterproofs and set off. On our way down to the bridge, we could hear Bramblings singing in the trees – more of a wheeze than a song. We found several in the trees by the feeders and had a good look at one male in particular which perched nicely above us.

Brambling

Brambling – several were singing down by the bridge

 

As we set off along the river bank path, a Treecreeper was singing in the first poplars and we eventually located it in a tree right above the path. A little further along, we found a Chiffchaff flitting around in the sallows above the ditch. This was the first of several we came across this morning, feeding low down along the edge of the river.

Although there has been the odd Chiffchaff singing here in recent weeks, these seemed like they might be new arrivals, returning for the summer.

Chiffchaff

Chifchaff – feeding feverishly along the river bank

We hadn’t gone much further when two Kingfishers flashed past, one over the reeds on one side of the path and the other back past us along the river. With a shout of ‘Kingfisher‘, half the group watched one as half saw the other and only afterwards we realised we were looking at different birds!

The Kingfisher which had flown along the river landed in one of the bushes overhanging the water just behind us, where we had a nice look at it, before it dropped down into the river and then flew off again.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – one of the two which flew past us simultaneously

As we were walking on along the path, we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call in the distance. Unfortunately, it was a long way back from the river and on the other side to us. We stood for a minute or so and listened in case it should call again, but it would be impossible to see it here anyway, so we decided to carry on to another favoured spot and try our luck there.

A little further on, and we found our first Mandarins of the day, a pair. At first we noticed the female, on a grassy pool just beyond the far bank. Then the drake swam out into view too. Stunning birds, and the first of many we would see today – they were hard to count!

Mandarin

Mandarin Duck – our first pair of the day were on a grassy pool by the river

It was non-stop action along the river bank at first, but once we got to the area where we hoped to find the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, all was quiet at first. As we walked slowly along, scanning the trees and listening carefully, we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker calling and drumming and then found it high in a poplar by the river.

There were flocks of Redwings in the trees too and Siskins flying back and forth. We heard a couple of Marsh Tits singing and found a pair of Nuthatches flying around high in the trees. Thankfully the rain eased off a little as we stood and waited.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long. A series of sharp ‘ki,ki,ki,ki…’ calls alerted us to the arrival of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and a few seconds later we spotted it as it flew over to another tree. We got it in the scope and could see it working its way up a dead branch high in one of the poplars. It stayed just long enough for everyone to get a quick look at it through the scope, and then flew across to another.

We could still see the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker through binoculars, but it was on the move constantly. When it flew again, we lost sight of it in the branches further along. We walked up to where it had seemed to land, and a minute or so later flew again. This time it seemed to go a long way, although again we lost sight of it from where we were and couldn’t see whether it had flown across the river.

We walked back slowly along the path, listening and scanning the trees, but the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker didn’t call again, so perhaps it had gone away across the river. Having seen it already, we decided not to wait any longer for it to reappear and started to make our way back. Another pair of Mandarins had been flying round constantly as we waited and now we found them perched up in the trees beside the river. A different male landed on the water below, before they all flew off again.

As we got back to the bridge, a pair of Siskins were flitting around in the sallows and the male started songflighting. We had a quick look in the poplars by the road, but all was quiet. When we got back to the car, we heard Mandarin calling and looked up to see a group of five flying over the trees up towards the church.

It was time for a coffee break, so we drove down to the picnic area at St Helens. As we got out of the car there were lots of Redwings chattering in the trees. A male Grey Wagtail was singing from the handrail of the footbridge before flying off upstream. Yet another pair of Mandarins flew over calling and dropped down towards the river.

The coffee stop was quickly interrupted as a pair of Woodlarks dropped down into the cultivated field nearby. We managed to get one of them in the scope, but they quickly flew again, the female Woodlark up into a nearby beech tree while the male started to sing, fluttering round in circles on butterfly wings over the field.

Woodlark

Woodlark – the female turned out to be colour-ringed

 

When the female Woodlark dropped down into the field again to feed, much closer this time, we could get a better look at her. We could see that she was colour-ringed, with a combination of different coloured plastic rings. This normally would allow us to find out the details of where and when she was ringed and has been seen since, but at the time of writing this is proving harder to find out than it should! We watched as the Woodlark crept around in and out of the clods of earth.

It had stopped raining now, but it was still showing no signs of brightening up. We had been hoping to look for Goshawks, but we knew it would be difficult in the cold, grey and misty conditions. We headed over there anyway, but took a detour on the way to see if we could find any Stone Curlews. They are only back in very small numbers so far, possibly not a surprise given all the recent cold weather, and they proved elusive today too.

We did have nice views of a Tree Sparrow in a hedge while we were looking. There were a few Shelducks and a couple of Oystercatchers in the pig fields. A rather pale Common Buzzard was perched in a tree, but a second Buzzard flew low past us and we noticed a Red Kite circling over a nearby wood. The first raptor activity we had seen today.

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow – hiding in the hedge

 

 

 

It was time for lunch so we decided to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and headed over to an area to try our luck for Goshawks. As we ate, we scanned the trees, but there was not a single raptor visible, not even a Common Buzzard up here today. A little group of Yellowhammers perched up in a bush with a couple of Reed Buntings. Several Roe Deer were out feeding in the edge of one of the fields and a pair of Greylag Geese were hiding in the winter wheat too.

The highlight was a pair of Curlew which flew in calling and circled down slowly into one of the fields. They are still very scarce breeders here, so it is always good to see a pair presumably back on territory.

After lunch, we decided to move on and try our luck with Willow Tits instead, while waiting to see if it might brighten up. We walked in to an area of plantation where some feeding tables have been set up for them. Just as we arrived, a brief sighting on one of the tables looked good for a Willow Tit, but it didn’t hang around or reappear.

As we stood and watched for a few minutes, a succession of Coals Tits, Marsh Tits and other tits came in and out. Then a Willow Tit started singing from the trees nearby. We followed the song, and eventually found a Willow Tit high in one of the pines. It seemed like there might be a pair here today, as at one point there appeared to be two birds present.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – out hunting in the early afternoon

 

It was still cloudy and grey, but it felt like the cloud had lifted a little, so we thought we could have one last look to see if there were any raptors up. On our way round, we spotted a Barn Owl on a post out among the bushes in a grassy meadow. They can be seen out hunting much more often in the daytime at the moment, probably still hungry after the recent snow.

Our efforts were rewarded with a lone Red Kite which appeared briefly above the trees, but there was still no sign even of any Common Buzzards taking to the air. Then the cloud base descended again and it started to rain once more, so we decided to admit defeat.

 

Our final destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. Thankfully we drove out of the rain and it was dry again when we arrived. As we got out of the car, we noticed a small bird flitting around in one of the deciduous trees by the car park and a quick look confirmed it was a Firecrest.

Firecrest

Firecrest – flitting around in the trees by the car park

 

It was hard to make out any detail on the Firecrest at first, high in the trees, but it would periodically chase after an insect on the wing and flutter down lower, where we could see its strongly marked face pattern and brighter green upperparts than a Goldcrest. A second Firecrest then started singing from one of the fir trees nearby, but it was presumably deep in the thick foliage and we couldn’t see it.

We made our way quickly down towards the paddocks, stopping briefly to look at the feeders from the gate. Even though there were more fatballs today and more seed spread on the ground, it was rather quiet here, just a few tits and a Chaffinch. There was very little seed left out for the birds at the bridge, so we added a couple of generous helpings of sunflower seeds and headed down to check out the paddocks.

As we walked up to a gap in the hedge, one of the group spotted the first Hawfinch high in one of the hornbeams. We had a good look at it through the scope – it was a smart male, bright chestnut coloured. Shortly afterwards, it was joined by a duller grey-brown female and then a second male Hawfinch appeared with them too.

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – a bright male up in one of the hornbeams

 

When the Hawfinches all dropped down out of the tops of the trees, we scanned the ground underneath. We couldn’t see them there, but we did find a female Hawfinch right out in the open, in the middle of the grass with the Redwings! It hopped around for a couple of minutes, in and out of the tussocks, picking at the ground, before it flew back to the trees.

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – this female was hopping around in the middle of the grass

 

Having enjoyed great views of the Hawfinches, we made our way back to the bridge to see what was coming in to feed on the seed we had put out earlier. There were plenty of tits coming in and out, and we had great close views of several Marsh Tits here. Three different Nuthatches kept zooming in to grab beakfuls of seeds too.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming in for sunflower seeds down at the bridge

Then suddenly all the birds spooked and disappeared off into the trees. We looked around but couldn’t see any sign of something which might have frightened them. We decided to go and have a look around the lake. As we set off along the path, a quick look up into the trees in the paddocks and we noticed lots of birds in the tops. A closer look through the scope confirmed there were now at least seven Hawfinches here, though they were hard to count from here as there were several well hidden in the branches.

The Hawfinches all gradually dropped down through the branches, and we continued on. A Treecreeper was feeding on the trunk of one of the trees by the path and proved remarkably tame, allowing us to walk almost alongside. A second Treecreeper appeared too and we followed them for several minutes as they moved ahead of us along the path.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – great views feeding by the path beside the lake

There were not many ducks on the lake today – just a couple of pairs of Gadwall and a Mallard or two. Two Canada Geese were on the lawn beyond, along with several Moorhens. Our final pair of Mandarins for the day flew over the paddocks calling. We could hear Little Grebes laughing at us and eventually found one hiding in the reeds.

It was time to start heading back now. A quick glance back over the trees revealed a large, long-winged, long-tailed raptor in the distance, flying steadily towards us out of the clouds. Through the scope, we could see it was a Marsh Harrier, not what we were expecting here and possibly a bird migrating back north. When we got back to the bridge, the birds had all returned to feed again, including a female Reed Bunting now.

Then it was a nice gentle walk back to the car and off to make our way home. Despite the difficult weather, we had enjoyed a great day out and seen a very good selection of Breckland birds.

25th Mar 2018 – Coast & Brecks Weekend #2

Day 2 of a two day weekend of Bird Tours, and we were heading down to the Brecks today. The clocks went forward last night, so we had lost an hour of sleep but gained an hour relative to the birds clocks which we could use to our favour! It was forecast to be cloudy in the morning and brighten up in the afternoon.

With the chance in the clocks, we figured we could afford to be ‘later’ looking for Goshawks today, so we started off heading out to look for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers first. When we arrived at Santon Downham, there seemed to be lots of people standing around looking for Parrot Crossbills, but our priority was the woodpeckers so we headed straight down to the river. A Kingfisher was in the bushes by the bridge, but flew off upstream as a large group of people arrived.

As we walked down along the new path beside the river, we could hear Bramblings wheezing in the trees and looked up to see one perched high in a poplar. Another Kingfisher was perched in one of the branches of a tree which had fallen into the river, but flew off when it saw us approaching. A pair of Mandarins flew past us along the river, before circling round and coming back through the trees where they landed high in one of the poplars. They are tree-nesting ducks and were probably looking for a suitable nest hole.

Mandarin

Mandarin – one of a pair which perched high in the poplars

 

We had been told that the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had been around earlier this morning, but they had not been seen for around half an hour when we arrived. We stood and listened to see if we could hear them, and were rewarded with the wrong woodpeckers.

First, we could hear a Green Woodpecker laughing at us from the trees on the other side of the river. It gradually worked its way towards us and finally appeared on the dead trunk of a tree. Then we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and shortly after another calling across the river. One eventually appeared in the top of one of the alder trees where we could get it in the scope.

That was a nice start, but not the one we were looking for. There were some other birds around – a Nuthatch appeared in the trees too, there were plenty of tits including Marsh Tit singing, Siskins zipped back and forth overhead and a big flock of Redwings flew up into the tops of the trees before heading off over our heads and across the river.

When we noticed a couple of people look up at a small bird heading towards us from the Suffolk side of the river, we looked up too to see a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker coming out way. It flew in over our heads and we thought it would land in the poplars in front of us, but instead it carried on over the trees and dropped down somewhere over the back, way off in the distance. At least we had seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but it was not the views we were hoping for this morning.

Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long. After about ten minutes, we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call and one of the group spotted it right in the top of one of the poplars. We got the scope on it and everyone had a good look, before it flew towards us and landed in another tree a little closer. It perched there for a couple of minutes, in full view, before flying again and this time heading back over the river and away, off in the direction from where it had flown in earlier.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – perched in the top of the poplars

 

Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are declining rapidly in the UK and we still don’t know why. So it was great to see one and to enjoy such good views of it. Even better, we got the full set of woodpeckers for the morning! With our main target achieved, we headed back along the path.

There were some Siskins in the alders on the other side of the river and when we stopped to look at them, one of the group asked whether we might see any redpolls too. Right on cue, we heard a redpoll calling and looked up to see one fly across and land in the top of one of the poplars by the path. Through the scope we could confirm that it was a Lesser Redpoll and a second bird, a smart red-breasted male, flew in to join it.

We had heard a Grey Wagtail calling back at the bridge earlier, while we had been distracted by the Kingfisher, but we hadn’t seen it. A quick scan from the bridge again when we got back and we spotted it picking around the base of one of the tangles of branches down along the bank just upstream. We walked up along the path beside the river and got it in the scope, a smart male Grey Wagtail with black throat.

There was still no news on the Parrot Crossbills, which had been coming in to drink in one of the ditches close by on the previous two days. It seemed like they must have decided to drink elsewhere again today. We had a quick look back at the area where they had been seen, which produced nice views of a singing Marsh Tit  and a Common Buzzard which circled low overhead.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – circled low overhead

 

The churchyard at Santon Downham can be a good place to see Firecrest, so we had a wander up to look there. We heard several Goldcrests singing but not their scarcer cousin. It feels like the Firecrests have been slightly slow to get going this year, possibly in response to the colder weather in recent weeks. A Treecreeper appeared in the trees by the road too.

As forecast, the cloud was now starting to break and patches of blue sky were appearing. It felt quite a bit warmer too. A Sparrowhawk circled up over the village, flapping vigorously between glides, reminding us that it was getting to raptor o’clock and we should be heading off to look for one of our other targets soon.

We walked back down towards the car, stopping to look at the feeders by the bridge where a smart male Siskin was singing above our heads. The Kingfisher was showing well again, perched in the trees just by the bridge.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – showing well by the bridge today

As we made our way over to look for Goshawks, the sun was out and the air was warming up nicely. Even though it was already after midday, to the Goshawks it was still late morning – perfect timing! When we arrived, there were already several Common Buzzards circling up above the trees. We hadn’t even had time to get the sandwiches out before we picked up our first Goshawks.

The initial ones we saw were rather distant. An adult male Goshawk was soaring high in the sky away to our right. Then a young male circled up above the trees too and started to display, flying across with slow, deep, deliberate wingbeats first before launching into a series of rollercoaster swoops, diving down, then turning sharply up, climbing vertically before stalling at the top and repeating over again. It gradually lost height, dropping down behind the trees.

Then another adult Goshawk appeared, a little bit closer. As it circled up it attracted the attention of one of the local Carrion Crows which decided to chase after it. The Crow mobbed it for several minutes, the Goshawk just jinking out of the way occasionally. After gaining height, it drifted off over the road and away to the west, until we lost sight of it, with the Crow still pursuing it.

We were busy watching the original young male Goshawk, which had come up again, when one of the group noticed yet another Goshawk circling up in front of us. This one, a different adult, was much closer, and we had a great view of it as it circled up, pale grey above and almost white below. It gained height very quickly, before drifting off north.

Goshawk

Goshawk – one of at least four on view over lunch

After that one disappeared, we turned our attention back to the young male Goshawk which was still displaying away to our right. The adult male was up again too now, and had clearly decided to chase off the interloper. It started to display, slow flapping, and headed straight towards the youngster, which decided to head off, and we lost it behind the trees.

In between all the Goshawk action, we had even found time to eat our lunch! There were other raptors up too – in addition to all the Common Buzzards, a Red Kite circled up and two Kestrels hovered over the field behind us. We had been really spoilt with raptors now, so we decided to head off and try something else.

We made our way round to a clearing to look for Woodlarks next. We thought they might be singing now, with the sun having come out, despite it being the middle of the day, but it was surprisingly quiet. We had a quick walk round, but it was rather disappointing – the only birds of note we saw were a Linnet singing in the tops of the trees close to where we parked and a smart male Yellowhammer perched in a low bush calling. A couple of Common Buzzards circled over, including a very pale bird, almost pure white below.

We decided to try something else and made our way over to Lynford Arboretum. As we walked in along the path, we had a great view of a couple of Goldcrests busy feeding low down in the larches. There was very little food left in the feeders from the gate and almost no birds down in the leaf litter, so we headed straight down towards the paddocks.

There were lots of birds coming down to the food put out on the pillars of the bridge. We stopped just long enough to admire a variety of tits, including several Marsh Tits which were coming in and out repeatedly, giving great close views.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – great views coming in to the food put out at the bridge

Hawfinch was our main target here, so we didn’t wait too long before continuing on down to the paddocks. We were quickly rewarded, as almost instantly something spooked all the finches and Redwings feeding under the trees out in the middle and we saw two larger birds with obviously white-tipped tails fly up. They were a pair Hawfinches and we got them in the scope as they dropped down to the ground again.

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – this duller grey-brown female showed very well

 

Over the next few minutes, the Hawfinches were continually dropping down to the ground and flying back up into the trees above, generally spooked by a cock Pheasant which insisted on calling loudly from time to time and shaking its wings, upsetting all the other birds. We had particularly good views of a female Hawfinch, which perched on a dead branch lying on the ground for a minute or so at one point, and then showed very well in a low hawthorn, climbing about in the branches and feeding on the leaf buds.

When two Hawfinches flew up from the trees and off towards the Arboretum, we though at first that was the pair we had been watching, but looking back at the hawthorn the female was still there in the branches. Then we noticed a male Hawfinch had appeared and was perched slightly higher up. Through the scope, we could see his much richer chestnut colouration, really striking in the afternoon sun.

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – the more richly-coloured male perched up too

 

 

When the Hawfinches finally disappeared back into the trees, we decided to walk back to the bridge. We topped up the seed mix on the pillars with a generous handful of sunflower seeds, and the Nuthatches appeared to appreciate it, coming in and out regularly to grab a beakful.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming in to grab some sunflower seeds

As well as all the tits coming and going, there were Chaffinches and Dunnocks too. The Siskins were not here for the seeds, but were feeding in the alders nearby and we had great views of a bright male just above our heads.

 

Siskin 2

Siskin – this smart male was singing above our heads

It was time to start making our way back, so we walked up to the car park. We stopped for a minute and listened, but there was no sign of any Firecrests singing here either today, although it was hard to hear anything at times with all the cars and people coming and going. Then we noticed some movement high in one of the fir trees and as we looked up with binoculars, a Firecrest flitted out and landed on a branch.

Unfortunately, by the time the rest if the group had made it over, the Firecrest had disappeared and been replaced by a Goldcrest instead. It was a frustrating few minutes before the Firecrest finally appeared on the edge of the next fir tree along and we all had a good view of it flitting in and out of the branches high above our heads.

We still had time for one last stop on our way back. The first Stone Curlews which had returned a week or so back had become rather elusive since the snow, so we weren’t sure we would be able to find them today. We stopped to scan the field where they often like to roost during the day, but there was no sign of them. A Tree Sparrow in the hedge nearby was some compensation.

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow – appeared in the hedge while looking for Stone Curlews

 

The Stone Curlews are not in the pig fields so often at this time of year, but we decided to have a look anyway just in case and there they were, three Stone Curlews. We got them in the scope and had a good look at them, noting their staring yellow eyes and short yellow and black bills. They didn’t appear at all concerned by the pigs walking either side of them!

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlews – unconcerned by the pigs walking past!

That was a great way to end the tour, watching the Stone Curlews out in the field. It had been a really enjoyable couple of days with some good birds and excellent company. Time to head for home!

19th March 2018 – Brecks & Fens

A Private Tour today down in the Brecks, but with a difference. We had a specific list of target species, which meant we would aim to spend the morning in the Brecks themselves and the afternoon at Lakenheath Fen and the surrounding area. After a frosty night, it was a lovely bright, clear, sunny day, but cold in the still blustery NE wind.

After an earlier than normal start, we headed out to look for Stone Curlews first. A few early birds have already arrived back and presumably must be regretting it! It had snowed a little yesterday and the fields were covered in a light dusting of snow this morning.

The first field we checked, where we had seen them a couple of days ago, was empty today, apart from a couple of Red-legged Partridges. We checked out the other field they favour and at first it appeared devoid of life too until somebody noticed two shapes huddled up tight against the hedge – the Stone Curlews. They were clearly trying to get out of the cold wind, despite the fact they were up to their knees in snow!

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – one of two sheltering from the wind in the snow this morning

The Stone Curlews walked out a short distance into the field, where we had a very good look at them through the scope, before they headed back in to the shelter of the hedge once more. Further over, out in the middle of the field, a pair of Grey Partridge were trying to hide in one of the wheel ruts.

Goshawk was another target for the day, but it was still a bit cold for them to be up. We drove round via a good site for them but a quick scan from the warmth of the car revealed very little aerial activity. There were several Fieldfares feeding on the ground out in the field nearby, along with a couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Chaffinches. We would come back later, when it had warmed up a little (relatively speaking!). In the meantime, we headed off to look for Woodlarks.

As we walked along the ride past the first clearing, there was quite a bit of snow covering the ground. It didn’t look especially promising. The second clearing we looked in was even worse. There is some farmland just beyond the forest here, and we figured they might have moved out to the fields to look for food, so we headed over that way.

As we walked past the third clearing towards the fields, we heard a Woodlark call and looked across to see two come up off the bare ground beyond. They flew over towards us and did a circuit of the clearing, calling to each other. The male twittered, but never really broke into full song. While one of them flew quickly back to the fields, the male Woodlark landed in the top of a small oak tree on the edge of the clearing, where he did start to sing rather half-heartedly.

 

We walked round to the oak tree for a closer look and got the Woodlark in the scope, getting a good look at it before he took off and flew away over the clearing and dropped down again onto the field beyond. Satisfied with what we had seen, we turned to go but we hadn’t got very far before a pair of Woodlarks flew in calling again. They circled round and landed only a short distance away from us, in a small patch in the clearing which was relatively free of lying snow.

Woodlark

Woodlark – a pair flew in and landed in a snow-free patch in the clearing

 

As we walked back to the car, it was still very cold in the wind but it felt like the sun was starting to get a bit more warmth to it, so we headed off to look for Goshawks. We hadn’t been there long before the first Common Buzzards started to appear, first one or two, then a group of three circled up behind.

Not too long afterwards, a Goshawk circled up too. It was rather distant, but through the scope we could see it was an adult, pale grey above and bright whitish below, a male by the looks of things. It didn’t gain much height as it circled, drifting slowly across and eventually dropping back down behind the trees. It wasn’t the best view, but at least we had seen a Goshawk. It was rather cold here standing out in the open, so we decided to head off and look for something else.

Willow Tit was the next species on the list. We drove round to a spot where some feeding tables have been set up in the hope of tempting them in. As we walked up the ride, a Redwing appeared in the trees by the path.

The feeding tables were well stocked with sunflower seeds and a steady stream of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits were coming in to take advantage, or flitting around in the pines nearby. A Marsh Tit appeared in the trees by the path – a bit too plain and grey compared to the one we were hoping for. We had nice views of a Nuthatch climbing down a tree trunk here too.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were lots around the feeders today

 

We didn’t have to wait long before we heard a Willow Tit, a male singing deep in the plantation behind one the feeders. For a minute or so, it sang repeatedly, a series of loud, ringing ‘tseeooo’ notes, and it seemed like it might be working its way towards us. Then it went quiet. We scanned the edge of the trees in case it came out but about ten minutes later, we got two more ‘tseeooo’s from about the same place, and that was it.

It gradually became clear that was all we were going to get for a while. We were about to leave when we looked up and saw a raptor circling low over the trees – a Goshawk. It disappeared back over the trees but a couple of minutes later, we saw it fly across the ride further up, closely followed be a second Goshawk. We thought there was a good chance they might start to display, so we walked up to a spot where there was an opening in the trees.

When we got there, we could see one of the two Goshawks still up above the pines. It was hanging in the wind, not really displaying, but with its white undertail coverts puffed out. It was a much better view than the distant one we had seen earlier. It gradually drifted away and dropped down behind the trees again.

Goshawk

Goshawk – hanging in the wind, with its undertail coverts fluffed out

As we walked back, the two Goshawks appeared again, high over the ride. The male was displaying now, way up in the sky, flying with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, while the larger female circled below.

Apart from actually seeing a Willow Tit, we had found all our Brecks targets already, and had very good views of all the rest of them. We decided to head off and try something different – we could always swing back round here on our way back later.

Common Crane was next on the list, which meant a drive over into the edge of the Fens. We had a look round several of the places they like to feed and, after stopping to check through various Greylag and Canada Geese off in the distance, we spotted a lone Common Crane flying over the meadows. It dropped down behind an area of thick rushes, where it started to feed.

Common Crane

Common Crane – on its own today

There is usually a pair of Common Cranes here and they are rarely seen apart, so hopefully the fact that it was on its own may suggest that this pair are getting down to breeding already.

It was getting on to lunchtime now, so we made our way round to Lakenheath Fen next, where we stopped for a bite to eat. After lunch, we headed out towards the Washland viewpoint. There were lots of Reed Buntings around the feeders outside the visitor centre.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – along the river from the Washland viewpoint

 

As we walked up onto the river bank at the Washland, the first bird we saw was a Great White Egret, a short distance away to the east along the river. Just behind it, a swan on the edge of the reeds turned out to be a lone Whooper Swan. They are not often on their own here and this one didn’t look entirely well, so perhaps it had been unable to follow the rest of the Whooper Swans back towards Iceland.

There were lots of ducks out on the Washland too, mainly Shoveler, Wigeon and Shelduck. A couple of small parties of Tufted Duck were down on the river, along with a few Teal.

The bird we had really hoped to see here was Water Pipit. There are usually quite a few along the river here, but they can be horribly elusive. Today, however, our luck was in as we quickly spotted one picking around one of the islands of rushes just below the viewpoint. It appeared to be in moult, gradually losing its streaked underparts before gaining the brighter pink breast of summer plumage.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – in the middle of moulting to summer plumage

Spoonbill is an unusual bird down here – much commoner up on the coast – so it was not one we had predicted as a possible today. However, following news that one was here yesterday, we had learnt at the visitor centre that it was still present today, along the river. We hadn’t ventured far from the Washland viewpoint, when we spotted a large white shape further downstream, feeding along the far bank. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Spoonbill.

We walked up the bank until we were roughly opposite the Spoonbill and had a good look at it. We could see the yellow tip to its spoon-shaped bill, the mustard wash across its breast and a flowing crest blowing around in the wind, suggesting it was an adult.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – on the river bank opposite New Fen

 

We were now opposite New Fen, so we cut back in onto the reserve. A pair of Gadwall and a couple of Little Grebe were the only new birds here. With out targets achieved so quickly, we decided not to walk out around the rest of the reserve and made our way back to the visitor centre.

Willow Tit was the only one of the species we had set out to see today which still eluded us, so we decided to head back over for one more go, on our way back to where we had started the day. When we arrived, we met a couple of people leaving who told us that it had just been singing and calling pretty constantly, but remained rather elusive.

Siskin

Siskin – had now joined the tits on the feeding table

 

We walked back up to the feeding stations, where a smart male Siskin had joined the tits down on the sunflower seeds. We stood and watched the comings and goings for a while, but it started to seem like we might be out of luck. Then we heard a Willow Tit calling in the plantation on the other side of the ride, a deep, nasal scolding. Once again, it sounded like it might be heading our way, so we stood and scanned the edge of the trees.

This time the Willow Tit did come out, but it flew from the tops of the pines of one side of the ride, right over our heads. It appeared to be dropping down towards one of the feeding tables, but then seemed to go down into the bushes beyond. We focused on the feeding table, expecting it to make a visit there, but we didn’t see it. The next thing we knew, it started singing from the pines behind.

The Willow Tit was not far into the plantation this time, so we followed the song and found ourselves standing below the tree where it was. It sang and sang for about 10 minutes, but even though we knew exactly which tree it was in, it was almost impossible to see. It was high in the top and not moving. Eventually, it started to move and we get a quick look at it when it came to the outer branches of the tree, before moving off and going quiet.

Perhaps not the best view ever of a Willow Tit, but at least we had seen it now. It meant we had completed the set, all the target species we had set out to find today. With long journeys back and after our early start, we decided to call it a day and head for home.

17th March 2018 – ‘Mini-Beast’ in the Brecks

A group tour today down in the Brecks. With the so-called ‘Mini-Beast from the East’ due to arrive with us overnight, we were forecast plunging temperatures, blustery easterly winds and snow flurries. Not exactly ideal conditions – but as we know, forecasts are notoriously unreliable these days.

When we looked more closely, the detailed forecasts were not necessarily that bad, the worst of the snow was predicted to fall on Saturday night, there was just 10-20% risk of precipitation during daylight hours today (Apparently! It turned out to be a bit more than that.) and there was even the chance of some sunny intervals. With the group keen to give it a go, we pressed ahead (despite two of the group dropping out at the last minute, early in the morning). We were all very glad we did!

A quick check on the way confirmed a Stone Curlew was in one of its regular locations, tucked down in a field, so after meeting up down in the Brecks, we headed straight out to see it. Unfortunately, by the time we got back there just a short time later, there was no sign of it. It had started to snow now and, although it wasn’t settling, it was whipping across the field on the blustery wind. We decided to have another look later, once the weather calmed down again.

We headed off into the forest to look for Woodlarks instead. They should be singing at this time of year, but in the cold and snow they were quiet early this morning. We walked round the edge of a couple of clearings where they are regularly to be found, but it was very quiet. So we decided to try to find a more sheltered spot. As we walked down a ride between two plantations, several Song Thrushes were feeding on the path. Two Great Tits and a pair of Coal Tits had dropped down to feed in the grass on the edge of the trees.

As we came out of the plantations, there were open fields on one side of the path. Scanning over the trees beyond, we saw a big flock of Woodpigeons erupt in the distance and a few seconds later picked up two raptors tussling even further off behind. They looked like Goshawks – one of our main targets for the day – but unfortunately as we tried to get everyone onto them, we lost them in the swirling snow. They had probably dropped straight back down out of view. It didn’t feel like our lucky day.

Fortunately, our luck was about to change. We made our way round to another clearing which was more sheltered behind the trees. As we walked up, we could see a big flock of Fieldfares and Redwings out on the far side, flying up periodically and dropping down into the grass. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was calling in the pines beside us and we could hear a Goldcrest singing too.

Walking quietly along the most sheltered edge, we heard a Woodlark call. It was very quiet, and it seemed like it might be way out in the clearing, but they are great ventriloquists and often sound much further away than they really are. We stopped and scanned, then as we turned a Woodlark came out of a furrow not ten metres away from us! We had a great view of it, as it picked its way through the grass – we could see its bold pale supercilium and, from behind, they way they met in a shallow ‘v’ at the back.

Woodlark

Woodlark – feeding quietly in the grass very close to us

We stood quietly and watched for a while. Suddenly a second Woodlark appeared, next to the first. A pair were feeding here together, the male occasionally uttering a brief song phrase, while he accompanied the female. They could be nesting soon, as soon as the weather improves, so the females in particular need to feed up now. The two Woodlarks gradually worked their way away from us, back the way we had just come.

The snow had eased off now, so we headed over to another part of the forest to have a go to see if we could find any Willow Tits. Walking down along the ride, it was very quiet at first, until we came to an area with two feeding tables set up. There were lots of tits constantly coming and going, and in amongst the commoner Blue, Great and Coal Tits, we picked out one or two Marsh Tits. They would dart in, grab a seed, and dart back to the bushes nearby. But there were no birds singing today and few even calling, which would make our chances of locating the Willow Tits much more difficult.

We hadn’t been there long when the sky started to brighten. First we could see the sun through the clouds, then we saw a patch of blue above us. It even started to feel a little milder! We could wait and see if the Willow Tits started to sing now, but this was probably our best chance to see a Goshawk today. The latter was our real priority today, so we hurried back to the car and headed round to a nearby site to try our luck.

On our way, we spotted a Red Kite circling over a field beside the road, a good sign. It was already clouding over again when we arrived, but as we got out of the car, a Common Buzzard was hanging in the wind over the trees. We only had to wait a few minutes before we picked out two Goshawks in the distance.

The two Goshawks were chasing each other, gradually getting closer towards us. It appeared to be an adult after a juvenile, presumably trying to chase it out of its territory. We got them in the scope so everyone could get a good look at them. One dropped down into the trees, sending the Woodpigeons scattering. The other turned and headed towards the road, keeping low and eventually dropping below the tree line too.

Goshawk 1

Goshawk – one of three we saw this morning, when the weather improved

It was a bit brighter still on the other side of the road, and first one Goshawk crossed away in the distance, then another came over much closer, scattering the Lapwings and Starlings from the fields behind. Remarkably, one of the Goshawks, the juvenile, then started to display over the trees, starting with a bout of slow-flapping with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, then doing a quick rollercoaster dive before turning back up vertically.

Even better, a third Goshawk then appeared over the field too, another juvenile, this one with rather tatty wings. We watched it as it headed over to the trees at the back too, and once again managed to get good views of it in the scope here. A couple of minutes later, we picked one of them up again, circling up high in the distance.

Goshawk 2

Goshawk – the rather tatty-winged juvenile

To have such good views of Goshawks on a day like today was a real bonus. But they do like the wind, more so than a bright but still day, which undoubtedly helped, as well as the briefly brighter skies. We were glad we had hurried over. We were then given a tip off that two Stone Curlews had been seen flying across to one of the other fields, back where we had started out this morning, where they had taken shelter along the edge. Having had such good views of the Goshawks and with the snow still holding off, we decided to head straight round there next.

When we arrived, we had a quick scan around the field edge from the other side of the road, but couldn’t immediately see anything. As we walked up to the hedge, suddenly a Stone Curlew flew up from the long grass on the far side of the field and helpfully landed right out in the middle. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it – the staring eye with bright yellow iris really stood out.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – flew out and landed in the middle of the field

The Stone Curlew stood in the field for a couple of minutes, then ran across towards the other side in stages, stopping still for a while each time, before eventually disappearing from our view behind the trees. It was great to catch up with it here this time.

With three of our main targets for the day already seen and seen well, we decided to have a go at catching up with Lesser Spotted Woodpecker next. Unfortunately, when we got to Santon Downham we found that the footpath alongside the river had been closed.

This footpath is always muddy and slippery in winter, particularly if you try to walk along the sloping parts of the bank which appear superficially drier. A few days ago, a birdwatcher down looking for the woodpeckers had unfortunately slipped and seemingly broken her ankle. It is not an easy place for the emergency services to access anyway and there seemed to be a misunderstanding initially that the casualty was stuck in the mud, which she was not. There was quite a response as a result – two fire engines, fire support vehicles and two fire officers’ cars, one ambulance, one paramedics car, and a police car!

Hopefully the birdwatcher concerned was eventually rescued without too much distress and we wish her a speedy recovery. However, in the light of this incident it appears the Forestry Commission have closed off the whole footpath for an indefinite period, which means there is no access to look for the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in their favoured spot.

We contented ourselves with a quick walk round the area instead. There were lots of Chaffinches and Goldfinches in the trees, plus a couple of Marsh Tits, one of which was singing beside the road. A large flock of Redwings, about 50-60 strong, flew up from the paddocks and into the poplars by the river, along with a group of Starlings. A Great Spotted Woodpecker landed high in the poplars too.

A quick look at the feeders in the garden by the bridge revealed several Bramblings. A brighter male showed particularly well, on the ground and perched in a nearby tree, as well as several slightly duller females.

Brambling

Brambling – several were in the gardens down by the bridge

We had intended to eat our lunch down along the river bank, but instead we drove down to St Helens picnic area. It was quiet and fairly birdless here today, so after eating and having a quick look down at the river, we decided to make our way round to Lynford Arboretum.

As we walked in along the track past the Arboretum, we stopped for a quick look at the feeders from the gate. There was very little food left, just a few fatballs in the cage feeder which had attracted a handful of tits. Nothing was feeding on the ground here this afternoon.

Continuing on down the hill towards the bridge, a Redwing was feeding under the trees with a couple of Blackbirds. The latter flew off, but the Redwing appeared pretty fearless. Perhaps it was hungry, and we had great close views of it as it probed around the base of the trunks, hiding in the buttresses, or hopped out across the grass between the trees.

Redwing

Redwing – this fearless individual was feeding around the base of trees

There was no food put out for the birds down at the bridge either this afternoon, but thankfully we had brought a bag of sunflower seeds with us. Within seconds of spreading some out, first the Blue Tits arrived, quickly followed by Great Tits and Marsh Tits. This is a great place to get close up views of the latter in particular.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming down to sunflower seeds at the bridge

Eventually the Nuthatches got involved too, with several different individuals coming in to the seed from time to time. They are a bit shyer than some of the other birds, and spent quite a bit of time perched in the trees nearby before making a very swift visit.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – waiting to come down to the sunflower seeds at the bridge

There were other birds here too. Robins, Dunnocks and Chaffinches came in to investigate the seed too. Several Long-tailed Tits were hanging on one of the feeders which still had a couple of fatballs left. We heard a Treecreeper calling but it didn’t show itself today. There were lots of Siskins in the alders and we watched a male singing and displaying to a female above our heads.

After a while, a large group of people out for an afternoon stroll came down along the path beside the lake and stopped on the bridge. We took this as our cue to go and look for Hawfinches in the paddocks. As we walked down along the path beside the fields, towards one of the larger gaps in the hedge, we could see lots of Redwings in the hornbeams in the middle, along with a Mistle Thrush.

It was not forecast to snow again until later tonight, but at that point a thick flurry started once more, which for a minute or two made it difficult to see into the trees. It eased off a bit and we did manage to have a good look, but there was no immediate sign of any Hawfinches there and very few other finches feeding below the trees today. When all the Redwings and Chaffinches which had been there spooked and flew off towards the Arboretum, we decided to go for a walk round.

There were several pairs of Gadwall on the lake and two Canada Geese on the lawn in front of the Hall, along with several Moorhens. We could hear a Little Grebe laughing at us, but didn’t see it here. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was in the trees beside the path, before flying off behind us as we passed. A little further on, we flushed a drake Mandarin from the water under the trees beside the path, which flew off into the wood beyond, and we eventually found two Little Grebes tucked in under the overhanging vegetation, fast asleep.

Circling round through the trees, it was fairly quiet, apart from the far side where a Marsh Tit called as it came in for some seed. As we made our way round to the far side of the paddocks, we stopped to look in the top of the firs beyond, to see if any Hawfinches were coming in. It was snowing quite heavily now, although at least it was still not settling on the ground, and the wind seemed to have picked up again, which meant it was hard to see them perching in the tops of the trees for long.

It felt like we might have run out of luck at the last hurdle, but as we walked back beside the paddocks we could see all the Redwings were now busy feeding under the hornbeams. We have seen the Hawfinches feeding in with the Redwings before, so we stopped for another careful scan and there was a cracking male Hawfinch down on the ground. We all managed to get a good look at it through the scope, before something spooked all the birds and they flew up into the trees.

Making our way back up to the car park, we had nice views of a Goldcrest in the low fir trees here. We continued on to the old gravel pits beyond, where there were not as many ducks as there have been in recent weeks. There were plenty of Tufted Ducks and a few Cormorants. A flock of Gadwall dropped in, accompanied by a few Teal. On the larger pit, it was pretty exposed – the pair of Great Crested Grebe were still present, but swimming around at the back.

With occasional flurries of snow still falling, it was time to call it a day and head back to the warmth of home! Once again, we had seen the benefit of getting out despite the weather and giving it a go, seeing all the main species we might have hoped to see today.