Tag Archives: Great Grey Shrike

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

22nd-26th Feb 2018 – Northern Greece in Winter

Not a tour, but with a few days off I took advantage and headed over to Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece for a few days, with a couple of things in mind – photographing pelicans and checking out some new sites ahead of our group tour there at the end of April. If this blog post inspires you to consider a visit, you would be very welcome to join us on one of our future tours there!

Unfortunately, the weather on this trip was not ideal. The first two days were dry, but it rained on day 3 and I woke on day 4 to deep snow and the village cut off, leading to not a little panic about how to get back home that evening! This snow was particularly unseasonal, due to the ‘Beast from the East’ which has affected much of Europe. Luckily, I had managed to get a lot achieved in the first two/three days and, after the snow plough came through, I abandoned plans for the fourth day and made a bid for the airport. After getting stuck twice in the snow and 120km in detours for closed roads, thankfully I made it safely.

Lake Kerkini was only created in 1932, through damming of the Strimonas river, both to provide irrigation for the Serres plain and to hold back water to prevent flooding downstream as snow in the mountains melts in spring. It quickly became one of the most important sites for wildlife in Greece.

Lake Kerkini is particularly well known for its pelicans. It had already established itself as the most important wintering site in Europe for Dalmatian Pelicans, before the provision of nesting platforms and islands allowed them to start breeding here from 2003. White Pelicans have now started to colonise too.

January and February are the best months to photograph the Dalmatian Pelicans. The birds are already in their breeding finery and they are more approachable at this time of year. Once they start breeding, they become much shyer and also are very vulnerable to disturbance.

My mission to photograph the pelicans was a great success. You can see some photos of Dalmatian Pelicans below, followed by a few of the other species I was able to catch up with on my brief visit.

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Dalmatian Pelican – a good reason for a visit here in winter

There were a few White Pelicans here too. Most of these head off to Africa for the winter, but a few juveniles linger and the first adults were already starting to return. The adults look stunning at this time of year – not white, but pink. Amazing birds!

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White Pelican – rather more pink than white!

Lake Kerkini is also an internationally important site for other waterbirds. Pygmy Cormorants can be seen quite commonly around the edges of the lake, along with their larger cousins.

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Pygmy Cormorant – common around the lake

Lesser White-fronted Geese are globally threatened and the Scandinavian population has suffered particularly large declines due to over hunting and habitat change. From over 10,000 birds in 1900, only around 30 breeding pairs now remain. These birds winter in Greece, historically passing through Lake Kerkini in late autumn or early winter on their way to the Evros Delta.

In recent years, a number of the Lesser White-fronted Geese have stayed on, remaining around the lake all winter. I was fortunate to catch up with 18 of the 28 currently at Lake Kerkini on one afternoon. They were noticeably smaller than the commoner Russian White-fronted Geese which also winter here, with a distinctive faster feeding action.

The area around the lake is also very good for birds. Birds of prey are frequently encountered and one of the most distinctive in winter are the (Greater) Spotted Eagles. I saw 5-6 of these majestic birds daily when I visited the western shore of the lake. A single adult White-tailed Eagle was too distant for photographs.

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Spotted Eagle – the commonest eagle in winter, easily found around the lake

The surrounding area is also good for woodpeckers. I saw six different species even on my very brief visit, including Black Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Grey-headed Woodpecker.

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Black Woodpecker – one of six species of woodpecker seen

The surprise of the trip was a stunning adult Pallas’s Gull which I found on the lake in the rain on my third day. Also known historically as Great Black-headed Gull, this is probably a better name for this distinctive species, being slightly larger than the accompany Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls with a bold black hood in summer. Although increasing in regularity, it is still a rare bird in Greece with only just over 30 records.

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Pallas’s Gull – a smart adult, showing why it was called Great Black-headed Gull

Great Grey Shrike is a rare winter visitor in northern Greece, but they can sometimes be found at Kerkini. One was frequenting the marshes along the eastern side of the lake while I was there. I was immediately struck by the amount of white in the wing and tail of this bird, noticeably more than in the birds we normally see in the UK in winter. The white in the base of the primaries was very extensive and, in flight, could be seen to extend across the bases of the secondaries.

The Great Grey Shrikes wintering here originate from further east than the birds which most commonly turn up in the UK. They are assumed to be of the race homeyeri or intergrades, rather than the nominate excubitor which we normally encounter. It was certainly an educational bird to spend time with.

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Great Grey Shrike – of the subspecies homeyeri

Particularly given the weather and the resulting loss of one day of my trip, I did not get as much of an opportunity to explore further afield as I had hoped on this occasion. I did visit some of the surrounding sites lower down, but was unable to get up into the mountains. Even so, I managed to see around 95 different species in 3 days, including some other eastern Mediterranean specialities like Western Rock Nuthatch and Sombre Tit.

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Western Rock Nuthatch – can be found in the surrounding area

Despite the weather on the last couple of days, it was a very enjoyable and successful short trip. I can heartily recommend it as a destination, either in winter or spring. If you would like to join us on one of our future trips, please do not hesitate to get in contact.

Sept/Oct 2017 – A Week in Shetland

Not a tour, but a week spent up in the Shetland Isles between 27th September and 4th October. The weather was not great – gale force winds on several days, and lots of rain – but it was still possible to get out birding most of the time. It was an opportunity to go and check out some new sites, as well as catch up with some of the more unusual birds which were around while I was there. Here is a selection of photos from the week.

Breeding as close as Scandinavia but wintering in SE Asia, Rustic Bunting is a very rare visitor to Norfolk. They are much more regular in the Northern Isles, but even so there was a bit of a deluge over the last week. I managed to catch up with two. The first Rustic Bunting on the Mainland was found up at Melby, Sandness. I saw it on several occasions but it was always quite flighty, when I was there.

Rustic Bunting 1Rustic Bunting – seen around the wet fields at Melby, Sandness

The second Rustic Bunting I saw was at Lower Voe, which I stopped off to see on my way back from Esha Ness on my last morning. It was initially rather elusive, moving round between gardens and the beach, but eventually settled down to feed along the side of the road where it showed very well.

Rustic Bunting 2Rustic Bunting – my second of the week, at Lower Voe

The other rarity highlight was the arrival of several Parrot Crossbills towards the end of the week. This is an irruptive species, moving out of Northern Europe in search of pine cones. We were fortunate to have a very obliging group in North Norfolk not so long ago, over the winter of 2013/14. But it was still nice to catch up with some more Parrot Crossbills this time – I saw at least 6, in the spruce plantations at Sand, making very light work of any spruce cones they could find.

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Parrot Crossbill 2Parrot Crossbills – there were at least 6 in the spruce plantations at Sand

Esha Ness is a stunning location and well worth the visit anyway, but I did eventually manage to locate the juvenile American Golden Plover which was hanging out with the flock of Eurasian Golden Plovers. It was generally rather distant though, hunkered down at first against the gale-force winds, before flying off into one of the fields to feed.

American Golden PloverAmerican Golden Plover – hunkered down in the wind

The juvenile Little Stint was much more obliging, landing in the road right in front of the car, before running over to feed around the shallow pools in the grass nearby. A Curlew Sandpiper feeding in the grassy fields with the Golden Plovers looked rather out of place.

Little StintLittle Stint – feeding around the shallow pools with a Rock Pipit for company

There were lots of scarcities too – a good arrival of Little Buntings, seen at several sites….

Little BuntingLittle Bunting – this one in one of the quarries at Sumburgh Head

…and numerous Red-breasted Flycatchers too.

Red-breasted FlycatcherRed-breasted Flycatcher – one of many, this one also in a quarry at Sumburgh

Yellow-browed Warblers, perhaps not surprisingly these days, were numerous.

Yellow-browed WarblerYellow-browed Warbler – several were seen most days, this one at Quendale

There was only one Red-backed Shrike around during the week, a juvenile for a couple of days at Fladdabister. It was often to be found hunting in a couple of small gardens, right outside the front windows of the houses!

Red-backed ShrikeRed-backed Shrike – this juvenile was at Fladdabister

I also saw two Great Grey Shrikes during the week, one by the beach at Grutness and the other at Dale of Walls.

Great Grey ShrikeGreat Grey Shrike – this one at Dale of Walls in the rain

There were good numbers of commoner migrants passing through, especially earlier in the week. Redstarts were regularly seen, sometimes in slightly incongruous places.

Common RedstartRedstart – this one on the pavement by the road in a housing estate

There were several Spotted Flycatchers around too, but I only saw one Pied Flycatcher during the week, in one of the plantations at Kergord. It can’t have been easy for them to find food, in the wind and the rain.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher – trying to find a sheltered spot to feed

Bramblings and thrushes, particularly Song Thrush and Redwing, were arriving too. I was slightly disappointed to only see a handful of Mealy Redpoll, as I left too early for the arrival of the Arctic Redpolls just after I departed.

BramblingBrambling – birds were arriving during the week

It was also nice to catch up with some of the commoner birds. The Wrens on Shetland are a separate subspecies, zetlandicus, darker with longer bill and legs compared to the ones at home.

Shetland WrenShetland Wren – a distinct subspecies

Rock Doves are common around the crofts and fields. It many parts of the UK, they have interbred with Feral Pigeons, but the ones here still look pretty pure.

Rock DoveRock Dove – seen around the crofts and fields

Twite are also still fairly common here, with small groups encountered on most days.

TwiteTwite – small groups were seen on most days

Most of the seabirds which breed here over the summer months have now departed, but there were still plenty of Black Guillemots around the coast. This one was particularly obliging, catching crabs just off the beach at Melby.

Black GuillemotBlack Guillemot – several were seen around the coast

It was a very enjoyable week up in Shetland and I will definitely be going back again next year!

26th Mar 2017 – Brilliant Brecks

A group day tour down to the Brecks today, our last scheduled Brecks Tour for March. It was another lovely day – bright and sunny, though still with a bit of a chill to the east wind. It still felt like spring though, out of the wind, a great day to be out birding.

The meeting place at the start of the day was at Lynford. As we gathered in the car park, we could hear a Blackcap singing, the first we have heard this year. There seems to have been quite an arrival of them in the last couple of days. We looked across and could see it perched up in the top of a bare deciduous tree nearby.

Over on the other side of the car park, we could hear a Firecrest calling. We walked over and realised it was out on the sunny side of the trees, by the road. When we got round there, it had moved up into the tops of the trees, and was calling constantly. There were lots of other birds up there too, Siskins, Chaffinches and tits. Then a second Firecrest started calling nearby, from a low holly bush right in front of us. As it was much lower down, we had a great view of it in there for a couple of seconds, before it too flew up into the tops of the trees.

Back in the car park, we could still hear the Firecrests calling from high up in the trees, where the sun was catching them. A Jay perched in the very top of a fir tree was also enjoying the morning sunshine.

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Our first destination for the day was Santon Downham – we planned to come back to explore Lynford later. We drove over into Suffolk, parked in the Forestry Commission car park, and walked back down the road towards the bridge. There were quite a few Bramblings in the alders down by the river and some of them were singing. The song is not much to write home about – a hoarse wheezing rather like a Greenfinch. They should be on their way back to Scandinavia for the breeding season soon.

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As we walked down along the river bank, we could hear the ‘glipping’ calls of Common Crossbills and looked across to see two flying away over the meadows. A little further along we heard our first Mandarins calling. A pair flew in from the other side of the river and did a circuit through the trees, the male following the female, before the two of them eventually landed high in a poplar. It is always slightly odd to see Mandarins balancing in the trees, but they are naturally tree hole nesters.

IMG_2769Mandarin – the drake, balanced high in a poplar tree

A raptor appeared over the top of the trees and a quick look confirmed it was an adult Goshawk. Silvery grey above and rather bright white below, it flew across low over the top of the poplars and dropped away behind the pines beyond. A nice bonus to start the day.

There are still lots of Lesser Redpolls along the river at the moment. Most of them are feeding down in the sallows and alders at the back of the trees, out of view. Odd ones and twos were chasing each other around higher up in the trees and we managed to get some in the scope for a closer look.

The Nuthatches are very noisy along the river at the moment, busy renovating their homes and defending them from any other unwelcome potential occupants. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called and appeared briefly on a branch above the path ahead of us, before flying back into the trees. A couple of Green Woodpeckers laughed at us from the other side of the river.

What we really wanted to see was Lesser Spotted Woodpecker though. We had been lucky enough to be able to watch the male fly in and start excavating a nest hole yesterday, so it was only natural to have a quick look at the same tree this morning, just in case. And there it was! The male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was busy in exactly the same spot. It was hard to see at first, slightly round towards the back of the tree, in the shade, but we got all the scopes on it and we were all soon watching it hard at work.

IMG_2781-001Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – the male, with red crown, busy excavating again

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was disappearing most of the way into the hole – we could just see its tail showing behind the trunk – and re-emerging with beak-fulls of wood chips, which it would throw out. It was mostly in the shade on that side of the tree, but occasionally when it leaned back and turned, its bright red crown caught in the morning sunshine.

We watched the male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker busy working on the hole for about 15 minutes. Then it seemed to pause and started calling. We thought we might hear the female answer from somewhere nearby, although we didn’t hear anything. But the next thing we knew, the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker appeared in a tree nearby. She didn’t fly to inspect the nest hole today, but instead flew straight towards us and landed in a tree right above our heads. Craning our necks, we could see her feeding in the high branches. She flitted between branches for a couple of minutes, before flying off across the river. When we looked back, the male had now disappeared too.

We walked a little further up along the river, to see what else we could find. A pair of Stock Doves were hopping around in a large dead tree. A Water Rail flew into cover on the far bank of the river, but before anyone could get onto it. There were several butterflies out enjoying the spring sunshine – Red Admiral, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell. On our way back again, there was still no sign of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker back at the nest hole, so we decided to move on.

On the walk back, a pair of Mandarins were by the river. The female was out on the bank, preening, while the male swam up and down in the edge of the water. He looked particularly smart, his bright chestnut plumage catching the sun, with his thick mane of ornamental feathers around his neck and two ‘sails’ on his back.

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On the way back from the bridge to the car park, we noticed a small bird making aerial sallies out from the side of a tall conifer. It was a Firecrest and it was flycatching, fluttering out after small flies which we could see in the air around the edge of the tree. We stopped to watch it for a couple of minutes. When it landed in the edge of the conifer, we could see its boldly black and white striped face and the brighter bronze  patches on the sides of the neck. A lovely bird!

Our next stop was in the north Brecks. We parked in an area overlooking the Forest and got out to scan over the trees. Despite the sunshine, there was still a bit of a chill from the easterly wind, and raptor activity was a little slow here today. There were a few Common Buzzards circling up above the trees. A couple of Red Kites were displaying in the distance, and stopped to chase off another Common Buzzard which was trying to circle with them. A Sparrowhawk came up out of the trees too – just too small to be a Goshawk, with a more active flapping flight and quicker turns. As it circled we could see its square-cornered tail, pinched in at the base. A pair of Kestrels circled over the field nearby.

There has been a pair of Stone Curlews in the field behind, but we couldn’t see them at first. They had settled down in among the stones and clods of earth, in a slight depression in the field, and were perfectly camouflaged. There was also a bit of heat haze now, coming up off the bare ground. We repositioned ourselves slightly and scanned carefully and just managed to see two heads, which looked to all intents and purposes like two rather rounded stones! Through the scope, we could just make out the staring yellow iris in the middle of one of the ‘stones’!

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Helpfully, after a few minutes, one of the two Stone Curlews stood up so we could get a much better look at it. We could see the distinctive black and white striped panel on the wings.

A Woodlark called and we looked across to see it fluttering over the winter wheat field in front. It flew around for a minute or so and then dropped down to the ground. We saw where it landed, but it quickly disappeared into the crop before we could get the scopes onto it. A short while later, we could hear either it or another Woodlark singing its rather sad and melancholy song from somewhere across the field.

With the limited raptor activity here, we decided to move on and have a look for the Great Grey Shrike first, and come back here for lunch later. We parked by another ride and set off into the Forest. A smart male Yellowhammer was calling from the trees on the edge of the clearing. There was no sound of any Woodlarks today, but there were several dogs running around loose all over the middle of the clearing, not an ideal situation with sensitive ground nesting birds here!

As soon as we rounded the corner by the young pine plantation, we could see the Great Grey Shrike, its bright white and silvery grey plumage really standing out in the sun against the background of dark green pines. We had a quick look from the corner, and then made our way round to the other side of the plantation where we could get a better look with the sun behind us.

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We watched the Great Grey Shrike for a while. It perched in the very top of a young pine tree for a while, before dropping down to the ground. When it came back up, it climbed through the branches of a young ash tree. It stayed there for some time, scanning the ground below. While we were watching it, a Woodlark flew up from the clearing behind and landed in the top of a tall, lone dead pine. Through the scope we could see the prominent pale supercilium and the distinctive black and white panel on the primary coverts.

It was time for lunch, so we headed back to the spot where we had been earlier and scanned over the Forest as we ate. There seemed to be a bit more hazy cloud at first, and it felt even slightly cooler than it had earlier. The raptors were still fairly subdued. However, after a while some blue sky appeared over the trees and we could feel the sun a little stronger on our backs. It was just enough – an adult male Goshawk circled up out of the trees below a Common Buzzard. It didn’t stop long though, and quickly drifted off and dropped away over the pines.

The plan was to spend the rest of the afternoon back at Lynford Arboretum. The Hawfinches have been showing very well over the last few days from the gate, so we got ourselves into position. We could see one Hawfinch come down through the trees and it quickly dropped to the ground to feed, but it was right at the back and hard to see behind some taller evergreen vegetation. There were also a pair of Bullfinches feeding in the leaf litter at the back.

A couple of Bramblings were more obliging, feeding in the leaf litter much closer to the gate. One or two Siskins dropped down to the stone bath to drink. A Nuthatch flew down to the ground too and several tits were flitting around the feeders.

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Then we spotted someone walking through the trees at the back, and the Hawfinch and Bullfinches flew off as they approached. They walked through to the chicken run with what looked like some food for the pet rabbit which is also in there. We thought the Hawfinches might return, but the next thing we knew a large crowd of people came through the back of the trees, with a couple of dogs in tow too. They went round to the chicken pen and stayed there for what seemed like ages. It was clear the birds would not be coming back down in a hurry!

We walked on down the path to the pines and did a quick circuit round the trees. We could hear Crossbill calling from the tops, but couldn’t see it. From round by the battle area, we heard a Hawfinch calling from the trees. We stopped to look for it and realised that there were loads of finches up in the pines – Bramblings, Chaffinches, Lesser Redpolls, Siskins and Goldfinches – all taking advantage of the opening of the cones and the resulting abundance of free seed. The birds were hard to see in the pines though, and we couldn’t see any Hawfinch.

As we walked back to the main path, we could hear another Hawfinch calling from the trees overhead and then we spotted one out in the open in the top of the deciduous trees by the chicken pen. Unfortunately, just as we got it in the scope, it flew off towards the feeders. We walked back to see if we could find it down on the ground from the gate, but it was still all quiet here.

The Hawfinches often like to perch in the tops of the trees around the Arboretum and enjoy the late afternoon sun, so we decided we would walk down towards the bridge and try our luck there. As we got to the top of the hill, we spotted three Hawfinches in the tops of the bare branches. This time most of the group did manage to get a look at them in the scope, but they didn’t hang around and flew back towards the chicken pen. We turned to walk back and one was perched in the top of a tree on the edge of the Arboretum calling, but that too quickly flew.

The Hawfinches were certainly giving us the runaround today, but as we walked back to see if we could find one down on the ground from the gate, we finally all got a good look at one in the tops of the trees above the feeders. Finally! After a few minutes, it dropped down towards the ground, but there was still no sign of it from the gate.

IMG_2961Hawfinch – finally one perched up nicely in the trees for us

The Hawfinches were a bit like buses today. Having finally broken our duck and had a good look at one, as we headed back down the hill once more to look for Crossbills, there were two more Hawfinches in the tops of the trees by the path. Just as we had suggested, they seemed to be enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Again, we got a really good look at these two through the scopes. They really are stunning birds, with their massive nutcracker bills.

IMG_2971Hawfinch – enjoying the late afternoon sun in the treetops

Down at the bridge, there was quite a bit of food out for the birds today. There was a steady stream of tits coming in to take advantage of it, including a smart Marsh Tit. A couple of Nuthatches kept darting in too, to grab a seed or two. The resident male Reed Bunting was here again too.

6O0A1093Nuthatch – coming down to the bridge to grab a seed

After a short wait, we heard a Common Crossbill calling. We managed to find it in the top of a poplar but it was deep in the trees and was quickly flushed by a couple of Carrion Crows before everyone could get onto it and dropped down towards the ground, presumably to drink. We walked back towards the start of the Woodland Walk and could see a couple of Crossbills flying around in the trees, although they were very hard to see in the dense tangles of branches.

Thankfully, as we set off in to the wood in an attempt to try to get everyone to see them, the pair of Crossbills flew out and across the path, landing in a spruce tree at the start of the hill. The bright red male helpfully perched right on the outside for a few seconds, long enough for us to get it in the scope. We walked up to the spruce and could see the Crossbills deep in the centre of the tree, and hear them calling, before they flew off.

We walked back over the bridge and along the path, stopping to look at the Long-tailed Tits’ nest hidden in the brambles. It looked to be empty, but as we stood admiring it, we could hear two Long-tailed Tits calling as they approached through the undergrowth. One of them was carrying a large feather. They were clearly too nervous to go in with us standing there, so we backed off.

Another Crossbill flew overhead at that point and we turned to look at it as it landed in the tops of the poplars. It was a rather rusty orange male, possibly an immature, or just lacking in red pigment from its diet. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it dropped down into the trees out of view.

It was already time to head back to the car park now. As we got back to the cars, the Firecrest was singing from the trees nearby, just as it had been when we met first thing this morning. We had enjoyed a long and exciting day in the Brecks in between, and seen some great birds!

25th Mar 2017 – Brighter Brecks

A Private Tour to the Brecks again today. It was bright & sunny once more, but with much lighter winds it felt much warmer. Just like spring in fact. The birds seemed to be enjoying it too.

Our first stop was at Santon Downham. A Greenfinch was wheezing away in the car park and, on the walk down to the river, we saw several Bramblings, including a smart male with a rather black head. Several Siskins and Redpolls could be heard overhead. A lone male Common Crossbill called as it flew over and a few seconds later came back the other way, dropping in and perching very briefly in the top of a tree, singing.

A couple of Green Woodpeckers laughed at us from the other side of the river. Several Nuthatches piped noisily from the poplars. We found a couple of Nuthatch nest holes along the river bank. The first was defended vigorously by the male Nuthatch – when a Blue Tit landed in the same tree, it was quickly chased away. Further along, we found another Nuthatch busy excavating in its nest hole.

6O0A0799Nuthatch – defending its nest hole from the local Blue Tits

We really wanted to see the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers today, and we were encouraged by the news that they had been seen much earlier this morning. After several days where they have been more elusive, this sounded promising. While we waited, we managed to get a Lesser Redpoll in the scope, a male with pink wash over its breast. We could hear loads more Redpolls chattering in the sallows. A pair of Mandarin flew in from the trees calling and headed upstream along the river. A pair of Grey Wagtails flew in to one of the trees which had fallen across the river.

Walking up a bit further, we stopped to listen again. Then we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling, distantly at first. It called a second time, seemingly a bit closer. Then one appeared in a dead tree a short way back along the path. We quickly got it in the scope and could see that it was the male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, with a bright red crown when it caught the sunlight. It set off on a quick circuit around the block of poplars, calling occasionally, never staying at the same tree for long. It was a job to follow it.

IMG_2619Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – the male, with bright red crown

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker made its way further back into the trees and disappeared from view. We thought that might be it, but then it called again, closer  to us once more. It worked its way quickly back to the dead tree where we had first seen it and the next thing we knew it was excavating a nest hole! The entrance was round towards the back of the tree, out of view, but we could see the male lean in, and when it came back out a shower of wood shavings fell to the ground. It carried on excavating for at least 15 minutes, in view all the time.

Even better, when the male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker finally paused in its excavations and started calling again, a second bird answered it from deep in the trees away to the left. The two called to each other again, and we could hear the second woodpecker was coming closer. Then it appeared in a tree nearby, the female, with a black crown. After a few seconds she flew to the tree where the male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker had been excavating, hopped up the trunk nearby, and then flew over and ousted the male from where he had been working. He flew off and she started to inspect the hole. It didn’t look like she was too impressed because, after a minute or so, she flew off to, disappearing back into the trees behind.

We had been watching the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers for over 45 minutes, a real treat with such an elusive and fast declining species. And to see both male and female, at one point together on the tree. Wow – great stuff! We made our way back to the car park, stopping on the way to admire various butterflies out in the spring sunshine – Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma and Brimstone. We also had a quick look in on the Honey Bee nest in a tree by the path.

It seemed like a good time to go looking for Goshawks next. We made our way to a convenient spot overlooking the Forest and set ourselves up to scan. Despite the warmer conditions today, there was still a cool NE breeze, though it was not as blustery as yesterday. Raptor activity still seemed a little slow this morning. A couple of Sparrowhawks circled up. There was no shortage of Common Buzzards in view, but they were not gaining any great height above the trees. Two of the Buzzards drifted over towards where we were standing and one of them was promptly dive bombed by a Kestrel. Eventually we located our first Goshawk of the morning, but it was very distant.

6O0A0810Common Buzzard and Kestrel – the latter mobbing the former

A scan of the stoney field behind eventually produced a Stone Curlew. It was hard to see at first, sitting down in the field in a dip. However, it finally stood up and gave itself away. We could see its staring yellow iris and dark-tipped yellow bill. Then it sat down and merged back in with the stone and clods of earth, perfectly camouflaged.

With Goshawk activity seemingly still subdued, we decided to go off to look for the Great Grey Shrike next and come back and have another look here later. So we drove round and parked up next to the ride. The clearings here have been very good for Woodlark recently, but there was no sound of any as we walked down the track. The females are probably on eggs now. It was also warm today and the middle of the day by now, which is when they are least active. We could hear the snap, crackle and pop of the pine cones opening in the spring sunshine as we walked down beside a mature plantation.

Thankfully, the Great Grey Shrike was much more obliging. As soon as we walked round the corner, we saw it, its white and silvery grey plumage really standing out against the deep green of a young pine plantation. It was perched right on the top of a young tree. There was quite a bit of heat haze now, so we walked round to where we could get a close look without disturbing it. Through the scope, we could see the pointed tip to its bill.

IMG_2646Great Grey Shrike – showing well around the same plantation again today

There were more raptors coming up now, over the trees beyond. Three Red Kites circled up with four Common Buzzards. We figured there had to be a Goshawk here too and, sure enough, a large juvenile female Goshawk then circled up out of the trees. It gained height rapidly, climbing with the Buzzards for a bit, before it drifted away from them. A second Goshawk appeared nearby, an adult, probably a male, and engaged in a quick burst of display, possibly trying to get the juvenile Goshawk out of its territory. Then we lots track of both of them high in the sky.

As we walked back towards the car, we made a quick circuit of the clearings looking for Woodlark. We were almost back to the car when we found two, which flew up from the ground and proceeded to chase each other all over the place. One of the two Woodlarks then started to sing, fluttering over the clearing, sounding distinctly mournful, before suddenly stooping straight down to the ground where it disappeared completely among the tussocks and clods of earth. A pair of Mistle Thrushes dropped down to feed out in the clearing too, though given their size they were a bit easier to see on the ground.

It was lunchtime now, but we decided to head back to the vantage point overlooking the Forest and eat our lunch scanning for Goshawks. As soon as we got out of the car, we spotted one. It was another juvenile, flying in and out through the tops of the trees. It gave a quick burst of display, with deep and exaggerated wingbeats, then disappeared behind the trees. After a few seconds, it reappeared further over, circled up rapidly and drifted away from us over the Forest.

6O0A0825Goshawk – this juvenile circled up over lunchtime

After we had eaten lunch, we packed up and headed over to Lynford Arboretum for the rest of the afternoon. As we walked up along the path, we could see quite a crowd gathered by the gate. Thankfully, that was because the Hawfinches had been showing well and it wasn’t long before we were watching our first Hawfinch of the day feeding down in the leaf litter.

IMG_2664Hawfinch – feeding down in the leaf little from the gate

Over the next half an hour or so, there was a steady coming and going of Hawfinches. There were several birds, though it was hard to know exactly how many in total, but we did have three in view at once at one point, a female and two brighter males. It was great to see them so well – they are big finches, particularly compared to the Chaffinches and Bramblings nearby, with an enormous and powerful steely grey bill.

IMG_2728

IMG_2701-001Hawfinches – there were at least three coming down to feed today

There were lots of other birds coming down to feed and drink from the gate this afternoon. As well as the Bramblings, a mixture of duller females and brighter orange breasted males, we saw Siskins, Nuthatches and a selection of tits. A Redwing was lurking in the leaf litter at the back for a bit, later replaced by a Song Thrush. A Great Spotted Woodpecker landed on the ground and started feeding too, at one point.

6O0A0916Great Spotted Woodpecker – feeding on the ground from the gate

Eventually we decided to tear ourselves away from all the action at the gate and walk down towards the bridge. The pine trees at the top of the hill were rather quiet today, as we passed. A Goldcrest sang from the firs on the way down.

Down at the bridge, there was quite a bit of food spread out for the birds and quite a bit of activity as a consequence. A couple of Nuthatches came in and out several times, as did the local Marsh Tits and a pair of Reed Buntings. A Treecreeper was busy climbing up the various alder trunks. A sharp-eyed member of the group spotted a Water Rail down in the sedges below the bridge.

We were hoping to see Common Crossbills here and we didn’t have to wait too long to be rewarded. At first a juvenile flew in and landed in the top of the poplars above us. Then a red male Crossbill and a grey green female flew in too. They flew around in the alders by the bridge for a bit, perching up from time to time where we could see them. We had a good look in the scope, getting a close up view of their distinctive crossed mandibles.

IMG_2746Common Crossbill – a bright red male

When the Crossbills disappeared back into the trees, we decided to move on. We walked round to take a look at the Long-tailed Tits’ nest – we could just see one of the adult birds sitting curled up tight inside. Then we took a walk round the lake. It was nice and quiet at first, but then a large and very noisy extended family group out for an afternoon stroll came the other way. There had been a nice selection of birds on the lake – Gadwall, Mallard and their domesticated brethren of various forms, Tufted Ducks, Canada Geese and a couple of Little Grebes. But when one of the youths in the group kicked a rugby ball out into the middle of the water, most of the ducks flew off.

We carried on round to the far end of the lake, but it was fairly lifeless here after all the disturbance. On our way back, we could see two youths climbing through the bushes on the far side of the lake in an attempt to get their ball back. A pair of Mandarin flew round calling, presumably having just been flushed. They landed again back near the bridge and we just got a look at them before they swam into the reeds. As we walked back over the bridge, a smart male Siskin flew down right in front of us, perched on a low branch twittering, and then nearly landed at our feet before thinking better of it.

6O0A0974Siskin – this male almost landed at our feet

There was still time for once last bonus. As we got back to the car park, we could hear a Firecrest calling. We couldn’t work out where the sound was coming from at first, but then it flew up out of a low fir tree right in front of us. We had a great look at its black and white striped face, before it flicked up higher in a bare beech tree. A lovely way to end a very successful day in the Brecks.