Tag Archives: Santon Downham

5th-6th Dec 2017 – Two Winter Days

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

Tuesday 5th December

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

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

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

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

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

6O0A3546

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6O0A3567Stonechat – perched in some dead willowherb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 6th December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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28th Nov 2017 – Parrot Crossbill Invasion

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

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

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

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

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

Parrot Crossbill 1

Parrot Crossbill 2

Parrot Crossbill 3

Parrot Crossbill 4

Parrot Crossbill 5

Parrot Crossbill 6

Parrot Crossbill 7

Parrot Crossbill 8

Parrot Crossbill 9

Parrot Crossbill 10

Parrot Crossbill 11

Parrot Crossbill 12

Parrot Crossbill 13

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

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

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.

6O0A1000Jay – enjoying the morning sunshine at Lynford

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.

6O0A1003Brambling – singing in the alders down by the river

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.

6O0A1061Mandarin – a pair were on the river on the way back

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’!

IMG_2870Stone Curlew – one standing up, one hiding in among the stones

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.

IMG_2928Great Grey Shrike – showing well in its usual spot again today

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.

IMG_2946Brambling – coming down to the feed on the ground in front of the gate

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.

 

24th Mar 2017 – Brrr Brecks

A Private Tour today, down to the Brecks. The weather was good, dry and mostly bright with blue sky at times, but there was a nagging, blustery NE wind with a real chill to it – it didn’t feel like spring at times today!

It was an early start this morning at Santon Downham. We hoped to find Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, even though they have been rather more elusive in recent days in the wind. As we got to the bridge, a couple of Kingfishers shot off upstream in a flash of electric blue. We could hear one or two Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming in the poplars. They have not been very obvious in recent days, so we thought this might be a good sign.

There were lots of finches along the river as usual, mostly Siskins and Redpolls buzzing around overhead. A Hawfinch was calling as we walked along the river, but we couldn’t see where the sound was coming from before it stopped. A Water Rail squealed at us from the reeds as we passed. We could hear Mandarin calling and looked over the river to see four chasing each other round in a tight group.

6O0A0706Nuthatch – very noisy down along the river at the moment

When we got to the area favoured by the woodpeckers, we stopped and listened for a while. The Nuthatches were being very noisy, piping away up in the trees. When a couple of Great Tits came in to investigate the hole in the tree, the Nuthatches quickly chased them away. There were several Green Woodpeckers calling too, but no sign of the Lesser Spotteds this morning. Perhaps it was just too cold and windy for them again today?

There was a backdrop of constant chattering of Redpolls as we stood and waited on the river bank. For most of the time, we couldn’t see them, as they were down in the sallows at the back of the trees. Periodically, a small group would fly round. Eventually, three landed in an alder tree where we could get them in the scope, confirming they were Lesser Redpolls, including a nice pinky-red breasted male.

A pair of Grey Wagtails kept us company. They were feeding around a tree which had fallen across the river, gathering a mat of water weed and associated plastic bottles around its branches which seemed to be providing them with food. The male was singing on and off while it fed.

6O0A0719Grey Wagtail – a pair were feeding around a tree which has fallen across the river

A Common Lizard had found a log in the morning sunshine on which to bask. At low level, it was probably protected from the chill of the wind. Eventually, we decided to call it a day here and move on to try our luck elsewhere.

6O0A0731Common Lizard – basking in the sunshine

Our next target for the morning was Goshawk. We made our way to a suitable spot overlooking the Forest and waited. It had clouded over a bit more now and, coupled with the biting wind, it seemed there was not much thermal activity for raptors to enjoy. A Red Kite circled in the distance and a few Common Buzzards were making the most of the breeze.

A scan of the stoney field behind us and we quickly located a single Stone Curlew. Through the scope it looked slightly prehistoric, with its yellow iris and yellow-based bill. It was very well camouflaged against the stones and, when it walked into a hollow and sat down, it completely disappeared from view.

IMG_2509Stone Curlew – looking distinctly prehistoric

A commotion behind us attracted our attention, as a large cloud of Rooks and Jackdaws seemed to get spooked from the field and took off calling. As we looked round, we then saw a dozen Woodpigeons burst out of the trees beyond. The next thing we knew, we were looking at a juvenile Goshawk flying through the pandemonium it had just caused.

The Goshawk didn’t seemed to be hunting, perhaps it was just enjoying itself. It circled round, through the panicking flocks, then gradually gained height and embarked on a long glide over the other side and down behind the trees. Then it all seemed to go a bit quiet again, even the Buzzard activity tailed off. We decided to go somewhere else.

We parked on the edge of Drymere and set off to walk down along the ride to look for the Great Grey Shrike.  However, we hadn’t gone very far when we heard a Woodlark singing. We looked across and could see it perched in a small oak tree. As we walked round to get a better look at it, it took off and fluttered up, disappearing away over the clearing, singing. A second Woodlark started singing too, from the ground behind us.

While we stood and listened to the two of them, the first Woodlark flew back in and landed on the ground in front of us, before flying back up into the oak tree. This time we were in the perfect position to get it in the scope and get a really good look at it.

IMG_2524Woodlark – perched in the branches of a small oak, singing

It didn’t take us long to find the Great Grey Shrike next, in its favoured plantation. It stood out like a sore thumb against the dark green of the young pines. It was perched in the top of a young deciduous tree in one of the old stump rows, so we made our way round to the other side of the plantation where we had the sun behind us, and got it in the scope.

IMG_2558Great Grey Shrike – in its usual place this morning

When it dropped down, presumably looking for prey, we lost sight of the Great Grey Shrike. We had a walk round the Plantation to see if it had gone round to the other side, but it wasn’t there. Presumably, it had simply found a sheltered spot out of sight amongst the trees. We had enjoyed a good view before it disappeared, so we decided to leave it to it.

We stopped for lunch overlooking the Forest, to see if there was any more Goshawk action. Despite the skies having cleared, and there being a few more Buzzards up again now, there was no further sign. So once we had eaten, we packed up and headed round to Lynford Arboretum for the afternoon.

As we walked up along the path, we could see a small crowd gathered by the gate. It appeared that the Hawfinches had been coming down to feed in the leaf litter. We could hear them calling from up in the trees, but unfortunately before we could see them, a noisy quad bike was driven round under the trees and two Hawfinches flew out. We saw them go up into the top of the trees just beyond the chicken run, but by the time we got over there, they flew again, dropping down and away, out of sight.

We stood and waited, looking at the trees and listening, for a few minutes. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long before a female Hawfinch flew back in. It landed in the tops of the trees above the feeders, just long enough for us to get it in the scope and for everyone to have a quick look, before dropping down towards the ground. We walked back to the gate, hoping we would be able to see it from there, but there was no sign of anything in the leaf litter. We could hear it calling, but couldn’t see it in the trees either. After a few minutes, the quad bike did another circuit under the trees and the Hawfinch flew off, disappearing away over the Arboretum.

IMG_2560Brambling – several came down to drink from the gate

There were some other nice birds to see from the gate. Several Bramblings dropped down from the trees to drink, and one or two stopped to feed in the leaves at one point. A Redwing was feeding on some ivy berries, before it too came down for a drink in the small stone trough. However, it seemed like there was just too much disturbance at the moment for the Hawfinches, with the quad bike making regular circuits.

IMG_2571Redwing – came down to drink too

We made our way down to the bridge, thinking we could have another look for the Hawfinches later. The walk down the hill was rather quiet – there were not the numbers of finches feeding in the pines today. Down at the bridge there was more activity. Several birds were coming and going, darting in to grab some of the food put out for them in the pillars. Most notably, there were a couple of Nuthatches and two Marsh Tits.

6O0A0750Marsh Tit – coming to the food put out at the bridge

There was no sign of any Common Crossbills around the bridge at first today, so we decided to go for a walk round and come back for another go later. We had a quick look at the Long-tailed Tit nest. It was hard to see if it was occupied today, although there seemed to be feathers inside which were possibly attached to a bird!

6O0A0741Long-tailed Tit nest – probably occupied by a Long-tailed Tit

A quick walk round by the lake added a few ducks and geese to the days list. In addition to the usual two pairs of Canada Geese, a couple of Greylag Geese were on the lawn in front of the Hall. On the water, the ducks included two pairs of Gadwall, a couple of pairs of Mallard and some of their domesticated cousins, plus a pair of Tufted Ducks. We could hear a Little Grebe laughing maniacally at us.

We continued on past the lake and down the path. A Treecreeper called and appeared in a tree above us. A Goldcrest came out onto the edge of a yew tree in the sunshine. There were more tits and Nuthatches down here too. As we turned to come back, we heard a Common Crossbill calling and looked up into the poplars to see a stunning red male catching the afternoon sunshine. We got it in the scope and watched it for a while. When it eventually moved, it flew down and chased a second Crossbill, presumably a female, out of the branches.

Back at the bridge, there was still lots of activity. This time, a smart male Reed Bunting had appeared and was feeding on the seed.

6O0A0792Reed Bunting – feeding on the seed at the bridge

When we heard more Crossbills calling here, we looked up into the trees, in time to see a small family party appear in the alders above us. The streaky brown juvenile Crossbill was begging and we watched as the orangey male fed it, regurgitating half digested seed for it. The green/yellow female perched in the tree nearby. After a while, the three of them flew down to a small pool in the grass for a drink, before disappearing back up into the trees.

6O0A0754Crossbill – the streaky brown juvenile begging for food from the male

It was great to get such good views of Crossbills, but with the afternoon getting on now, we thought we would head back up towards the Arboretum and have another go with the Hawfinches. As we walked back back up towards the gate and the feeders, we could hear a Hawfinch calling, but by the time we got there it seemed to have gone quiet. We were still standing scanning the trees, when someone kindly waved to us from the gate to say that a Hawfinch was down on the ground.

We hurried over to find a smart male Hawfinch feeding in the leaf litter on the edge of the trees. Through the scope, we could see its enormous bill as it crunched on seeds.

IMG_2597Hawfinch – a male, feeding on seeds around the base of the trees

We watched the Hawfinch for a few minutes, feeding quietly around the base of the trees. It was a great view, great to see one on the ground. Then something spooked it, and it flew up into the trees. We waited a few minutes to see if it would come back, but then the quad bike did another noisy pass through the trees, and it seemed like we would be pushing our luck to hope for another appearance. It was a great way to end the day – with such a good look at the Hawfinch. We decided to call it a day and made our way back to the car.

 

22nd Mar 2017 – More Brecks Birding

A Private Tour in the Brecks today. It was forecast to be a day of two halves – dry in the morning, but with increasing risk of rain in the afternoon. We set out to make the most of the weather while it lasted.

Our first stop was at Santon Downham. It was rather cold and breezy again today down by the river. The Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have become rather elusive in the last few days, perhaps not a surprise given the weather, which has felt a little like a return to winter. Still, the group were keen to have a go anyway, and there are often lots of other things to see along here. It turned out to be a good call.

As we walked along the path, we could hear Mandarin calling and looked ahead to see a pair flying towards us along the river. They landed a short distance in front of us, partly hidden behind the bushes, but then swam towards us. The female led the way, followed by the drake, which had puffed up its head and neck feathers and kept craning its neck up and forward, displaying to her.

6O0A0558Mandarin – this pair were displaying along the river

When the female Mandarin was just opposite us on the river, she stopped and the male quickly caught up. He started to swim round her, at which point she stretched out her neck and put the tip of her bill into the water. This was an invitation to the male to say that she was receptive and after a few seconds looking at us nervously, he started to mate with her – not something you see very often, Mandarins mating!

6O0A0574Mandarin – the pair then started mating

A little further along the path, we could see ripples out in the middle of the river some way ahead of us. A quick look through binoculars and we caught sight of an Otter just as it dived. We made our way quickly and quietly towards the area it had been. When we got there, we stopped for another scan and could just see movement through the undergrowth at the base of an alder tree on the near bank – an Otter cub was resting on the shore. Unfortunately we couldn’t see it clearly, given all the vegetation, and after a few seconds an adult Otter joined it and the two of them swam quietly off away from us.

6O0A0621Otter – the cub, resting on the branch of a fallen tree in the river

Thankfully, the two Otters stopped again where a large tree had fallen across the river further downstream, by the opposite bank. This time, we could see the cub more clearly, standing on a mat of floating vegetation trapped among the branches. We walked up until we were directly across from it and realised the adult Otter was diving repeatedly in amongst all the branches, presumably looking for food. It noticed we were watching and stopped to look at us several times when it surfaced.

6O0A0597Otter – the adult kept surfacing and stopping to look at us

There were a couple of Mute Swans building a platform in amongst the branches too, and whenever the adult Otter surfaced next to them the male swan would hiss and crane its neck towards it. Eventually, the adult Otter seemed to lose interest in us and started feeding under a mat of floating vegetation over by the far bank the other side of the fallen tree. Eventually, the cub came out to join it, and pulled itself out onto another log nearby, in full view.

6O0A0642Otter – the cub pulled itself out onto a floating log

We watched the Otters, fascinated, for several minutes. At one point, they were joined by a pair of Grey Wagtails, which flew in and landed on the same fallen tree. Eventually the Otters disappeared under some overhanging vegetation on the far side, so we left them to it and continued on our walk.

There were lots of Bramblings, Siskins and Redpolls whizzing about overhead in ones and twos all the time as we walked along beside the river, but it was hard to see any stopped still at first. That was because they were mostly hiding down in the sallows. Only when something spooked them did we realise how many were there – at least 70 flew up from the trees. Finally, we spotted two Lesser Redpolls perched in an alder tree and got them in the scope – one was a smart male with a pinkish red wash over its breast.

There was comparatively little woodpecker activity along the river today. We heard several Green Woodpeckers calling and managed to see a couple – one which landed high in a tree directly above our heads and another more obligingly on a large dead tree in front of us. However, we only heard one Great Spotted Woodpecker call briefly. The Nuthatches were not put off by the cooler weather, and several were piping loudly from the trees.

It had been well worth the walk here this morning, but we had other things we wanted to do today. We set off to walk back, stopping to look at a Honey Bee nest in a tree on the way. It looked like something had tried to open up the nest and we could see the honeycomb inside and the bees coming and going. While we were admiring the bees, a Siskin came down to drink in the ditch nearby.

6O0A0649Siskin – came down for a drink

The weather had also just brightened up a bit, so we made our way over to a site to look for Goshawks next. As soon as we arrived and had our first scan over the Forest, we spotted our first Goshawk up, but it was very distant. At least it was a good sign, that the birds were active despite the cold wind. There were several Common Buzzards enjoying the breeze here too, and a couple of Red Kites.

While we were waiting for more Goshawk action, we had a closer look at the field behind us. We were soon rewarded with two Stone Curlews. They were very well camouflaged, hidden in among the flints in the field – one was sitting tight, but the other had its head up and we could see its staring eye with bright yellow iris and the distinctive yellow-based bill.

IMG_2494Stone Curlew – one of two, hiding in a stoney field

There were also a few Lapwing and Skylarks in the field too. A flock of Fieldfares flew in and landed among the stones. They are on the move now, heading back towards Scandinavia for the breeding season.

It wasn’t too long to wait before another Goshawk appeared. It came in low over the trees, towards us, disappearing behind the tops before coming back up again. It appeared to be a young bird, a juvenile born last year, and a female too from the size of it. When it got to a block of taller trees, it started to gain a little more height and even broke into a quick burst of display, flying slowly, with exaggerated, deep wing beats. This prompted a second Goshawk to emerge from the trees, noticeably smaller than the first, an adult male. Just its presence seemed to encourage the youngster to move off today and the two of them disappeared back over the trees and away.

6O0A0659Goshawk – this juvenile female was displaying briefly

Given the cold wind, it was good to get such a nice view of a couple of Goshawks. It all seemed to go a little quiet after that. The clouds thickened again and even the Buzzard activity dropped off. We decided to move on.

Our next stop was at Cockley Cley. As we parked, we could see a large mixed flock of finches in the trees above the car park – Bramblings, Siskins, Lesser Redpolls, Goldfinch and Chaffinch. However, the clearing opposite was quiet, with no sound of Woodlark singing at first today.

We set off along the ride to look for the Great Grey Shrike which has been here for several weeks now. On our way down, we met some people walking back who said it was still present, although had flown off across the clearing. When we got to the clearing it has been favouring, however, there was no sign of it and several people milling around looking lost. We decided to have a quiet walk round to a more sheltered area and were soon watching the Great Grey Shrike hiding in a plantation of young pine trees, out of the wind.

IMG_2401Great Grey Shrike – found a sheltered spot out of the wind today

We found an angle where we could get a clear view of the Great Grey Shrike and got it in the scope. We could see the hooked tip to the bill clearly. It was looking around all the time, presumably trying to spot some prey, but perhaps it was harder going today, with a lack of wasps, beetles or lizards out and about.

It started to spit with rain now, so we made our way back towards the car. On the way, we walked carefully round the edge of one of the other clearings and were rewarded with a couple of Woodlarks. The first we spotted walking quietly through the grass, but just as we tried to get the scope onto it, it flew up and started singing, fluttering away and landing much further over. Thankfully, that stimulated a second Woodlark to start singing a little further along and that one we were able to get a better look at, perched on the top of a tussock for a minute or so, before it dropped back down into the vegetation out of view.

While we ate lunch back in the warmth of the car, it started to rain a little harder. After lunch, we drove round to Lynford Arboretum and thankfully the rain had eased again by the time we got there. Walking across the road from the car park, we heard a Firecrest singing, but we couldn’t find it and it immediately went quiet again.

The area under the trees by the feeders looked rather quiet today, but a quick stop here was rewarded with lovely close views of a Treecreeper. There were not so many finches feeding down in the leaves though. We could hear Hawfinches calling in the trees, so we walked a little further along.

At first, the Hawfinches gave us the run around – one calling in the top of a fir tree in the Arboretum flew off just as we tracked it down, and a couple of others were hiding deep in the trees behind the chicken run. Eventually we saw a Hawfinch land high in the trees above the feeders and just had time to get it in the scope so everyone could have a look at it, before it flew off, closely followed by two more. It seemed they might be put off by the rain – at least it wasn’t raining hard now, but it was damp and spitting. There were several Redwings perched around in the treetops too.

IMG_2417Hawfinch – perched in the top of the trees calling briefly

We could still hear Hawfinches calling further along the path, so followed the sound. They seemed to be gathering up in the tops of the pine trees today, based on all the calls we could hear. Standing underneath, we got the odd glimpse, but they are hard to see when in here. The pine cones are opening at the moment, so there is a bountiful supply of seed easily available – presumably the Hawfinches were helping themselves with all the others.

There were lots of other finches in the pines too. When the birds spooked occasionally, a large flock of finches burst from the trees, mainly Bramblings and Siskins. Several of the Bramblings landed in a large deciduous bush on the edge of the pines. As we stopped to look at them here, we found two Bullfinches in the same bush too, including a smart pink male, feeding on the buds.

6O0A0687Brambling – feeding mostly in the pines today

As we walked down the hill towards the bridge, we could still hear more Hawfinches calling. We managed to find one, perched high in a deciduous tree, but half hidden behind a branch. Then a second flew in, a bright male, which perched out more obligingly for us. Another large finch in the tops of the trees here was a streaky juvenile Common Crossbill. Through the scope we could see its not yet fully grown crossed mandibles.

IMG_2462Hawfinch – perched up obligingly for us as we walked down towards the bridge

Despite there being some food out for the birds here, it was rather quiet again down at the bridge, perhaps due to the weather. A Reed Bunting was the only bird of note. We walked down to the paddocks, but there was no sign of any Crossbills here on our way past, and none feeding in the pines by the path today. A Marsh Tit called and perched up obligingly in the hedge, giving us a good chance to note the distinguishing features which set it apart from Coal Tit, which we had seen just a few seconds earlier.

We did make our way over to admire the Long-tailed Tit nest again, now complete and occupied – we could just see some black and white feathers of a Long-tailed Tit curled up inside.

6O0A0691Long-tailed Tit nest – now complete and fully occupied

As we walked back towards the bridge, we could hear a Common Crossbill calling as it flew towards us across the paddocks. It landed in the top of a small tree just in front of us, just long enough for everyone to get a look at it in the scope. It was a very smart, deep red male. Then it flew up into the tops of the poplars, where it was joined by several more Crossbills.

From the bridge, we could get a great view of the Crossbills. We got a male in the scope again and watched it preening. There were also several more streaky juveniles here. However, at this point the rain started to spit a little stronger, and we decided to start making our way back.

IMG_2469Crossbill – this male was preening just above us at the bridge

It was already late afternoon by this stage, and we were lucky that the rain had not been too bad until this point – it certainly had not significantly adversely affected our visit to the Arboretum, or the birds we had seen. We had enjoyed great views of Hawfinch and Crossbill here as usual. As we got back to the car park, the rain seemed to be easing once more, but it was time to call it a day. A Firecrest was singing from the top of a fir tree, but a Goldcrest was more obliging, fluttering around lower down in a pine above the car park. It was a nice way to end the day.

18th Mar 2017 – Day Brecks

A group day tour in the Brecks today. Earlier in the week, it had been forecast to be wet all day but the outlook was much improved and we were now not expecting any rain until late afternoon. We set out to make the most of it.

The meeting point for the day was at Lynford Arboretum car park. While we were getting everything packed up, we could hear a Firecrest singing in the fir trees nearby. We had a quick look to see if we could find it, but it was rather cool and breezy and the Firecrest was deep in the trees. Still it was a nice start, hearing it here. There were several Siskins in the trees here too.

Our first stop was at Santon Downham. To be assured of seeing the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, you need to spend several hours here, and we didn’t have that amount of time available today, with lots of other things to see. We thought it was worth chancing our luck anyway, while it remained overcast. As we walked down to the bridge, we just caught a snatch of Firecrest song from deep in the bushes, but then it went quiet. Down by the river, a Kingfisher flew off calling, circling round and disappearing into the trees the other side of the road in a flash of electric blue.

6O0A0343Mute Swan – a pair were busy nest building along the river

As we walked along the river bank, a couple of Bramblings flew into the bushes above one of the ditches where they like to drink and bathe. There were several pairs and small groups of Siskins and Lesser Redpolls buzzing around too, though they wouldn’t settle long enough for us to get the scope onto them at first. A Nuthatch was piping overhead in the poplars. A pair of Mute Swans were busy building a nest platform next to a fallen tree.

We hadn’t gone too far when we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling some way ahead of us. We hurried along to where we thought the sound had come from and found several people gathered on the river bank. They had heard it too, in fact that had heard two Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers as we were on our way out, one on either side of the river, but they hadn’t been able to see them.

Eventually, after a bit of a wait, one of the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers called again. It was on the south side of the river and a bit further back from where it had been heard previously. We walked quickly back and one or two of us just managed to get a glimpse of it deep in a tangle of branches. Unfortunately, it then disappeared again before we could get the rest of the group onto it.

While we were waiting for the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker to reappear, there were several other birds to look at. There were loads of Bramblings in the alder trees and we got a couple of them in the scope for a closer look. They should be on their way back to Scandinavia soon. More Lesser Redpolls were buzzing around the trees and eventually a couple landed and stayed still long enough for us to get them in the scope. A flock of Redwings flew ‘teezing’ through the tops. A Sparrowhawk disappeared back over the trees.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called once more, but had clearly moved even further back into the trees on the other side of the river, where we stood no chance of seeing it. We waited a few more minutes to see if it would come back our way, but it had gone quiet again. It was frustrating, but we knew we had so much more to do today, so we had to head back. On our way along the river, we flushed a pair of Grey Wagtails from a tree which had fallen across the river.

Our main target for the morning was to be Goshawk. With the weather brightening up a little, we wanted to try to make the most of it, so we made our way over to a spot where we know we have a good chance of finding one at the moment. Scanning over the Forest,we could see at least eight Common Buzzards up, despite the rather cool and windy weather, which was surely a good sign.

It didn’t take too long before we were watching our first Goshawk, an adult male. It circled up out of the trees and hung in the air, then patrolled back and forth for a bit. It wasn’t displaying and its undertail coverts were not puffed out, it seemed to just be enjoying the breeze. Then it drifted off back out of view.

Shortly afterwards, another Goshawk appeared, this time a juvenile female. Through the scope, we could see its orange-tinged underparts and darker brownish upperparts. It started displaying, flying with deep, exaggerated wingbeats. This brought an immediate reaction and the next thing we knew there were three Goshawks in the air together. Presumably the same adult male we had seen earlier then proceeded to try to chase the juvenile off.

For about half an hour there was quite a bit of Goshawk activity, although they were always rather distant. At one point, the juvenile even embarked on a bit of rollercoaster display, with a series of swoops and steep climbs. Then the cloud thickened again and it went a bit quiet. Even the Common Buzzards retreated back to the trees. We had hoped to see a Goshawk a bit closer, but it felt like we might have to settle for the views we had already had.

6O0A0358Goshawk – a juvenile displaying

Suddenly a juvenile Goshawk appeared up out of the trees in front of us. This one was much closer and we could get a much better look at it. Again, we could see its orange-toned underparts and darker upperparts than the adults. It circled round for a while and engaged in a bit of slow flapping display, then stooped back sharply down towards the trees.

That might have been it, but at the last minute the Goshawk pulled up and landed in the top of one of the fir tree. Even better, it stayed there for several minutes, so we could get it in the scope and all get a good look at it. It is very rare to see a Goshawk perched up out in the open so this was a real treat. It looked very long legged as it tried to steady itself in the swaying branches. We could even see some of the finer plumage detail – the contrasting dark barring on the tail and the paler spotting on the upperparts. Eventually, it dropped down into the trees out of view.

IMG_2239Goshawk – the juvenile landed high in a fir tree

Having enjoyed such good views of Goshawk, we decided to head off and try our luck elsewhere. The Great Grey Shrike at Cockley Cley had not been reported yesterday, but we felt confident it was still in the area, so we made our way round there next to take a look. When we got out of the car, we could hear a Woodlark singing, but we couldn’t see it at first. It was already getting on for lunchtime, so we decided to stop for a quick bite to eat while we scanned the clearing.

A Woodlark flew across and dropped down out of view while we were eating, but thankfully, just as we were finishing up, a second Woodlark flew over from the other side, singing and what was presumably the bird we had just seen flew up too. The two of them landed in a young oak tree, where we could get them in the scope. We could see the rusty ear coverts and prominent pale supercilia, meeting at the back in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the nape.

When they took off, one of the two Woodlarks flew back out into the middle of the clearing, but the other dropped down by the edge of the path. We walked over and found it singing from a mound of earth among the newly planted trees, its rather melancholy song being a real sound of the forest clearings in early spring.

IMG_2248Woodlark – singing on the edge of one of the clearings

Another group of birders returning along the path told us that they had just seen the Great Grey Shrike, so we set off to look for that. It didn’t take long to find it, perched on a dead tree stump on the edge of a large clearing. We had a look at it through the scope, though it was rather distant at first. It flew down to the ground before reappearing back up on the fence.

We watched the Great Grey Shrike for a bit and were then distracted scanning for other birds. The next thing we knew it appeared in the top of a tall bare tree right in the middle of the clearing in front of us.

IMG_2259Great Grey Shrike – hunting from the trees and fence around a large clearing

With our luck running at the moment, we headed round to another area where we have heard Willow Tit recently. As we walked up, we could hear it singing again and it sounded like it might be on the edge of the block of trees. Unfortunately, as we hurried up to where it was singing, it seemed to move back into the pines and then went quiet just as we started to home in on it. Still, it was great even to hear a Willow Tit, as they have become so rare now.

While we were looking for the Willow Tit, we heard a Common Crossbill singing nearby. We walked round and found a pair of Crossbills in the tops of some poplars. We got the rusty red male in the scope and could see the crossed tips to its bill. As we made our way back to the car, another tall dead tree in an open area held first a Brambling and then a smart male Yellowhammer.

We planned to finish the day at Lynford Arboretum. The clouds had started to darken a bit already, so we thought we should make our way round there to try to make the most of it. Even though it hadn’t been supposed to rain until 4pm, it started spitting as we drove over. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the Firecrest which was singing in the car park when we arrived. It was hiding in a holly tree at first, but flew up and out into the bare branches of a taller deciduous tree where we could see it, if only from below.

Unfortunately, the rain then started. There was quite a crowd gathered by the gate, looking at the feeders when we got there. There were several Hawfinches down on the ground, but they were right at the back and obscured by vegetation. They were not there for long either, as something spooked them and they flew up into the trees. There were several Bramblings which were easier to see here though, and a couple of Nuthatches feeding down on the ground. We could still hear Hawfinches calling in the trees so we walked a bit further up and looked back into the beeches, where we could see a couple of them perched in the branches.

IMG_2272Hawfinch – a female, perched in the trees

Five Hawfinches flew out and headed off towards the pines, so we walked a bit further along to see if we could catch up with them. We could still hear Hawfinches calling and at least three were chasing each other round in the tops of the trees just beyond the chicken pens. We had a look at those in the scope too, although they were a bit more distant.

There were more Hawfinches calling in the pines beyond the cultivated meadow, so we stopped there for a look. Several Redwings had been feeding down on the bare ground and had flown up into the trees nearby in the rain. We had a good look at those in the scope. Then a male Hawfinch appeared briefly with them. Unfortunately it flew before everyone could get a look at it, heading off back towards the feeders.

IMG_2286Redwing – several were still around the cultivated meadow

We made our way back to the feeders to see if we could get a look at a Hawfinch on the ground, and got lucky with a smart male which dropped in about half way back on the edge of the trees. It was doing its best to hide, lurking half behind one of the tree trunks at first before coming out into the open. It was also nervous and flew off into the trees, but came back down again shortly after.

This time, we all got a really good look at it, noting its huge nutcracker of a bill, black mask and bib, bright russet head and contrasting grey nape. The Hawfinch was feeding on the ground, finding seeds, probably beech mast, in the leaf litter. We could see it crunching away on whatever it was finding. Eventually it spooked again and flew up into the tops.

IMG_2288Hawfinch – a smart male feeding down on the ground

Having all enjoyed great views of Hawfinch now, we decided to walk down to the bridge. As we walked down the hill, we could hear more Hawfinches calling from the trees either side of the path and even saw one or two perched up in the tops briefly.

There was some seed out on one of the pillars of the bridge, but either the food was not deemed to be up to standard or the rain was putting the birds off, as it was rather quieter here than usual. The peanut feeder was also almost empty. There were no Crossbills coming to drink down at the paddocks either, at least at the moment we were there and it was not the weather to hang around for any length of time. We did walk round and have a look at the Long-tailed Tit nest though, which is now looking just about finished, an amazing construction of moss, lichen and cobwebs.

6O0A0401Long-tailed Tit nest – now looking just about finished

As we walked round to the lake, we could hear Mandarin calling and just managed to see two of them dropping in through the trees. They spooked as we came along the path but thankfully landed again on the grass opposite, where we could get a good look at them through the scope. The drake was looking particularly gaudy.

IMG_2326Mandarin – a pair were round the lake

The pair of Gadwall on the lake, in contrast, were nowhere near as brightly coloured. But we got them in the scope and admired the intricate plumage detail of the drake. They are the most under-rated of ducks, until you see them up close. We could hear a couple of Little Grebes laughing maniacally, and found one diving under an overhanging branch, where we could get it in the scope.

While we were walking round the lake, we could hear Crossbills calling over the corner of the Arboretum. Back at the bridge, we did manage to find a couple in the tops of the poplars briefly. Fortunately, we had enjoyed good views of Crossbill in the better weather earlier in the day, so we decided not to hang around. A Marsh Tit was feeding in the brash under the trees beyond the bridge and a Reed Bunting was just about the only bird coming in to the seed today.

6O0A0412Reed Bunting – just about the only bird coming to the seed in the rain

As we walked back to the car, there were lots of Bramblings in the trees by the chicken run. We could hear them all calling and chattering as we approached. Presumably they were gathering before going to roost. A large flock of Redwings flew out of the Arboretum and across into the pine trees, presumably also gathering for the night. Both species will be on their way soon, but perhaps it was not a night to be setting off on migration tonight, given the weather. It was time for us to head off now.

The rain coming early this afternoon was a bit of a disappointment, but it was only light and it hadn’t stopped us seeing what we wanted to see. And given the forecast from earlier in the week, we had actually been very fortunate with the weather today, and all the birds.