Category Archives: Brecks

19th Feb 2018 – Rain Doesn’t Dampen Enthusiasm!

A Private Tour in the Brecks today – with some specific target species to look for, rather than a general day’s birding. The weather forecast was poor – heavy rain on and off all day – to the extent that there were even questions as to whether we should go at all. However, as we have seen so many times, all is not as bad as it seems, particularly where Met Office forecasts are concerned! It was still damp, with mist or very light drizzle for most of the day, but nowhere near as bad as forecast. We went out anyway and saw lots of good birds regardless. It is amazing what you can find when you get out…

Our first destination was Santon Downham, where we would be spending the first part of the morning looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. A Stock Dove was whooping from the trees as we got out of the car, another sign that spring is on its way. The feeders in the garden down by the bridge held a few finches and tits, and a Nuthatch flew off, up into the alders by the river as we passed.

It was drizzling with rain as we walked along the river bank. A pair of Siskins were feeding on the alder cones and catkins that had fallen onto the path and flew off ahead of us as we approached. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flitted through the trees over our heads. A Redwing flew up into the alders on the other side of the river. A Reed Bunting was singing from the reeds and a Marsh Tit was signing from the poplars a little further on.

Siskin 1

Siskin – feeding on the path along the river bank

As we rounded the corner, we heard a woodpecker call from the trees. It called again – yes, it was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! It was high in the back of the poplars and we had to adjust our position to try to see it, but just caught sight of it as it flew. It landed in some birches further back, out of view, calling again. It was on the move all the time, not staying still for even a second. Then it flew up into the bare branches in the top of another poplar behind where we just managed to get the scope onto it as it dropped back out of view. But it was all too quick to get everyone onto it.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called again a couple of times and then, after just a minute or so, we picked it up flying out towards us. It looked like it might go high over our heads, but fortunately it turned and dropped into the very top of one of the poplars. We had a good view of it through binoculars this time, and even got everyone onto it in the scope, at least briefly, before it flew again and dropped down into the alders on the other side of the river.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

At least we had seen it, but it felt like that might be it. We stopped to watch some of the other birds. There were lots of Redwings in the trees today and a flock of about twenty Siskins flew back and forth across the river.

Then we caught sight of some movement and watched as the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew across and landed low down on one of the trunks on the near side of the bank of trees. This time we had a great view of it as it pecked and probed in the bark. It was the female, with a dark rather than red crown, and we could now appreciate just how small it was – only around the size of a sparrow.

We watched the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker for several minutes, gradually working its way up the tree, before it flew off up high into the alders and out of view. A Great Spotted Woodpecker then appeared in the trees nearby and we got that in the scope too. We could see it was much bigger, with an obvious red patch under the tail.

Very pleased with getting such good views of our first target, we headed back along the path. At the garden by the bridge, a couple of Bramblings had appeared at the feeders but flew off as a car passed. We made our way up to the churchyard to look for our next target – Firecrest. But it was still drizzling at this stage and all was quiet. There were not even any tits or Goldcrests in the trees, just a noisy Nuthatch.

The Parrot Crossbills have been very elusive at times in recent weeks and with the weather today too, we didn’t hold out much hope of seeing them. We drove along to the car park north of the level crossing to have a look anyway. They haven’t been drinking in the car park recently, but have been coming down at times to the ditches in the cattle fields, so we had a walk round that way.

This is usually a good area for Woodlark but there was not even any sign of those this morning. We did find a pair of Treecreepers climbing the trees in the edge of the paddock and a couple of Jays which flew off ahead of us.

There was no sign of the Parrot Crossbills at St Helens either, nor could we find any Woodlark here today. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding out in the cultivated strip and we could hear a Grey Wagtail singing and looked across to see it perched on the handrail of the footbridge. A quick look down at the river failed to produce anything of note either.

We decided to have an early lunch back at the level crossing car park then afterwards walked back along the road to the bridge. A Kestrel flew through the trees, our first of the day. A Green Woodpecker laughed at us in the distance. But there was no sign of much else of note here, so we decided to move on and try something different.

When we got to the car park at Lynford Arboretum, we walked across to look in the fir trees. We had only just started to say that this is sometimes a good place for Firecrest, when a tiny green bird flitted into the bare branches of a small deciduous tree in front of us. A Firecrest – right on cue!

Firecrest

Firecrest – singing today, at Lynford Arboretum

The Firecrest flew up into a fir tree nearby and we watched as it flitted around among the branches for several minutes, giving us a great view of its head pattern, the prominent white supercilium and black eye stripe lacking in Goldcrest. It dropped back into some low fir trees and disappeared but a couple of seconds later we heard it singing. We walked over to find it above our heads in a beech tree by the road. Having missed it at Santon Downham earlier, it was all the better to catch up with Firecrest here now.

Walking down through the Arboretum, we stopped at the gate to look at the feeders. The fat balls were coated in Blue Tits feeding feverishly. The ground was coated with birds too, coming down to the seed sprinkled liberally among the leaves. A Marsh Tit dropped in among all the Great Tits. There were several Chaffinches feeding in the beech leaves too and a couple of Bramblings appeared with them, a brighter orange male and a duller female.

Brambling

Brambling – feeding with the Chaffinches in the leaf litter

Down at the bottom of the hill, there was no seed put out for the birds at the bridge today, so it was rather quiet. A Goldcrest was singing high in a fir tree. We decided to have a look round by the lake first instead. There were lots of Siskins along the path and here too they were feeding mostly on the ground today. We stopped to watch two bathing in a wet marshy area under the trees. Three Nuthatches were chasing each other through the branches.

Siskin 2

Siskin – a male bathing in a puddle under the trees

We had already had a quick scan of the hornbeams out in the paddocks from the start of the path, but now we heard a distinctive metallic ‘ticking’ call coming from the trees. We found a convenient viewing gap and looked across to see at least three Hawfinches chasing each other through one of the hornbeams. There appeared to be two brighter males and a female. As the males flew through the branches, they spread their tails, showing off the white tip. This is the start of their spring display, a precursor to pairing up, something great to watch.

As the chasing subsided, one of the Hawfinches then stopped in the top of the tree and started to preen. Here we could get a really good look at it, through the scope. We could see the massive bill and head, powerful enough to crack a cherry stone!

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – taking a break to preen after a bout of chasing display

After watching the Hawfinches for several minutes, they moved further back into one of the other trees. We continued on round the lake. There were a few wildfowl on here as usual – a couple of Mute Swans, a single Greylag with several Canada Geese, and a couple of pairs of Gadwall. We were in agreement today, that Gadwall really are an underrated duck compared to some of their gaudier cousins!

Gadwall

Gadwall – always deserving of a promotional photo!

Firecrest and Hawfinch were our main target species at Lynford this afternoon, so having caught up with them so quickly, we had a bit more time to play with. We decided to head off into the forest again and have another go to see if we could find any Woodlark.

On our way, we stopped to admire a large flock of thrushes in a field, a mixture of Fieldfares and Redwings. The Redwings were easily spooked and kept flying up into the trees nearby, while the Fieldfares largely continued to feed unconcerned. A single larger Mistle Thrush was lurking at the back too.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare – we came along a large mixed flock with Redwings in a field

We parked at the start of a forest ride, by a large clearing, and as soon as we got out of the car we could hear a Woodlark calling, a distinctive ringing, double ‘tu-lee’. We looked over to see it perched high in a tall bare tree, left behind when the plantation was clearfelled. Through the scope, we could see its short crest and bold pale supercilium. It even gave a short burst of its mournful song. The weather had improved a little through the afternoon, but it was not what we were expecting on such a dull and damp day!

As we walked round, there were more birds in the other trees in the clearing. There were several Yellowhammers including some smart yellow-headed males. A little flock of 6-7 Lesser Redpoll flew up to join them. A Green Woodpecker flew across and landed in the trees on the far side of the clearing.

A little further on, we could hear another Woodlark singing and looked across to see it song-flighting, fluttering over the clearing with rounded bat-like wings and short tail. It landed in a tree at the back with more Yellowhammers, where we got a distant look at it through the scope, before one of the Yellowhammers chased the Woodlark off. We watched the two of them fly round and the Woodlark dropped down to the ground on the edge of the path, a little further on.

Woodlark

Woodlark – great views feeding on the ground by the path

We made our way over quietly and had great views of the Woodlark through the scopes, feeding on the ground. We could see the way the pale supercilia met at the back of the neck in a shallow ‘v’.

It was great to catch up with Woodlark finally, having missed them earlier in the day.  That was a great way to wrap things up and we decided to head for home. With all the concerns earlier about the weather forecast, it was remarkable how well we had done today. Well worth coming out after all!

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15th & 16th Feb 2018 – Double Brecks

A two-day Private Tour in the Brecks. We were forecast a couple of days of good weather and so it proved. It almost didn’t seem like mid February at times! It was a great time to be out and about birdwatching in the Brecks.

Thursday 15th February

There was still a bit of cloud lingering when we met down in the Brecks this morning. Thankfully, it quickly blew through and we were left with almost wall to wall blue sky and sunshine. It was still cool though, particularly as the breeze picked up mid morning.

It seemed like a good morning to go looking for Goshawks. On our way, we made a quick stop along a quiet lane. One of the fields here has been sown with a seed mix and was alive with birds. As we got out of the car, we could hear a Yellowhammer calling from the hedge.

A large flock of Linnets swirled round and landed up in the trees on the edge of the field, chattering away. In among the Chaffinches perched in the bushes, enjoying the morning sun, we found several Bramblings, duller females and bright orange-breasted males. There were Goldfinches too, and a couple of Reed Buntings which flew out of the crop and landed in the hedge by the road.

Brambling

Brambling – several were on the edge of a field of seed mix this morning

Suddenly all the birds erupted from the crop and flew round calling. We looked across to see a Sparrowhawk, a small adult male, flying low over the field. It didn’t catch anything, but having flushed everything then circled up and drifted off, with bursts of fast flapping interspersed with characteristic glides.

There were a few pools behind the hedge on the other side of road, so we had a quick look to see if anything was on those. There was a surprisingly good selection of wildfowl – as well as Mallards and four Greylag Geese, there were several Teal, a couple of pairs of Gadwall and a single drake Shoveler. A Grey Heron was standing in the sunshine at the back of the water, but flew off as we walked up.

It was starting to warm up, so we headed over to see what the Goshawks were up to. We had not even got the scopes set up when a young male appeared, flying across low over the trees. We had a good look at it through binoculars, before it dropped back down out of view. Then Goshawks were on view pretty much constantly, with at least five different individuals this morning.

Next an adult male Goshawk flew low along the front edge of the wood, before disappearing into the trees and sending all the pigeons out! A few seconds later, it appeared again, circling low over the shelter belt to one side. It disappeared once more behind the trees and the next time we picked it up it came in high from behind us, dropping back towards the wood, stooping sharply at the end and disappearing into the pines.

Goshawk

Goshawk – one of the adults circled in front of us

A pair of Goshawks was displaying for some time off in the distance. They were easy to see with the scope, slow flapping with exaggerated wingbeats high above the forest. Then a big adult female Goshawk appeared much closer, off to our right, circling low over the tops of the trees. It kept disappearing behind the tops, then reappearing again, never gaining any great height. Presumably it was hunting, as it never seemed to break into any display activity. Eventually it dropped down again out of view.

There were lots of other raptors on view here, even when we weren’t distracted by the Goshawks. Two Red Kites hung in the air over the strip of trees behind us. As the air warmed a little, several Common Buzzards came up and started circling. We counted at least eight today, and some of them even started displaying, swooping up and down like a rollercoaster. A Kestrel hovered out over the grass too. As well as the raptors, there were Skylarks singing and a small group of Fieldfares tchacking in the tops of trees behind us.

You could spend the whole day here, watching the comings and goings, but eventually we decided to move on. We went to look for Woodlarks next. As we pulled up by a ride into the forest, a flock of Bullfinches flew out of the brambles next to the road and disappeared behind the trees. As soon as we got out of the car, we could hear a Woodlark singing. We walked up the track a short way and looked across to see it perched high in the top of a tree out in the middle of the clearing. The Woodlark took off, but just flew across and landed again in another tree, still singing, where we could get it in the scope and have a good look at it.

Woodlark

Woodlark – singing from the top of one of the trees in the clearing

As we walked further up the track, another Woodlark appeared, perched in the top of a different tree singing. It took off as we approached and flew round singing – showing off its short tail and rounded wings, and its fluttering display flight. Eventually it dropped down into the middle of the clearing and promptly disappeared into the vegetation.

A little further along, we came across a tit flock feeding on the sunny edge of a block of pines. There were lots of restless Long-tailed Tits, accompanied by several Blue and Great Tits. A pair of Marsh Tits were feeding low down in the dry grass at the base of the trees, given away by their sneezing calls. A Goldcrest appeared, flitting around in one of the trees by the path. A smart male Bullfinch flew across in front of us and landed in the bare branches of a bush the other side.

There were a few more raptors here too, but perhaps not as much activity as we might have expected, given all the birds we had seen earlier. One more Goshawk showed itself very briefly and distantly. The Common Buzzard was much more obliging, flying across the clearing and even hovering briefly out in the middle. A pair of Kestrels showed it how it should really be done!

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – one of several up in the sunshine this morning

We walked on further round and into the forest. Several Redwings flew up from the grass by the path and disappeared into the trees. We could see several more feeding in the ivy covering a tree in the sun on the edge further in.

There were lots of tits on the sunny edge of the pines – Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits and a couple more Marsh Tits too. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew out of the plantation into the deciduous trees the other side of the path, accompanied by a Goldcrest and a Treecreeper. We heard both Great Spotted Woodpecker and Green Woodpecker calling.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed back round to the car. Our destination for most of the afternoon was to be Lynford, but on our way we drove round via some pig fields. There were lots of gulls out on the mud among the pigs – mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls. A couple of adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls were hiding in with them and a single 1st winter Great Black-backed Gull perched on one of the pig arcs.

There were lots of Jackdaws and Rooks in the pig fields too, and a huge flock of Starlings – presumably some we would be seeing later in the day! A Red-legged Partridge was hiding in the winter wheat in the next field and a pair of Egyptian Geese flew over.

As we walked out along the path beside the Arboretum at Lynford, we stopped to have a look from the gate. There were lots of tits on the feeders, and more coming down to drink at the stone trough. Several Chaffinches were picking around down in the leaves, and a single Brambling was in with them.

Down at the bridge, there was not much seed out today. Still there were lots of tits coming to feed on the leftovers. We had particularly good views of Marsh Tit here, always a good spot for this localised species. Several Siskins were twittering in the alders above.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – showed well down at the bridge

When we got to the paddocks, there was no sign of any Hawfinches feeding here today. There were several Greenfinches in the trees. A flock of twenty or so Redwings flew across and landed in the hawthorns, where we got one of them in the scope. A Mistle Thrush perched in one of the hornbeams, enjoying the afternoon sun, where it was joined by a second which flew across from the pines behind us. We could hear a Song Thrush singing.

As we walked on round the paddocks, we spotted a Hawfinch high in the fir trees, sunning itself in among the cones. It dropped down, but shortly what was presumably the same bird flew back in again and landed in the very top of the same tree. Here, we had a great view of it through the scope, noting its huge bill and head, the white tip to its tail and, when it spread its wings to stretch, the white wing bar.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – showed well in fir trees by paddocks

Eventually the Hawfinch flew off. There was nothing else of note in the trees here today, so we walked back and round by the lake. A Reed Bunting flew up into the bushes by the path as we passed. We heard another Song Thrush singing and eventually managed to track it down, in the alders at the back of the lake, just to complete the set of thrushes for the day!

Standing looking across to the back of Lynford Hall, we heard another Hawfinch calling from the other side of the lake. We had just started scanning the trees to see if we could find it when it flew out, across the lake and over our heads before disappearing off in the direction of the paddocks.

A Little Grebe seemed to be laughing at us, until we spotted it, wrestling with a small fish behind the island. There were several Gadwall on the lake too – the most underrated of ducks, and always worthy of a closer look. There were a couple of Greylag and a few Canada Geese too.

Gadwall

Gadwall – a very smart, intricately patterned drake

The light was starting to go now, so we set off back to the car. As we drove up towards Swaffham, we could see thousands of Starlings swirling in the skies above the town. They were fairly spread out tonight, in several different groups, and hard to count – but there must have been 20,000 birds at least!

The Starlings spent ages whirling round in the sky, flying backwards and forwards, working up the courage to come in to roost. Quite a lot went down over towards the town centre tonight, before some of the others finally started to come down into the bushes in front of us. It was mesmerising watching the flocks, like watching fireworks, bursting. in the sky as they swirled. Amazing to watch!

Starling murmuration

Starling – thousands coming in to roost tonight

It was almost dark and most of the Starlings seemed to have gone in already when the ones from the town centre started to fly up again and came over to join the others in the trees in front of us, wave upon wave of them appeared out of the gloom, it seemed like it would never end. As it finally settled down again, there was an amazing amount of excited chattering from the trees. What a great way to end our first day.

Friday 16th February

After a light frost overnight, it was crisp and fresh this morning but with sunshine and blue skies, a cracking winter’s day. The winds were lighter too, compared to yesterday, so it didn’t feel so cold.

We started the day with a walk along the river. We could hear a male Grey Wagtail singing under the bridge as we approached and we then watched the pair flying back and forth over the river, perching on the brick walls and some drainage pipes.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – singing underneath the bridge this morning

There were several Mute Swans and Little Grebes swimming and diving on the river as we walked along. We could hear a Redwing calling and looked up to see it perched high in the treetops in the sunshine. There were lots of Siskins twittering from deep in the alders, and we managed to see a couple flying back and forth across the river. A couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers were drumming and a Green Woodpecker yaffled from the trees, always a good sign along here.

They were not the woodpeckers we were really hoping for, but as we rounded the bend in the river we could hear two Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers calling. We found a couple of people with scopes and cameras already there, and we were told one had just been showing in the tops of the trees but had dropped back down out of sight.

Thankfully, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker continued to call occasionally and we could follow the sound. After a nail-biting few minutes when we weren’t sure whether it would show itself again, the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew out and landed high in a bare poplar in front of us. We got it the scope and had a good look at it, the black and white barred back and the black crown of the female. It showed very well for us in the poplars for several minutes, flying between the trees, before it flew back into denser birches behind. We heard it call again much further in.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – this female showed very well in the poplars

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker then went quiet for a time. There were several other birds to look at in the interim – a Goshawk appeared through the tops of the trees before heading off over the river. There were lots of tits singing – spring must be just around the corner now – including a coupe of Marsh Tits.

Then we heard the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call again further along the river. It was still well back in the trees, but we hurried along to see if it would come out again. We were just in time, as the female flew out over our heads, over the river, and dropped down further back in the trees the other side.

Having had such great views of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, we decided to walk back and try our luck with something else. On the way, we heard a Water Rail squealing from the wet reedy vegetation under the trees. A Woodlark was singing too, in the distance from a clearing in the forest beside the river.

Back at the bridge, we made our way up a small path through the trees to the churchyard. It was quiet here at first, even in the churchyard despite the sunshine on the firs here. We did head a Goldcrest singing and saw it flitting around in the tops. It was busier on the open side by the road. We found more tits and a noisy pair of Nuthatches which piped loudly at us from the trees.

What we had hoped to find here was a Firecrest and it did eventually appear. Unfortunately it was only very brief, moving through the vegetation very quickly, before it disappeared high up into the trees and we lost sight of it. Despite searching, we couldn’t find it again.

The Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham have become very elusive again in recent days. We drove round to the car park where they sometimes come down to drink, but there had been no sign of them all morning again. There were lots of people waiting here, so we decided to try somewhere else.

The Parrot Crossbills have also been seen in the car park at St Helen’s before, so we decided to look round there. We have seen them come down to drink at the river here, so we had a walk along the bank but it was all very quiet. Given the complete absence of any sightings of Parrot Crossbills at either site this morning, we decided we would give up on them and try something else. We were just walking back towards the car, discussing what to do next, when we heard chipping calls and looked up to see 15-20 Parrot Crossbills flying past.

They seemed to be heading down towards the river, right where we had just been looking. We rushed back, and found the flock of Parrot Crossbills in the poplars. We could hear them calling and subsinging as we approached and looked up to see several perched in the branches above our heads, in the sunshine. We got the scope on them and had a great look, two red-orange males and a grey-green female. We could see their huge crossed bills and thickset bull necks.

Parrot Crossbill

Parrot Crossbill – perched subsinging in the branches above us

Several of the Parrot Crossbills dropped down into the alders the other side of the river. They were clearly working up the courage to come down to drink, perching in the trees around us calling for ten or more minutes. Slowly more followed the others into the tops of the alders and eventually they started to drop lower through the branches. Finally they flew down onto the river bank on the far side, two or three at a time, to drink.

Parrot Crossbills

Parrot Crossbills – came down to drink on the far side of the river

We got the Parrot Crossbills in the scope as they landed down on the far bank and watched as they each gulped down a few beak-fulls, then quickly flying up to be replaced by a couple more. What a magic moment! Eventually, when it appeared that most had drunk their fill, as quickly as they had arrived the whole flock flew off north-west. We had counted at least 15 in the trees, but there seemed to be as many as 18 as they flew off.

Well satisfied with the encounter, we headed round to Lakenheath Fen next, for lunch. After a bite to eat, we headed out to the reserve. At the feeders by the visitor centre, there were lots of tits and Reed Buntings. We decided to head out to the Washland viewpoint first.

When we got up onto the bank, the first thing we saw were two Whooper Swans out on Hockwold Washes. Through the scope, we could see the wedge shaped patch of yellow on their bills. There were lots of ducks too – Shelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. A few Tufted Ducks were diving down on the river in front of us. A Curlew flew up fro the fields beyond and circled round calling.

Whooper Swans 1

Whooper Swans – these two were out on Hockwold Washes

Another big white shape at the back of the Washland revealed itself to be a Great White Egret. Through the scope, we could see its long yellow dagger-like bill. As a fisherman approached along the far bank, the Great White Egret flew off east, but shortly after what we assumed was the same bird flew back west, high over the river. We watched it dropping away round the back of the poplars towards New Fen, but then when we looked back at the far corner of the Washes, there was a Great White Egret, exactly where the first had been. Could there have been two?

Great White Egret 1

Great White Egret – feeding at the back of Hockwold Washes

There was a family at the Washland viewpoint too and they spotted a small bird creeping around among the wet grass on the near bank of the river. It was a Water Pipit – through the scope, we could see its pale supercilium and black-streaked white underparts. Another Water Pipit flew across and disappeared into the vegetation on the other side and we heard a third calling away to our right.

We walked on west along the riverbank. We had been warned it was muddy – and they weren’t wrong(!) – but we picked our way carefully along. There were lots of birds along here, particularly a surprising number of Stonechats. We must have seen at least six, perching up on the dead thistles and seedheads in the grass. There were lots of Cetti’s Warblers too, though they were much less obliging, calling from deep in the bushes. A flock of Fieldfares flew towards us across the river and over our heads.

Stonechat

Stonechat – we saw a surprising number along the river today

There were lots of Canada Geese and Greylag Geese feeding on the grass either side along the river. They were mostly sorted into separate flocks, but an odd looking bird with one of the groups of Greylags was a Canada x Greylag Goose hybrid.

A Little Egret was feeding on the edge of the river, much smaller, with an all dark bill. Then we looked up to see two Great White Egrets flying together, heading back east the way we had just come, towards the Washland. We had certainly seen two Great White Egrets now!

Great White Egret 2

Great White Egret – two flew along the river together

The Whooper Swans roost in the winter on the Washes but feed during the day in the fields. Once we got beyond the West Wood, we heard more Whooper Swans calling and looked across to see a family party flying in from the south. They flew across behind us, over the river, before dropping down towards the fields beyond.

As we walked on west, more Whooper Swans flew across, looking stunning in the afternoon light. It is a great sound, the honking of winter swans on a sunny February afternoon in the Fens. When we got round the bend in the river and could see across to the fields the other side, we could see a huge long line of white shapes gathered in the distance. Through the scope, we could see they were all Whooper Swans, at least 100 of them and probably much more as many were hidden behind the trees.

Whooper Swans 2

Whooper Swans – flying across to gather on the north side of the river

There was no sign of the Cranes on the far side of the river today, but it was possibly just too disturbed over there now. A couple of vehicles were driving up and down the track and we could see a man pigeon shooting, tending to his decoys on the edge of the area where the Cranes often like to feed. A distant Grey Heron was not the right shape or shade of grey!

Another Great White Egret flew up from the marshes across the river – presumably a third bird, as we had watched the other two flying off the other way. There were lots of Lapwings in the fields and three distant Roe Deer too. A Chiffchaff called from somewhere in the reeds nearby.

On the walk back, we cut in across the reserve. We had a sit down at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, a quick rest before the long return journey. It was a glorious winter’s afternoon, still and delightfully tranquil just sitting and looking out across the vast expanse of reeds (at least the F16s from Lakenheath were not flying overhead at that stage!). Several Marsh Harriers quartered low over the reeds and three Common Buzzards circled up over the trees.

It would have been very easy just to sit and watch the reeds and contemplate for hours, but it was getting on now so we reluctantly tore ourselves away. As we walked back along the path, flocks of gulls were flying overhead, heading off to roost. A female Kestrel perched up in the poplars in the late sunshine, but almost every time we got within range and lifted the cameras, she flew off a short distance, refusing to be photographed!

Kestrel

Kestrel – was refusing to be photographed on the walk back

Back at the Visitor Centre, a Bank Vole was scuttling around under the feeders. It hid in a hole in the vegetation and darted out repeatedly. Then it found a discarded crisp on the ground and hauled it back into the hole. That was the last we saw of it – presumably it was enjoying the crisp!

It was time to head for home now. It had been a great couple of days in the Brecks, with some fantastic weather and some exciting birds, all the best the area has to offer at this time of year.

11th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours, our last day, and it was time to head down to the Brecks today. The weather forecast was the best of the three days, and even though it was perhaps a little cloudier than we were expecting, it was largely dry and there were some nice bright spells particularly in the morning.

As we stopped briefly in Swaffham on the way down, the sun was out and the sky was blue. With a good breeze blowing, that meant it looked like perfect conditions for Goshawks, so we headed straight over to a favourite spot. We weren’t even out of the car before we saw our first Goshawk – a young female, big and bulky, brown above and orange-tinged below, was circling just above the trees. We all jumped out and had a good look at it, before it disappeared back over the tops.

Over the next hour or so, we were rarely without a Goshawk up in the air. An adult, silvery grey above and white below, was displaying away in the distance, with heavy exaggerated wingbeats. Then another adult appeared much closer, low over the trees, flying around behind us where it caused pandemonium amongst the pigeons and corvids in the field.

An adult male Goshawk appeared high overhead, dropping towards the trees in a long flat glide. As it got closer, it started to descend quickly and we looked over to see why – another juvenile Goshawk, this time a young male, was starting to display over the tops of the firs. The adult swooped at the youngster, but the latter wasn’t giving up easily and twisted, talons up to defend itself. The two of them chased through the treetops for a couple of seconds before disappearing into the trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – great views of at least 5 different birds this morning

But the best moment of all was when an adult female Goshawk came slowly across over the edge of the trees in front of us. It was a nice flyby and gave us a great look at it, but halfway across it suddenly turned towards us and dropped down in front of the trees. It was flapping powerfully now, with purpose. Ahead of it, a male Pheasant was strutting in the field with its back to the trees, oblivious. The Pheasant realised just in time, panicked and ran towards a cover strip in the middle of the field. It dived in, the Goshawk turning sharply and looking to follow it, but decided against it at the last minute. Wow!

There were a few other raptors up too this morning. A Red Kite drifted lazily over the trees. Several Buzzards circled up, as did a couple of distant Kestrels. A Sparrowhawk flew across, much smaller than the Goshawks and with bursts of much faster flapping flight.

It had clouded over, so we decided to move on to look for Woodlarks. There were none singing when we arrived at a favourite clearing – it was rather cold in the breeze now, with the sun in – so we decided to have a walk round to see if we could find one. We didn’t have to go too far, before we heard a Woodlark calling, the distinctive ringing double ‘tlu-lee’, and looked up to see it flying high towards us. A second Woodlark called from the ground in the middle of the clearing and the first circled round and dropped down nearby.

Before we could get the scope on it, the two Woodlarks were off again, flying across the path and landing in another clearing a bit further over. They were quickly followed by a second pair, which flew over in the same direction but landed in the top of a young oak tree. We got a look at them distantly through the scope before they too dropped down into the grass.

We walked over to see if we could get a closer look. The grass in this clearing is much longer and the Woodlarks were very hard to see at first on the ground, out in the middle. We scanned carefully from along the edge, looking down the line of each row of newly planted trees, before we heard one calling softly. By positioning ourselves carefully, we could see one of the Woodlarks creeping around in the grass.

Woodlark

Woodlark – creeping around in a grassy clearing

When we lost sight of the first, we spotted a second Woodlark nearby. It perched on a small mound of bare earth for a couple of seconds, sub-singing quietly. Then something spooked them, and all four Woodlarks came up out of the grass and flew round calling, before landing back down again.

Otherwise, the clearings here were rather quiet today. A Common Buzzard appeared briefly above the trees, but raptor activity seemed to have tailed off a bit now. With our mission here accomplished, we decided to move on.

There has been a flock of Parrot Crossbills around the Santon Downham area since November last year, but they can be very elusive. As specialised pine cone feeders, they have lots of trees to choose from here – Thetford Forest is the largest lowland pine forest in the UK! However, they need to drink regularly and will sometimes come in to the same puddles for water. After disappearing for a few days, they had been seen coming to drink yesterday at one of the car parks, so we thought we would have a go at catching up with them.

When we arrived at the rough forestry car park, there were a few people standing around looking down at the muddy puddles. They told us the Parrot Crossbills had been seen coming to drink earlier, which was definitely a good start. We drove round to one of their other favoured areas nearby, but there was no sign of them there. However, we did bump into someone we knew who told us he had seen the Parrot Crossbills coming to drink over an hour before. That meant they were just about due to come back for more, so we headed straight back to the first car park to await them.

It seemed an opportune moment for an early lunch, while we waited for them to appear. We hadn’t even finished unpacking the sandwiches before we heard the Parrot Crossbills calling and turned to see them landing in the top of the oak trees just across the road. We got them in the scope, as they perched there calling quietly, working up the courage to come down to drink. There were at least 15 of them.

Parrot Crossbills 1

Parrot Crossbills – perched in the trees before coming down to drink

Eventually, the Parrot Crossbills flew across and landed in a smaller tree right on the edge of the car park, just beyond the puddles. Then one or two at a time, they dropped down to the water’s edge and started drinking. From where we were parked, they were only a few metres away from us and we enjoyed stunning views as they came down to the ground.

Parrot Crossbills 2

Parrot Crossbills 3

Parrot Crossbills 4

Parrot Crossbills – great views as they came down to drink in the car park

Close up, we could see the Parrots Crossbills’ huge bills and heavy, bull-necked heads, packed with the muscles for pulling open tightly closed pine cones. They were a mixture of red or orange males and grey-green females. Most of them look like they are probably young birds, presumably the class of 2017, though they are not always easy to age.

Parrot Crossbills are very scarce visitors here. Breeding mainly from Scandinavia across into Russia (with smaller numbers in Scotland too), like other crossbills they are an irruptive species, moving south and west in response to any shortage of cones in their home range, but rarely making it as far as southern England. So it is a real treat to see them here, and to see them so well.

Lunch had been forgotten with all the excitement, but after the Parrot Crossbills had finished drinking and flown off back to wherever they were feeding, we turned our attention to our food. Having not had to wait long to see them, we now had a bit of time to play with, so we decided to walk down along the river bank after lunch.

Brambling

Brambling – at the feeders by the bridge

At the feeders by the bridge, a Brambling flew up from the grass and perched briefly in the trees. In the poplars by the river, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming. We had hoped we might get lucky and run into a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker here, but it was rather cold and cloudy now and the trees were rather quiet as we walked down along the river bank.

A Treecreeper called from the poplars and we could just see it high in the trees, though it was hard to get onto and then disappeared back out of view. A few Siskins flew back and forth overhead, calling. There were couple of Little Grebes diving in the river. We stood and listened in the trees for a couple of minutes, but all was quiet. We decided we were better off spending the rest of the afternoon elsewhere.

On the walk back, a couple of Water Rails squealed from the back of the reeds below the poplars. We saw some movement the other side of the river, and picked up a Mistle Thrush, a Song Thrush and a Redwing, all feeding in the same area in the rough paddocks below the alders.

We headed round to Lynford Arboretum for the rest of the afternoon. Hawfinch was our main target here and as it was cool and cloudy now, we decided to head straight down to the paddocks. We were quickly rewarded with a distant Hawfinch in the fir trees at the back, so we made our round for a closer look. It was perched on the edge of the trees, so we could get a good view of it from this side, its huge head and massive bill, strong enough to crack cherry stones, and its ornamental shaped inner primaries.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – good views perched in the edge of the firs

A second Hawfinch flew in and landed in the tree next to it, the two of them staying there together for several minutes before dropping back into the trees. Rather than wait to see if any more Hawfinches would come in this afternoon, we decided to go and explore the arboretum.

A quick walk round the lake produced a few waterbirds for the day’s list – a few Canada Geese and a single Greylag, several Mallard and a pair of Gadwall, and another Little Grebe. A flock of Redwings were flushed out of the alders and flew out to the hornbeams in the middle of the paddocks, where we could get a good look at them through the scope.

There was some seed put out for the birds on the pillars and posts around the bridge, so we stopped a while to see what would come in. There was a steady stream of tits – Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, plus several Marsh Tits giving us nice close views. A Nuthatch chased everything else off the peanut feeder hanging in the tree above and spent several minutes jabbing ferociously at the peanuts. A Treecreeper worked its way up one of the trees right next to the bridge, so we could get a good look at it. There were several Siskins in the trees here too.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming to seed put out on the bridge

It was time to start thinking about heading back now. There has been a Firecrest around the car park here on occasion, but when we got to the car there was no sign of it. We stood for a while and listened, but there were just a few Blue Tits, a Robin and a couple of Nuthatches piping noisily from high in the trees.

It was only as we were getting in to the car that we heard the Firecrest call from the trees nearby. It flew across and disappeared into some dense young firs, still calling. We walked over and could just see it flitting around on the edge of the trees, before it disappeared in deeper, out of view.

As we made our way back north, driving into Swaffham, we could see thousands and thousands of Starlings whirling over the town. It was quite a spectacle. There has been a murmuration here for the last couple of winters, and numbers really start to grow at thsi time of year, presumably as birds start to make their way back towards the continent. We stopped in the market place and watched them for a while, whirling round overhead. They were quite spread out this evening, but it was still amazing to watch them all, there must have been at least 30,000 birds!

Starling murmuration

Starlings – part of a huge murmuration over Swaffham this evening

The Starlings were a nice way to round off our three days. It had been very exciting stuff, the best of late winter in the North Norfolk, the Broads and the Brecks. We had seen some great birds, lots of great moments and good company too.

5th-6th Dec 2017 – Two Winter Days

A Private Tour across two days, this was not a standard tour but we had a specific list of birds we wanted to see. December can be a very good month to go looking for some of our scarcer wintering species. We were blessed with good weather too – a bit dull under the blanket of cloud, but dry and rather mild for the time of year.

Tuesday 5th December

Our first destination was down in the Brecks at Santon Downham. We wanted to catch up with the Parrot Crossbills which have been here for a couple of weeks now. They were initially to be found around the picnic site at St Helen’s, but have started to wander more widely into the forest now, where they can be much harder to locate. Fortunately, our luck was in today. As we drove into the car park we could see a cluster of long lenses by the side of the road, pointing up into a small clump of trees.

As we got out of the car in the car park, we could hear Parrots Crossbills calling – they have a deeper and less sharp call, more of a ‘peek, peek’ than the familiar ‘glip, glip’ of Common Crossbills. We looked across and could see one or two perched in the top of the beech tree in the corner of the car park by the road.

There seemed to be more Parrot Crossbills – and better light – on the other side of the trees, where all the cameras were focused, so we started to make our way round. Just at that moment, the Parrot Crossbills started to drop down to a tiny puddle in the road, right in front of the assembled photographers (though it took them a while to notice!). We were a little further away, but still only about 10 metres from them. Stunning!

6O0A3517Parrot Crossbills – coming down to drink at the puddle in front of us

We had a great view of the Parrot Crossbills while they were drinking. A couple of times they spooked, for no apparent reason, and flew back up into the trees but quickly returned to the puddle again. It was amazing how many could pack themselves into the tiny area of water! We could see their deep, heavy bills, much bigger than a Common Crossbill’s, and their big heads with thick necks. Parrot Crossbills use their large bills and cheek muscles to prise open the tightest of pine cones to get at the seeds.

6O0A3546

6O0A3528Parrot Crossbills – amazing how many could fit into a tiny puddle!

There were a variety of different colours amongst the Parrot Crossbills. The more obvious males were red or orange, some of the latter with a scattering of golden yellow feathers. The females were grey-green, with a brighter yellow-green rump. There seem to be a high proportion of young birds in this group, 1st winters, with a varying number of pale tipped greater coverts forming a pale bar across the wing.

After dropping down to drink several times, the Parrot Crossbills flew up into one of the beech trees and sat around preening and calling. One or two of them started to pick at the beech nut capsules, trying to extract the seeds. Then most of them flew and landed in some pine trees in the middle of the car park where we could watch them doing what they do best, snipping of the pine cones and then taking them to a convenient branch where they could methodically work their way round them prising open the scales and extracting the seeds.

Having succeeded with our first target so quickly, we now had time on our side. We decided to head straight on to the Broads to look for the next bird on the list – Taiga Bean Goose. After the long drive across to Buckenham Marshes, we parked in the car park and headed out along the track. A Marsh Harrier drifted across the grazing marshes, flushing all the Rooks from down in the grass.

A short way down the track, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes, particularly looking out towards the corner by the railway which the Taiga Bean Geese usually favour when they are here. There was no sign of them, although they do have a remarkable ability for such a large bird to hide in the dips in the ground. There was a big flock of Canada Geese and a small group of feral Barnacle Geese further over towards the river. A pair of Pink-footed Geese flew in calling and landed out on the grass in the distance.

At that point, we received a message to say that the Taiga Bean Geese had not been seen at either Buckenham or nearby Cantley so far this morning. They had done something similar yesterday, only appearing later in the day, and we had plenty of time on our hands, so we were not completely discouraged. We walked a bit further and stopped to scan for the geese again, on the off chance that they had reappeared and were just hiding. A smart adult Peregrine flew across and landed on one of the gates out in the middle.

IMG_9171Peregrine – landed on one of the gates in the middle of the grazing marsh

We decided to walk out to the river, checking for the geese on the way, and hoping they might fly in while we were there. If not, we could always then go somewhere else for a couple of hours and come back for another go later in the day.

Something flushed all the ducks from the pools down by the river – a good number of Wigeon and Teal, plus a few Shoveler with them. They all gradually settled back down again and when we got down to that end of the track, we had a better look at them. There were a few Greylags out here too and another three Pink-footed Geese flew in to join them. But there was still no sign of the Taiga Bean Geese hiding out on the grazing marshes the other side.

6O0A3560Wigeon – there were several hundred on the marshes by the river

A couple of Dunlin were still left on a muddy island on one of the pools and the Lapwing which had also been disturbed gradually started to settle down around them. Two Ruff flew in across the grazing marshes and dropped down out of view. We had a quick look out across the river, then turned to head back. We heard a Water Pipit call earlier, on the way out, but hadn’t seen it, and at that moment either it or another Water Pipit flew over our heads calling and disappeared off towards Strumpshaw.

We stopped to scan the grazing marshes again, as we had done several times on the way out, but this time we noticed a line of geese had appeared while we had been looking out across the river, right over the far side, against the reeds. Where they were, they could only really be one thing and, setting up the scope quickly, we confirmed they were the Taiga Bean Geese. We could see their rather wedge-shaped heads and long bills, and as they turned and caught the light, we could see the quite extensive patches of orange on their bills.

IMG_9227Taiga Bean Geese – at the far side of the grazing marsh, against the reeds

A little further back along the track, we were a little bit closer and stopped for another look. We could see at least 13 Taiga Bean Geese, but some were well hidden down on the edge of the ditch, so there were possibly the full 18 which is the maximum which have been reported in the last few days.

Taiga Bean Geese are a declining winter visitor to the UK. They have particular habitat requirements and only winter regularly at two sites – here in the Yare Valley in Norfolk or up on the Slamannan plateau in Scotland. The numbers coming here have dropped steadily in recent years, from several hundred in Norfolk in the 1980s and 1990s to just around 20 in the last few years. In milder winters, they have often only stayed for a shorter time, but recently have sometimes departed in early to mid January, having just arrived in late November.

The Taiga Bean Geese will probably take on an increased significance from the start of 2018. When the BOU British List moves to adopt the IOC World Bird List taxonomy from 1st January, Taiga and Tundra Bean Goose will be treated as separate species (they are currently treated as two subspecies of Bean Goose). For those who are interested in ‘ticks’, it will be prudent to come and see the wintering Taiga Bean Geese while you still can!

As we walked back to the car, a pair of Stonechats were feeding along the side of the track, perching up in the tall dead willowherb seedheads. We had enjoyed a remarkably productive morning, with the two of our main target species already under our belts, either of which could easily have taken us much of the day to find.

6O0A3567Stonechat – perched in some dead willowherb

Snow Bunting was the next species on the list, so we headed down to the coast. There are several beaches where you can see flocks of these winter visitors here, but the best option today seemed like the area around Happisburgh and Eccles, where a large group had been seen in recent days. There had also been a Desert Wheatear at Eccles in recent days, but it appeared to have done a bunk overnight – fortunately it was not a target for us today. However,  there were a couple of other things of peripheral interest which we could also possibly see in the area.

Cart Gap seemed like the best place to park, so we stopped for lunch there. After we had eaten, we noticed another Norfolk birder returning to his car and went over to ask for an update on what was about. He told us that he had seen the Snow Buntings but they were a good distance south of us, so we got back in the car and drove round closer to Sea Palling.

As we crossed onto the beach, a beach buggy of sorts was being driven north along the sand. We had no idea what it was doing out here, but as it disappeared round the corner of the dunes, we saw a flock of small birds fly up from the beach and land back down again. The Snow Buntings. We walked further up and found them on an area of shingle on the top of the beach. They flew towards us and landed on the sand up by the dunes. We could see a patch of the sand which looked a different colour there and they gathered into a tight group around it, feeding – someone has put seed out for them here.

6O0A3580Snow Buntings – coming in to seed put out on the beach for them

There was a good size flock of Snow Buntings here – probably at least 60 birds in total. They flew off and landed on the stones again, before coming back to the seed. We watched them for a while – there appeared to be a mixture of paler Scandinavian and darker Icelandic birds in the flock. Eventually, they flew up and landed back in the dunes.

It had been cloudy all day, but the sky seemed to have darkened and the light was fading already. We had a quick scan of the beach and out to sea, but couldn’t immediately see anything beyond a few gulls and a single seal just offshore. Rather than try to drive back round to Eccles, in the limited time we had before it was likely to get dark, we decided to walk back up there along the beach. It wasn’t too far and it was nice to have a walk after spending quiet a bit of time in the car today.

We crossed to the track inland of the dunes and stopped briefly by the field where the Desert Wheatear had been. Three Shorelarks had been reported here earlier this morning, but there was no sign of those either now, thankfully also not a target for today, though always nice to see. What we really hoped to see here was the Arctic Redpoll which had been feeding in the edge of a beet field a little further north, so we didn’t linger here.

When we arrived at the beet field, there was no sign of anything feeding in the weeds along the edge and at first the hedge looked empty too. There was a large bush sticking out from the hedge much further down and we could see there were some birds perched on the near side of it. We got them in the scope and could see they were Redpolls, a good start.

There appeared to be a mixture of darker Lesser Redpolls and slightly paler Mealy Redpolls, but one bird in the middle of the bush stood out. It was face on to us, busy preening, but looked much paler, whitish below, paler faced. It turned briefly and puffed itself up and we could see a large pale rump. It was the Arctic Redpoll. Once again we were fortunate, because after watching it for a few minutes, all the Redpolls took off and flew away across the field, presumably heading off to roost.

It was starting to get dark by the time we got back to the car, passing the Snow Buntings again on our way. It had been a very successful day.

Wednesday 6th December

With the pressure off, after all our successes yesterday, there was only one more species on the list of the most likely targets which we really wanted to find today, Lapland Bunting. There have been a few in the clifftop fields at Weybourne for a few weeks now, but they can be very mobile and elusive. We headed over there to see what we could find.

As we walked down the track towards the Coastguards Cottages, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling. We looked across to see hundreds of them circling over the fields before dropping down out of view to feed on an area of recently cut sugar beet. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling, an odd place to find this species, so possibly a migrant.

When we got to the gate, the stubble field which the Lapland Buntings have been favouring looked quite deserted. Appearances can be deceptive though. We could see some Skylarks flying round and landing in the grass on the clifftop, so we made our way round to that side. Unfortunately, as we walked over the hill, we met a dog walker coming the other way right along the edge of the stubble, just where we had planned to look, flushing all the Skylarks and Meadow Pipits out of the grass as he approached us.

Most of the birds appeared to drop back down into the stubble, down at the bottom of the hill. Then we spotted a flock of Linnets down there too, which flew up, circled round, and dropped back in to the stubble not far in from the grassy edge. That looked the best place to try. Finally, as we walked slowly down the hill, carefully scanning through the Skylarks which flew up from the stubble as we passed, we heard a Lapland Bunting calling, a distinctive dry rattle, followed by a clipped ringing ‘teu’. It didn’t appear to have come up out of the field but flew in from behind us, high overhead, and dropped down into the stubble over where we were headed.

At least we had seen a Lapland Bunting in flight – now finding one out in the middle of the stubble would be a bigger challenge. We continued on down the hill and stood on the grass opposite where it had seemed to land, scanning the field, but we could barely see anything in the vegetation. We needed a break, and after a while we got one. The Linnets took off and whirled round over the field. As they came back in low over the stubble, a Lapland Bunting flew up to join them and this time we could see where it landed.

Even though we had seen roughly where it had landed, it still took us quite a while to find the Lapland Bunting on the ground. We scanned back and forth across the area repeatedly, at first finding nothing but Skylarks and the odd Linnet. Finally it came out of the thick stubble into a slightly more open patch, and we got a good look at it through the scope. It was creeping around like a mouse, head down, not like the much bolder Skylark just behind it. We managed to stay on the Lapland Bunting for several minutes, despite it disappearing in and out of the stubble and furrows at times. Eventually we lost sight of it again and we decided to head back to the car.

Black Redstart was also on the wanted list, but we knew it would be unlikely we could find one at this time of year. There had been the odd one reported in very disparate parts of the coast in recent weeks, but they all seemed to be one day birds, possibly just passing through. As we still had some time available, we thought we might as well give it a go on the off chance. Sheringham can be a good place for them sometimes and, although there had been no reports from there for over two weeks, it seemed worth the long shot – especially as it was not far away.

We had a good look around the Leas, the ornamental garden and the boating lake, round the back of some of the buildings they sometimes favour, but not surprisingly we drew a blank. We decided to have a walk along the prom and a look out to sea. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving offshore and a Guillemot was diving out on the sea. Four Common Scoters flew east.

6O0A3604Turnstones – feeding on seed put out for them on the Prom

There were lots of Turnstones along the Prom, with a large group feeding on some seed put out for them by ‘The Tank’. There are usually at least a couple of Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences along here too and just past there we found one, feeding on one of the seaweed encrusted slipways. It flew back towards ‘The Tank’ and we followed it, finding it feeding on the concrete blocks just below the Prom.

We started to make our way back and a second Purple Sandpiper was feeding on the blocks further back. We watched it slipping and sliding on the seaweed as it tried to clamber up and down the faces of the concrete.

6O0A3618Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the seaweed-encrusted sea defences

We had already found all the target species which we had identified as likely possibilities prior to the tour. Rather than enjoy a couple of hours of general birding on our way back along the coast for the rest of the afternoon, looking for some of the other specialities you can find on a winter’s day in North Norfolk, with a long drive ahead, the decision was made to head for home. We called it a day: mission accomplished.

28th Nov 2017 – Parrot Crossbill Invasion

Back in early October, a number of Parrot Crossbills appeared in Shetland. Like other crossbills, this is an irruptive species, occasionally moving south and west out of their normal home in Scandinavia and further east in response to food shortages. The last major irruption was in late 2013 and it seemed like we might be on for another big arrival this winter. However, as we moved through October the invasion seemed to fizzle out in the Northern Isles.

Then on 23rd November, a report emerged of 6 possible Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham, down in the Brecks on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. It took a couple of days before they were seen again and their identity was confirmed, but since then the numbers there have grown steadily. At the time of writing, the largest count so far has reached 42!

I finally managed to get down to see them on 28th, when there were already over 30 Parrot Crossbills present. As soon as I arrived, they were to be found feeding in a small clump of Scots Pines close to St Helen’s car park. They are great birds to watch – snipping off cones with their massive bills, then carrying them to a nearby perch. There, they hold them in one foot and start to attack them, using their distinctive crossed mandibles to lever open the scales before extracting the seeds with their tongues. Periodically, they will pick up the cone with their bill, rotate it, grab it again with their foot and start to work on the scales on the other side.

Parrot Crossbills can be hard to see when they are feeding quietly in dense pine trees – the only clue to their presence is often the sound of pine cones being dropped once they are finished with them. It is only when they suddenly fly out from the trees where they are feeding, calling loudly, that you can appreciate how many are really there.

I watched the Santon Downham Parrot Crossbills for several hours on the morning of 28th, feeding in the pines, loafing around in a nearby oak or some bare poplars nearby and coming down to drink. A few of the photos from that morning are below.

Parrot Crossbill 1

Parrot Crossbill 2

Parrot Crossbill 3

Parrot Crossbill 4

Parrot Crossbill 5

Parrot Crossbill 6

Parrot Crossbill 7

Parrot Crossbill 8

Parrot Crossbill 9

Parrot Crossbill 10

Parrot Crossbill 11

Parrot Crossbill 12

Parrot Crossbill 13

As well as the Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham, other flocks have since been found in Berkshire and Suffolk. It seems like there may well be more yet to be found elsewhere and any large block of pine trees is worth checking to see if there may be any Parrot Crossbills there.

In the invasion of 2013/14 the Parrot Crossbills stayed well into March, so with a bit of luck this year’s birds might be around for a while yet, if you want to come and see them for yourself.

15th Oct 2017 – Autumn Extravaganza Day 4

Day 4 of a four day Autumn Tour today, our last day. After a light early mist burned off, it was a mostly bright and sunny day today, with just an hour or so of cloud around the middle of the day, and lighter winds too.

We started the day in Wells Woods. With lighter winds, we thought there was an outside chance of some birds having arrived in the mist last night. It also gave us another opportunity to catch up with some of our regular woodland species. As we got out of the car we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and looked up to see a skein flying over, presumably just coming in from their overnight roost out on the flats. They dropped down towards the grazing marshes beyond the trees.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – flying in from their overnight roost

The sound of Pink-footed Geese would accompany us all morning today, with regular skeins of birds flying over and landing out on the grazing marshes between Wells and Holkham.

There were several Little Grebes on the boating lake as we walked past and a tit flock came out of the bushes beyond and up into the pines, before moving quickly off in the direction of the car park. We couldn’t see anything with them other than Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Goldcrests though, as they passed us. Just beyond the lake, the sun was shining on the edge of the trees and a Chiffchaff was feeding among the leaves in the birches.

As we meandered our way through the trees, we could hear a few birds passing overhead – including Siskin, Redpoll and a Brambling. We came back out onto the sunny edge. In the fields beyond the caravan park a scattering of Pink-footed Geese had now settled in to feed. A Mistle Thrush flew off west calling from the edge of the caravan park, but the bushes here held nothing more than a handful of Blackbirds and Greenfinches this morning.

Continuing on west along the main path, we heard Long-tailed Tits calling in the pines so set off in after them. They were heading for the drinking pool, as we followed. There was a great mixed flock, and a good selection of birds dropped out of the pines and started to feed in the deciduous trees and bushes around the old pool.

GoldcrestGoldcrest – peeking out from between the leaves

The highlight was a Firecrest which appeared in the bushes just below us. We had a great view as it picked around in the foliage. There were a couple of Goldcrests with it and we could see the difference in the face pattern between the two species, the Firecrest more boldly marked black and white. One of the Goldcrests would occasionally chase the Firecrest, the two birds zooming around through the middle of the bush.

We also had a great look at a Treecreeper which appeared on a pine tree at the back of the pool, in the sunshine. We watched as it climbed up the trunk, before disappearing round the back of the tree.

TreecreeperTreecreeper – climbing up a pine tree

Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers came in too. At first, one flew in and landed on a dead birch stump. Then a second joined it, and the two of them chased round the tree after each other, before one flew off back into the pines.

Great Spotted WoodpeckerGreat Spotted Woodpecker – two were chasing each other around a birch stump

Eventually, the flock moved away into the pines and we decided to carry on west along the main path. Despite the sunshine and lighter winds, it was rather quiet here, in the oaks and birches along the path. We cut back inside, but even here we failed to locate many more birds – just the odd Goldcrest.

As we made our way back, we took a detour in around the Dell. This too was rather quiet today. We did flush a few Blackbirds and one or two Redwing from the brambles, and a skulking male Blackcap too. A couple of Red Kites circled lazily overhead. It was only back out on the main path, on our way back towards the boating lake, that we found a tit flock again, out in the sunshine. Unfortunately they were moving deeper into the trees and seemed to head off across to the caravan park. We decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere.

There had been a Greenland White-fronted Goose found with the same group of Pink-footed Geese where we had seen the Taiga Bean Goose a couple of days earlier, so we thought we would go round there next, to try to catch up with it. We could see a lot of Pink-footed Geese and Greylag Geese in one of the stubble fields by the main coast road as we drove past, but there is nowhere to stop along here. The geese had obviously moved, because there were now a lot fewer in the next field along, where there is a convenient layby to pull off the road. This is where all the geese had been earlier. We decided not to risk life and limb trying to see find a way to view where the geese were feeding now!

As we made our way back east along the coast road, we could immediately see a white shape in with the cows just beyond Stiffkey village. We found a convenient spot to park and made our way back to take a closer look. No great surprise, it was the Cattle Egret. It was on the near side of the cows initially, but quickly walked in amongst them. All the cows were lying down and it disappeared from view. Occasionally, we could see a white head and short yellowish bill pop up between them.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – hiding in between the cows

A Kestrel appeared and start hovering just above our heads. The breeze had picked up a little now, and it was hanging in the updraft as the wind hit the bank in the corner of the field, close to where we were standing.

KestrelKestrel – hovering just above our heads

We hoped the Cattle Egret might walk out again, and there was no suitable angle from which we could see it. With the cows lying down, it was not getting any food stirred up by their hooves and the next thing we knew it took off and flew away across the road, presumably to find something to eat elsewhere.

It was already getting on for lunchtime, so we headed back to the car and went off to find somewhere to sit and eat. There was an unbelievable amount of traffic on the coast road today, and it took us 10 minutes to get back through Stiffkey village, with all the congestion. When we got to the car park at the north end of Greenway, it was packed with cars and we were lucky to be able to find somewhere to park. Clearly, lots of people had some up to North Norfolk for the weekend, with the promise of warm, sunny weather!

It clouded over as we ate our lunch up in the shelter overlooking the saltmarsh. As it did so, suddenly flocks of birds started to appear, moving west along the coast just in front of us. They were mostly Starlings and Chaffinches, in flocks of 10-20 at a time. Looking carefully, in with the flocks of Chaffinches, we could see the odd Brambling too. A couple of little groups of Siskin flew over calling as well.

StarlingsStarlings – moving west along the coast after it clouded over

This was visible migration in action – always great to see. Some flocks of Starlings were flying in across the saltmarsh too, presumably fresh arrivals in from the continent for the winter. It is likely birds were arriving all morning, but in the clear weather they will often come in much higher. In the cloud, the flocks had dropped down and were more visible.

For the afternoon, we had planned on a change of scenery. We got in the car and headed inland, a short drive down to the north Brecks. Our destination was the pigfields here, which is a site for large gatherings of Stone Curlews in late summer and autumn. We are well past the peak in terms of numbers, but there are still a few Stone Curlews lingering here. We got out of the car and started to look at one of their favourite fields and it wasn’t long before we were looking at two Stone Curlews, quite close to where we were standing.

Stone Curlew 2Stone Curlews – a small number are still lingering in the pig fields

Scanning round carefully, we found a third Stone Curlew, just a little further back. There may well have been several more, as there is a big dip in the middle of the field which you cannot see into and a fourth Stone Curlew appeared briefly on the front edge of that.

We were looking into the light, so we tried to make our way back along the road to find a better angle. It was still not perfect, but through the scope, we had a great close-up look at the two Stone Curlews. We could see their staring yellow iris and black-tipped yellow bill. They are not related to regular Curlews – they are named because of their Curlew-like calls, and are actually a member of the Thick-knee family. Eurasian Thick-knee doesn’t have such a nice ring to it, although perhaps we should revert to using the more evocative old name for them – the Wailing Heath Chicken!

It is not far from here to Lynford Arboretum, so we decided to head round there next to try to add a few extra woodland birds to our trip list. As we walked down along the track, the trees seemed rather quiet at first, but we stopped at the gate to have a look under the beeches. The feeders were empty, but someone had strewn some seeds on the ground in the leaves. A steady stream of birds were dropping in – Chaffinches, Great Tits. Then a Marsh Tit appeared too. It kept coming back repeatedly, flying in, grabbing a few seeds, and shooting off back into the trees to deal with them.

A larger bird dropped down out of the trees and landed on the edge of the stone trough. A Hawfinch, a female. It had a quick drink from the trough, lingering just long enough for everyone to get a good look at it, before flying back up into the trees. A great result as they are not easy to see here at this time of year!

Continuing on down along the track, a Common Buzzard circled overhead. As we got down to the bottom of the hill, we could hear a Marsh Tit calling, so we took a little detour out through the trees towards the side of the lake. Some seed had been spread on a bench there, and the Marsh Tit was coming in repeatedly to grab some, much as we had seen the one earlier doing. We stood and watched it for a while. A Coal Tit was doing the same too.

Marsh TitMarsh Tit – coming to grab seed from a bench in the arboretum

While we were standing there, we heard a Kingfisher calling from the lake. We hurried round to the other side, but there were quite a few people out for a Sunday afternoon stroll along here today and it had obviously been disturbed before we could get there. Otherwise, there was not much to see on the lake – just a few Mallard, a Canada Goose and a Moorhen. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was calling from the alders on one of the islands and we heard a Grey Wagtail as we walked round the lake too.

It was a lovely late afternoon down in the Arboretum, and we could easily have stayed here longer, but we had a long drive back to North Norfolk ahead of us. With the sun now moving round and dropping, there was also a request to stop back at the Stone Curlews on our way past, to see if we could get some better photos.

The light had improved a little when we got back to the pig fields, but the closest Stone Curlew was also now just behind one of the electric fences, with a wire in the way. It didn’t stop us getting a great last look at it through the scope though – a cracking bird!

Stone Curlew 1Stone Curlew – back for another look on our way home

Then it was time to head back and wrap up our four days of Autumn Migration birdwatching. It had been a very enjoyable tour, with a great selection of birds and some memorable moments.

30th July 2017 – Three Days of Summer #3

Day 3 of a three day Summer Tour today, our last day. It was a lovely day to be out, bright with some nice spells of sunshine, slightly less windy than recent days. We set off down to the Brecks.

Our first target was to look for Stone Curlews. At our first stop, a favourite site for them, we pulled up at a gateway and immediately saw four out in a field of pigs. A great start. They were some distance away, so we got out of the car, but as we approached the gate we could see there were more there, at least 10 together in a group, hiding along the edge of the field. What we didn’t realise was that there were many more still, and some were much closer to us, hidden behind a line of tall weeds. Unfortunately they spooked. All of the Stone Curlews took off and we were amazed how many actually were hiding there, we counted 35 in total in the flock as they flew.

Stone Curlew 1Stone Curlews – some of the 35 after they flew out into the middle of the field

Thankfully the Stone Curlews landed again just a little further out. While we were watching them, what appeared to be a different group of ten flew in overhead and out into the field to join them. We couldn’t believe it – 45. However, even then we weren’t finished. We could hear more Stone Curlews calling, away to our right, and looked over to see another ten. At least 55 Stone Curlews!

Stone Curlew 2Stone Curlew – loafing and preening around the fields

We watched the Stone Curlews for some time. They were settled now. Some went to sleep, others were preening. Most moved round until they were tucked back up against the lines of taller vegetation. They usually gather into flocks at the end of the breeding season, but this seems rather early for there to be so many Stone Curlews here. Regardless, it was a fantastic experience, watching so many of them. The group were rendered quite speechless for a while!

Stone Curlew 3Stone Curlews – the pigs occasionally got in the way!

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away. We drove round to another set of pig fields, where there are often large groups of gulls gathering at this time of year. Sure enough, we found a large flock of Lesser Black-backed Gulls here, so we stopped to scan through them. We found a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls, nice adults with medium grey backs, much paler than the Lesser Black-backs but darker then a Herring Gull, and bright yellow legs.

Yellow-legged GullYellow-legged Gull – with Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the pig fields

Our next stop was over at Lakenheath Fen. We stopped briefly at the Visitor Centre to get an update on what was showing today and were surprised to hear that the Cranes seemed to have flown off already, a couple of days earlier. This is very early this year, as they do not normally leave for the winter until later in August. That was disappointing as we had hoped to see them here today, but still, we went out onto the reserve for a quick look to see what we could find.

New Fen looked quiet at first, with just a family of Coot and a Moorhen on the pool. We picked up a couple of falcons circling over West Wood. The first was a Kestrel, but the second looked more interesting. We got it in the scope and confirmed it was a Hobby. We could see lots of Swifts and hirundines high in the sky over the river. The Hobby circled up, climbing above them, until we eventually lost sight of it in the clouds.

A Kingfisher flew over and disappeared into the trees, just a flash of blue too quick for everyone to see. We could hear it or another calling from the wood behind us, presumably where it is nesting. A little later, it appeared again, and this time hovered for some time, a minute or so, high above a patch of open water in the reeds so that everyone could get a good look at it.

KingfisherKingfisher – hovering over the reeds

Reed Warblers kept zipping back and forth low over the water, in and out of the patch of reeds in the middle of the pool. We heard Bearded Tits calling at one point but it was still a bit breezy today and they kept themselves tucked down in the reeds.

Continuing on across the reserve, we stopped to look at several different dragonflies. There were several different hawkers out – golden-brown-winged Brown Hawkers, a couple of Migrant Hawkers and a smart Southern Hawker which patrolled in front of us at a shady point in the path. There were lots of darters too, several smart red Ruddy Darters along the edge of the reeds and more Common Darters basking on the path.

Ruddy DarterRuddy Darter – there were lots of dragonflies out at Lakenheath Fen today

On one of the pools by the path, an adult Great Crested Grebe was feeding a well grown juvenile, the latter still sporting its black and white striped face.

Great Crested GrebeGreat Crested Grebe – a stripy faced juvenile

Out at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, we stopped for a break on the benches overlooking the reedbed. Several Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds, mostly chocolate brown juveniles. One of the juveniles flew up from a bush as a male Marsh Harrier flew in towards it. The male was carrying something in its talons and flew up as the juvenile approached, dropping the food for the youngster to catch.

It was quite breezy out over the reeds. We did manage a brief Hobby from here, but it was very distant, over the trees at the back. Another Kingfisher flew over the tops of the reeds and dropped down into the channel, flying away us in a flash of electric blue. There was no sign of any Bitterns while we were there. It was lovely out here in the sunshine, but we couldn’t stop here very long today.

On the walk back, we popped in for a very quick visit to Mere Hide. It was very quiet around the pool here – it is often sheltered, but it was catching the wind today. A Reed Warbler was climbing around on the edge of the reeds.

We stopped for lunch at the visitor centre. Afterwards, we had a quick walk round the car park. A juvenile Redstart has been here for the last day or so, and we found it in the small trees along the edge of the car park, but it was very elusive and flighty. We could just see it flicking out of the tree ahead of us and across the car park a couple of times. It is an unusual bird here, just the third record for the reserve in recent years apparently.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the Forest. We tried several clearings for Woodlark, but it was very quiet. It was the middle of a summer’s afternoon and the end of the breeding season. At one of the stops, we heard a Tree Pipit call briefly as we walked in along a ride, but by the time we got to where we thought it would be we couldn’t find it. There were plenty of Stonechats. We found several family parties – it looks like it has been a good breeding season for them.

Large SkipperLarge Skipper – there were lots out in the Forest today

There were lots of butterflies and dragonflies along the rides, the former feeding in particular on the large quantities of knapweed which are currently flowering. We saw lots of Large Skipper and a single Essex Skipper. A Brimstone flew across a ride in front of us and several Speckled Woods were in the shadier spots. A single Grayling was basking on a patch of bare earth out in the sun and we flushed a couple of Small Heath from the grass nearby. Ringlet was a species which had surprisingly eluded us so far, but at our last stop, we finally found a few of these too. A Roe Deer strolled across a ride in front of us.

Essex SkipperEssex Skipper – our third species of Skipper for the weekend

Our last stop of the day was at Lynford Arboretum. It can sometimes be quiet here in the afternoons, but as we walked into the Arboretum, there were lots of birds around in the trees. A Spotted Flycatcher flicked out across the edge of the path near the cottage gates and darted back in to the bushes. We found it perched on some netting around a newly planted tree. We watched it for a while and it quickly became clear there were at least two, possibly three Spotted Flycatchers feeding around here.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher – 2 or 3 were around the entrance to the Arboretum

A Nuthatch appeared on a tree trunk nearby, climbing up and down, probing into the bark. A young Goldcrest was feeding low down in a fir tree. There were several Coal Tits and a couple of Siskins flew over calling. It was nice and sheltered in the top of the Arboretum, but more exposed to the wind once we got out onto the slope beyond.

As we made our way down to the lake, we could hear Marsh Tit calling, but once we got down there there was no sign of it. We walked a short way along the path which runs beside the lake on the far side. There were several Little Grebes out on the water among the lily pads. An adult Little Grebe was feeding two well grown juveniles on the edge of the reeds – it looked stunning in the afternoon sunlight.

Little GrebeLittle Grebe – an adult feeding one of its two young

Back at the bridge, we heard the Marsh Tit calling again. It flew down to one of the old fence posts by the bridge and started looking for food. People often put birdseed on the bridge here, but there was none here for it today.

With members of the group heading off in different directions and a long drive it was time to call it a day. It had been a great three days with some really memorable moments – not least the Stone Curlews from this morning, but also the raptors and all the waders we had seen on the previous two days. Great summer birding in Norfolk (and just into Suffolk!).