Category Archives: Brecks

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.

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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!).

25th June 2017 – Summer Weekend, Day 2

The second day of a weekend of Summer birding, looking for some of our scarcer breeding birds, as well as the more regular species we can see here at this time of year. It was mostly cloudy but pleasantly warm and bright, and we managed for the most part to dodge the showers in the afternoon, at least until we had finished for the day.

On the drive down to the Brecks, we saw several Red Kites today, hanging in the air by the road. We took a meandering route, looking for Stone Curlews and other birds on the way down. The pig fields in the northern Brecks were full of Rooks, Jackdaws and gulls. We stopped to look through a particularly large flock of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and were rewarded with a single adult Yellow-legged Gull with them – larger, bulkier and with a much paler grey back and custard yellow legs.

The first couple of fields where we looked for Stone Curlew, we drew a blank. The vegetation is getting very tall now and the birds are getting much harder to see. But on our third stop, we found one Stone Curlew out in the open on rather bare and stony ground. Even though we remained at some considerable distance, it was a little nervous at first, running in a couple of short bursts across towards the edge of the field. We stood still behind the car and it quickly settled down, standing and preening.

Stone Curlew

In the end, we had to tear ourselves away and left the Stone Curlew still standing out in the open in the field. With one of our main target species for the day already in the bag, we decided to head straight over to Lakenheath Fen next.

As we walked out onto the reserve at Lakenheath, we could hear a Cetti’s Warbler shouting from the bushes. There were lots of Reed Warblers feeding in the reeds and weedy vegetation by the path. There were lots of butterflies too – Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and a smart Large Skipper.

Large SkipperLarge Skipper – on the walk out by the main path

We stopped at New Fen Viewpoint for a scan across the reeds. There were just a few Coots on the pool today, adults and juveniles of varying ages. A Common Tern flew in and started hovering out over the water. A smart male Marsh Harrier flew across, and we saw a brief Hobby which was chasing a Magpie over the back of the reeds. A very distant pair of Kestrels circled over West Wood.

A Cuckoo was singing from the poplars as we walked out and, while we stood at the viewpoint, one came out of the trees behind us and flew out across over the reeds. It disappeared into the poplars along the other side. There were several Reed Warblers zipping about in the reeds around the water.

There is only one pair of Common Cranes breeding here this year and they are not in an accessible part of the reserve, so we had assumed we would not see any here today. We had been told by the warden in the visitor centre that six Cranes had been reported earlier, but as they had been flying around we were not sure if they had gone. At this point however they circled up over West Wood, and we watched as they circled across to the river and started drifting east.

Common Crane 1Common Crane – six flew over New Fen while we were there today

It looked like the Cranes would continue east over the river but when they got level with us they turned, and started coming straight towards us over edge of trees. They were not far away when they finally banked over the wood and started to circle up, before drifting back east. A real bonus!

Common Crane 2Common Crane – four of the six circling over East Wood

Continuing out along the main path, we stopped from time to time to look at the various dragonflies. These included good numbers of Black-tailed Skimmers and Ruddy Darters now, although still comparatively few mature red males of the latter species, plus a few Brown Hawkers and plenty of Four-Spotted Chasers still.

Ruddy DarterRuddy Darter – a maturing male, gradually turning red

There was an excellent selection of blue damselflies here too – including several of the regular Common Blue, Azure and Blue-tailed Damselflies. The highlight was a single Variable Damselfly – a subtly marked one, with rather full blue antehumeral stripes.

Variable DamselflyVariable Damselfly – with rather complete black antehumeral stripes

Another, this time avian, highlight was the Great Crested Grebe on one of the pools by path near West Wood. On closer inspection, we could see it was carrying two small, stripy juvenile grebes on its back. We could just see their black and white heads sticking out from their parent’s feathers. Why swim when you can ride in comfort!

Great Crested GrebeGreat Crested Grebe – with two juveniles riding on its back

When we got out to Joist Fen Viewpoint, we sat down to rest after the walk out and had a look over the reeds in front. There were several Marsh Harriers circling out over the reedbed and lots of Reed Warblers around the pool in front. A Hobby shot across low over the reeds, giving us much better views than we had of the one earlier.

We had seen a pair of Bearded Tits in the edge of the reeds just as we approached the Joist Fen Viewpoint, but they had flown up and over the bank ahead of us. Sitting on the benches we found ourselves watching non-stop Bearded Tit action. Birds were zipping back and forth over the pool and feeding low around the base of the reeds on the edge of the water.

One pair of Bearded Tits, possibly the one we had seen flying over this way on the way out, was feeding some juveniles hidden down in the reeds right in front of us. The youngsters would occasionally perch up in the reeds begging when one of the adults returned. We had great views of them.

Bearded TitBearded Tit – great views of adults feeding young in front of the viewpoint

This is a great time of year to see Bitterns at Lakenheath Fen, with adults busy feeding growing young in the nest, and so flying back and forth from their favoured feeding areas regularly. But they kept us waiting today. We had one eye on the clock, aiming to get back for lunch, and time was ticking. There was just one tantalising glimpse, which was too quick for anyone to get onto. Eventually, we had nice views when a Bittern flew out of the bushes beside the viewpoint and away across the reeds in front of us, before dropping down into the vegetation. It was perhaps not the best view of Bittern we have had here, but it was good enough and would have to do as we needed to get back.

It seems Bitterns are like buses. Having had to wait to see the first at Joist Fen, we were walking back when one flew up from the reeds in front of us, right next to the path, flushed by someone walking along the path towards us. It was very close, and we had a fantastic look at it as it flew out across the pool, turning to fly past us before dropping back into the reeds. As if that wasn’t good enough, as we were walking past Mere Hide, another Bittern flew towards us low over the reeds beside the path, and carried on straight past us. Fantastic views!

BitternBittern – we were treated to fantastic views of two on the walk back

With a spring in our step, we walked back to the visitor centre, for a later than planned lunch outside at the picnic tables. After lunch, we had a quick look at the Washland. It is getting rather dry now, but still we managed to add a few waders to the day’s list – Lapwings, Oystercatchers, two Little Ringed Plovers, and a single Redshank. There were a few Mallard and Gadwall with ducklings, and a couple of Common Terns too.

We drove back to Thetford Forest for the rest of the afternoon, to try to catch up with some woodland birds. The little clump of trees where the male Redstart was singing a couple of weeks ago is now quiet. However, as we walked round into the clearing, we caught a glimpse of a Woodlark in the corner drop down into the grass. We walked round there to try to get a closer look.

As we made our way over, a Tree Pipit started singing. We watched as it fluttered up and then parachuted down across in front of us, landing again in the back of a large hawthorn bush. We could just see bits of it in the scope. Then, a second Tree Pipit flew over calling, and dropped into the top of another bush further back. This one was out in the open and facing us, so we got a much better look at it in the scope, although it was rather distant.

Carrying on around the clearing, we flushed a Woodlark from the long grass beside the path, possibly the one we had seen earlier. It flew round past us, showing off its short tail, and landed in a nearby pine tree briefly. We got a good look through binoculars, but it dropped down into the thicker branches before we could get it in the scope. A little further on along the path, we flushed another three Woodlarks from the grass, presumably a family party.

Continuing up to the far end of the clearing, we could hear a Tree Pipit singing again. We didn’t see where it came from, but we looked round to see it fly up into the edge of the pines and land on a branch. We got it in the scope and had a proper look at it, much closer this time. It had started spitting with rain as we walked round, and now it started to rain harder. It was still only light, but we made our way quickly back to the car just in case.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – this one perched up nicely for us in the trees

Thankfully the rain stopped almost immediately, as we drove round to Lynford Arboretum for the last hour of the day. We had already seen all our main target species, but we hoped we might be able to catch up with a few commoner woodland species here for our trip list.

As we walked across the road and into the Aboretum, we could hear a Grey Wagtail calling as it flew over the trees above our head, but we couldn’t see it. Several Goldcrests were singing from the fir trees. We stopped to watch a pair of Treecreepers, chasing each other around the trunk of a tree just before the gates to the new cottages. Suddenly a Spotted Flycatcher appeared in the same tree right next to them.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher – showed really well as we walked in to the Arboretum

We got a great look at it, but the Spotted Flycatcher quickly flicked back over the other side of the garden wall behind. We walked up to the gates and could see it flitting around the roofs of the cottages. They are very subtle but very smart birds, and full of character. Spotted Flycatchers are getting much scarcer now, so it is always a pleasure to see one, especially as well as this.

Continuing on along the path, we stopped to admire the new wildflower meadow. It is looking really good this year, a riot of colour, and chock full of insects and butterflies. Several Emperor Dragonflies were hawking around over the vegetation. A female Kestrel was perched on a telegraph post in the field, and kept dropping down into the flowers, presumably after something tasty it had seen.

We had only gone a little further when we heard a bird calling from the trees across the field. It was a Hawfinch. We hurried along to a point from where we could scan over the trees and found it perched in the top of a fir tree. We all got a look at it through binoculars, but unfortunately it dropped down before we could get the scope onto it. We walked in along the path where it seemed to drop, but we couldn’t find it again. Hawfinches are regular here in the winter but are as rare as hens’ teeth here in the summer, and difficult to see when there are leaves on the trees too, so this was a real and most unexpected bonus!

Down over the bridge, we too the path along the side of the lake. There were a few tits in the trees and Swallows hawking for insects low over the paddocks. A Little Grebe was diving among the lily pads on the lake. As we turned to walk back, we spotted a juvenile Grey Wagtail lurking on the mud on the edge of the island.

It had been a very productive stop at Lynford and it made a really nice way to end the day and the weekend. We walked back up to the car – arriving just in time, as a heavy shower blew in. Our luck had certainly been in today!

22nd June 2017 – Summer Brecks

A Private Tour today down in the Brecks. After the recent hot weather, it finally broke today. But although we dodged the thunder storms successfully, it was rather cool and windy afterwards, through the afternoon.

On our way down, we stopped off first at Weeting Heath. We were immediately rewarded with lovely views of a Stone Curlew feeding in the long grass in front of the hide. It was quite active, running backwards and forwards, looking down at the ground for food and occasionally pecking at something. A careful scan revealed a second Stone Curlew, sat down hidden in the vegetation – we could just see the back of its head! A Mistle Thrush was hopping around on the shorter grass in front of the hide too.

Stone CurlewStone Curlew – showing well at Weeting today

One of the targets for the day was to see summer warblers, so we made our way over to another site where we hoped we might find some. We were duly rewarded with a nice selection. Garden Warbler was a particularly sought after species and we found at least two pairs, one of the males singing briefly. A subtle species, it was good to get a proper look at them, as they can be rather skulking.

Garden WarblerGarden Warbler – we got good views of this species today

We also heard and saw several other species here – Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff were all singing and perched around in the bushes. Only Lesser Whitethroat evaded us here – they are present, but probably busy with breeding at the moment and consequently silent and hiding.

This is also a good spot for Nightingale. They were rather quiet at first – it is not the best time of the year to look for them – but we eventually heard one singing. We followed the sound and saw it perched up briefly in a hawthorn. It took a while to get everyone onto it, but thankfully came out onto the same branch again for a second. Then it dropped down out of view. As we continued on round, we heard another Nightingale singing further over and one calling nearby, sounding rather like a frog croaking.

There were a few other birds here too. We flushed several Linnets from the grass and bushes as we walked round. A female Greenfinch flew up in front of us and landed on some brambles, carrying some moss in its bill, presumably busy nest building nearby. We heard a couple of Yellowhammers singing and eventually got a look at one perched on some overhead wires.

GreenfinchGreenfinch – this female was probably nest building nearby

We had heard thunder rumbling and dark clouds starting to gather. The lightning when it started was quite dramatic but thankfully some distance away. Finally it started to spit with rain, so we made our way quickly back to the car. We arrived just in time, as the heavens opened.

The rain had stopped by the time we got to Lakenheath Fen, but it was still cloudy and rather cooler than it had been earlier. We headed straight out onto the reserve, with Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers, and Common Whitethroats all singing by the path and showing well. In contrast, a Cetti’s Warbler shouted from deep in the bushes.

There were a few birds on the pool in front of the New Fen Viewpoint. An adult Great Crested Grebe was being followed round by a well grown juvenile, still boasting a black and white striped face. The family of Coot have almost fully grown young too, but the female Tufted Duck was all alone. A Kingfisher zipped out of the trees behind us and disappeared low across the water, returning the same way a minute or so later with fish in bill. A smart male Marsh Harrier flew across over the reeds at the back.

Great Crested GrebeGreat Crested Grebe – on the pools at New Fen

As we continued out along the main path, there were lots of dragonflies by the path. Several male Black-tailed Skimmers were basking on the bare dirt along the track, flying off ahead of us. The vegetation either side was alive with Ruddy Darters today, presumably recently emerged as they seemed to be mostly young males and females. There were butterflies too, with Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells on the brambles. A Large Skipper landed briefly beside the path.

Ruddy DarterRuddy Darter – there were lots out today

On the walk out, we had heard a Cuckoo singing from the poplars in the distance, but it had stopped when we got to New Fen. As we approached the West Wood it flew straight out of the trees towards us and landed in the poplars right by the path. We had a great look at it through the scope, before it flew deeper into the trees and started singing again. A second Cuckoo was still singing in West Wood as we passed.

CuckooCuckoo – landed in the poplars next to the path briefly

Continuing on to Joist Fen viewpoint, there were several RSPB volunteers hanging around staring out across the reeds. They were doing a Bittern survey today. It wasn’t long before we spotted a Bittern for them. It flew up out of the reeds in front of the viewpoint and headed off over the channel, before turning and dropping down into the reeds along one side. There was a lot of Bittern activity today – this is a good time to see them, as the adults are making regular feeding flights to and from their nests.

There were plenty of other birds to see at Joist Fen. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering back and forth over the reeds, a Common Tern was fishing over one of the pools and a Cormorant flew up from one of the channels and headed over towards the river. A flock of over 20 Black-tailed Godwits circled over the reedbed. We heard Bearded Tits calling a couple of times but couldn’t see them – it was getting rather breezy now. There was no sign of any Hobbys here today, but it was perhaps rather too cool and windy after the rain, which was keeping all the insects down.

Climbing up onto the river bank, we had a quick scan across the fields opposite, but it was all rather quiet here. Several Mute Swans were feeding along the river, as was another Great Crested Grebe. Looking back across Joist Fen, we spotted another two Bitterns flying across together further over, before splitting off and dropping down again in different directions.

Back at Mere Hide it was more sheltered and there were more dragonflies, with several Four-Spotted Chasers chasing around over the water. A Red-eyed Damselfly landed on a cut reed stem just in front of the hide. A Kingfisher flew in and looked like it might land on one of the posts out in the water but instead carried on past and landed in the reeds right next to the hide. It was partly obscured by the reeds, but we got a great look at it.

KingfisherKingfisher – landed in the reeds right in front of Mere Hide

Back at New Fen, we stopped by the viewpoint again briefly, but there were still no Hobbys here either. We did see another Bittern, our fourth of the morning, which flew right across low over the reeds and over the river bank, turning and landing just beyond. We walked round there to see if it was close to the path, but when we arrived there was no sign of it.

We made our way back along the river bank to the Washland. It was looking rather dry now, and there were fewer ducks than earlier in the year. We did manage to see a nice selection of waders, including a single Little Ringed Plover, one Redshank, two Black-tailed Godwits and plenty of Oystercatchers & Lapwings. In the distance beyond, e could see a Red Kite circling.

It was time for lunch, so we headed back to the car. We were just getting the food out when we looked up to see a Bittern flying low overhead. A bit of a surprise, as we were some way from any reeds! It disappeared off towards the visitor centre.

BitternBittern – flew low over the car park as we were getting our lunch out

After lunch, we headed back into the forest to look for some typical species which can be found here. Our first stop has been a regular site for Redstart in the last few weeks, but there was no sight nor sound of it here today. Hopefully, this means it has found a female and they have settled down to breed nearby.

We had a walk into the clearing and as we made our way round the edge, a pipit flew overhead and dropped down into the grass. We made our way over to see if we could see it but before we got there we heard a bird calling softly from the trees nearby and looked up to see another pipit perched in a pine. As we hoped, it was a Tree Pipit and we got a great look at it through the scope.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – up in the pines carrying food for its young

The Tree Pipit was carrying food in its bill, so presumably has young nearby. We left it in peace and retreated. We had intended to go to another site for Tree Pipit after this, but there was now no need. So instead we went round to the other side of the clearing to see if we could find any sign of a Redstart.

It was rather quiet here now, the middle of the afternoon and cool and breezy. A flock of tits moved quickly along the edge of the pines – Long-tailed Tits accompanied by a few Blue and Coal Tits. We flushed a couple of Yellowhammers from the grass, which flew up into the trees nearby. However, the highlight of our walk here was a Woodlark which perched in the top of a small pine briefly in the middle of the clearing.

Our final destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. We had hoped that there might be more activity here, out of the wind, but it was rather subdued here too. As we walked round, we did find a couple of Nuthatches dropping down to the ground to feed under a small tree and we heard a Treecreeper calling from the wood. There were quite a few Siskins buzzing round the tops of the firs in the Arboretum and a pair came down and landed a little lower where we could see them briefly. A couple of Goldcrests showed themselves too.

We made our way down to the lake. There are always Little Grebes on here and they seemed to have had a good breeding season. As adult was feeding a small juvenile under the overhanging branches just along from the bridge. Further along, 3-4 fully grown juvenile Little Grebes, still sporting stripey faces, were diving among the lily pads.

Little GrebeLittle Grebe – one of the fully grown juveniles on the lake

When we got the end of the lake, we turned and made our way slowly back to the car to finish the day.

9th June 2017 – East Anglian Round-up, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Private Tour today, our last day. We were planning to head down to the Brecks for the day. It was a nice day today, mostly cloudy but brighter later, lighter winds than of late, and we managed to dodge a couple of quick showers in the afternoon.

As we got down into the northern part of the Brecks, we started to see more pig fields. We stopped by one of them where we could see there was a large mob of gulls. The pig nuts had just been spread out in amongst one group of pigs and the gulls were squabbling in between them trying to help themselves. Then there was a loud ‘Bang!’ as a bird scarer went off and all the gulls took to the air.

When they landed again, down in a dip in the middle of the field, we scanned through the gulls we could see. We had hoped we might find a Caspian Gull, but they were mostly Lesser Black-backed Gulls here today, of various ages, plus a couple of Herring Gulls. We had thought we might come back and have another look here later, but our day ended up taking us off in a different direction.

Stone Curlew was our next target and we quickly found a pair in a field by the road. The vegetation is growing up now and they are getting harder to see, particularly when they sit down. It took a careful scan to find them, but we could just see two heads peeping out. We got them in the scope and could see their staring yellow irises. A nice start to the day.

Stone CurlewStone Curlew – one of a pair hiding in the field

When originally discussing possible targets for these three days, Wood Warbler was one species which came up. Unfortunately the bird which had been singing near Brandon last week had not been reported for several days, but we wondered whether this might be just because of the windy weather. We went for a quick look just in case, but all was quiet in the trees where it had been, so we didn’t linger here.

Our next stop was more successful. We parked by a ride in the forest and walked along the track until we got to a large clearing. We could hear Goldcrests and a Treecreeper calling in the pines as we passed. As we approached the clearing we could hear a Stonechat calling and we looked over and saw a smart male perched on the top of an old stump row. A female was perched nearby with food in her bill. They clearly had young in the nest nearby.

StonechatStonechat – the pair in the clearing appear to have young

We were looking for Tree Pipit here and it didn’t take too long to find one. It was perched in the top of an elder tree just along from the Stonechats. We got a good look at it through the scope, swaying about in the wind, before it flew off and up into the pines trees beyond.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – perched in an elder tree briefly

Continuing on round the clearing, we caught a snatch of song, quite sweet and melodic but more rolling than a Blackcap. It seemed an odd place for a Garden Warbler and the first bird we saw come out of the young pine trees was a Whitethroat which led to a brief bout of head scratching – could we have imagined it? Thankfully, a couple of seconds later the Garden Warbler flicked up into the top of some brambles in the stump row behind, a nice bonus to see here and not one we had expected.

Back to the car and we drove round to another part of the forest. There has been a Redstart singing here recently, but we couldn’t hear it today. Whether it was just busy feeding somewhere out of view or has failed to find a mate and moved on was not clear. A smart male Yellowhammer flew in calling and landed on the fence in front of us.

We had a walk round and flushed a Cuckoo from the grass. It landed on a fencepost briefly, before flying off along the fence line. A second Cuckoo appeared and flew out to a small bush nearby, where we got a great view of it in the scope. Then we heard what we assume was the first Cuckoo singing in the distance, so there were two males here. A little later the second Cuckoo flew over and attempted to chase off the first, before flying back to its favoured bush.

CuckooCuckoo – one of two males here today

Another Tree Pipit flew in and dropped down into the long grass. We walked over to try to get a better look at it, but it had managed to sneak away. As we scanned the spot where it had dropped in, the next thing we knew it took off again from further along and flew off towards the trees.

As we turned to walk back, we could hear a Woodlark calling. Suddenly a male Woodlark flew up from a short distance ahead of us and started to sing, fluttering up over our heads, before drifting away over the clearing. We took a few more steps and heard another Woodlark calling. It sounded to be a long way away, but they are masters at throwing their voice and looking at the grass just ahead of us, we spotted it perched on a tussock, presumably the female.

WoodlarkWoodlark – perched on a tussock close to the path

We stopped immediately and had a good look at it through binoculars, but when we tried to get the scope on it, the Woodlark took off and landed in the grass further back, out of view. We headed back to the car and drove on. Having seen Stone Curlew earlier this morning, we were not to worried to see another, but we stopped briefly at Weeting on the way past anyway. We couldn’t find the Stone Curlews here today, but we did find three regular Eurasian Curlews out in the grass, a reminder they still breed in the Brecks in small numbers.

We stopped for lunch at Lakenheath Fen. While we were eating at one of the picnic tables, a Hobby drifted overhead. We had intended to explore the reserve after lunch, but with most of the possible species we might see here already on our list for the three days, another idea sprang to mind. There has been a Red-necked Phalarope at Welney for the last couple of days, which would be a new bird for one of us. It seemed like it would be a great way to round off the trip.

While Welney is not far away as the crow flies, it was a circuitous journey round from Lakenheath, through the Fens. When we arrived at the Welney WWT visitor centre, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling from the bushes outside, but couldn’t see them. We decided to look for them later, and with other things taking priority headed straight out to look for the phalarope. The staff at the visitor centre confirmed it had still been present just a short time ago, so we set off to walk the almost 1km down to Friends Hide.

When we got to the hide, The Red-necked Phalarope was out of view. There were several pairs of Avocets on here and quite a few chicks. A pair of Little Ringed Plovers had a couple of small fluffy juveniles with them too. We had been lucky with the weather today – it was warm and bright as we walked out to the hide – but we had been promised showers in the afternoon and a brief heavy rain shower came through. The adult Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers called to their respective young and sheltered the juveniles under their wings while the rain passed over.

AvocetAvocet – sheltering their chicks under their wings during the rain shower

It quickly brightened up again and the juvenile Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers were let out. The Avocets were being very aggressive. Their idea of childcare is to let the young fend for themselves and chase off potential predators. But they have got their definition of what might be a threat to their young awry – they were busy chasing off anything and everything!

A couple of adult Avocets kept having a go at the poor Little Ringed Plovers, chasing after them while they were trying to protect their young. The adult Little Ringed Plovers tried to lead them away with a distraction display, walking away with wings dangled, trying to look injured. It didn’t really work. The Avocets would follow them at first, then when the Little Ringed Plover felt it had got far enough away, it ran back to its chick but the Avocet simply chased back after it.

Avocet and Little Ringed Plover 1Avocet & Little Ringed Plover – the latter giving a distraction display, feigning injury

The Avocets kept chasing the Red-necked Phalarope too, which was probably why it spent so much time hiding in the reeds at the front of the pool. Every time the Red-necked Phalarope swam out, it was promptly chased off. We had a couple of quick views of it. At one point, when chased, it flew across the front of the scrape and landed on a small patch of mud, but the Avocet was still after it and once again it disappeared back into the reeds.

Eventually, the juvenile Avocets moved away from the Red-necked Phalarope’s favoured corner and it managed to swim about for a while feeding out in the open where we could get a good look at it. It was a male, which in phalarope’s means it is the duller plumaged of the sexes, with the females being brighter. The females do all the displaying and leave the males to incubate and rear the young. This male Red-necked Phalarope was still a smart bird, swimming round non-stop, in and out of the reeds, picking at the waters surface for insects of ducking its head under.

Red-necked PhalaropeRed-necked Phalarope – swimming around in front of the hide

We watched the Red-necked Phalarope for a while, swimming once it finally came out into the open for a while. They are rare visitors here and this bird was probably heading up to Scandinavia or Iceland for the breeding season, though where it had spent the winter is anyone’s guess with Scandinavian birds wintering out in the Arabian Sea but recent studies showing that some of the small number of birds breeding in the Shetland Islands migrating to join the North American population in the South Pacific Ocean! When it finally swam back into the reeds again, we decided to start walking back.

On the way back, we stopped for a quick look in the other hides. There did not seem to be too much on view from Lyle Hide, apart from more Avocets – good to see that they appear to be doing so well at Welney. We heard a song that sounded vaguely reminiscent of jangling keys and looked out of the front of the hide to see a Corn Bunting perched on the top of the vegetation. We got a great look at it as it stayed there for a couple of minutes singing, before being spooked by a big flock of Rooks and dropping back down out of view.

Corn BuntingCorn Bunting – singing in front of Lyle Hide

There were several Black-tailed Godwits out to one side of the hide, but the light was bad here as we were looking into the sun. We got better views from the Nelson-Lyle Hide further back. This confirmed our suspicions that they appeared to be a mix of two different races. Nominate limosa or Continental Black-tailed Godwit breeds across Europe east from the Netherlands. Only about 50-60 pairs breed in the UK on the Ouse and Nene Washes, including a couple of pairs at Welney. First summer islandica or Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits often remain in UK in rather than migrate up to Iceland to breed. There appeared to be a mixture of the two here, including a couple of nice limosa, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them.

Continental Black-tailed GodwitContinental Black-tailed Godwit – of the nominate race, limosa

Back at the Observatory, we could see a pair of Whooper Swans in front of the hide. This is a pair of injured birds which are not capable of flying back up to Iceland to breed, so have instead nested for the last six years at Welney, where they normally spend the winter. We could only see two of the four cygnets they were meant to have this year, but  presumed the others were hiding in the vegetation. Further back across the washes we could see another six or so Whooper Swans, presumably also all injured birds.

Whooper SwanWhooper Swan – with two cygnets

Back at the visitor centre, there were three more Black-tailed Godwits on Lady Fen. A quick look at the feeders as we were leaving finally got us views of the Tree Sparrows, with at least a couple coming and going, including one with only a half-grown tail.

Tree SparrowTree Sparrow – coming to the feeders in front of the visitor centre

It was a lovely way to end three exciting action-packed days of East Anglian summer birding, watching the Red-necked Phalarope and all the other birds at Welney. It rounded off the list nicely – we had managed to see a nice set of rarer birds despite it being early June, as well as a great selection of our resident and scarcer breeding species. A job well done, we set off back for home.