Tag Archives: Woodlark

19th Feb 2018 – Rain Doesn’t Dampen Enthusiasm!

A Private Tour in the Brecks today – with some specific target species to look for, rather than a general day’s birding. The weather forecast was poor – heavy rain on and off all day – to the extent that there were even questions as to whether we should go at all. However, as we have seen so many times, all is not as bad as it seems, particularly where Met Office forecasts are concerned! It was still damp, with mist or very light drizzle for most of the day, but nowhere near as bad as forecast. We went out anyway and saw lots of good birds regardless. It is amazing what you can find when you get out…

Our first destination was Santon Downham, where we would be spending the first part of the morning looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. A Stock Dove was whooping from the trees as we got out of the car, another sign that spring is on its way. The feeders in the garden down by the bridge held a few finches and tits, and a Nuthatch flew off, up into the alders by the river as we passed.

It was drizzling with rain as we walked along the river bank. A pair of Siskins were feeding on the alder cones and catkins that had fallen onto the path and flew off ahead of us as we approached. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flitted through the trees over our heads. A Redwing flew up into the alders on the other side of the river. A Reed Bunting was singing from the reeds and a Marsh Tit was signing from the poplars a little further on.

Siskin 1

Siskin – feeding on the path along the river bank

As we rounded the corner, we heard a woodpecker call from the trees. It called again – yes, it was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! It was high in the back of the poplars and we had to adjust our position to try to see it, but just caught sight of it as it flew. It landed in some birches further back, out of view, calling again. It was on the move all the time, not staying still for even a second. Then it flew up into the bare branches in the top of another poplar behind where we just managed to get the scope onto it as it dropped back out of view. But it was all too quick to get everyone onto it.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called again a couple of times and then, after just a minute or so, we picked it up flying out towards us. It looked like it might go high over our heads, but fortunately it turned and dropped into the very top of one of the poplars. We had a good view of it through binoculars this time, and even got everyone onto it in the scope, at least briefly, before it flew again and dropped down into the alders on the other side of the river.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

At least we had seen it, but it felt like that might be it. We stopped to watch some of the other birds. There were lots of Redwings in the trees today and a flock of about twenty Siskins flew back and forth across the river.

Then we caught sight of some movement and watched as the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew across and landed low down on one of the trunks on the near side of the bank of trees. This time we had a great view of it as it pecked and probed in the bark. It was the female, with a dark rather than red crown, and we could now appreciate just how small it was – only around the size of a sparrow.

We watched the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker for several minutes, gradually working its way up the tree, before it flew off up high into the alders and out of view. A Great Spotted Woodpecker then appeared in the trees nearby and we got that in the scope too. We could see it was much bigger, with an obvious red patch under the tail.

Very pleased with getting such good views of our first target, we headed back along the path. At the garden by the bridge, a couple of Bramblings had appeared at the feeders but flew off as a car passed. We made our way up to the churchyard to look for our next target – Firecrest. But it was still drizzling at this stage and all was quiet. There were not even any tits or Goldcrests in the trees, just a noisy Nuthatch.

The Parrot Crossbills have been very elusive at times in recent weeks and with the weather today too, we didn’t hold out much hope of seeing them. We drove along to the car park north of the level crossing to have a look anyway. They haven’t been drinking in the car park recently, but have been coming down at times to the ditches in the cattle fields, so we had a walk round that way.

This is usually a good area for Woodlark but there was not even any sign of those this morning. We did find a pair of Treecreepers climbing the trees in the edge of the paddock and a couple of Jays which flew off ahead of us.

There was no sign of the Parrot Crossbills at St Helens either, nor could we find any Woodlark here today. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding out in the cultivated strip and we could hear a Grey Wagtail singing and looked across to see it perched on the handrail of the footbridge. A quick look down at the river failed to produce anything of note either.

We decided to have an early lunch back at the level crossing car park then afterwards walked back along the road to the bridge. A Kestrel flew through the trees, our first of the day. A Green Woodpecker laughed at us in the distance. But there was no sign of much else of note here, so we decided to move on and try something different.

When we got to the car park at Lynford Arboretum, we walked across to look in the fir trees. We had only just started to say that this is sometimes a good place for Firecrest, when a tiny green bird flitted into the bare branches of a small deciduous tree in front of us. A Firecrest – right on cue!

Firecrest

Firecrest – singing today, at Lynford Arboretum

The Firecrest flew up into a fir tree nearby and we watched as it flitted around among the branches for several minutes, giving us a great view of its head pattern, the prominent white supercilium and black eye stripe lacking in Goldcrest. It dropped back into some low fir trees and disappeared but a couple of seconds later we heard it singing. We walked over to find it above our heads in a beech tree by the road. Having missed it at Santon Downham earlier, it was all the better to catch up with Firecrest here now.

Walking down through the Arboretum, we stopped at the gate to look at the feeders. The fat balls were coated in Blue Tits feeding feverishly. The ground was coated with birds too, coming down to the seed sprinkled liberally among the leaves. A Marsh Tit dropped in among all the Great Tits. There were several Chaffinches feeding in the beech leaves too and a couple of Bramblings appeared with them, a brighter orange male and a duller female.

Brambling

Brambling – feeding with the Chaffinches in the leaf litter

Down at the bottom of the hill, there was no seed put out for the birds at the bridge today, so it was rather quiet. A Goldcrest was singing high in a fir tree. We decided to have a look round by the lake first instead. There were lots of Siskins along the path and here too they were feeding mostly on the ground today. We stopped to watch two bathing in a wet marshy area under the trees. Three Nuthatches were chasing each other through the branches.

Siskin 2

Siskin – a male bathing in a puddle under the trees

We had already had a quick scan of the hornbeams out in the paddocks from the start of the path, but now we heard a distinctive metallic ‘ticking’ call coming from the trees. We found a convenient viewing gap and looked across to see at least three Hawfinches chasing each other through one of the hornbeams. There appeared to be two brighter males and a female. As the males flew through the branches, they spread their tails, showing off the white tip. This is the start of their spring display, a precursor to pairing up, something great to watch.

As the chasing subsided, one of the Hawfinches then stopped in the top of the tree and started to preen. Here we could get a really good look at it, through the scope. We could see the massive bill and head, powerful enough to crack a cherry stone!

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – taking a break to preen after a bout of chasing display

After watching the Hawfinches for several minutes, they moved further back into one of the other trees. We continued on round the lake. There were a few wildfowl on here as usual – a couple of Mute Swans, a single Greylag with several Canada Geese, and a couple of pairs of Gadwall. We were in agreement today, that Gadwall really are an underrated duck compared to some of their gaudier cousins!

Gadwall

Gadwall – always deserving of a promotional photo!

Firecrest and Hawfinch were our main target species at Lynford this afternoon, so having caught up with them so quickly, we had a bit more time to play with. We decided to head off into the forest again and have another go to see if we could find any Woodlark.

On our way, we stopped to admire a large flock of thrushes in a field, a mixture of Fieldfares and Redwings. The Redwings were easily spooked and kept flying up into the trees nearby, while the Fieldfares largely continued to feed unconcerned. A single larger Mistle Thrush was lurking at the back too.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare – we came along a large mixed flock with Redwings in a field

We parked at the start of a forest ride, by a large clearing, and as soon as we got out of the car we could hear a Woodlark calling, a distinctive ringing, double ‘tu-lee’. We looked over to see it perched high in a tall bare tree, left behind when the plantation was clearfelled. Through the scope, we could see its short crest and bold pale supercilium. It even gave a short burst of its mournful song. The weather had improved a little through the afternoon, but it was not what we were expecting on such a dull and damp day!

As we walked round, there were more birds in the other trees in the clearing. There were several Yellowhammers including some smart yellow-headed males. A little flock of 6-7 Lesser Redpoll flew up to join them. A Green Woodpecker flew across and landed in the trees on the far side of the clearing.

A little further on, we could hear another Woodlark singing and looked across to see it song-flighting, fluttering over the clearing with rounded bat-like wings and short tail. It landed in a tree at the back with more Yellowhammers, where we got a distant look at it through the scope, before one of the Yellowhammers chased the Woodlark off. We watched the two of them fly round and the Woodlark dropped down to the ground on the edge of the path, a little further on.

Woodlark

Woodlark – great views feeding on the ground by the path

We made our way over quietly and had great views of the Woodlark through the scopes, feeding on the ground. We could see the way the pale supercilia met at the back of the neck in a shallow ‘v’.

It was great to catch up with Woodlark finally, having missed them earlier in the day.  That was a great way to wrap things up and we decided to head for home. With all the concerns earlier about the weather forecast, it was remarkable how well we had done today. Well worth coming out after all!

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15th & 16th Feb 2018 – Double Brecks

A two-day Private Tour in the Brecks. We were forecast a couple of days of good weather and so it proved. It almost didn’t seem like mid February at times! It was a great time to be out and about birdwatching in the Brecks.

Thursday 15th February

There was still a bit of cloud lingering when we met down in the Brecks this morning. Thankfully, it quickly blew through and we were left with almost wall to wall blue sky and sunshine. It was still cool though, particularly as the breeze picked up mid morning.

It seemed like a good morning to go looking for Goshawks. On our way, we made a quick stop along a quiet lane. One of the fields here has been sown with a seed mix and was alive with birds. As we got out of the car, we could hear a Yellowhammer calling from the hedge.

A large flock of Linnets swirled round and landed up in the trees on the edge of the field, chattering away. In among the Chaffinches perched in the bushes, enjoying the morning sun, we found several Bramblings, duller females and bright orange-breasted males. There were Goldfinches too, and a couple of Reed Buntings which flew out of the crop and landed in the hedge by the road.

Brambling

Brambling – several were on the edge of a field of seed mix this morning

Suddenly all the birds erupted from the crop and flew round calling. We looked across to see a Sparrowhawk, a small adult male, flying low over the field. It didn’t catch anything, but having flushed everything then circled up and drifted off, with bursts of fast flapping interspersed with characteristic glides.

There were a few pools behind the hedge on the other side of road, so we had a quick look to see if anything was on those. There was a surprisingly good selection of wildfowl – as well as Mallards and four Greylag Geese, there were several Teal, a couple of pairs of Gadwall and a single drake Shoveler. A Grey Heron was standing in the sunshine at the back of the water, but flew off as we walked up.

It was starting to warm up, so we headed over to see what the Goshawks were up to. We had not even got the scopes set up when a young male appeared, flying across low over the trees. We had a good look at it through binoculars, before it dropped back down out of view. Then Goshawks were on view pretty much constantly, with at least five different individuals this morning.

Next an adult male Goshawk flew low along the front edge of the wood, before disappearing into the trees and sending all the pigeons out! A few seconds later, it appeared again, circling low over the shelter belt to one side. It disappeared once more behind the trees and the next time we picked it up it came in high from behind us, dropping back towards the wood, stooping sharply at the end and disappearing into the pines.

Goshawk

Goshawk – one of the adults circled in front of us

A pair of Goshawks was displaying for some time off in the distance. They were easy to see with the scope, slow flapping with exaggerated wingbeats high above the forest. Then a big adult female Goshawk appeared much closer, off to our right, circling low over the tops of the trees. It kept disappearing behind the tops, then reappearing again, never gaining any great height. Presumably it was hunting, as it never seemed to break into any display activity. Eventually it dropped down again out of view.

There were lots of other raptors on view here, even when we weren’t distracted by the Goshawks. Two Red Kites hung in the air over the strip of trees behind us. As the air warmed a little, several Common Buzzards came up and started circling. We counted at least eight today, and some of them even started displaying, swooping up and down like a rollercoaster. A Kestrel hovered out over the grass too. As well as the raptors, there were Skylarks singing and a small group of Fieldfares tchacking in the tops of trees behind us.

You could spend the whole day here, watching the comings and goings, but eventually we decided to move on. We went to look for Woodlarks next. As we pulled up by a ride into the forest, a flock of Bullfinches flew out of the brambles next to the road and disappeared behind the trees. As soon as we got out of the car, we could hear a Woodlark singing. We walked up the track a short way and looked across to see it perched high in the top of a tree out in the middle of the clearing. The Woodlark took off, but just flew across and landed again in another tree, still singing, where we could get it in the scope and have a good look at it.

Woodlark

Woodlark – singing from the top of one of the trees in the clearing

As we walked further up the track, another Woodlark appeared, perched in the top of a different tree singing. It took off as we approached and flew round singing – showing off its short tail and rounded wings, and its fluttering display flight. Eventually it dropped down into the middle of the clearing and promptly disappeared into the vegetation.

A little further along, we came across a tit flock feeding on the sunny edge of a block of pines. There were lots of restless Long-tailed Tits, accompanied by several Blue and Great Tits. A pair of Marsh Tits were feeding low down in the dry grass at the base of the trees, given away by their sneezing calls. A Goldcrest appeared, flitting around in one of the trees by the path. A smart male Bullfinch flew across in front of us and landed in the bare branches of a bush the other side.

There were a few more raptors here too, but perhaps not as much activity as we might have expected, given all the birds we had seen earlier. One more Goshawk showed itself very briefly and distantly. The Common Buzzard was much more obliging, flying across the clearing and even hovering briefly out in the middle. A pair of Kestrels showed it how it should really be done!

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – one of several up in the sunshine this morning

We walked on further round and into the forest. Several Redwings flew up from the grass by the path and disappeared into the trees. We could see several more feeding in the ivy covering a tree in the sun on the edge further in.

There were lots of tits on the sunny edge of the pines – Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits and a couple more Marsh Tits too. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew out of the plantation into the deciduous trees the other side of the path, accompanied by a Goldcrest and a Treecreeper. We heard both Great Spotted Woodpecker and Green Woodpecker calling.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed back round to the car. Our destination for most of the afternoon was to be Lynford, but on our way we drove round via some pig fields. There were lots of gulls out on the mud among the pigs – mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls. A couple of adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls were hiding in with them and a single 1st winter Great Black-backed Gull perched on one of the pig arcs.

There were lots of Jackdaws and Rooks in the pig fields too, and a huge flock of Starlings – presumably some we would be seeing later in the day! A Red-legged Partridge was hiding in the winter wheat in the next field and a pair of Egyptian Geese flew over.

As we walked out along the path beside the Arboretum at Lynford, we stopped to have a look from the gate. There were lots of tits on the feeders, and more coming down to drink at the stone trough. Several Chaffinches were picking around down in the leaves, and a single Brambling was in with them.

Down at the bridge, there was not much seed out today. Still there were lots of tits coming to feed on the leftovers. We had particularly good views of Marsh Tit here, always a good spot for this localised species. Several Siskins were twittering in the alders above.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – showed well down at the bridge

When we got to the paddocks, there was no sign of any Hawfinches feeding here today. There were several Greenfinches in the trees. A flock of twenty or so Redwings flew across and landed in the hawthorns, where we got one of them in the scope. A Mistle Thrush perched in one of the hornbeams, enjoying the afternoon sun, where it was joined by a second which flew across from the pines behind us. We could hear a Song Thrush singing.

As we walked on round the paddocks, we spotted a Hawfinch high in the fir trees, sunning itself in among the cones. It dropped down, but shortly what was presumably the same bird flew back in again and landed in the very top of the same tree. Here, we had a great view of it through the scope, noting its huge bill and head, the white tip to its tail and, when it spread its wings to stretch, the white wing bar.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – showed well in fir trees by paddocks

Eventually the Hawfinch flew off. There was nothing else of note in the trees here today, so we walked back and round by the lake. A Reed Bunting flew up into the bushes by the path as we passed. We heard another Song Thrush singing and eventually managed to track it down, in the alders at the back of the lake, just to complete the set of thrushes for the day!

Standing looking across to the back of Lynford Hall, we heard another Hawfinch calling from the other side of the lake. We had just started scanning the trees to see if we could find it when it flew out, across the lake and over our heads before disappearing off in the direction of the paddocks.

A Little Grebe seemed to be laughing at us, until we spotted it, wrestling with a small fish behind the island. There were several Gadwall on the lake too – the most underrated of ducks, and always worthy of a closer look. There were a couple of Greylag and a few Canada Geese too.

Gadwall

Gadwall – a very smart, intricately patterned drake

The light was starting to go now, so we set off back to the car. As we drove up towards Swaffham, we could see thousands of Starlings swirling in the skies above the town. They were fairly spread out tonight, in several different groups, and hard to count – but there must have been 20,000 birds at least!

The Starlings spent ages whirling round in the sky, flying backwards and forwards, working up the courage to come in to roost. Quite a lot went down over towards the town centre tonight, before some of the others finally started to come down into the bushes in front of us. It was mesmerising watching the flocks, like watching fireworks, bursting. in the sky as they swirled. Amazing to watch!

Starling murmuration

Starling – thousands coming in to roost tonight

It was almost dark and most of the Starlings seemed to have gone in already when the ones from the town centre started to fly up again and came over to join the others in the trees in front of us, wave upon wave of them appeared out of the gloom, it seemed like it would never end. As it finally settled down again, there was an amazing amount of excited chattering from the trees. What a great way to end our first day.

Friday 16th February

After a light frost overnight, it was crisp and fresh this morning but with sunshine and blue skies, a cracking winter’s day. The winds were lighter too, compared to yesterday, so it didn’t feel so cold.

We started the day with a walk along the river. We could hear a male Grey Wagtail singing under the bridge as we approached and we then watched the pair flying back and forth over the river, perching on the brick walls and some drainage pipes.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – singing underneath the bridge this morning

There were several Mute Swans and Little Grebes swimming and diving on the river as we walked along. We could hear a Redwing calling and looked up to see it perched high in the treetops in the sunshine. There were lots of Siskins twittering from deep in the alders, and we managed to see a couple flying back and forth across the river. A couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers were drumming and a Green Woodpecker yaffled from the trees, always a good sign along here.

They were not the woodpeckers we were really hoping for, but as we rounded the bend in the river we could hear two Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers calling. We found a couple of people with scopes and cameras already there, and we were told one had just been showing in the tops of the trees but had dropped back down out of sight.

Thankfully, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker continued to call occasionally and we could follow the sound. After a nail-biting few minutes when we weren’t sure whether it would show itself again, the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew out and landed high in a bare poplar in front of us. We got it the scope and had a good look at it, the black and white barred back and the black crown of the female. It showed very well for us in the poplars for several minutes, flying between the trees, before it flew back into denser birches behind. We heard it call again much further in.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – this female showed very well in the poplars

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker then went quiet for a time. There were several other birds to look at in the interim – a Goshawk appeared through the tops of the trees before heading off over the river. There were lots of tits singing – spring must be just around the corner now – including a coupe of Marsh Tits.

Then we heard the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call again further along the river. It was still well back in the trees, but we hurried along to see if it would come out again. We were just in time, as the female flew out over our heads, over the river, and dropped down further back in the trees the other side.

Having had such great views of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, we decided to walk back and try our luck with something else. On the way, we heard a Water Rail squealing from the wet reedy vegetation under the trees. A Woodlark was singing too, in the distance from a clearing in the forest beside the river.

Back at the bridge, we made our way up a small path through the trees to the churchyard. It was quiet here at first, even in the churchyard despite the sunshine on the firs here. We did head a Goldcrest singing and saw it flitting around in the tops. It was busier on the open side by the road. We found more tits and a noisy pair of Nuthatches which piped loudly at us from the trees.

What we had hoped to find here was a Firecrest and it did eventually appear. Unfortunately it was only very brief, moving through the vegetation very quickly, before it disappeared high up into the trees and we lost sight of it. Despite searching, we couldn’t find it again.

The Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham have become very elusive again in recent days. We drove round to the car park where they sometimes come down to drink, but there had been no sign of them all morning again. There were lots of people waiting here, so we decided to try somewhere else.

The Parrot Crossbills have also been seen in the car park at St Helen’s before, so we decided to look round there. We have seen them come down to drink at the river here, so we had a walk along the bank but it was all very quiet. Given the complete absence of any sightings of Parrot Crossbills at either site this morning, we decided we would give up on them and try something else. We were just walking back towards the car, discussing what to do next, when we heard chipping calls and looked up to see 15-20 Parrot Crossbills flying past.

They seemed to be heading down towards the river, right where we had just been looking. We rushed back, and found the flock of Parrot Crossbills in the poplars. We could hear them calling and subsinging as we approached and looked up to see several perched in the branches above our heads, in the sunshine. We got the scope on them and had a great look, two red-orange males and a grey-green female. We could see their huge crossed bills and thickset bull necks.

Parrot Crossbill

Parrot Crossbill – perched subsinging in the branches above us

Several of the Parrot Crossbills dropped down into the alders the other side of the river. They were clearly working up the courage to come down to drink, perching in the trees around us calling for ten or more minutes. Slowly more followed the others into the tops of the alders and eventually they started to drop lower through the branches. Finally they flew down onto the river bank on the far side, two or three at a time, to drink.

Parrot Crossbills

Parrot Crossbills – came down to drink on the far side of the river

We got the Parrot Crossbills in the scope as they landed down on the far bank and watched as they each gulped down a few beak-fulls, then quickly flying up to be replaced by a couple more. What a magic moment! Eventually, when it appeared that most had drunk their fill, as quickly as they had arrived the whole flock flew off north-west. We had counted at least 15 in the trees, but there seemed to be as many as 18 as they flew off.

Well satisfied with the encounter, we headed round to Lakenheath Fen next, for lunch. After a bite to eat, we headed out to the reserve. At the feeders by the visitor centre, there were lots of tits and Reed Buntings. We decided to head out to the Washland viewpoint first.

When we got up onto the bank, the first thing we saw were two Whooper Swans out on Hockwold Washes. Through the scope, we could see the wedge shaped patch of yellow on their bills. There were lots of ducks too – Shelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. A few Tufted Ducks were diving down on the river in front of us. A Curlew flew up fro the fields beyond and circled round calling.

Whooper Swans 1

Whooper Swans – these two were out on Hockwold Washes

Another big white shape at the back of the Washland revealed itself to be a Great White Egret. Through the scope, we could see its long yellow dagger-like bill. As a fisherman approached along the far bank, the Great White Egret flew off east, but shortly after what we assumed was the same bird flew back west, high over the river. We watched it dropping away round the back of the poplars towards New Fen, but then when we looked back at the far corner of the Washes, there was a Great White Egret, exactly where the first had been. Could there have been two?

Great White Egret 1

Great White Egret – feeding at the back of Hockwold Washes

There was a family at the Washland viewpoint too and they spotted a small bird creeping around among the wet grass on the near bank of the river. It was a Water Pipit – through the scope, we could see its pale supercilium and black-streaked white underparts. Another Water Pipit flew across and disappeared into the vegetation on the other side and we heard a third calling away to our right.

We walked on west along the riverbank. We had been warned it was muddy – and they weren’t wrong(!) – but we picked our way carefully along. There were lots of birds along here, particularly a surprising number of Stonechats. We must have seen at least six, perching up on the dead thistles and seedheads in the grass. There were lots of Cetti’s Warblers too, though they were much less obliging, calling from deep in the bushes. A flock of Fieldfares flew towards us across the river and over our heads.

Stonechat

Stonechat – we saw a surprising number along the river today

There were lots of Canada Geese and Greylag Geese feeding on the grass either side along the river. They were mostly sorted into separate flocks, but an odd looking bird with one of the groups of Greylags was a Canada x Greylag Goose hybrid.

A Little Egret was feeding on the edge of the river, much smaller, with an all dark bill. Then we looked up to see two Great White Egrets flying together, heading back east the way we had just come, towards the Washland. We had certainly seen two Great White Egrets now!

Great White Egret 2

Great White Egret – two flew along the river together

The Whooper Swans roost in the winter on the Washes but feed during the day in the fields. Once we got beyond the West Wood, we heard more Whooper Swans calling and looked across to see a family party flying in from the south. They flew across behind us, over the river, before dropping down towards the fields beyond.

As we walked on west, more Whooper Swans flew across, looking stunning in the afternoon light. It is a great sound, the honking of winter swans on a sunny February afternoon in the Fens. When we got round the bend in the river and could see across to the fields the other side, we could see a huge long line of white shapes gathered in the distance. Through the scope, we could see they were all Whooper Swans, at least 100 of them and probably much more as many were hidden behind the trees.

Whooper Swans 2

Whooper Swans – flying across to gather on the north side of the river

There was no sign of the Cranes on the far side of the river today, but it was possibly just too disturbed over there now. A couple of vehicles were driving up and down the track and we could see a man pigeon shooting, tending to his decoys on the edge of the area where the Cranes often like to feed. A distant Grey Heron was not the right shape or shade of grey!

Another Great White Egret flew up from the marshes across the river – presumably a third bird, as we had watched the other two flying off the other way. There were lots of Lapwings in the fields and three distant Roe Deer too. A Chiffchaff called from somewhere in the reeds nearby.

On the walk back, we cut in across the reserve. We had a sit down at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, a quick rest before the long return journey. It was a glorious winter’s afternoon, still and delightfully tranquil just sitting and looking out across the vast expanse of reeds (at least the F16s from Lakenheath were not flying overhead at that stage!). Several Marsh Harriers quartered low over the reeds and three Common Buzzards circled up over the trees.

It would have been very easy just to sit and watch the reeds and contemplate for hours, but it was getting on now so we reluctantly tore ourselves away. As we walked back along the path, flocks of gulls were flying overhead, heading off to roost. A female Kestrel perched up in the poplars in the late sunshine, but almost every time we got within range and lifted the cameras, she flew off a short distance, refusing to be photographed!

Kestrel

Kestrel – was refusing to be photographed on the walk back

Back at the Visitor Centre, a Bank Vole was scuttling around under the feeders. It hid in a hole in the vegetation and darted out repeatedly. Then it found a discarded crisp on the ground and hauled it back into the hole. That was the last we saw of it – presumably it was enjoying the crisp!

It was time to head for home now. It had been a great couple of days in the Brecks, with some fantastic weather and some exciting birds, all the best the area has to offer at this time of year.

11th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours, our last day, and it was time to head down to the Brecks today. The weather forecast was the best of the three days, and even though it was perhaps a little cloudier than we were expecting, it was largely dry and there were some nice bright spells particularly in the morning.

As we stopped briefly in Swaffham on the way down, the sun was out and the sky was blue. With a good breeze blowing, that meant it looked like perfect conditions for Goshawks, so we headed straight over to a favourite spot. We weren’t even out of the car before we saw our first Goshawk – a young female, big and bulky, brown above and orange-tinged below, was circling just above the trees. We all jumped out and had a good look at it, before it disappeared back over the tops.

Over the next hour or so, we were rarely without a Goshawk up in the air. An adult, silvery grey above and white below, was displaying away in the distance, with heavy exaggerated wingbeats. Then another adult appeared much closer, low over the trees, flying around behind us where it caused pandemonium amongst the pigeons and corvids in the field.

An adult male Goshawk appeared high overhead, dropping towards the trees in a long flat glide. As it got closer, it started to descend quickly and we looked over to see why – another juvenile Goshawk, this time a young male, was starting to display over the tops of the firs. The adult swooped at the youngster, but the latter wasn’t giving up easily and twisted, talons up to defend itself. The two of them chased through the treetops for a couple of seconds before disappearing into the trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – great views of at least 5 different birds this morning

But the best moment of all was when an adult female Goshawk came slowly across over the edge of the trees in front of us. It was a nice flyby and gave us a great look at it, but halfway across it suddenly turned towards us and dropped down in front of the trees. It was flapping powerfully now, with purpose. Ahead of it, a male Pheasant was strutting in the field with its back to the trees, oblivious. The Pheasant realised just in time, panicked and ran towards a cover strip in the middle of the field. It dived in, the Goshawk turning sharply and looking to follow it, but decided against it at the last minute. Wow!

There were a few other raptors up too this morning. A Red Kite drifted lazily over the trees. Several Buzzards circled up, as did a couple of distant Kestrels. A Sparrowhawk flew across, much smaller than the Goshawks and with bursts of much faster flapping flight.

It had clouded over, so we decided to move on to look for Woodlarks. There were none singing when we arrived at a favourite clearing – it was rather cold in the breeze now, with the sun in – so we decided to have a walk round to see if we could find one. We didn’t have to go too far, before we heard a Woodlark calling, the distinctive ringing double ‘tlu-lee’, and looked up to see it flying high towards us. A second Woodlark called from the ground in the middle of the clearing and the first circled round and dropped down nearby.

Before we could get the scope on it, the two Woodlarks were off again, flying across the path and landing in another clearing a bit further over. They were quickly followed by a second pair, which flew over in the same direction but landed in the top of a young oak tree. We got a look at them distantly through the scope before they too dropped down into the grass.

We walked over to see if we could get a closer look. The grass in this clearing is much longer and the Woodlarks were very hard to see at first on the ground, out in the middle. We scanned carefully from along the edge, looking down the line of each row of newly planted trees, before we heard one calling softly. By positioning ourselves carefully, we could see one of the Woodlarks creeping around in the grass.

Woodlark

Woodlark – creeping around in a grassy clearing

When we lost sight of the first, we spotted a second Woodlark nearby. It perched on a small mound of bare earth for a couple of seconds, sub-singing quietly. Then something spooked them, and all four Woodlarks came up out of the grass and flew round calling, before landing back down again.

Otherwise, the clearings here were rather quiet today. A Common Buzzard appeared briefly above the trees, but raptor activity seemed to have tailed off a bit now. With our mission here accomplished, we decided to move on.

There has been a flock of Parrot Crossbills around the Santon Downham area since November last year, but they can be very elusive. As specialised pine cone feeders, they have lots of trees to choose from here – Thetford Forest is the largest lowland pine forest in the UK! However, they need to drink regularly and will sometimes come in to the same puddles for water. After disappearing for a few days, they had been seen coming to drink yesterday at one of the car parks, so we thought we would have a go at catching up with them.

When we arrived at the rough forestry car park, there were a few people standing around looking down at the muddy puddles. They told us the Parrot Crossbills had been seen coming to drink earlier, which was definitely a good start. We drove round to one of their other favoured areas nearby, but there was no sign of them there. However, we did bump into someone we knew who told us he had seen the Parrot Crossbills coming to drink over an hour before. That meant they were just about due to come back for more, so we headed straight back to the first car park to await them.

It seemed an opportune moment for an early lunch, while we waited for them to appear. We hadn’t even finished unpacking the sandwiches before we heard the Parrot Crossbills calling and turned to see them landing in the top of the oak trees just across the road. We got them in the scope, as they perched there calling quietly, working up the courage to come down to drink. There were at least 15 of them.

Parrot Crossbills 1

Parrot Crossbills – perched in the trees before coming down to drink

Eventually, the Parrot Crossbills flew across and landed in a smaller tree right on the edge of the car park, just beyond the puddles. Then one or two at a time, they dropped down to the water’s edge and started drinking. From where we were parked, they were only a few metres away from us and we enjoyed stunning views as they came down to the ground.

Parrot Crossbills 2

Parrot Crossbills 3

Parrot Crossbills 4

Parrot Crossbills – great views as they came down to drink in the car park

Close up, we could see the Parrots Crossbills’ huge bills and heavy, bull-necked heads, packed with the muscles for pulling open tightly closed pine cones. They were a mixture of red or orange males and grey-green females. Most of them look like they are probably young birds, presumably the class of 2017, though they are not always easy to age.

Parrot Crossbills are very scarce visitors here. Breeding mainly from Scandinavia across into Russia (with smaller numbers in Scotland too), like other crossbills they are an irruptive species, moving south and west in response to any shortage of cones in their home range, but rarely making it as far as southern England. So it is a real treat to see them here, and to see them so well.

Lunch had been forgotten with all the excitement, but after the Parrot Crossbills had finished drinking and flown off back to wherever they were feeding, we turned our attention to our food. Having not had to wait long to see them, we now had a bit of time to play with, so we decided to walk down along the river bank after lunch.

Brambling

Brambling – at the feeders by the bridge

At the feeders by the bridge, a Brambling flew up from the grass and perched briefly in the trees. In the poplars by the river, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming. We had hoped we might get lucky and run into a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker here, but it was rather cold and cloudy now and the trees were rather quiet as we walked down along the river bank.

A Treecreeper called from the poplars and we could just see it high in the trees, though it was hard to get onto and then disappeared back out of view. A few Siskins flew back and forth overhead, calling. There were couple of Little Grebes diving in the river. We stood and listened in the trees for a couple of minutes, but all was quiet. We decided we were better off spending the rest of the afternoon elsewhere.

On the walk back, a couple of Water Rails squealed from the back of the reeds below the poplars. We saw some movement the other side of the river, and picked up a Mistle Thrush, a Song Thrush and a Redwing, all feeding in the same area in the rough paddocks below the alders.

We headed round to Lynford Arboretum for the rest of the afternoon. Hawfinch was our main target here and as it was cool and cloudy now, we decided to head straight down to the paddocks. We were quickly rewarded with a distant Hawfinch in the fir trees at the back, so we made our round for a closer look. It was perched on the edge of the trees, so we could get a good view of it from this side, its huge head and massive bill, strong enough to crack cherry stones, and its ornamental shaped inner primaries.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – good views perched in the edge of the firs

A second Hawfinch flew in and landed in the tree next to it, the two of them staying there together for several minutes before dropping back into the trees. Rather than wait to see if any more Hawfinches would come in this afternoon, we decided to go and explore the arboretum.

A quick walk round the lake produced a few waterbirds for the day’s list – a few Canada Geese and a single Greylag, several Mallard and a pair of Gadwall, and another Little Grebe. A flock of Redwings were flushed out of the alders and flew out to the hornbeams in the middle of the paddocks, where we could get a good look at them through the scope.

There was some seed put out for the birds on the pillars and posts around the bridge, so we stopped a while to see what would come in. There was a steady stream of tits – Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, plus several Marsh Tits giving us nice close views. A Nuthatch chased everything else off the peanut feeder hanging in the tree above and spent several minutes jabbing ferociously at the peanuts. A Treecreeper worked its way up one of the trees right next to the bridge, so we could get a good look at it. There were several Siskins in the trees here too.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming to seed put out on the bridge

It was time to start thinking about heading back now. There has been a Firecrest around the car park here on occasion, but when we got to the car there was no sign of it. We stood for a while and listened, but there were just a few Blue Tits, a Robin and a couple of Nuthatches piping noisily from high in the trees.

It was only as we were getting in to the car that we heard the Firecrest call from the trees nearby. It flew across and disappeared into some dense young firs, still calling. We walked over and could just see it flitting around on the edge of the trees, before it disappeared in deeper, out of view.

As we made our way back north, driving into Swaffham, we could see thousands and thousands of Starlings whirling over the town. It was quite a spectacle. There has been a murmuration here for the last couple of winters, and numbers really start to grow at thsi time of year, presumably as birds start to make their way back towards the continent. We stopped in the market place and watched them for a while, whirling round overhead. They were quite spread out this evening, but it was still amazing to watch them all, there must have been at least 30,000 birds!

Starling murmuration

Starlings – part of a huge murmuration over Swaffham this evening

The Starlings were a nice way to round off our three days. It had been very exciting stuff, the best of late winter in the North Norfolk, the Broads and the Brecks. We had seen some great birds, lots of great moments and good company too.

26th June 2017 – Summer with Cameras

A Private Tour today, with a difference. We were particularly targeting certain species and hoping to get photographs of them too. It was a lovely sunny day, warm out of the breeze which picked up on the coast in the afternoon. Perhaps a little too nice?

After a relaxed start, the target for the first part of the morning was to look for raptors. As we drove along, a Red Kite circled over the road, together with a Common Buzzard. We parked at the start of a farm track and walked up to the top of a rise, from where we could get a good view over the surrounding countryside.

We saw a good selection of birds of prey from our vantage point here. First, a Kestrel flew past as we walked along the track. Looking back towards the meadow where we had parked, a Barn Owl was out hunting, presumably still with hungry young in the nest to feed and having to work hard accordingly. As the air warmed, several Common Buzzards circled up out of the trees. Unfortunately, the warming air also meant that the heat haze quickly increased, making photography rather more challenging!

There were other birds too. Best of them all, a Yellow Wagtail flew over calling. They were once more common but are now very scarce in the breeding season across most of Norfolk. One or two pairs cling on in farmland and hopefully this one is breeding somewhere around here. Some distinctive calls alerted us to five Mediterranean Gulls circling high overhead, presumably looking for a suitable field to feed in. Skylarks fluttered up over the fields singing and a Common Whitethroat flitted about in the hedge.

When we had had our fill of raptors, we walked back to the car. Our destination for the rest of the morning was up on the Heath. A particular target here was Garden Warbler. They can be very elusive, often lurking deep in the bushes, but have at least started singing more again in the last week or so, presumably between broods. As we pulled up in the car park, we could hear a Garden Warbler singing but we were pleasantly surprised to look over and see it perched out on the near edge of the blackthorn, close by.

Garden WarblerGarden Warbler – posing for the cameras in the car park

Having posed unusually well at first, the Garden Warbler quickly dropped back down into cover. Normal service was resumed – we could still hear it singing but from deep in the blackthorn! Still, it was a great start and we set off out onto the Heath feeling rather hopeful.

Our second target here today was Woodlark. Unfortunately, they were not quite so accommodating. They are onto their second broods now and, with the females probably on eggs, they are not at their most visible. Getting towards the middle of the day, it was also not the best time to look for them. When we set off from the car park, we met some other local birders returning who told us they had seen a pair of Woodlarks earlier. We went straight round to the place where they had been, but we couldn’t find them – presumably they had flown off already. We did find a pair of Skylarks feeding nearby, which was not quite what we were looking for, even if very nice to see close to on the ground.

We had a walk round to another area where the Woodlarks have been feeding often in recent weeks, but the vegetation here is growing up fast now making them harder to see. We listened as we circled round the area, but we couldn’t hear any either. There were plenty of Linnets around the gorse and several Yellowhammers singing, although even these were not posing for the cameras quite as they might normally have done today. A couple of juvenile Stonechats were flitting around the bushes out in the middle of the Heath.

YellowhammerYellowhammer – there were several males singing around the Heath today

The butterflies were more obliging. There are large numbers of Silver-studded Blues out at the moment, one of the specialities of the Heath, so we stopped to admire a couple of them on our way round.

Silver-studded BlueSilver-studded Blue – large numbers are out on the Heath at the moment

There wasn’t much time to explore the Heath before it was time for lunch, so we walked back to the car for a break. Typically, we were just in the process of eating our sandwiches in a shady spot when we noticed a couple of Woodlarks flying in low over the trees. They dropped down out of view in the distance and we had a pretty good idea the area where they were heading. We quickly put our food down and grabbed our gear.

We couldn’t see them at first when we got round to the place where the Woodlarks had gone down, so we weren’t sure if they had continued on or landed. We followed the path up a slight rise, and unfortunately they flew up without calling from the far side just as we appeared over the top, three of them. They didn’t go far, but landed again in the long grass just a short distance ahead of us. We could see one of them through the scope, creeping around in the grass.

The Woodlarks were a bit far for photographs, particularly with the heat haze today, so we decided to try to circle round to the other side of them. They can be very obliging, but not today and as we edged forwards they were off again.

After finishing our lunch, we set off again around the Heath to see if we could find any Dartford Warblers. It was early afternoon now, the warmest part of the day, but we hoped a light breeze would be enough to encourage the birds into some activity. It was not the case. Like the Woodlarks, the Dartford Warblers are on second broods now and the females are on eggs. The males still often sing now, but early and late are definitely best.

We did hear a Turtle Dove purring in the trees, but as it was not a target species for the day we did not go off looking for it. We also bumped into a nice selection of insects. As well as the Silver-studded Blues, there were lots of other butterflies, especially lots of Small Skippers feeding on the Viper’s Bugloss. A large Emperor Dragonfly was hawking around other heather. And we saw several bright Green Tiger Beetles on the paths.

Small SkipperSmall Skipper – feeding on Viper’s Bugloss

With no further sign of the Woodlarks either, we decided to head down to the coast at Cley for a walk. There were quite a few cars (though not so many birders in evidence!), so when we found a place to park, we headed out along the East Bank. As we set off, a Little Egret flew past and disappeared off towards North Foreland wood. A Grey Heron flew in over the reeds too, and disappeared into the trees.

Little EgretLittle Egret – flew in to North Foreland wood

The pool at the start of the East Bank held a few ducks. Among them, a female Common Pochard was diving. She appeared to be down to just one duckling, although by now it was at least well on its way to being fully grown. Otherwise, there were just a variety of ages of Mallard on here.

The grazing marshes east of the East Bank still have quite a bit of water on them this year. There were still plenty of Lapwing around the small pools and in the grass, though not so many juveniles with them. Predation often tends to be high with wader chicks here.

LapwingLapwing – several adults though not so many juveniles in evidence

Interestingly, the Redshanks seemed to be doing a little better in their parental duties and as well as a good number of adults, there were several juveniles around the edges of the Serpentine, which was good to see. Looking further over, towards Pope’s Pool, there were lots of Avocet and more adult Redshank, plus a single Black-tailed Godwit and one Ringed Plover. The early waders are already starting to return from the north, often failed breeders first, and a lone Whimbrel flying east over the start of the East Bank as we looked back probably fits that category.

RedshankRedshank – one of several juveniles around the Serpentine

As there has been over the last few weeks, there was a nice selection of wildfowl around the Serpentine, even if the drakes are starting to moult into eclipse plumage. As well as the usual Mallard and Gadwall, including a nice little family party of the latter with several small ducklings, there were also two Wigeon and quite a few Teal, both species which are more winter visitors. How many of these have remained here all summer, and how many have been around either here or nearby right the way through, is hard to tell. There were loads of Greylag Geese too, with no shortage of young ones with them, already well grown now.

There was quite a fresh breeze blowing in, with the wind having turned north-east this afternoon. The Sand Martins seemed to be enjoying it. There was quite a flock of them, hawking for insects. They kept swinging out over the marshes, before returning en masse and swooping around the bank.

Sand MartinSand Martin – a large flock were hawking for insects around the East Bank

We had hoped we might find a Bearded Tit along here, but it was perhaps a bit too windy to get a good look at one. We did hear some calling. One was in the reeds in the ditch on the east side of the bank. The light was perfect this side, although it was most exposed to the wind. We stood close by hoping it would climb up into the reeds but unfortunately it flew off down the line of the reeds. There were quite a few Reed Warblers, which showed quite well, and a male Reed Bunting perched in the top of the reeds singing.

There were quite a few Sandwich Terns on Arnold’s Marsh, and plenty of Great Black-backed Gulls, but not much else of note today. We were told there had been a Little Gull offshore here, but by the time we got out to the beach it had moved on. There were lots of Sandwich Terns offshore, as well as a single adult Mediterranean Gull with the Black-headed Gulls.

There were more waders moving, to add to the Whimbrel we had seen earlier. A single Curlew flew west over Arnold’s Marsh, flying straight through without stopping. Then while we were looking out to see, we noticed three more Curlews flying west just offshore, presumably just arriving fresh in from the Continent. More waders on migration, which is always interesting to see.

CurlewCurlew – these three were probably just arriving from the Continent this afternoon

We had an appointment with Nightjars this evening, so with an eye on the clock and the need to get something to eat beforehand we headed back to the car. A Little Ringed Plover flew off from the Serpentine as we passed, presumably having dropped in while we were at the beach.

Having had a break and eaten, we met up again later in the evening. We were just looking for Nightjars this evening, so we made our way straight up to the heath. We arrived in good time and with a few minutes to spare, we had a quick walk round looking for some good places to stand.

As we walked past a clump of gorse, we heard a very soft churr which meant that a Nightjar was very close. Peering over the vegetation, we could just see it through a narrow gap, perched on a branch lying on the ground. Unfortunately, as we tried to get everyone up onto it, it took off. We had a nice flight view as it flew round and up into some trees. It was a male – we could see the white corners to its tail and white bands across the tips of its wings as it flew. We saw roughly where it went, so we walked over in the direction.

The Nightjar hadn’t landed on one of its regular perches. It was now about time for them to start churring anyway, and it duly obliged by bursting into ‘song’. We could hear where it was, a bit further along than normal, so we made our way carefully round the trees. It was perched right out in the open on a dead branch, but again we struggled to get everyone onto it before it flew. They never stay in one place for long, especially early in the evening. As it took off, a second male Nightjar joined it, and the two of them circled up over the edge of the trees calling. This is a territorial boundary, so there was probably a bit of a discussion going on!

We followed one of the two male Nightjars as it flew off across the Heath. We know exactly where it likes to perch, so it was just a matter of which tree it might head for. At first it was not settling and we quickly realised why – there was a female Nightjar there too! The male flew after her, following her from branch to branch, wing-clapping. The female was much harder to follow in the gloom, lacking the male’s white wing and tail patches.

When the female Nightjar flew on again, this time the male remained perched and gave us a chance to get it in the scope. It stayed there churring for a minute or two. There was still just enough light to get a really good look at it – and some photos. Great stuff!

NightjarNightjar – this male eventually settled and started churring

When that male Nightjar finally flew again, we could hear a different bird churring across the Heath. We looked across and it was perched in a tree, perfectly silhouetted against the last of the light, a classic Nightjar view. When it finally moved away, we decided to head back.

The light was fading fast now and we had already enjoyed some unforgettable Nightjar views, so we decided to call it a night. They really are the most fascinating of birds and there is nothing better than standing on a heath on a summer’s evening listening to them churring and watching them flying round. It is always a great way to end a day of Summer birding.

25th June 2017 – Summer Weekend, Day 2

The second day of a weekend of Summer birding, looking for some of our scarcer breeding birds, as well as the more regular species we can see here at this time of year. It was mostly cloudy but pleasantly warm and bright, and we managed for the most part to dodge the showers in the afternoon, at least until we had finished for the day.

On the drive down to the Brecks, we saw several Red Kites today, hanging in the air by the road. We took a meandering route, looking for Stone Curlews and other birds on the way down. The pig fields in the northern Brecks were full of Rooks, Jackdaws and gulls. We stopped to look through a particularly large flock of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and were rewarded with a single adult Yellow-legged Gull with them – larger, bulkier and with a much paler grey back and custard yellow legs.

The first couple of fields where we looked for Stone Curlew, we drew a blank. The vegetation is getting very tall now and the birds are getting much harder to see. But on our third stop, we found one Stone Curlew out in the open on rather bare and stony ground. Even though we remained at some considerable distance, it was a little nervous at first, running in a couple of short bursts across towards the edge of the field. We stood still behind the car and it quickly settled down, standing and preening.

Stone Curlew

In the end, we had to tear ourselves away and left the Stone Curlew still standing out in the open in the field. With one of our main target species for the day already in the bag, we decided to head straight over to Lakenheath Fen next.

As we walked out onto the reserve at Lakenheath, we could hear a Cetti’s Warbler shouting from the bushes. There were lots of Reed Warblers feeding in the reeds and weedy vegetation by the path. There were lots of butterflies too – Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and a smart Large Skipper.

Large SkipperLarge Skipper – on the walk out by the main path

We stopped at New Fen Viewpoint for a scan across the reeds. There were just a few Coots on the pool today, adults and juveniles of varying ages. A Common Tern flew in and started hovering out over the water. A smart male Marsh Harrier flew across, and we saw a brief Hobby which was chasing a Magpie over the back of the reeds. A very distant pair of Kestrels circled over West Wood.

A Cuckoo was singing from the poplars as we walked out and, while we stood at the viewpoint, one came out of the trees behind us and flew out across over the reeds. It disappeared into the poplars along the other side. There were several Reed Warblers zipping about in the reeds around the water.

There is only one pair of Common Cranes breeding here this year and they are not in an accessible part of the reserve, so we had assumed we would not see any here today. We had been told by the warden in the visitor centre that six Cranes had been reported earlier, but as they had been flying around we were not sure if they had gone. At this point however they circled up over West Wood, and we watched as they circled across to the river and started drifting east.

Common Crane 1Common Crane – six flew over New Fen while we were there today

It looked like the Cranes would continue east over the river but when they got level with us they turned, and started coming straight towards us over edge of trees. They were not far away when they finally banked over the wood and started to circle up, before drifting back east. A real bonus!

Common Crane 2Common Crane – four of the six circling over East Wood

Continuing out along the main path, we stopped from time to time to look at the various dragonflies. These included good numbers of Black-tailed Skimmers and Ruddy Darters now, although still comparatively few mature red males of the latter species, plus a few Brown Hawkers and plenty of Four-Spotted Chasers still.

Ruddy DarterRuddy Darter – a maturing male, gradually turning red

There was an excellent selection of blue damselflies here too – including several of the regular Common Blue, Azure and Blue-tailed Damselflies. The highlight was a single Variable Damselfly – a subtly marked one, with rather full blue antehumeral stripes.

Variable DamselflyVariable Damselfly – with rather complete black antehumeral stripes

Another, this time avian, highlight was the Great Crested Grebe on one of the pools by path near West Wood. On closer inspection, we could see it was carrying two small, stripy juvenile grebes on its back. We could just see their black and white heads sticking out from their parent’s feathers. Why swim when you can ride in comfort!

Great Crested GrebeGreat Crested Grebe – with two juveniles riding on its back

When we got out to Joist Fen Viewpoint, we sat down to rest after the walk out and had a look over the reeds in front. There were several Marsh Harriers circling out over the reedbed and lots of Reed Warblers around the pool in front. A Hobby shot across low over the reeds, giving us much better views than we had of the one earlier.

We had seen a pair of Bearded Tits in the edge of the reeds just as we approached the Joist Fen Viewpoint, but they had flown up and over the bank ahead of us. Sitting on the benches we found ourselves watching non-stop Bearded Tit action. Birds were zipping back and forth over the pool and feeding low around the base of the reeds on the edge of the water.

One pair of Bearded Tits, possibly the one we had seen flying over this way on the way out, was feeding some juveniles hidden down in the reeds right in front of us. The youngsters would occasionally perch up in the reeds begging when one of the adults returned. We had great views of them.

Bearded TitBearded Tit – great views of adults feeding young in front of the viewpoint

This is a great time of year to see Bitterns at Lakenheath Fen, with adults busy feeding growing young in the nest, and so flying back and forth from their favoured feeding areas regularly. But they kept us waiting today. We had one eye on the clock, aiming to get back for lunch, and time was ticking. There was just one tantalising glimpse, which was too quick for anyone to get onto. Eventually, we had nice views when a Bittern flew out of the bushes beside the viewpoint and away across the reeds in front of us, before dropping down into the vegetation. It was perhaps not the best view of Bittern we have had here, but it was good enough and would have to do as we needed to get back.

It seems Bitterns are like buses. Having had to wait to see the first at Joist Fen, we were walking back when one flew up from the reeds in front of us, right next to the path, flushed by someone walking along the path towards us. It was very close, and we had a fantastic look at it as it flew out across the pool, turning to fly past us before dropping back into the reeds. As if that wasn’t good enough, as we were walking past Mere Hide, another Bittern flew towards us low over the reeds beside the path, and carried on straight past us. Fantastic views!

BitternBittern – we were treated to fantastic views of two on the walk back

With a spring in our step, we walked back to the visitor centre, for a later than planned lunch outside at the picnic tables. After lunch, we had a quick look at the Washland. It is getting rather dry now, but still we managed to add a few waders to the day’s list – Lapwings, Oystercatchers, two Little Ringed Plovers, and a single Redshank. There were a few Mallard and Gadwall with ducklings, and a couple of Common Terns too.

We drove back to Thetford Forest for the rest of the afternoon, to try to catch up with some woodland birds. The little clump of trees where the male Redstart was singing a couple of weeks ago is now quiet. However, as we walked round into the clearing, we caught a glimpse of a Woodlark in the corner drop down into the grass. We walked round there to try to get a closer look.

As we made our way over, a Tree Pipit started singing. We watched as it fluttered up and then parachuted down across in front of us, landing again in the back of a large hawthorn bush. We could just see bits of it in the scope. Then, a second Tree Pipit flew over calling, and dropped into the top of another bush further back. This one was out in the open and facing us, so we got a much better look at it in the scope, although it was rather distant.

Carrying on around the clearing, we flushed a Woodlark from the long grass beside the path, possibly the one we had seen earlier. It flew round past us, showing off its short tail, and landed in a nearby pine tree briefly. We got a good look through binoculars, but it dropped down into the thicker branches before we could get it in the scope. A little further on along the path, we flushed another three Woodlarks from the grass, presumably a family party.

Continuing up to the far end of the clearing, we could hear a Tree Pipit singing again. We didn’t see where it came from, but we looked round to see it fly up into the edge of the pines and land on a branch. We got it in the scope and had a proper look at it, much closer this time. It had started spitting with rain as we walked round, and now it started to rain harder. It was still only light, but we made our way quickly back to the car just in case.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – this one perched up nicely for us in the trees

Thankfully the rain stopped almost immediately, as we drove round to Lynford Arboretum for the last hour of the day. We had already seen all our main target species, but we hoped we might be able to catch up with a few commoner woodland species here for our trip list.

As we walked across the road and into the Aboretum, we could hear a Grey Wagtail calling as it flew over the trees above our head, but we couldn’t see it. Several Goldcrests were singing from the fir trees. We stopped to watch a pair of Treecreepers, chasing each other around the trunk of a tree just before the gates to the new cottages. Suddenly a Spotted Flycatcher appeared in the same tree right next to them.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher – showed really well as we walked in to the Arboretum

We got a great look at it, but the Spotted Flycatcher quickly flicked back over the other side of the garden wall behind. We walked up to the gates and could see it flitting around the roofs of the cottages. They are very subtle but very smart birds, and full of character. Spotted Flycatchers are getting much scarcer now, so it is always a pleasure to see one, especially as well as this.

Continuing on along the path, we stopped to admire the new wildflower meadow. It is looking really good this year, a riot of colour, and chock full of insects and butterflies. Several Emperor Dragonflies were hawking around over the vegetation. A female Kestrel was perched on a telegraph post in the field, and kept dropping down into the flowers, presumably after something tasty it had seen.

We had only gone a little further when we heard a bird calling from the trees across the field. It was a Hawfinch. We hurried along to a point from where we could scan over the trees and found it perched in the top of a fir tree. We all got a look at it through binoculars, but unfortunately it dropped down before we could get the scope onto it. We walked in along the path where it seemed to drop, but we couldn’t find it again. Hawfinches are regular here in the winter but are as rare as hens’ teeth here in the summer, and difficult to see when there are leaves on the trees too, so this was a real and most unexpected bonus!

Down over the bridge, we too the path along the side of the lake. There were a few tits in the trees and Swallows hawking for insects low over the paddocks. A Little Grebe was diving among the lily pads on the lake. As we turned to walk back, we spotted a juvenile Grey Wagtail lurking on the mud on the edge of the island.

It had been a very productive stop at Lynford and it made a really nice way to end the day and the weekend. We walked back up to the car – arriving just in time, as a heavy shower blew in. Our luck had certainly been in today!

22nd June 2017 – Summer Brecks

A Private Tour today down in the Brecks. After the recent hot weather, it finally broke today. But although we dodged the thunder storms successfully, it was rather cool and windy afterwards, through the afternoon.

On our way down, we stopped off first at Weeting Heath. We were immediately rewarded with lovely views of a Stone Curlew feeding in the long grass in front of the hide. It was quite active, running backwards and forwards, looking down at the ground for food and occasionally pecking at something. A careful scan revealed a second Stone Curlew, sat down hidden in the vegetation – we could just see the back of its head! A Mistle Thrush was hopping around on the shorter grass in front of the hide too.

Stone CurlewStone Curlew – showing well at Weeting today

One of the targets for the day was to see summer warblers, so we made our way over to another site where we hoped we might find some. We were duly rewarded with a nice selection. Garden Warbler was a particularly sought after species and we found at least two pairs, one of the males singing briefly. A subtle species, it was good to get a proper look at them, as they can be rather skulking.

Garden WarblerGarden Warbler – we got good views of this species today

We also heard and saw several other species here – Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff were all singing and perched around in the bushes. Only Lesser Whitethroat evaded us here – they are present, but probably busy with breeding at the moment and consequently silent and hiding.

This is also a good spot for Nightingale. They were rather quiet at first – it is not the best time of the year to look for them – but we eventually heard one singing. We followed the sound and saw it perched up briefly in a hawthorn. It took a while to get everyone onto it, but thankfully came out onto the same branch again for a second. Then it dropped down out of view. As we continued on round, we heard another Nightingale singing further over and one calling nearby, sounding rather like a frog croaking.

There were a few other birds here too. We flushed several Linnets from the grass and bushes as we walked round. A female Greenfinch flew up in front of us and landed on some brambles, carrying some moss in its bill, presumably busy nest building nearby. We heard a couple of Yellowhammers singing and eventually got a look at one perched on some overhead wires.

GreenfinchGreenfinch – this female was probably nest building nearby

We had heard thunder rumbling and dark clouds starting to gather. The lightning when it started was quite dramatic but thankfully some distance away. Finally it started to spit with rain, so we made our way quickly back to the car. We arrived just in time, as the heavens opened.

The rain had stopped by the time we got to Lakenheath Fen, but it was still cloudy and rather cooler than it had been earlier. We headed straight out onto the reserve, with Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers, and Common Whitethroats all singing by the path and showing well. In contrast, a Cetti’s Warbler shouted from deep in the bushes.

There were a few birds on the pool in front of the New Fen Viewpoint. An adult Great Crested Grebe was being followed round by a well grown juvenile, still boasting a black and white striped face. The family of Coot have almost fully grown young too, but the female Tufted Duck was all alone. A Kingfisher zipped out of the trees behind us and disappeared low across the water, returning the same way a minute or so later with fish in bill. A smart male Marsh Harrier flew across over the reeds at the back.

Great Crested GrebeGreat Crested Grebe – on the pools at New Fen

As we continued out along the main path, there were lots of dragonflies by the path. Several male Black-tailed Skimmers were basking on the bare dirt along the track, flying off ahead of us. The vegetation either side was alive with Ruddy Darters today, presumably recently emerged as they seemed to be mostly young males and females. There were butterflies too, with Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells on the brambles. A Large Skipper landed briefly beside the path.

Ruddy DarterRuddy Darter – there were lots out today

On the walk out, we had heard a Cuckoo singing from the poplars in the distance, but it had stopped when we got to New Fen. As we approached the West Wood it flew straight out of the trees towards us and landed in the poplars right by the path. We had a great look at it through the scope, before it flew deeper into the trees and started singing again. A second Cuckoo was still singing in West Wood as we passed.

CuckooCuckoo – landed in the poplars next to the path briefly

Continuing on to Joist Fen viewpoint, there were several RSPB volunteers hanging around staring out across the reeds. They were doing a Bittern survey today. It wasn’t long before we spotted a Bittern for them. It flew up out of the reeds in front of the viewpoint and headed off over the channel, before turning and dropping down into the reeds along one side. There was a lot of Bittern activity today – this is a good time to see them, as the adults are making regular feeding flights to and from their nests.

There were plenty of other birds to see at Joist Fen. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering back and forth over the reeds, a Common Tern was fishing over one of the pools and a Cormorant flew up from one of the channels and headed over towards the river. A flock of over 20 Black-tailed Godwits circled over the reedbed. We heard Bearded Tits calling a couple of times but couldn’t see them – it was getting rather breezy now. There was no sign of any Hobbys here today, but it was perhaps rather too cool and windy after the rain, which was keeping all the insects down.

Climbing up onto the river bank, we had a quick scan across the fields opposite, but it was all rather quiet here. Several Mute Swans were feeding along the river, as was another Great Crested Grebe. Looking back across Joist Fen, we spotted another two Bitterns flying across together further over, before splitting off and dropping down again in different directions.

Back at Mere Hide it was more sheltered and there were more dragonflies, with several Four-Spotted Chasers chasing around over the water. A Red-eyed Damselfly landed on a cut reed stem just in front of the hide. A Kingfisher flew in and looked like it might land on one of the posts out in the water but instead carried on past and landed in the reeds right next to the hide. It was partly obscured by the reeds, but we got a great look at it.

KingfisherKingfisher – landed in the reeds right in front of Mere Hide

Back at New Fen, we stopped by the viewpoint again briefly, but there were still no Hobbys here either. We did see another Bittern, our fourth of the morning, which flew right across low over the reeds and over the river bank, turning and landing just beyond. We walked round there to see if it was close to the path, but when we arrived there was no sign of it.

We made our way back along the river bank to the Washland. It was looking rather dry now, and there were fewer ducks than earlier in the year. We did manage to see a nice selection of waders, including a single Little Ringed Plover, one Redshank, two Black-tailed Godwits and plenty of Oystercatchers & Lapwings. In the distance beyond, e could see a Red Kite circling.

It was time for lunch, so we headed back to the car. We were just getting the food out when we looked up to see a Bittern flying low overhead. A bit of a surprise, as we were some way from any reeds! It disappeared off towards the visitor centre.

BitternBittern – flew low over the car park as we were getting our lunch out

After lunch, we headed back into the forest to look for some typical species which can be found here. Our first stop has been a regular site for Redstart in the last few weeks, but there was no sight nor sound of it here today. Hopefully, this means it has found a female and they have settled down to breed nearby.

We had a walk into the clearing and as we made our way round the edge, a pipit flew overhead and dropped down into the grass. We made our way over to see if we could see it but before we got there we heard a bird calling softly from the trees nearby and looked up to see another pipit perched in a pine. As we hoped, it was a Tree Pipit and we got a great look at it through the scope.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – up in the pines carrying food for its young

The Tree Pipit was carrying food in its bill, so presumably has young nearby. We left it in peace and retreated. We had intended to go to another site for Tree Pipit after this, but there was now no need. So instead we went round to the other side of the clearing to see if we could find any sign of a Redstart.

It was rather quiet here now, the middle of the afternoon and cool and breezy. A flock of tits moved quickly along the edge of the pines – Long-tailed Tits accompanied by a few Blue and Coal Tits. We flushed a couple of Yellowhammers from the grass, which flew up into the trees nearby. However, the highlight of our walk here was a Woodlark which perched in the top of a small pine briefly in the middle of the clearing.

Our final destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. We had hoped that there might be more activity here, out of the wind, but it was rather subdued here too. As we walked round, we did find a couple of Nuthatches dropping down to the ground to feed under a small tree and we heard a Treecreeper calling from the wood. There were quite a few Siskins buzzing round the tops of the firs in the Arboretum and a pair came down and landed a little lower where we could see them briefly. A couple of Goldcrests showed themselves too.

We made our way down to the lake. There are always Little Grebes on here and they seemed to have had a good breeding season. As adult was feeding a small juvenile under the overhanging branches just along from the bridge. Further along, 3-4 fully grown juvenile Little Grebes, still sporting stripey faces, were diving among the lily pads.

Little GrebeLittle Grebe – one of the fully grown juveniles on the lake

When we got the end of the lake, we turned and made our way slowly back to the car to finish the day.

9th June 2017 – East Anglian Round-up, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Private Tour today, our last day. We were planning to head down to the Brecks for the day. It was a nice day today, mostly cloudy but brighter later, lighter winds than of late, and we managed to dodge a couple of quick showers in the afternoon.

As we got down into the northern part of the Brecks, we started to see more pig fields. We stopped by one of them where we could see there was a large mob of gulls. The pig nuts had just been spread out in amongst one group of pigs and the gulls were squabbling in between them trying to help themselves. Then there was a loud ‘Bang!’ as a bird scarer went off and all the gulls took to the air.

When they landed again, down in a dip in the middle of the field, we scanned through the gulls we could see. We had hoped we might find a Caspian Gull, but they were mostly Lesser Black-backed Gulls here today, of various ages, plus a couple of Herring Gulls. We had thought we might come back and have another look here later, but our day ended up taking us off in a different direction.

Stone Curlew was our next target and we quickly found a pair in a field by the road. The vegetation is growing up now and they are getting harder to see, particularly when they sit down. It took a careful scan to find them, but we could just see two heads peeping out. We got them in the scope and could see their staring yellow irises. A nice start to the day.

Stone CurlewStone Curlew – one of a pair hiding in the field

When originally discussing possible targets for these three days, Wood Warbler was one species which came up. Unfortunately the bird which had been singing near Brandon last week had not been reported for several days, but we wondered whether this might be just because of the windy weather. We went for a quick look just in case, but all was quiet in the trees where it had been, so we didn’t linger here.

Our next stop was more successful. We parked by a ride in the forest and walked along the track until we got to a large clearing. We could hear Goldcrests and a Treecreeper calling in the pines as we passed. As we approached the clearing we could hear a Stonechat calling and we looked over and saw a smart male perched on the top of an old stump row. A female was perched nearby with food in her bill. They clearly had young in the nest nearby.

StonechatStonechat – the pair in the clearing appear to have young

We were looking for Tree Pipit here and it didn’t take too long to find one. It was perched in the top of an elder tree just along from the Stonechats. We got a good look at it through the scope, swaying about in the wind, before it flew off and up into the pines trees beyond.

Tree PipitTree Pipit – perched in an elder tree briefly

Continuing on round the clearing, we caught a snatch of song, quite sweet and melodic but more rolling than a Blackcap. It seemed an odd place for a Garden Warbler and the first bird we saw come out of the young pine trees was a Whitethroat which led to a brief bout of head scratching – could we have imagined it? Thankfully, a couple of seconds later the Garden Warbler flicked up into the top of some brambles in the stump row behind, a nice bonus to see here and not one we had expected.

Back to the car and we drove round to another part of the forest. There has been a Redstart singing here recently, but we couldn’t hear it today. Whether it was just busy feeding somewhere out of view or has failed to find a mate and moved on was not clear. A smart male Yellowhammer flew in calling and landed on the fence in front of us.

We had a walk round and flushed a Cuckoo from the grass. It landed on a fencepost briefly, before flying off along the fence line. A second Cuckoo appeared and flew out to a small bush nearby, where we got a great view of it in the scope. Then we heard what we assume was the first Cuckoo singing in the distance, so there were two males here. A little later the second Cuckoo flew over and attempted to chase off the first, before flying back to its favoured bush.

CuckooCuckoo – one of two males here today

Another Tree Pipit flew in and dropped down into the long grass. We walked over to try to get a better look at it, but it had managed to sneak away. As we scanned the spot where it had dropped in, the next thing we knew it took off again from further along and flew off towards the trees.

As we turned to walk back, we could hear a Woodlark calling. Suddenly a male Woodlark flew up from a short distance ahead of us and started to sing, fluttering up over our heads, before drifting away over the clearing. We took a few more steps and heard another Woodlark calling. It sounded to be a long way away, but they are masters at throwing their voice and looking at the grass just ahead of us, we spotted it perched on a tussock, presumably the female.

WoodlarkWoodlark – perched on a tussock close to the path

We stopped immediately and had a good look at it through binoculars, but when we tried to get the scope on it, the Woodlark took off and landed in the grass further back, out of view. We headed back to the car and drove on. Having seen Stone Curlew earlier this morning, we were not to worried to see another, but we stopped briefly at Weeting on the way past anyway. We couldn’t find the Stone Curlews here today, but we did find three regular Eurasian Curlews out in the grass, a reminder they still breed in the Brecks in small numbers.

We stopped for lunch at Lakenheath Fen. While we were eating at one of the picnic tables, a Hobby drifted overhead. We had intended to explore the reserve after lunch, but with most of the possible species we might see here already on our list for the three days, another idea sprang to mind. There has been a Red-necked Phalarope at Welney for the last couple of days, which would be a new bird for one of us. It seemed like it would be a great way to round off the trip.

While Welney is not far away as the crow flies, it was a circuitous journey round from Lakenheath, through the Fens. When we arrived at the Welney WWT visitor centre, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling from the bushes outside, but couldn’t see them. We decided to look for them later, and with other things taking priority headed straight out to look for the phalarope. The staff at the visitor centre confirmed it had still been present just a short time ago, so we set off to walk the almost 1km down to Friends Hide.

When we got to the hide, The Red-necked Phalarope was out of view. There were several pairs of Avocets on here and quite a few chicks. A pair of Little Ringed Plovers had a couple of small fluffy juveniles with them too. We had been lucky with the weather today – it was warm and bright as we walked out to the hide – but we had been promised showers in the afternoon and a brief heavy rain shower came through. The adult Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers called to their respective young and sheltered the juveniles under their wings while the rain passed over.

AvocetAvocet – sheltering their chicks under their wings during the rain shower

It quickly brightened up again and the juvenile Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers were let out. The Avocets were being very aggressive. Their idea of childcare is to let the young fend for themselves and chase off potential predators. But they have got their definition of what might be a threat to their young awry – they were busy chasing off anything and everything!

A couple of adult Avocets kept having a go at the poor Little Ringed Plovers, chasing after them while they were trying to protect their young. The adult Little Ringed Plovers tried to lead them away with a distraction display, walking away with wings dangled, trying to look injured. It didn’t really work. The Avocets would follow them at first, then when the Little Ringed Plover felt it had got far enough away, it ran back to its chick but the Avocet simply chased back after it.

Avocet and Little Ringed Plover 1Avocet & Little Ringed Plover – the latter giving a distraction display, feigning injury

The Avocets kept chasing the Red-necked Phalarope too, which was probably why it spent so much time hiding in the reeds at the front of the pool. Every time the Red-necked Phalarope swam out, it was promptly chased off. We had a couple of quick views of it. At one point, when chased, it flew across the front of the scrape and landed on a small patch of mud, but the Avocet was still after it and once again it disappeared back into the reeds.

Eventually, the juvenile Avocets moved away from the Red-necked Phalarope’s favoured corner and it managed to swim about for a while feeding out in the open where we could get a good look at it. It was a male, which in phalarope’s means it is the duller plumaged of the sexes, with the females being brighter. The females do all the displaying and leave the males to incubate and rear the young. This male Red-necked Phalarope was still a smart bird, swimming round non-stop, in and out of the reeds, picking at the waters surface for insects of ducking its head under.

Red-necked PhalaropeRed-necked Phalarope – swimming around in front of the hide

We watched the Red-necked Phalarope for a while, swimming once it finally came out into the open for a while. They are rare visitors here and this bird was probably heading up to Scandinavia or Iceland for the breeding season, though where it had spent the winter is anyone’s guess with Scandinavian birds wintering out in the Arabian Sea but recent studies showing that some of the small number of birds breeding in the Shetland Islands migrating to join the North American population in the South Pacific Ocean! When it finally swam back into the reeds again, we decided to start walking back.

On the way back, we stopped for a quick look in the other hides. There did not seem to be too much on view from Lyle Hide, apart from more Avocets – good to see that they appear to be doing so well at Welney. We heard a song that sounded vaguely reminiscent of jangling keys and looked out of the front of the hide to see a Corn Bunting perched on the top of the vegetation. We got a great look at it as it stayed there for a couple of minutes singing, before being spooked by a big flock of Rooks and dropping back down out of view.

Corn BuntingCorn Bunting – singing in front of Lyle Hide

There were several Black-tailed Godwits out to one side of the hide, but the light was bad here as we were looking into the sun. We got better views from the Nelson-Lyle Hide further back. This confirmed our suspicions that they appeared to be a mix of two different races. Nominate limosa or Continental Black-tailed Godwit breeds across Europe east from the Netherlands. Only about 50-60 pairs breed in the UK on the Ouse and Nene Washes, including a couple of pairs at Welney. First summer islandica or Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits often remain in UK in rather than migrate up to Iceland to breed. There appeared to be a mixture of the two here, including a couple of nice limosa, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them.

Continental Black-tailed GodwitContinental Black-tailed Godwit – of the nominate race, limosa

Back at the Observatory, we could see a pair of Whooper Swans in front of the hide. This is a pair of injured birds which are not capable of flying back up to Iceland to breed, so have instead nested for the last six years at Welney, where they normally spend the winter. We could only see two of the four cygnets they were meant to have this year, but  presumed the others were hiding in the vegetation. Further back across the washes we could see another six or so Whooper Swans, presumably also all injured birds.

Whooper SwanWhooper Swan – with two cygnets

Back at the visitor centre, there were three more Black-tailed Godwits on Lady Fen. A quick look at the feeders as we were leaving finally got us views of the Tree Sparrows, with at least a couple coming and going, including one with only a half-grown tail.

Tree SparrowTree Sparrow – coming to the feeders in front of the visitor centre

It was a lovely way to end three exciting action-packed days of East Anglian summer birding, watching the Red-necked Phalarope and all the other birds at Welney. It rounded off the list nicely – we had managed to see a nice set of rarer birds despite it being early June, as well as a great selection of our resident and scarcer breeding species. A job well done, we set off back for home.