A group day tour down in the Brecks today. The weather forecast looked pretty apocalyptic earlier in the week – a weather warning for strong winds and rain expected all through the morning at least – to the point where there were thoughts of cancelling. However, holding our nerve it looked like the forecast was improving slightly as we got closer to the day. As it turned out, it was another windy day, but bearable, and it stayed dry all day. And we had a fantastic day out with loads of birds!
Our first destination for the morning saw us park up by a ride into the forest. As we walked in along the track, a Woodlark flew up from the clearing next to us and started singing, just what we were hoping to see here. We watched it towering up into the sky – noting its rounded wings and very short tail. Given the wind this morning it was remarkable just how high it went and how hard it was having to work to maintain its position.
Eventually the Woodlark descended again and dropped down onto the short heather a bit further along. We walked over to try to get a closer look but before we could get there it flew again and disappeared into some long grass over by the trees at the back of the clearing. We carried on down to where the path cuts through under the railway, flushing a Yellowhammer from the bushes by the path on the corner.
As we stopped to scan the open area beyond the path, three Woodlarks flew up from the long grass over the other side in front of the trees. Two of them, presumably a pair, flew away behind us but the other one, a lone male hovered up singing again before dropping down into the short grass. Now we could get a really good look at it on the ground in the scope.
With really good views of Woodlark secured, we followed the path round by the reedbed towards the river. A pair of Long-tailed Tits flitted through the brambles ahead of us and a Reed Bunting called from somewhere in the reeds. One or two Siskins periodically flew over calling. Two Greylag Geese flew high overhead, following the river valley, and three Teal flew low over the reeds past us.
Down at the river, the trees seemed very quiet. It was grey and cool and rather windy, with the wind lashing the tops of the poplars, so perhaps no surprise that the birds were hiding themselves, probably feeding in the denser alders and birches. We walked slowly down to the furthest stand of poplars, listening for any sound of woodpeckers on the way.
A Nuthatch called from the back of the trees and eventually showed itself on one of the trunks in front of us. A pair of Stock Doves flew through the trees the other side of the river. We scanned the alders across the river from here, which have been a good spot for the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in recent days, but it didn’t seem like we would be lucky here today.
With other things to do this morning, we decided to give up and walk back. The trees half way back are sometimes a bit more sheltered from the wind, so we stopped to have a brief scan of the alders across the river here. There seemed to be a bit more life here – a Great Tit was singing at least – but there didn’t seem to anything much in the trees. We were just walking away when we looked across the river and noticed something move in the branches. Lifting our binoculars and looking where it seemed to land we found a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!
It dropped down and we lost sight of it, but at least we now knew where at least one of the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers was hiding. As we stood and stared at the trees, one of the group spotted a red crown looking round from behind one of the alder trunks – a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. It was obviously working its way slowly up the other side of the trunk, out of view, but would occasionally come round onto the side, where we could see it. As well as its red crown, we could see its ladder-striped back and appreciate its small size.
As it kept disappearing from view behind the tree, it was hard to get the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the scope for any lengthy period but eventually it came round onto the side for a bit longer. Unfortunately, not all the group got to see it in the scope before it set off along a side branch and then flew up into the tops beyond. When we tried to get the scope on it again, it moved and we lost sight of it. We alerted the other people along the river bank, but despite lots of pairs of eyes scanning we couldn’t find it again. Someone did find a Great Spotted Woodpecker though, on the rotting stump of a dead tree, which was a bit more accommodating, giving much more prolonged scope views.
The skies seemed to have lightened a little, even though it was still remaining solidly cloudy. With the morning getting on now, it was time to go looking for Goshawks, so we headed back to the van, stopping on the way to admire a female Stonechat which flew across the path ahead of us and perched on the sheltered side of a bush to preen. Then we drove over to a spot overlooking an area of forest.
We were barely out of the van and set up before the first Goshawk appeared above the trees, a big female. She was up for some time, trying to display despite the wind, flapping with very deep, very slow, exaggerated beats. Then she dropped back down behind the trees.
We had just stopped to talk about Goshawks and their display, when another one appeared over the trees further across, this time a smaller male. It spend several minutes patrolling over the tops too before disappeared down into the trees again.
It was all action today. After a few minutes, we looked away to our right to see two Goshawks away to our right. Up in the air together, we could see the size difference between them, one a male and the other a female. One of them was a young bird too, a 2nd calendar year raised in 2018, darker grey-brown above and streaked below. It had strayed over the adults’ territory and one of them had come up to warn it off. The youngster seemed to drift away and the adult flew back across and dropped into the trees.
A short while later, we looked back in that direction as all the pigeons started to scatter from the trees. The young Goshawk was chasing them! We watched as it soared up and then swooped down through the tops of the trees. It didn’t get particularly close to any of the pigeons, but it did come much closer to us as it came out of the trees again and over the edge of the field, before flying up and away. Great to watch!
That wasn’t the end of it! Another Goshawk appeared over the trees in front of us but quite a bit further back and started displaying. It could have been the male we had seen earlier, but it was hard to tell. It was up for a while and easier to get in the scopes where it was. Even better, after a long bout of slow flapping display, it launched into the full rollercoaster – swooping down, dropping sharply before turning back up, slowing as it climbed and stalling at the top before repeating again and again. Then it dropped sharply down into the trees.
It was not just Goshawks. There were several Common Buzzards up enjoying the wind, and a Sparrowhawk flew over the field in front of us. A Skylark was up singing too. A Brown Hare loped along the edge of the field right in front of us, seemingly thinking we couldn’t see it behind the open sheep wire! It stopped at the open gate, contemplating whether to brave the opening, but turned and ran back the way it had come.
We couldn’t have hoped for a much better display from the Goshawks, a great show despite the cloud and wind. We decided to head over to Brandon to get some shelter, some lunch and a welcome hot drink to warm up. On the way there, a Red Kite hung in the wind low over the road right in front of us.
While we were eating lunch, we kept an eye on the feeders, where a succession of tits came in. We were just finishing when we heard a Firecrest singing from the back of the car park. It was distant at first but seemed to be getting closer. We walked over to see if we could find it but it went quiet and when we heard it again it had moved much further back into the trees.
After lunch, we had a quick walk down to the lake. There were lots of Mallard loafing around on the grass as usual and we looked over to see a single drake Mandarin walking along the bank on the edge of the water. It dropped in to join a female already swimming and the two of them made their way back to the far edge. As we walked round the lake, they swam out into the middle again where they were joined by a second pair. Nice to see them back here again!
It was a bit more exposed to the wind in the trees around the lake, and we couldn’t find many birds here today. There were also quite a few people out for a walk this afternoon. We heard a Marsh Tit calling.
We headed back up to Lynford Arboretum next. We had only just got there when we got a message to say that the Great Grey Shrike was back in the clearing south of Brandon, close to where we had just had lunch! It was probably a good thing we hadn’t got the message earlier, as we decided to press on and have a look round the Arboretum first, figuring we would be better trying to see the birds here before it got too late.
As we walked in to the Arboretum, there were quite a few birds in the larches again but all we could see were Siskins and Goldfinches in the tops today. A Goldcrest flew across and fed out in the open on the nearest branches where we could get a really good look at it.
We stopped at the gate to look at the feeders. Several Bramblings flew up into the trees as we approached and gradually started to filter back down to the ground or the feeders. The feeders are a bit low on food at the moment and the seed on the ground was looking a bit sparse too, so there were not as many birds here as there have been recently. Still, we counted at least 8 Bramblings down together and a very smart male with an increasingly black head dropped down into the pool to drink.
There were one or two Yellowhammers feeding on the ground under the feeders again, but there were more coming to poach the chicken food out in the orchard beyond! Several were perched up in the flowering blackthorn on the edge of the orchard too.
Continuing on down the path, we couldn’t see the regular Tawny Owl in the fir trees today – possibly it had chosen somewhere else to roost today, given the wind and rain overnight last night. There wasn’t much food left on the pillars – it looked like no one had been down here today. There were a few tits still coming to the feeders and a Coal Tit perched nicely in the bushes.
We continued on to the paddocks. There were several Redwings in one of the hornbeams out in the middle, but there didn’t seem to be much else here. Again, it looked rather windy and uninviting. We stopped to scan the trees and while we were doing so we heard a Common Crossbill flying over calling. They have been coming down to drink by the bridge regularly in recent weeks, so we looked back and found it perched in the top of one of the trees back by the path, a smart red male.
We hurried back for a closer look and got the Crossbill in the scope, perched high above us in the trees. Then it dropped down into the dense bushes on the corner of the path. Rather than coming down to drink at one of the open pools today, it was obviously looking to drop down to the ditch below. We could see it perched in amongst the tangle of branches.
Eventually the Crossbill plucked up the courage to drop down. We couldn’t see it when it was down in the ditch and then, rather than fly back up into the trees after it had finished, it flew off over the paddocks calling.
As we walked back along the path to have another look at the paddocks, we noticed a bird right in the top of the ash trees in the middle. A Hawfinch! We hurried up to the gap in the hedge and got the scopes on it. It didn’t stay long though, so it was good we hurried back. It dropped down a little into the branches and then after a minute or so took off, followed by two more Hawfinches. We watched the three of them circle round over the paddocks several times before flying back and up into the pines beyond. One of them perched right in the top of one of the trees where we got it in the scopes again.
We could still hear Hawfinches calling in one of the hornbeams, but before we had a chance to look for them, they flew up too and headed off away over the paddocks. It seemed like they had decided to head off to roost early today, given the grey and windy weather, so it was good we had come down here first.
With both Hawfinch and Crossbill seen, and still time to spare before it got too late, we decided to make a quick dash back to the other side of Brandon to try our luck with the Great Grey Shrike. Thankfully there wasn’t much traffic in Brandon and we got to the ride in the forest quickly. Another group was just leaving and told us the shrike was still there when they had left the clearing.
As we walked in along the ride, four geese flew over. Two looked distinctly smaller and as they came over the trees past us we could see them, looking up through the tops. There were two small Barnacle Geese accompanying two much larger Canada Geese. Really odd to see them flying over here – who knows where they had come from and where they were heading to!
We made our way quickly out to the clearing at the end, stopping briefly to listen to some Siskin twittering in the pines. As we approached the clearing, we stopped to scan the low pines in the middle and couldn’t see the Great Grey Shrike, but as we got out beyond the tall trees flanking the ride, we looked across to see it perched on the fence away to our left. We walked slowly over that way on the path, stopping from time to time to look at it in the scopes.
We had some great views of the Great Grey Shrike. It kept dropping down to the ground below the fence, then flying up again a bit further along. Eventually, as it got closer to the corner, it turned and flew back along the fence. It stopped to hover high above the trees – presumably looking for prey below – the dropped to perch on one of the pines. We walked round onto the track which runs alongside the clearing, but the Great Grey Shrike was now heading back out into the middle of the clearing. We saw it perched in the top of a spindly birch sapling, then it dropped down into the young pines out of view.
That was a great way to finish off what had been a very successful day’s birding in the Brecks, well worth the last minute dash over here. We had a more leisurely walk back down the ride to the van and were not much later than planned finishing the day back where we had started.