Tag Archives: Great Grey Shrike

16th Mar 2020 – Last of the Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. With Government advice to limit travel and social interactions in the light of the worsening Covid-19 epidemic coming after we finished today, this will be the last of any Bird Tours for the next few weeks, though we didn’t know it at the time. Blissfully unaware, we had a great day out – it was mostly cloudy but dry, with some brighter intervals around the middle of the day, and light winds.

Having met in the car park at Lynford, where a Chiffchaff was singing in the trees, we drove off into the Forest to look for Woodlarks. As we pulled up by a clearing and got out, we could hear one singing straight away and picked it up perched high in a deciduous tree on the far side. There were a lot of dog walkers out this morning though, enjoying the better weather today, and someone walked along the path under the trees where the Woodlark was singing and it dropped down into the middle of the clearing.

Another Woodlark dropped into the trees right behind us now, calling. We got the scopes on it quickly, but it was off again before everyone could get a look at it. It flew over and landed in another tree a short distance down the ride, so we walked down for a closer look. Again, we had a good look at it through the scopes but it was quickly on the move again, flying over us and away over the trees.

The first Woodlark was back in the trees on the far side again, so we decided to set off round in that direction. A Mistle Thrush was singing away in a wood over the field and we could hear a Green Woodpecker yaffling. Before we could get to it, the Woodlark dropped down to the ground. When we got round to where it had landed, we stopped and started to scan. We couldn’t find any sign of it at first, but we did notice a flock of Redwings had flown up into the top of a large tree over by the car park now, so we got the scopes on them.

While we were watching the Redwings, the Woodlark flushed from further along the path and flew off over the clearing. This time it fluttered up into the sky and we could hear it singing high over our heads. We watched it flying round over the clearing, singing, noting its distinctive short-tailed, round-winged silhouette. When it dropped sharply back down to the ground, it landed on the top of one of the young pine trees where this time it lingered long enough to get a better look at it.

Woodlark

Woodlark – landed in the top of a young pine tree

There were lots of Yellowhammers around the clearing too today. On the way back round, a nice bright male was perched in the top of an oak tree by the path. Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, we decided to move on.

As it was not too far from here, we decided to head over to Fincham next. As we drove up along Black Drove, we couldn’t see anything on the wires. A car was parked further up and someone was standing next to it with a scope set up. As we pulled up alongside, he told us the Great Grey Shrike had been around earlier but had just disappeared. We drove further up and scanned the bushes and hedges and by the time we had turned around and come back the shrike had reappeared.

We parked on the verge and got out, setting up our scopes on the Great Grey Shrike which was now perched obligingly on a bare branch on a tree the far side of the field. We watched it for a while, periodically dropping down to the ground to look for food before flying up into the top of another small tree further along the edge of the field.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – hunting from the tops of the young trees across the field

There was lots of other activity here too. Several Skylarks were singing and a pair of Lapwings were displaying out in the fields. Further back, we could see several Roe Deer lying down in front of a distant hedge. A pair of Brown Hares were over to one side of the field in front of us and, when a third Hare came running over the three of them stood looking at each other for a minute for setting off on a chase.

The Hares kept stopping and looking at each other. One did a bit of shadow boxing then there were some full on fisticuffs between a couple of them, all interspersed with chasing round. When the third Hare was finally seen off, the remaining pair chased each other, the male running after the female, but she was not interested in his advances and kept kicking out at him whenever he got close.

Brown Hares

Brown Hares – of the ‘Mad March’ variety

It was brightening up now and we knew this would be our best chance of seeing a Goshawk today, so we drove back into the Forest. It was not ideal conditions, with very little wind, but at least it was warming up nicely as parked overlooking the trees. Good numbers of Common Buzzards were already circling up – we had nine together above our heads at one point, even engaging in a bit of swooping display.

The first Goshawk we picked up was quite distant, circling above the trees away to our left, but it was good to get one in the bag early on. It was clearly a different shape to the Common Buzzards, paler below and greyer above. Then another one appeared off to our right. It was thermalling up with a small group of Common Buzzards and quickly gained height until it was way up in the sky.

The third Goshawk was a little closer, but circled up rapidly too before turning and flying in across the road away to our right. They were not displaying much today, probably, due to the lack of wind, but this latest one did break into a short burst of slow flapping display as it flew across. A very distant Sparrowhawk did put on a bit of rollercoaster display, while a second one a bit closer was just circling up like the Goshawks, but clearly smaller and slighter and with a more pinched in tail.

The surprise of the morning was a Merlin which shot across in front of the trees at the back of the field, disappearing from view before reappearing as it flew over the road and out across the fields behind us. They are scarce in winter this far inland, so this was a real bonus to see one here.

Otherwise, there were lots of Skylarks singing here and Yellowhammers, Linnets and Meadow Pipits flying in and out of the fields. A mixed flock of Fieldfares and Starlings kept dropping out of the pines and into the back of the field behind us.

The Stone Curlews have just started to return to the Brecks and we planned to have a quick drive round before lunch to see if we could find one. Someone else we knew had gone on ahead to do the same, so it was very helpful when we received a message to say that he had found one. We drove straight over and were soon watching it out in a stony field.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – a recent arrival back in the Brecks

By the time we got there, we were told there were actually three Stone Curlews, but the other two were down in the furrows and not visible from where we were standing. Still, we figured one was enough for us and eventually one of the others did stand up so we could see two of them together.

We went round to Brandon for lunch. It was brighter now and it felt rather spring-like eating outside on the picnic tables. A Nuthatch was piping up in the trees and one or two tits were coming and going from the feeders. After lunch, we walked down to the lake. There were five Mandarin here today, a pair on the platform on the outside of the duck house and another three, two males and a female, on the water over the far side, which swam over to join the others as we walked up.

Mandarin

Mandarin – one of five on the lake today

Our final destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. As we walked in, a Nuthatch flew up from the ground by the entrance where some food had been put out and up into a nearby pine tree. In contrast, there was no food left on the ground further along, looking down under the trees from the gate, and there were very few birds here today. We continued on down to the paddocks.

A male Hawfinch was down on the ground under the first hornbeam when we arrived, but it was just over a small ridge and in the long grass we could only see its head up occasionally. A greyer female then appeared under the tree too, a little easier to see than the male.

We could hear the quiet ticking calls of a Hawfinch in the trees and looked across to see two males now in the middle hornbeam. Through the scope, we had a much better view of these before they dropped down through the branches and we lost sight of them.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – there were at least four in the paddocks this afternoon

We picked up a Hawfinch in the ash trees next, but it quickly dropped down and we realised there were at least three now feeding on the ground below. Again, they seemed to know how to hide and were mostly just over a low ridge in the grass. When they flew up into the trees we couldn’t see them from where we were, so we walked up to the far end of the paddocks and found them again in the third hornbeam. They were a bit more distant from here, but they were now not moving so quickly, perched in the branches preening.

There were a couple of Mistle Thrushes in the paddocks too, and we could see them out on the grass from here. A few Redwings flew in and landed high in the trees. Two Grey Herons came up from the direction of the lake.

Back at the bridge, there were lots of birds coming and going from the food on the bridge. We stood for a while and watched and had great views of Siskins here today, with several birds on the feeders, and a selection of tits including Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits feeding on the fat in the coconut shells. A Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Treecreeper didn’t linger long enough for everyone to see them.

Siskin

Siskin – we had great views of them today, coming down to the feeders

The Little Grebe was laughing madly again from the reeds behind us, so we took a quick walk along the path which runs down beside the lake. It was out on the front edge of the reeds at first, but dived as soon as it saw us and then tried to hide in the vegetation. We could just see it in the reeds as it resurfaced. There were a couple of Gadwall in with the Mallards on the water and Canada Geese and Greylags on the lawn in front of the hotel.

As we made our way back up through the Arboretum, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl perched high in its usual tree. There was only one there again today, and it had managed to tuck itself even further in amongst the branches, but with a bit of trial and error we found an angle where we could get a scope on it. A Goldcrest was flitting around high in the trees nearby.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – well hidden in its usual tree today

Back up at the gate, there was still very little activity down on the ground under the trees. Looking in the blackthorn on the other side, on the edge of the orchard, we could see at least seven Yellowhammers in the white blossom. There were several Chaffinches too, but we couldn’t find any Bramblings here today – presumably they were feeding elsewhere, given the lack of food on the ground.

Unfortunately, it was time to call it a day now. It was just a short walk back to the car park, where we had started the day and where we now bade our farewells.

14th Mar 2020 – Back to Breckland

A scheduled group Brecks Tour today. The overnight rain took slightly longer to clear through this morning than forecast, but once it did the rest of the day was mostly dry and even brightened up nicely around the middle of the day.

It was still drizzling lightly when we met down in the Brecks and as we drove round and pulled up by a clearing in the forest. There were no Woodlarks singing when we arrived, so we stopped to scan the paddocks opposite. A small group of Redwings was feeding down on the grass and a single bright male Brambling was in with some Chaffinches.

A Green Woodpecker was yaffling from somewhere in the trees – it was unusually vocal this morning and its calls followed us round continually all the time we were here. A pair of Marsh Tits called to each other but moved through the trees in the back of the parking area very quickly. A Treecreeper paused slightly longer, working its way up the trunks of a couple of the trees before flying off.

Once the drizzle had stopped, we set off to walk round the clearing. There was no shortage of Yellowhammers here this morning – singing, calling, perching very obligingly in the tops of the trees. But we couldn’t find any sign of the Woodlarks, either round the clearing or feeding in the field next door where they can usually be found. Given the weather, they had probably gone off to find somewhere sheltered. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the trees across the field.

We decided to try our luck in the next clearing a little further down the ride into the forest. At first, here too all we could find were more Yellowhammers but as we walked along the back of the clearing a pair of Woodlarks came in over the trees behind us. We watched as they fluttered across, short-tailed, and appeared to drop down on the edge of the ride.

When we got back round to the ride, we could see the male Woodlark perched on a tussock on the verge. We got it in the scopes and had a good look at it, before it walked quietly into the long grass. We then walked slowly down the ride to where it had disappeared and could now see the pair feeding quietly between the rows of young trees. It was a great opportunity to compare the two – the male with a brighter pale supercilium and rustier ear coverts. We could also see the distinctive way their supercilia met in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – we watched the pair feeding quietly in the grass

While we were watching the Woodlarks, a large flock of Redwings came low over the tops of the pines nearby. They have been on the move recently, coming back across the country ahead of making the journey back to Scandinavia for the breeding season, and these were probably migrants which were stopping off here. A Sparrowhawk shot fast and low out of the trees and across the track.

Rather like buses, there were now Woodlarks everywhere! As we walked back along the ride to the first clearing, we could now hear one singing here too. We found it perched in the top of a tree right at the back, but still through the scope we could see its bill opening and closing as it sang. Then another pair of Woodlarks flew up from the clearing and landed in a tree close to us, where we could see the female was carrying nesting material.

When the female Woodlark dropped down to the ground, the male flew to another tree right by the path, where it perched preening and singing quietly. We had fill the frame views through the scope now, with a good look at its extraordinary long hind claws.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – singing quietly in a tree while the female fed on the ground below

Having finally enjoyed such great views of the Woodlarks, we decided to head straight round to try our luck with Goshawks next. It was still very grey and cloudy, with a fresh wind blowing, but at least there was a vague hint of some paler cloud to the west.

As we parked at a spot overlooking the forest, our prospects didn’t immediately look promising. There were not even any Common Buzzards up now. There were several Skylarks singing, a pair of Lapwings displaying behind us, a Curlew feeding in a recently ploughed strip and two Brown Hares in a field. A large flock of Fieldfares flew in over our heads tchacking loudly and landed in the tops of the trees behind us, where we could get the scopes on them. There were a few more Redwings in with them too – we could hear their teeezing calls as the flew over. More winter thrushes on the move.

Gradually, one or two Common Buzzards came up although they were not gaining any great height this morning. A few crumbs of encouragement perhaps. Then the clouds changed from dark grey to light grey and that was all that was needed. A male Goshawk circled up out of the trees. Its white undertail coverts were fluffed out and it started to fly with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, displaying.

That would have been good enough on its own today, but then another Goshawk appeared over the trees closer to us. Through the scopes we could see this one was browner above and more buffy-coloured below, a young bird from last year, now in its second calendar year, and it was big too, a female. It started to display as well, presumably the reason why the male had come up to remind the youngster that this was its territory. We could get both birds in the scopes displaying at one point, and then the male turned and chased after the young female, and we lost sight of both of them behind the trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – this 2cy female was one of 4 up this morning

Scanning over the trees again now, we realised there was another pair of Goshawks up displaying much further over. We had gone from none to four up displaying in a matter of minutes. A distant Marsh Harrier circling up was more of a surprise to see here. Then the young female Goshawk appeared above the tops of the trees in front of us again and we turned our attention back to that. It had clearly not learnt its lesson!

Eventually, when the last Goshawk disappeared from view, we decided to move on. Someone told us there had been a couple of Stone Curlews around earlier, so we decided to go looking to see if we could find them. They are only just returning now. As we drove up the road, several Roe Deer were flushed out of the trees by a truck driving through them and scattered out across the fields beside the road. A couple of Shelduck were on the edge of a flooded dip in a field beside the road.

Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Stone Curlews now (we were warned there had been a Land Rover driving across the field earlier) and all we could find were a couple of Oystercatchers. We tried another nearby field they often favour, but there was no sign of any there either, although we did find a pair of Grey Partridge in the gateway to the field opposite. Back round the other side of the first field, another quick scan failed too. One or two Tree Sparrows were calling in the hedge here.

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way over to Brandon. With the sun now just about shining, it was nice eating out on the picnic tables, where a Nuthatch was piping in the trees. Afterwards, a quick walk down to the lake produced a couple of pairs of Mandarin Ducks, with one of them feeding out on the grass and the other on the water in the reeds. A Goldcrest was singing in the fir trees above us.

Mandarin

Mandarin Duck – a smart drake, one of four birds still today

We didn’t want to run the risk of missing the Hawfinches, so we made our way straight round to Lynford Arboretum after lunch. As we walked in along the track, two people waved at us from the gate to say a Hawfinch was showing from there. When we got over, there was indeed a female Hawfinch down on the ground not very far from us. A great view!

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – this female was on the ground in front of the gate when we arrived

All the birds spooked and flew up into the trees, but after a minute or so the Hawfinch dropped down again, just a little further back. We watched it hopping around, picking at the seed put down in the leaves for a couple of minutes before everything spooked again. We waited for a while, watching all the other birds coming and going, but the Hawfinch did not come back a third time.

There were plenty of other birds here though – with several Bramblings feeding down with the Chaffinches. They have been in short supply this winter, so it is always great to see some and one or two were very close again today. There were several Yellowhammers too, a Nuthatch, and a selection of tits, all coming down to feed.

Brambling

Brambling – good views of several of these too, from the gate

Despite having enjoyed good views of the female Hawfinch from the gate, we still headed down to the paddocks to see if we could see some more. There were at least six more here, including at least four smart males, more richly chestnut coloured than the greyer-brown females. They were all up in the hornbeams when we arrived, so we got the scopes on them and admired their huge, cherry stone-cracking bills.

It was hard to tell exactly how many there were, with some hidden in amongst the tangles of branches and with other birds flying back and forth between the trees. Some of the Hawfinches then flew over to the first hornbeam and dropped down to feed on the ground. We had good views of a male and female feeding together here.

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – we watched some feeding under the trees in the paddocks

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the Hawfinches and we walked back to the bridge. There had been no food put out when we walked down, but we had sprinkled a couple of generous handfuls of sunflower seeds out earlier and there was now a steady procession of birds coming and going.

As well as the ever present Blue Tits and Great Tits, a couple of Long-tailed Tits popped in briefly and a Marsh Tit kept darting in and out. A Nuthatch would have come in too, but some people were standing too close to the pillar and it kept shooting past and not stopping, landing instead in the trees either side. There were several Siskins in the alders here too.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – reluctant to come in to the seed, with people standing too close

A Little Grebe was laughing madly from the reeds in the lake behind us, so we had a quick walk down beside the water. We couldn’t find the Little Grebe in the reeds but we did find another one diving under the overhanging branches in the middle of the lake. We got the scope on a drake Gadwall to admire the intricacy of the patterns of its feathers.

As we made our way back through the Arboretum, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl in its usual tree. There was only one here today, and it was well hidden in the branches high in the tree, but after some trial and error we found a good angle where we could get a half decent view of it through the scopes. A Goldcrest was flitting around high in the fir trees above us while we were watching it.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – just one today, well hidden in its usual tree

We still had enough time to fit in a quick trip up to Fincham to see if we could see the Great Grey Shrike. There was no one else there when we arrived and no sign of the shrike on the wires, but as we pulled up by a gap in the hedge we scanned across the field beside us and could see it perched in the top of a young oak tree over the far side. We all piled out and had good views of it through the scopes. A scarce winter visitor here from Scandinavia, it may not be too long now before it heads off on its journey back north.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – perched in the top of a young oak tree when we arrived

After a while, the Great Grey Shrike flew across to another tree, where we could still just see it through the lower branches of a big oak closer to us. After some last admiring glances, it was time to head back. It was a suitably good bird to wrap up another good day’s birding in the Brecks.

11th Mar 2020 – Breckland Birding

A Private Tour today, down in The Brecks. It was a bright morning, clouding over a bit in the afternoon but staying dry, with the wind becoming more blustery in the afternoon.

As we pulled up alongside a large forest clearing, we looked over the other side to see a Woodlark in the paddocks. As we got out, another flew over calling, circled round over the edge of the clearing and landed in a tree behind us. We got the scope on the paddocks and could now see there was a pair feeding there in the short grass. While we were watching them, another Woodlark started singing a little further over and we watched it in song-flight, fluttering into the breeze up against the patchy blue sky.

There were some other birds around the paddocks too. A flock of Meadow Pipits was feeding in the grass beyond the Woodlarks and a Mistle Thrush appeared on the track at the front. Two smart male Bramblings dropped down to feed nearby. They have been in short supply this winter, with few comparatively coming over from Scandinavia this year, and the few we have had hear will soon be heading back north.

As we walked along the path on the edge of the clearing, we heard a Woodlark singing above us and watched as it dropped down into the field the other side. It joined a female which was already on the ground and we got the scope on the pair of them as they fed in the short spring crop. They gradually worked their way towards us and we had a good view now of the distinctive head pattern and the black and white patch on the edge of the wing.

Woodlark

Woodlark – we had great views of a pair feeding in the field by the clearing

There were several Yellowhammers around the clearing too, and we could hear them calling and singing and saw one or two perched up in the trees. As we made our way back to the minibus, a Green Woodpecker was yaffling somewhere in the trees.

We had done so well for Woodlarks, and seen them so quickly this morning, that we now had a little extra time to call in at another ride briefly. We could hear lots of Redwings singing in the trees by the parking area as we set off. There were lots of Blackbirds in there too and we could see some of the Redwings flying in and out of a thick tangle of bushes. Presumably they had roosted here overnight.

As we walked in along the ride, a kronking call alerted us to two Ravens flying in, which appeared briefly low over the trees beside us before they turned and banked away out of view. Raven is still a rare bird in this part of the country, so this was a nice bonus this morning. A Chiffchaff was singing in a scrubby overgrown young plantation the other side of the track, the first we have heard this year and possibly a returning spring migrant. A flock of Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests was flitting around in the small trees too.

We walked on into the edge of the pines and stopped by the feeding table. There were lots of tits coming and going, including lots of Coal Tits and several Marsh Tits too. We could only spend a short time here this morning, as our main priorities lay elsewhere, but there was no sight nor sound of any Willow Tits while we were there today.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were lots coming and going from the feeding table

Our next target for the day was Goshawk, so we drove round and parked at a high point overlooking the forest. It was bright, but a bit more exposed and breezier here, chilly in the wind. Still, several Common Buzzards were already up and we didn’t have to wait too long before two distant Goshawks circled up above the trees. One drifted off left away from us, but the other came right, over the back of the trees in front of us, before eventually dropping down out of view behind the tops.

It was a good start, but with the bright conditions we still hoped we might get one closer or in display flight, so we continued scanning. A distant Sparrowhawk came up, much smaller than the Goshawks, and gave us a quick burst of rollercoaster display, giving us more hope, and a Kestrel was hovering out over the field behind. There were several Skylarks in the sky singing too and Yellowhammers in and out of the cover strip in the field in front.

Then another Goshawk circled up out of the trees in front of us, closer this time. It had its fluffy white undertail coverts ‘flagged’, puffed out and wrapped round its tail, which instantly stood out. It started displaying, slow flapping, with deep, powerful, exaggerated wingbeats.

Goshawk

Goshawk – came up displaying over the trees

We watched the Goshawk displaying over the tops of the trees for a couple of minutes, before it lost height and disappeared down over the trees to our left. Great stuff and we hadn’t even had to wait too long today. We decided to move on.

We drove down to Santon Downham and parked in the Forestry Commission car park. We had received a message to say that the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had been very elusive this morning, just heard calling very occasionally over the last couple of hours and not seen since very early first thing. Still we decided to have quick look along the river anyway, as it can be nice along there at this time of year and we thought we might see some different things.

Siskin

Siskin – singing in the gardens by the bridge

A Siskin was singing in a pine tree in one of the gardens, as we walked down to the bridge, and a couple more were on the feeders which have now been restocked. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming from deep in the poplars by the road. As we set off along the river bank, a Kingfisher flew out from the bank as we passed calling, and zipped off downstream.

It was the middle of the day, but it was still rather quiet along here now. We heard a Marsh Tit singing and a Nuthatch calling in the trees. We had a quick listen where the woodpeckers have been seen at times in the last few weeks, but there was nothing happening here. Given others’ experiences this morning, we didn’t linger and walked back for lunch.

We stopped for lunch by the church. The wind had picked up a bit now and was catching the trees in the back of the churchyard, so perhaps not surprisingly there was no sign of the Firecrest. Still, it was a nice place to sit on the bench in the sunshine and eat. A Sparrowhawk zipped through the tops of the firs.

After lunch, we made our way round to Lynford. As we crossed the road, someone had put some food down under a bush by the entrance, and a Nuthatch was trying to come in but reluctant to do so with people passing close by. It perched calling in a nearby tree. We had a quick look from the gate under the trees. There was some more seed out today and more birds coming down to feed, with at least six Bramblings including a couple of bright orange-breasted males.

Brambling

Brambling – at least six were feeding from the gate as we walked down

We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the Hawfinches, so we continued on down to the paddocks. There were a few Chaffinches under the first of the trees in the middle and after scanning for a few minutes one female Hawfinch appeared with them, quickly joined by a second. We watched them for a bit, feeding down in the grass, then everything flushed.

The Hawfinches flew into the next hornbeam over so we walked on to the next gap in the hedge. We could see at least five Hawfinches now and we got the scope on two of them in the tops, before they gradually moved across into the thicker ash trees and got harder to see. There were other birds in the trees here too, a Mistle Thrush and lots of Redwings, to have a look at. Then when we heard a Hawfinch calling back in the first tree, we turned to see a smart male perched right in the top.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – a smart male perched in the top of one of the hornbeams, calling

The male perched calling for a minute or two, then flew across into the ash trees to join the others. Most of the Hawfinches disappeared into the tangle of branches and all seemed to have gone quiet before we picked up two flying out of the back of the trees, heading off to roost. Good timing!

We made our way back to the bridge now, where there were lots of tits coming in to the food on the pillars. We had very good views of Marsh Tits here and a Nuthatch which shot in from time to time to grab a bill full of seeds, mostly when we were looking the other way!

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – eyeing up the sunflower seeds put out at the bridge

There were Siskins in the trees above and a Reed Bunting on the ground by the lake. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling and a Treecreeper put in a very brief appearance. A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers chased each other through the tops of the poplars high above us.

As we walked back, we stopped to look at the two Tawny Owls which were roosting in their usual tree.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – one of the two roosting together in their usual tree

Back up at the gate, there was still lots of activity, with birds coming and going from the seed on the ground among the leaves. We stopped again and watched the Bramblings and Yellowhammers, among all the tits and Chaffinches.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – coming down to the seed in the leaves in front of the gate

There was one last treat in store to finish the day, the grand finale at Fincham. As we pulled into the drove, we scanned the wires ahead of us and there was the Great Grey Shrike, perched a little further up beside the road. We pulled up and got the scopes on it. It dropped down several times and back up again, hunting. Then it flew out to a couple of isolated bushes on the far edge of the field.

We walked a little further up too, and got it in the scopes again. It was still hunting very actively, dropping down to the ground repeatedly. Then on one of its sorties, it suddenly set off low over the ground and we watched as it chased after and caught a bumble bee. It took it back to its favourite bush and after subduing it, dropped down through the branches and impaled it to eat later. Great Grey Shrikes are not known as ‘butcher birds’ for nothing!

Great Grey Shrike 1

Great Grey Shrike – switched to hovering out over the field, hunting

The Great Grey Shrike seemed to shift hunting tactics now, and kept flying out from the bushes and hovering out over the field, a couple of metres up from the ground, scanning for prey. Very interesting to watch. Eventually it flew back onto the wires, just a short distance up the road from where we were standing and we had even closer views of it through the scope.

Great Grey Shrike 2

Great Grey Shrike – flew back to the wires, much closer to where we were standing

It was a great way to finish the day, watching the Great Grey Shrike here. But it was time to wrap things up now and head back, so we left the shrike to its hunting and headed for home.

7th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 2

Day 2 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour today. It was rather cloudy and grey first thing, with some brief spits of rain which were not in the forecast. Thankfully it didn’t come to anything, and remained dry thereafter, with some sunny intervals developing from late morning. The wind was very light again first thing, but did pick up a bit through the day. We headed back down to the Brecks in the morning, but finished the day up in North Norfolk.

When we got down to the Brecks it was spitting with rain – not the weather we were hoping for to look for Woodlarks. We parked by a large clearing and as we got out of the minibus a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling. We looked across to the other side to see it perched in the top of a tree. A Green Woodpecker yaffled too. There were several birds feeding in the paddocks across the road – a small flock of Meadow Pipits, mixed finches, a couple of Mistle Thrush and a Redwing.

As we walked round the clearing, it was fairly quiet at first, with activity perhaps curtailed by the weather. Several Yellowhammers were flying in and out of the pines at the back, down into the clearing and back up, calling and singing. Two males spiralled up out of the tops of the trees fighting.

We saw something drop down into the grass in the far corner, so made our way over to see what we could find. We could hear a Woodlark singing quietly now, but couldn’t see it at first. It was down on the ground, hidden in the long grass. Then one flew up from further over, out in the middle of the clearing, and started singing. A second, possibly the one we had been listening to, also flew up and landed in the trees at the back, where we could get it in the scope.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – flew up and landed in the trees at the back of the clearing

There was quite a bit of Woodlark activity now, involving at least three birds. We watched the Woodlark in the tree at the back for a while, before it dropped back down into the grass. We managed to see it on the ground this time, and a second bird nearby calling was possibly a female. When another male flew in, the two of them chased each other back up into the trees. But apart from the first bit of song flight, the males were only singing from perches in the trees or down on the ground this morning.

Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, we drove round to another forest track and walked up into the trees. We were looking for Willow Tit here and there were certainly lots of tits coming and going from the feeding table set up in the pines. We stood and watched for a while, but all the black capped tits we saw were dozens of Coal Tits and a good number too of Marsh Tits. A Nuthatch typically darted in, grabbed a seed, and was back off into the trees.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were dozens coming down to the feeding table

Then we heard a Willow Tit calling in the pines, a distinctive nasal scolding call. It was deep in at first, but gradually came closer each time we heard it again. Eventually it made its way to the edge of the trees and we managed to pick it out, feeding high in the pines. It seemed to be feeding on the cones. A second Willow Tit was still calling, deeper in. The first bird looked like it was making its way towards the feeding table, but it never dropped down and disappeared back into the trees behind. Both the Willow Tits then went quiet again.

The Willow Tits here are a small remnant population: the species has disappeared rapidly from large swathes of southern Britain in recent years and they are still just about clinging on here. They can be difficult to see in the dense coniferous plantations, spending much of their time up in the tops of the trees, so we had done well to get such prolonged views of one today. We decided to move on.

The weather was starting to brighten up and the wind seemed like it had picked up a little, so we headed over to see if we could find a Goshawk. We parked on a high point, overlooking the forest, where several other people had already gathered. While we were getting out of the minibus, someone came over to say there was a Goshawk perched in the top of a fir tree across the field in front. We got the scope straight on it, but unfortunately it dropped down before everyone could get a look and disappeared into the trees. Still, it was a good start.

With the brighter weather, there were lots of Common Buzzards circling up now, including a striking pale one. A Red Kite came up too, off in the distance. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long before another Goshawk appeared. It circled up above the trees, a male, grey above and pale whitish below. It was distant at first, drifting first one way, then back the other. Then it turned and headed straight towards us. It was not displaying today, but flying purposefully, with deep and powerful wingbeats interspersed with short glides. It headed away to our right slightly, crossing the road as we lost sight of it behind some trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a male, flew up out of the trees and in across the road

When all the Woodpigeons came out of the trees, this would normally mean a Goshawk was hunting, but this time a Peregrine appeared instead. It flew out low over the treetops, across the field and over the road. It followed the line of the shelter belt on the far side of the field beyond us, flushing all the pigeons from there too, before disappearing off over the trees behind us. A Sparrowhawk made a brief appearance too and a Kestrel hovering over the field behind us added to an excellent variety of raptors here this morning.

It was almost time for lunch now, but we figured we had time for one more quick stop first. We made our way deeper into the forest and parked at the head of another ride. As we walked in, we heard a Woodlark overhead and looked up to see it fluttering over the trees beside the path singing. It flew round past us and disappeared back over the road, beyond where we had parked.

We had just started to walk back to look for it when the Woodlark came back overhead singing again and dropped down into the clearing further down the track. So we turned round again and walked over to where it had seemed to go down. We were scanning the low vegetation when it walked out from behind a low bank right by the path, just a couple of metres from us. It took off but thankfully landed just a couple of metres further back, and we had a great view of it as it picked its way through the vegetation feeding, stopping on the top of a small clod of earth. Cracking views and a better photo opportunity than the ones we had seen earlier, for the photographers in the group.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – showed very well right beside the path

The Woodlark gradually made its way back into the long grass, so we headed back to the minibus and drove round to Brandon again for lunch and a welcome hot drink.

After lunch, we made our way north to Fincham. A Red Kite was hunting out over the fields as we drove down the road and found somewhere to park. As we got out, we could already see the Great Grey Shrike on the wires a little further up. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – showed well on the wires at Fincham

The Great Grey Shrike was very mobile, dropping down into the field to look for food, and then back up to the wires. It flew across to some bushes along the edge of the field further up, and spent some time hunting from there, then came back up onto the wires by the road. When it flew across the road and went further out across the field the other side we decided to move on.

We had managed to catch up with most of our main targets in the Brecks (and surrounding areas) now, so we decided to head up to the North Norfolk coast for the rest of the afternoon. The wintering Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells had gone AWOL for a couple of weeks but had then reappeared back in its usual bush a couple of days ago, as if nothing had happened. As we pulled up in the layby, we could see it on top of the aforementioned bush.

We got out of the minibus and got the scopes on it, noting the Rough-legged Buzzard‘s very pale head contrasting with a dark blackish-brown belly patch. Several Marsh Harriers were circling up beyond the bank and another Red Kite further back, more to add to the day’s raptor tally. There were lots of gulls on the flooded field in front of the layby, along with a few Redshanks, and a Linnet or two on the near edge.

We walked down the track where we could get a better view of the Rough-legged Buzzard, side on and not so obscured by branches, although we still couldn’t see its rough legs. A Common Buzzard drifted over the track behind us, a much darker bird altogether.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – back on its usual bush

Continuing on over the bank, we stopped to scan the marshes. There was a nice selection of waders out on the flooded grazing marsh beyond, several Ruff flying round with a flock of Dunlin, a single Curlew, lots of Lapwings and a few more Redshanks.

A large flock of Brent Geese kept flying in and out of the old pitch and putt over towards the harbour wall, coming over our heads chattering noisily. Looking through the Greylags out on the grass, we found a single Pink-footed Goose hunkered down behind a line of reeds. Another little group of Pinkfeet flew up calling further back. There was a nice selection of ducks here too, including Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler.

A pre-roost gathering of Pied Wagtails was down in the wet grass in front of the water, along with a single Meadow Pipit. A bigger flock of Meadow Pipits flew in along the bank. Four Brown Hares in the ploughed field the other side of the track chased each other round at one point and even engaged in a brief bout of boxing (it is March, after all!).

It was a nice place to finish the day, scanning the marshes here, but it was time to head back now. We would be spending the day tomorrow along the coast here too, with lots more to see yet.

16th Mar 2019 – Brecks Bonanza

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.

Woodlark

Woodlark – dropped down to feeding in the short grass

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.

Goshawk 1

Goshawk – several birds were displaying, despite the wind

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!

Goshawk 2

Goshawk – this young bird was chasing pigeons out of the trees

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.

Brown Hare

Brown Hare – trying to hide behind the sheep wire!

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!

Mandarin

Mandarin – there were two pairs back again today

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.

Brambling

Brambling – we counted at least 8 here still

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.

Common Crossbill

Common Crossbill – waiting to come down to drink

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.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – on the fence on the edge of the clearing

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.

9th Mar 2019 – Even Breezier Brecks

A regular day tour to the Brecks today. It was very windy, gusting over 50mph at times, which didn’t help us, but at least it stayed dry all day and there were even some sunny intervals at times.

The forecast was for it to be brightest and least windy first thing, so we decided to try for Woodlark initially. As we walked in along a ride, we could hear one singing but it was already very breezy and we couldn’t see where it was. It seemed to be either in the trees of low over the tops out of view. We decided to try again on our way back.

A Stonechat was chatting over by the railway line and one or two Siskins flew back and forth overhead calling, but otherwise it was quiet as we made our way round via the reedbed and down to the river. It had been relatively sheltered in the lee of the pines but the poplars were exposed to the full force of the wind and were bending and creaking. The early sun disappeared behind some thick clouds too, which was not what we had been promised.

There was very little activity in the trees here today – just a few Stock Doves and a couple of Jackdaws – as we walked down the path. There was no sight or sound of any woodpeckers today. A Sparrowhawk appeared overhead, over the tops of the poplars. We could see it was noticeably patterned below and rather dark grey above as it banked, with a long narrow tail, square-ended and noticeably pinched-in at the base. A Crossbill flew over the river calling but disappeared behind the trees.

A Grey Wagtail called and we looked over to see it flitting around the tangle of branches where a tree had fallen into the river. It flew down onto the floating vegetation which had been trapped there and started to look for food.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – feeding on the floating vegetation in the river

We carried on down along the path and found a Chiffchaff singing in the willows by the reeds. It was flitting around in the branches which were now covered in catkins, so it was tricky to see at times. Beyond this point, the path started to get rather muddy, so we decided to turn round and head back.

When we got back half way we met a couple of people who told us they had earlier seen one of the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in the alders on the other side of the river. There was certainly a lot more activity here, where it was a little more sheltered. We stopped to look and could see lots of Siskins feeding in the trees. There was a mixed group of tits here too – Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and a Coal Tit. A Marsh Tit appeared with them. A Treecreeper worked its way up the trunks of a multi-stemmed tree and a pair of Nuthatches flew in to the tops. But there was no more sign of the woodpecker – it really wasn’t good weather for looking for them today.

As we made our way back to the van, a Woodlark flew up from the clearing. It didn’t really break into song, but gave us a brief few phrases before flying off over the trees. We hadn’t gone much further when it flew back in again and hovered overhead, singing rather half-heartedly again. We could see its distinctive short tail and broad, rounded wings, before it landed in the clearing back behind us.

Woodlark

Woodlark – flew back in and landed in the clearing behind us

We walked back and got the Woodlark in the scope. We had a really good look at it, as it walked around in the short grass and heather. It boldly marked supercilium stood out, the two sides meeting in a shallow ‘v’ at the back, noticeable as it worked its way away from us. It was the male and we could see its bright rusty ear coverts too.

The sky was clearing again from the west and we could see a large area of blue sky approaching, so we decided this would be a good opportunity to try our luck with Goshawks. We drove over to a high point overlooking the forest and got out to scan. It was very exposed here and the wind was really whistling through now. The scopes wouldn’t stand up, so we had to stand in the lee of the van! Our timing was spot on though, as we had not even had time to get set up properly when we spotted our first Goshawk up.

Over the next 40 minutes or so, the Goshawks were up fairly regularly, at least two (we saw two up together) and probably at least three different individuals. They were trying to display, although it looked to be difficult in the wind. The first Goshawk had its white undertail coverts fluffed out and wrapped round the sides of its tail, so it almost looked white rumped as it banked. It seemed to be doing a slow flapping display, but it was hard to tell as it was struggling to hold a level course.

Later a Goshawk came in high over the trees and we saw what was probably the same one we had seen earlier doing a quick burst of slow flapping display. It was flying with exaggerated, deep wingbeats, until it turned across the wind it was suddenly swept away. Still, we had good views of the Goshawks while they flew round. They were adults, noticeably pale silvery grey above and appeared almost pure white below, very different from the Sparrowhawk we had seen earlier.

There were several Common Buzzards up too. They seemed to be enjoying the wind, swooping at each other and hanging almost effortlessly in the air at times.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – there were several up enjoying the wind today

Having had good views of the Goshawks, we decided to move on somewhere more sheltered. It was time for lunch, so we headed down to Brandon where we could make use of the picnic tables and get a hot drink.

Being a Saturday, it was a bit busier here today, and there weren’t as many birds coming to the feeders. There was a steady succession of tits – Blue, Great, Long-tailed and Coal Tits – and regular visits from several Siskins, but no sign of any Bramblings coming in here today.

After lunch, we had a quick walk down to the lake. There was no sign of any Mandarin today, and we couldn’t even hear the Firecrest. It was possibly just too windy in the trees for it to be singing here today. We did find a Treecreeper in the edge of the trees – a bonus for those who had missed the one we had seen earlier. As we walked back to the van, we realised where the Bramblings were, as we flushed them from the leaves under the trees where they looked to be feeding on the beech mast.

Brambling

Brambling – feeding in the leaves under the trees today

The Great Grey Shrike had been reported again back in its favoured clearing yesterday and it was apparently still there this morning, so we made our way over there next to look for it. As we walked in along the ride, there was no sign of the large numbers of finches which have been feeding in the pines here in recent days. Whether they have moved on or were just feeding elsewhere out of the wind remains to be seen. So we made our way quickly down to the clearing at the far end.

There were a couple of people walking back who told us the Great Grey Shrike had been seen recently, after a three hour absence, but when we got to the clearing there was no sign of it at first. We were hoping we would not have to wait three hours for it to appear again!

A pair of Stonechats were perched on the fence and a couple of Linnets flew in and landed on the sandy track. As we walked down along the side of the clearing a pair of Woodlarks flew in calling. The female flew straight down into the long grass in the middle but the male landed on the fence for a few seconds before dropping down to join here. Two Crossbills flew over the clearing calling, but disappeared straight off over the pines.

Some more people who were walking back from the far side told us they had seen the Great Grey Shrike fly out into the middle of the clearing about ten minutes ago, but they had lost sight of it. While we stood talking to them, we looked over to the far side and realised we could just see the head of the shrike tucked down in the grass, as the wind blew the vegetation from side to side. Even through the scope, it was very difficult to see but then it helpfully flew up and landed in the top of a taller birch sapling where we could get a good look at it.

The Great Grey Shrike flew back down to where it had been – presumably it was sheltered from the wind down there. We walked a bit further up and found a spot where we could see it better, looking down between the rows of young pines. Now we could get a clear view of its black mask, very pale silvery grey upperparts and white underparts, and black wings and long black tail.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – we finally found an angle where we could get a clear look at it

By the time we had walked all the way back to the van, we were a little later getting away than we had hoped, which meant we were later than planned arriving at Lynford Arboretum, where we would finish the day. As we walked out of the car park, we could hear a Firecrest singing but by the time we got round onto the road where it had been it had gone quiet again.

We had a quick look in the larches but there was no sign of any Crossbills here now, so we carried on to the gate. It seemed a bit quiet here at first, but gradually more birds started to drop down out of the trees to feed on the ground amongst the leaves. The surprise was the number of Yellowhammers – we counted at least ten here together at one point. There were still a few Bramblings too, with several smart males sporting black heads to a greater or lesser degree, but not as many as there have been here recently.

Bramblings and Yellowhammers

Yellowhammers and Bramblings – coming down to feed under the trees

As time was likely to be of the essence on a cold, windy afternoon, we didn’t hang around too long and carried on down towards the bridge. We couldn’t resist a quick stop to look at the Tawny Owl, which was back roosting in its usual spot high in one of the fir trees. It was hard to see, even when it was practically filling the view in the scope, until you realised there was a large eye staring back down at you!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – staring back down at us from high in a fir tree

There were lots of photographers standing on the other side of the bridge, waiting for Crossbills to come down to drink. They had been in and out earlier, but there was no sign of any now, so we continued straight on to the paddocks. There had apparently been some Hawfinches here earlier, but they had flown off before we got there. There were a few Redwings flying around the trees in the middle, and a Marsh Tit singing in the hedge in front of us, but otherwise it all seemed fairly quiet now.

The Hawfinches can sometimes be found in the tops of the pines at the end of the day, but it didn’t sound like they had flown in that direction today. We looked across and the tops of the trees were swaying vigorously from side to side in the wind. It didn’t look like they would be perching up there this afternoon! The bottom of the trees that side would be sheltered from the wind, so we walked round there anyway to see if we could spot any in the lower branches. There was no sign of them there, but we did find a Firecrest singing. This one posed nicely, flitting around in the branches of a bare tree above our heads.

Firecrest

Firecrest – singing in the trees down by the paddocks

We made our way back round the other side and along by the lake. There were a few Gadwall and Mallard, plus a pair each of Canada and Greylag Goose. One or two Little Grebes were busy diving. One of the group spotted a pair of Common Crossbills perched in the top of one of the alders above the path. We got the scope on the red male and had a good look at it before they flew off. Nice to finally get to see one perched rather than just flying over.

Common Crossbill 1

Common Crossbill – the male perched in one of the alders over the path

Back at the bridge, we heard a couple more Common Crossbills calling in the trees but there was no sign of any coming down to drink now. There were lots of birds coming and going from the feeders and the seed put out on the pillars though. We stopped and watched for a bit, with a good variety of tits including some very close Long-tailed Tits and Marsh Tits. A couple of Reed Buntings here were a nice late addition to the day’s list.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming to the food put out at the bridge

We had another look over at the trees in the paddocks and noticed a large raptor over the pines beyond, a Goshawk. It circled for a minute and then folded its wings and plunged vertically down into the trees. A short while later it reappeared above the trees and we watched it flying off to the south.

It was getting late now, so we started to walk back to the car park. The ground beneath the feeders from the gate was quiet now but as we got back to the larches by the entrance, we noticed a bird high in the top of one of them. It was a Common Crossbill, another smart red male. We got it in the scope and watched it perched there preening for several minutes. Then it flew off into the Arboretum.

Common Crossbill 2

Common Crossbill – perched high in the larches as we were leaving

That was a nice way to finish the day. It had been challenging at times in the wind, but we had seen a remarkable amount today considering the conditions.

1st Mar 2019 – Brecks & Winter Birds, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day tour today, focusing on the Brecks and some of our lingering winter visitors on the coast. It was a rather grey and cloudy day, but dry and fairly still. We decided to try our luck down in the Brecks.

It was not an ideal morning for the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers to be out drumming, a bit cool and overcast, and after the long drive down to the Brecks we had missed the early morning peak in activity, but they have been very active displaying in the last week or so we figured it was worth a good go. As we got out of the van, a Greenfinch was trilling and wheezing from the top of the nearby birch trees, and a Grey Wagtail circled round over the car park singing too – a good sign that birds were still displaying despite the cooler weather today.

Walking down the road towards the bridge, we could see lots of finches in the garden of the house with the feeders and a female Brambling perched up nicely in a tree in the hedge.

Brambling

Brambling – perched up in the trees on our way down to the bridge

There were lots of Siskins singing in the alder trees by the river and flying back and forth overhead in little groups. We flushed several birds from the bushes ahead of us as we walked down the path – Brambling, Redwing, Reed Bunting. We heard a Mandarin call in the trees, but couldn’t see it.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming off in the distance, perhaps another good sign, and a second bird then called a bit closer. We could hear a Woodlark singing off in the distance too – one to look for on our way back. For now, we were focused on trying to find the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

We stopped at a block of poplars by the river, where we have seen the woodpeckers regularly in recent days. Apparently a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker had been seen much earlier further up along the river, but someone else thought they had heard one closer to here, so we decided to try our luck in this spot.

There was no sign of the woodpeckers at first, but they are so small and can disappeared back into the thicker birches at the back or over the river into the alders for long periods. there were lots of finches and tits feeding in the tops of the trees. A Nuthatch was feeding up in the poplars too.

Then we heard the distinctive, sharp ‘kee-kee-kee’ call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We scanned trees the tops of the poplars and after a couple of minutes we spotted the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker fly across and land on a small branch high in the canopy. We got it in the scope, and watched as it climbed up one thin stem, looking for food, then flicked across to the next one and did the same thing again.

It tried several different branches, occasionally stopping to pick at the bark, and then when it dropped across to the next one, the male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker suddenly appeared next to it. You could just make out its red crown. The female flew and the male chased after it, pursuing it from branch to branch – part of their courtship display. Then the two of them stopped high in the tree, perched on a branch, the female above and the male just below.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker 1

Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers – the male below and female above

We got the scope on the pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers again and while the group stopped to watch them, a quick dash up the footpath was required to shout for some other local birders who had walked further on to check out the block at the far end. By the time we got back, the woodpeckers had disappeared into the trees again, but at least we knew where they were now.

As we stood and scanned the trees for a few minutes, someone picked one of the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers again, lower down on the trunk of a tree further back, just the female this time. We watched her climbing up through the branches, before she flew across and was lost to view.

Listening carefully, we could hear quiet tapping coming from roughly the area where the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker had flown, but after staring hard at the trees, someone eventually found a Great Spotted Woodpecker, low down on the trunk of an alder tree. We got the scope on it, and could see it was much larger than the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers we had just been watching. It had a block of red on the back of its head, indicating it was a male. The female Great Spotted Woodpecker then appeared on a tree nearby.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker – a pair were feeding low in the alders

At least one Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was still close by as we heard it call a couple of times, a bit further back in the trees. After scanning the tops carefully, we eventually found it again when it appeared in the top of another poplar. It was the female again and we watched it feeding once more, right up in the small branches high in the canopy. At one point it stopped, hammering on a small twig for a couple of minutes, clearly having detected some food. We were treated to some really prolonged views this time, about fifteen minutes – a real treat, for this somewhat elusive species – as it moved between the branches of the poplars.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker 2

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – the female, feeding high in the poplars

Finally the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew across and disappeared into the denser block of trees over by the river, so we decided to move on. On our way back, we cut across towards the area where we had heard the Woodlark singing earlier.

There were lots of finches in the trees by the reedbed, mainly Chaffinches and Bramblings, but we could hear one or two Redpolls calling too. It appeared they were coming down to drink and bathe in the water below the trees. Once they were finished, they flew back up into the tops before flying across the path and back to the pines beyond. Most of them didn’t sit still for long, but we eventually got the scope on some smart male Bramblings.

As we reached the railway underpass, we heard a Woodlark call and turned to see it drop down on other side of railway. Through the underpass, we quickly found a Woodlark in the short heather and grass in the clearing beyond. We got it in the scope, and as it started to walk across, picking around in the vegetation, we could see another Woodlark next to it, and then a third.

Woodlark 1

Woodlarks – two of the three in the short grass and heather

Two of the Woodlarks then started fighting, fluttering at each other, rising about a foot off the ground before landing again, presumably two males arguing over territory or the female. They parted and seemed to resume feeding, before coming back together several time. Eventually, the pair walked off together one way, over towards the longer grass, the male singing softly. The other male walked away in the other direction, further down the clearing, feeding.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – the pair walked off into the longer grass

While we were watching the Woodlarks, we heard Carrion Crows cawing loudly behind us over the pines and turned to see low of Woodpigeons scattering from the trees. There had to be a Goshawk somewhere to cause such a commotion and after a couple of seconds one appeared above the treeline. A couple of crows chased after it briefly, giving us a good size comparison, and we watched as the Goshawk flew off away from us, turned over the railway, and then headed off over the river.

Goshawks

Goshawk – chased off by a Carrion Crow

There were a few more birds to see as we made our way back to the car. We finally managed to find one of the redpolls in the top of the trees, a smart male Lesser Redpoll with bright pinky-red breast, which we got in the scope. A pair of Marsh Tits appeared on the edge of the pines, and flew over our heads down towards the railway. Back at the bridge, we found a Redwing feeding with Blackbirds in some dense ivy. And we finally got some nice views of Siskins on the feeders.

Redwing

Redwing – feeding in an ivy-covered tree by the bridge

It had been a very productive morning here and when we got back to the van, it was already time for lunch, so we headed over to Brandon to get a hot drink and use the facilities. After lunch, we made our way down to the small lake. There are often some rather tame Mandarins here, and we were not disappointed today. We counted twelve of them, nine very smart males and three females.

They were roosting out on the grass under the trees with the local Mallards. What at first glance appeared to be a Shoveler with them turned out to be a Shoveler x Blue-winged Teal hybrid – its bluish head with a diffuse white crescent marking and dusky patterned white underparts betraying its mixed parentage. The drake Mandarins started displaying, lifting their necks and raising their ornate crests – amazing looking birds!

Mandarin

Mandarin – a stunning drake showing off

As we walked around the lake, we first heard a Goldcrest singing and then a sharper call from the fir trees in the corner alerted us to a Firecrest overhead. We watched it flicking around in the branches on the edge of a tall fir tree, where we could see its bold face pattern with obvious white supercilium and black eyestripe. Eventually it worked its way up and disappeared into the thicker branches towards the top.

There were also a couple of Marsh Tits and a Nuthatch in the trees here. As we made our way back to the car park, we stopped to listen to a Treecreeper call, which then helpfully flew in and landed in one of the trees next to us, where we could see it climbing up the trunk. At least, when it didn’t do its usual trick of disappearing round the far side of the tree!

We made our way further south into the Forest and stopped by one of the rides. As we walked in past a small clearing, we could hear a Woodlark call but we couldn’t see it. Two small birds flew up from the edge of the trees, but rather than the Woodlarks they were two smart male Yellowhammers. They disappeared into the edge of the pines at first, where they were hard to see, but one eventually flew out and landed in a small bare birch tree in the middle of the clearing. After we had all had a good look at it through the scope, the second flew out of the pines too.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – flew out and landed in a small birch in the clearing

Further on along the ride, we could hear loads of finches twittering in the tops of a line of deciduous trees flanking the path. We looked up to see lots of Chaffinches and Bramblings. We got a male Brambling in the scope, and back on we could see the distinctive white stripe down its back. There were Siskins and at least a couple of Lesser Redpoll too.

The finches were flying backwards and forwards across the ride into the pines opposite. They were most likely looking for seeds. In the warmer weather over the last week or so, the pine cones started to open, revealing a bonanza of seeds. Whereas the cones are normally closed, and the seeds can only be accessed by specialist feeders like Crossbills, when they open in the spring the seeds are suddenly freely available to all. Further on along the ride, as if on cue, a Crossbill flew low overhead calling.

As soon as we got in to the clearing at the far end, we could see the Great Grey Shrike out in the middle. Perched up on the top of a small pine sapling, its pale silvery grey and white plumage meant it really stood out. We walked on over to the fence on the edge of the plantation,  from where we got a good view of the Great Grey Shrike through the scope.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – perched on a small pine sapling out in the clearing

For a long time, the Great Grey Shrike helpfully remained where it was, on the same small pine tree, so everyone could get a good look at it. Got Then after a while it started to get more active. It dropped down out of view, then flew across to another tree. It did this several times, working its way slowly back through the plantation, before we lost sight of it.

It was a nice way to end a very successful first day in the Brecks, watching the Great Grey Shrike. On the walk back, several more Crossbills flew over calling, but didn’t seem to stop. They would be very hard to see anyway in the dense mature pine plantations – one for tomorrow. For now, it was time to call it a day and head for home.