Tag Archives: Scarce Chaser

31st May 2021 – A Day at the Fen

A Private Tour to go looking for Hobbys, and anything else we could find, at Lakenheath Fen today. It was a lovely warm sunny day – the first really warm day we have had for some time – with a light easterly breeze.

We met mid-morning in the car park. As we walked up towards the Visitor Centre, a Willow Warbler was singing in the trees and helpfully flew in to a oak right next to the path, where we were standing. While we queued to get in, we could hear two Cuckoos calling, one either side. Then we headed straight out onto the reserve – we had to be back to meet someone for lunch, so we planned to make a quick dash out to Joist Fen and back.

Willow Warbler – singing above our heads

Walking up the track, we kept stopping to listen to various warblers singing. A Reed Warbler was singing half-heartedly from a sallow by the path, where we could see it flitting around, before it dropped down into the reeds and started to sing more strongly. A couple of Common Whitethroats flitted around a little further along. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the reeds. A Blackcap was singing in the poplars.

We stopped at the viewpoint at New Fen. A pair of Great Crested Grebes looked like they might be displaying – facing each other, one and then the other preened a feather on their backs, then one picked up a piece of weed from the water, but changed its mind and threw it away. Both then swam forward, snorkelling, but it came to nothing.

A pair of Bearded Tits flew low across the water and disappeared into the reeds. Another Cuckoo had been calling in the poplars behind us, but now came out onto the edge, high in the tops. We just had a quick look at it, before it flew deeper in again, chasing after another Cuckoo. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds, and a very distant Hobby was high over the trees on the other side of the river but it was impossible to get onto it. A promising start though.

A Bittern boomed. It sounded like it was quite close, so we walked up to the dragonfly platform to see if we could find it, but two people were already there and said it was still hidden in the reeds. We stopped and scanned, but couldn’t see anything either. We decided to head on to Joist Fen. We paused to watch two female Marsh Harriers as they circled up calling, and then noticed a male coming in high carrying something in its talons. It circled with one of the females and then passed the food to her. There were lots of dragonflies in the reeds by the path and flying back and forth in front of us – several Scarce Chasers and a couple of Hairy Dragonflies.

Scarce Chaser – basking on a reed stem

It is always a nice place to sit out at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, and as we rested out legs we spotted a Hobby out over the reeds. It was already quite distant, but as we watched it, we realised there were lots more Hobbys much further back still, very high up, and hawking for insects. We counted at least 17, but some were little more specks and they were very dispersed, so there were probably more. Mission accomplished in finding some Hobbys, but we would have liked better views.

There were more Marsh Harriers, distant too, and a Cormorant on its usual post out in the reeds. Then we got a message to stay the person we were meeting had arrived. It was a quick walk back and then a break for lunch on one of the picnic tables in the shade of the trees.

After lunch, we headed out again, this time up to the Washland Viewpoint. There was a good selection of ducks out on the water, including two drake Garganey. One was still in full breeding plumage, but the other was already moulting, well on its way to drab eclipse plumage, with a patch of grey feathers on the flank and a hint of the white stripe over the eye. There were a few waders here too – a few Avocets, some Lapwings and a Redshank. A male Stonechat was perched on the vegetation just across the river.

Marsh Harrier – circled over the river bank

Walking on up the river bank, a Grey Heron flew past the other side. We could hear Cuckoos calling and Reed Warblers and one or two Sedge Warblers still singing. As we passed New Fen, a Marsh Harrier flew in from the other side of the river and circled right beside us, before flying round us to get to the Fen.

As we got to the far side of West Wood, a Bittern appeared from behind the bushes and flew round over the reeds, across in front of the trees, and dropped back in again further back.

Bittern – good flight views

We dropped down off the river bank to Joist Fen Viewpoint again for a rest. The Hobbys were still there, still very distant. So we decided to try our luck walking further down the river bank, so see if we could get some closer views. As we walked on along the bank, a Lesser Whitethroat was rattling in the bushes. A closer Hobby appeared briefly from behind the poplars, but by the time we got out of the trees, it had disappeared. Still it was encouraging.

We could still see several Hobbys further up, so we walked on a bit further. A Cuckoo was calling in the bushes by the path and we stopped to look at it in the scope. Suddenly four or five Hobbys drifted back our way and started hunting for dragonflies over the reeds. The wind picked up a little, and one or two of them came in low over the river, really close now. We stood and watched as they caught and ate their prey right in front of us and even right overhead at one point. Stunning views!

Hobby – stunning views
Hobby – almost over our heads
Hobby – we were being watched too!
Hobby – supremely fast & aerodynamic
Hobby vs dragonfly – homing in
Hobby vs dragonfly – brace for impact
Hobby vs dragonfly – there could only be one winner!

We spent about an hour marvelling at the Hobbys catching dragonflies in front of us. Then we had to tear ourselves away – it was time to head back. A Common Tern was feeding along the river too. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling in West Wood as we passed. A Cuckoo flew right over our heads by Trial Wood and the Common Swifts were lower now over New Fen in the breeze.

Cuckoo – flew right over our heads

A very memorable few hours at Lakenheath Fen!

6th June 2018 – Heath, Fen & Forest

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. It was a cloudy start but brightened up through the morning to blue skies and a lovely warm afternoon. A great day to be out birding.

With the risk of heat haze if the sun came out, we went straight to Weeting Heath this morning to see the Stone Curlews. As we got out of the car, a Treecreeper was singing in the car park. We made our way straight down to the West Hide where, as soon as we opened the flaps, we could see our first Stone Curlew.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – one of several on show this morning

The grass here is very long at the moment – the rabbit population has dropped precipitously in recent years, which is proving to be a major issue. Despite this, we had good views of one adult Stone Curlew walking around in a more open patch not far in front of the hide.

A careful scan revealed three more Stone Curlews, hiding in the grass away to the right. As they moved across to where the grass isn’t so thick, we could see they were a family, two adults and a well grown juvenile. It has been a much better year in 2018 so far at Weeting, with two pairs currently raising three youngsters. We couldn’t see the second pair today – they seem to have disappeared off into the long grass at the moment!

A regular Eurasian Curlew was out in the grass too, flashing its long down-curved bill – and looking very different from its namesakes. The two are unrelated – Stone Curlew is named just for its call, which sounds rather like a Curlew, but it is actually a member of the Thick-knee family. Eurasian Thick-knee doesn’t have such a good ring to it!

Having enjoyed great views of the Stone Curlews, we decided to turn our attention to the trees. We had a look for the Spotted Flycatchers just outside the hide but couldn’t find them here today. As we walked up to the small hide overlooking the feeders at the west end, we could hear a Yellowhammer and a Mistle Thrush, both singing across the road.

There was a lot of activity on the feeders. Blue Tits and Great Tits were coming and going and a family of Marsh Tits was perched in the bushes just behind. A Nuthatch made several repeat visits to the seeds too. Several Goldfinches dropped into bathe in the pool in front of the hide.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming in regularly to the feeders

A quick walk back and down to the East Hide failed to reveal any Spotted Flycatchers that end either, though we did see a pair of Coal Tits high in the pines and a family of Long-tailed Tits which flitted quickly through the bushes. The Treecreeper finally gave itself up in the top of one of the pines too.

With a busy morning planned, we headed over to Lakenheath Fen next. A Brown Argus in front of the Visitor Centre was a nice start to our butterfly list. A male Reed Bunting came in to the table below the feeders the other side, where a Reed Warbler was singing from the reeds by the pool, the first of many we would hear today. A Common Whitethroat was singing from the sallows on the walk out, along with Blackcap and a Cetti’s Warbler which shouted at us from the reeds.

There were lots of damselflies in the vegetation by the path. They were mostly Azure Damselflies and a few Blue-tailed Damselflies, but as we walked along, we kept a close eye to see if we could find any others. It didn’t take too long before we found a Variable Damselfly – when it settled, we could see its darker thorax with broken antehumeral stripes, and the distinctive black ‘goblet’ pattern on the segments at the base of its abdomen. A Hairy Dragonfly was patrolling in front of the trees here too.

Variable Damselfly

Variable Damselfly – among the many Azure Damselflies by the path

Continuing on to New Fen Viewpoint, we could hear a Cuckoo singing in the poplars. Rather than linger at the viewpoint itself, where there didn’t seem to be much happening at that moment, we took the path along the bank on the south side.

There were more dragonflies along here and one of the first we found was a smart male Scarce Chaser resting on a reed leaf. We had a good look at it – as well as the blue abdomen with a black tip, we could see the black bases to the wings. There were lots of Four-spotted Chasers along here too and several Red-eyed Damselflies.

Scarce Chaser

Scarce Chaser – a male resting on a reed leaf

It wasn’t only insects on view along here though. A little further on, we spotted a Hobby flying quick and low, skimming the tops of the reeds. We stopped to watch it and it put on an impressive show, hawking back and forth in front of us, swooping low over the pools catching dragonflies, climbing up and then eating them on the wing.

The sun was starting to come out now and the Hobby gradually started to gain height. A second Hobby appeared even higher above it. However, rather than drift off, the first Hobby then came straight towards us and started to hunt higher over the reeds just in front of us, almost over our heads at times. Fantastic stuff!

Hobby

Hobby – hawking for insects almost over our heads

We were so transfixed by the Hobby, we almost missed a Bittern which flew across the channel in front of us. Thankfully we got a quick sight of it, before it then crashed into the reeds the other side and disappeared in. A Marsh Harrier drifted in over the reeds and dropped down over the back. There were Bearded Tits calling here too, but they remained stubbornly hidden in the reeds out of view.

Continuing on, we stopped to listen to two Cuckoos singing in West Wood. They were singing against each other and provided us with a great stereo performance. One was moving around in the poplars in front of us and eventually came closer to the near edge where we had a quick view of it flying between trees. A Black-tailed Skimmer was basking on the track.

We had a quick look in at Mere Hide, but it was rather full with photographers camped out hoping to get a look at one of the Bitterns which has been feeding here periodically. There was no sign of it, so we moved on. The pair of Great Crested Grebes with four stripy-headed juveniles was still on one of the pools by the path, though only one of the youngsters wanted a ride on its parent’s back this morning. One of the adults was busy finding food – catching damselflies above the water surface, to feed to its young.

Great Crested Grebes

Great Crested Grebes – the pair with four stripy-headed juveniles

Joist Fen Viewpoint provided a welcome rest for a few minutes. There were lots of Reed Warblers and Reed Buntings in the reeds here, appropriately enough! Several Marsh Harriers circled up, mostly some way over but a female drifted towards us and across the reeds in front. Three more Hobbys were feeding much higher now, off in the distance.

It was already one o’clock, so we needed to be getting back for lunch. Rather than just follow the main path, we decided to walk back along the bank on the south side of New Fen, hoping for a Kingfisher. As we got up onto the bank, someone there was just pointing out a bird to another couple and as we walked up they informed us that there was a Bittern showing.

We looked across to see the Bittern perched with its neck stretched up, half way up the reeds over below the edge of West Wood, trying to look just like a bunch of reeds. It stayed there for several minutes, giving us a chance to get a great look at it through the scope. The pale blue skin at the base of its bill shone in the sun.

Bittern

Bittern – perched up in the reeds at New Fen

The Bittern had a preen and a shake, and then set off over the reeds, flying right across to the other side before dropping back down into the reeds. We continued on our way back. A Kingfisher called and appeared briefly in a small tree out in the reeds, but flew up out of view before we could all get a look at it.

With the stop for the Bittern, we were rather later back than planned. We had to pop in to Brandon to pick up some food, and after battling with the traffic it was time for a rather late lunch. Santon Downham churchyard provided a convenient location close by to eat. A pair of Grey Wagtails were collecting insects on the roof of the church, presumably to take off to their hungry brood somewhere, presumably down at the river, and a couple Goldcrests were singing in the trees.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – a pair were collecting insects on the church roof

After lunch, we set off to explore the Forest. Our first stop was rather quiet – we had a short walk along a ride to a clearing where Woodlarks breed, but it was hot and sunny now and everything seemed to be in hiding!

At our next stop, we were more successful. We walked along the edge of an army firing range – large swathes of the Brecks are used for battle training. Again, it seemed rather quiet at first. That was, until the heavy artillery started up just the other side of the fence! There were repeated volleys – Boom! Boom! – as the big guns fired and the air reverberated around us. Not great for trying to find birds you might think, but the Woodlarks were as surprised as we were and took off from the trees just the other side of the fence.

The artillery went on for ages and the Woodlarks wouldn’t settle again. They kept flying round, calling. Every time they landed, they were spooked by the next volley. The only benefit was that, eventually, they flew and landed on the fence in front of us. They stayed just long enough for us to get a good look at them in the scope, and then they were off again.

We decided to retreat. There were lots of butterflies in the grass along the path as we walked back, mostly Small Heath which fluttered up ahead of us. Another Brown Argus perched briefly on a flower to feed.

Small Heath

Small Heath – there were lots in the grass today

Even though it was still hot and sunny and in the mid afternoon lull, we decided to try our luck with a brief visit to Lynford Arboretum. We heard a couple of Siskins flying round calling over the pines as we walked in and a Stock Dove was whooping from the trees, but there was nothing of note in the garden of the cottages today and it was fairly quiet as we walked down towards the bridge.

Down at the bottom of the hill, some movement in the trees caught our attention and we turned to see a small bird swoop out from a branch, loop round and then land back on the branch again. It was a Spotted Flycatcher. We stopped to watch it for a while, hunting for insects from the trees in a small clearing on the edge of the wood.

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatcher – hunting for insects on the edge of the trees

While we were watching the Spotted Flycatcher, we caught a glimpse of a small bird flying up into the fir trees opposite. We walked up and found it feeding in one of the outer branches, a Goldcrest. A quick look round the lake produced lots of Common Blue Damselflies, a couple of Emperor Dragonflies and a Little Grebe hiding in the reeds, as well as the regular other wildfowl.

There was still time for one last stop before we were due to finish, so we headed back into the Forest. We parked up by a ride and walked in to a clearing. The Tree Pipit kept us waiting a tantalising couple of minutes before it gave in and started singing. It landed on the wires in its usual place and sang from there for a while – we had a great view of it through the scope here.

Tree Pipit

Tree Pipit – singing from the wires again

A second Tree Pipit started singing behind us, from a young oak just the other side of the path. The two of them matched each other song for song for a while, until the first launched itself into the air and fluttered up singing, before parachuting down into the grass just across the path directly opposite the oak tree. The second Tree Pipit responded – not a full on song flight, but fluttered down singing to the ground nearby.

Unfortunately, given the height of the vegetation, we couldn’t see what went down, but after a couple of minutes the first Tree Pipit fluttered up singing again and parachuted back down onto the wires where it had been before. Territorial boundaries re-established? A smart male Yellowhammer was singing from the edge of the trees too.

It was a lovely way to end the day, listening to the Tree Pipits singing in the clearing. It had been another great day in the Brecks, so we set off for home.

4th June 2017 – Early Summer Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours, our last day. It was a nice sunny day today, not too hot, with some hazy cloud, great weather to be out birding. We headed down to the Brecks to try to see some of the local specialities.

Stone Curlew is a scarce breeding species for which the Brecks is well known – it is one of the best places in the country to see them. There are a few remnants of grass heath left here, their traditional habitat, but many now attempt to nest of farmland. On our way south, we swung round by some regular sites to see if we could find one. After recent rain and warm weather, the vegetation has started to get rather tall, making them quite a bit harder to see. However, our luck was in this morning. At our first stop, we found a pair of Stone Curlews in a field.

Stone CurlewStone Curlew – one of a pair in a field this morning

The Stone Curlews were very hard to see at times in the vegetation, particularly when they sat down. However, with patience we were treated to great views through the scope as they walked around in the field. Even when they sat down, we could still see their heads – the striking yellow iris and black-tipped yellow bill.

A couple of Brown Hares were in the field too. At first, they sat opposite each other, facing off. But then we were treated to a quick boxing bout, as one ran towards the other and they both reared up and flapped their front legs at each other. Then they gave up and went back to feeding quietly.

Brown HaresBrown Hares – this pair treated us to a quick bout of boxing

With great views of Stone Curlew in the bag, we moved quickly on. Lakenheath Fen was to be our main destination for the morning. It is a big reserve and we wanted to allow some time to explore as much of it as possible. We did stop at another couple of sites on our way, but couldn’t find any more Stone Curlews at either of these places today – they were obviously hiding in the vegetation here, perhaps not a surprise for a mostly crepuscular species, and with the day warming up nicely.

We did find a few Red-legged Partridges in the fields on our stops. A family of Mistle Thrushes were feeding down in the grass, a Jay flew across and landed on a fence post and a Marsh Tit calling from a line of trees were all nice additions to the day’s list.

After a rather leisurely journey down, it was already quite late in the morning by the time we got to Lakenheath Fen, so we set out straight away onto the reserve. There were lots of butterflies feeding on the brambles by the path in the sunshine – Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and a Peacock. A single Common Blue was in the grass too as we walked past.

Small TortoiseshellSmall Tortoiseshell – several butterflies were feeding on the brambles on the walk out

There were a few warblers singing as we walked out. A Common Whitethroat was lurking in the bushes, we could hear Reed Warblers in the reeds, a Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us as we passed. Both Blackcap and Garden Warbler were singing from deep in the poplars but they were impossible to see amongst all the fluttering leaves.

There was quite a crowd gathered at New Fen viewpoint as we arrived. There had been a report of a possible Little Bittern heard here yesterday, but we didn’t hear anything other than the nattering of all the people. A Great Crested Grebe was out on the water in front of the viewpoint, along with its stripy-headed chick. A Grey Wagtail was more of a surprise here, flying overhead before dropping down into the reeds. We could hear a male Cuckoo singing from the poplars and someone pointed out a female Cuckoo lurking in the top of one of the bushes out in the reeds.

CuckooCuckoo – a female, with rusty brown around the upper breast and neck

We got a good look at the female Cuckoo through the scope, noting the rusty brown tones to the upper breast, rather than the clean grey hood of the male. We heard lots of Cuckoos here today – both singing males with the classic ‘cook-coo’, the strange bubbling call of the females, and excited males giving various more elaborate song variations in response. It is such a scarce bird in the wider countryside these days, it is always great to come to a reserve like Lakenheath Fen where they are still relatively common and listen to them.

After a short rest at New Fen, we carried on up the main path. A Kingfisher zipped across out of the poplars and over the bank to New Fen, but too quickly for everyone to get onto it. A smart male Marsh Harrier, with silvery grey wings and black tips, circled up out of the reeds and over West Wood. A single Hobby, our first of the day, flew low across New Fen, just visible over the vegetation on the bank.

There were lots of damselflies in the vegetation by the path, mostly Azure Damselflies and Blue-tailed Damselflies, but along the path on the edge of West Wood we found quite a few Red-eyed Damselflies in the reeds and nettles too. We had hoped to find a Scarce Chaser along here, but it was rather breezy along here now and there were just a few Four-spotted Chasers.

Red-eyed DamselflyRed-eyed Damselfly – several were along the path by West Wood

With one eye on the clock to make sure we got back in time for lunch, we made our way quickly out to Joist Fen viewpoint. We had been told on the walk out that the Bitterns had been showing very well here this morning, flying back and forth, but it seemed rather quiet at first, when we got there. We couldn’t hear any booming – it was the middle of the day by now, which can be a quieter time. There were at least six Hobbys hawking for insects distantly out over the reeds and several Marsh Harriers circling up. All the group finally got to see a Kingfisher here, with a couple zipping in and out out over the reeds carrying food.

Thankfully we didn’t have too long to wait. Suddenly a Bittern flew up out of the reeds. It turned and flew straight towards us, giving us a great look at it as it flew round and out of sight behind the bushes beyond the shelter. That would have been nice enough, but it then came over the bushes and turned back towards us, flying round close past behind us, croaking as it went. Wow!

BitternBittern – great views as it flew round the Joist Fen viewpoint

The Bittern flew about 180 degrees round the viewpoint, before finally bearing away to our left and dropping down into the reeds beyond, giving us all stunning flight views. A minute or so later, what was presumably the same bird started booming over in that direction. We couldn’t have asked for a better show.

With such great views of Bittern already, we decided that wouldn’t be bettered and started making our way back for lunch. As we walked back along the main track, a couple of Hobbys appeared over West Wood. They were joined by more and soon we had five Hobbys hanging in the air or circling. Even better, a couple of them drifted out over the reeds towards us, giving us our best views of the day overhead.

HobbyHobby – great views overhead on the walk back

Our luck was in with the dragonflies on the way back too. A young male Scarce Chaser flew past, a flash of rich orange, and landed on a reed stem nearby. We had seen a couple of Hairy Dragonflies on the walk out, but a smart male stopped nicely for us in the sun now. We also managed to find a Variable Damselfly with all the Azure Damselflies too.

Hairy DragonflyHairy Dragonfly – a male, with distinctive hairy thorax

After lunch back at the Visitor Centre, we headed off into the Forest to try to find some other of our target birds for the day. There has been a Wood Warbler singing near Brandon for about ten days now and it has been showing very well at times. We drove down the track and parked, before walking along the path to where it has been seen. Even before we got there, we could hear it singing.

As we walked in to the trees, it was clear the Wood Warbler was singing from low down and right by the path. We were treated to some great views as it fluttered around only a couple of metres up in some small trees just a short distance ahead of us, even coming right towards us along the path at one point. We even managed to get it in the scope briefly, when it perched still for a while, singing.  Bill open, its whole body quivered with the effort of delivering its song, sounding rather like a spinning coin slowly settling on a hard surface.

Wood WarblerWood Warbler – showed very well, singing right in front of us

Wood Warbler is a very scarce bird here these days, though it is still found in the wetter woods of the north and west of the country. It used to be a regular breeder here albeit in small numbers, but has now all but disappeared, with just the occasional lone bird found singing, possibly a northbound migrant which has stopped off for some reason to try its luck. This has been a better spring for them, with several seen this year, but still it is unlikely any will manage to pair up and breed. Eventually, the Wood Warbler started to move higher into the trees, so after seeing it so well we moved quickly on.

Our luck was in now, as we headed over to another site in the Forest and immediately heard a Redstart singing from a small group of trees as soon as we arrived. We made our way round to the other side, at a discrete distance so as not to disturb it, and the Redstart suddenly appeared in the top of a large hawthorn. Through the scope, we got a great look at it, bright reddish-orange below, black faced and with its striking white forehead shining in the sun. Male Redstarts are really stunning birds to see.

RedstartRedstart – a cracking male singing on the edge of the Forest

The Redstart kept dropping down out of sight, but then coming back up into the top of the hawthorn to sing. The song is easily overlooked, a series of short, melodic but slightly sad sounding bursts interspersed with long pauses. We stood and listened to it for a while, until it worked its way through the bushes and round to the other side of the trees, out of view.

Like the Wood Warbler, Redstarts used to be much commoner birds in this part of the country, but declined through the last century and are now mostly confined to a few sites around the Forest. So it is always a treat to see one here and particular to hear it singing.

Our final destination for the afternoon saw us park up by a forestry track and walk deeper into the forest. It was rather quiet in the trees, with just the odd Goldcrest or Coal Tit heard in the dense coniferous plantations. We made our way round to a clearing and, as we approached, a pair of Stonechats were perched in the top of an old stump row, calling. They were collecting food, so presumably had young nearby. A couple of Whitethroats appeared with them.

We had come looking for Tree Pipit and a short snatch of half song suggested there might be one close by. We walked round to the other side of some trees and there it was, perched in some dead branches. It stayed there for a few seconds, pumping its tail, and we could see it was colour-ringed, before it flew up into a tall birch tree nearby. Almost immediately it dropped back down towards the clearing and was followed by a second Tree Pipit, presumably a pair.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – appeared in some dead branches in front of us

One of the two Tree Pipits dropped down to the ground out of sight, but the second, presumably the male and the same bird we had seen first, landed in the top of a young fir tree, where we could get it in the scope. We had a great look at it, as it stayed there for ages, preening for a while, looking round, turning so we could see it front on as well.

While we were standing here watching the first Tree Pipit, we just caught what sounded like the song of another way off in the distance. Scanning the young trees, we managed to find it, perched in the top of another small fir, right over the other side of the clearing. It is great to think there might be two pairs here this year.

Eventually, the first Tree Pipit dropped down to the ground out of view, so we left them to feed quietly. It was time to call it a day anyway now, so we made our way back to the car. It had been a very successful day in the Brecks, and a great way to round off an exciting three days of summer birding in East Anglia.