14th May 2023 – Four Days of Spring, Day 4

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Day 4 of a 4-day Spring Tour, our last day. It was forecast to warm up today, but it was slow coming. We were still in our winter coats, hats and gloves in the morning and it wasn’t until lunchtime that the sun finally came out and we couldn’t shed layers fast enough! There was a 10C swing during the day, from 8C in the morning to a high of 18C in the afternoon.

We had an earlier start this morning and headed down to Suffolk, leaving cars in Swaffham where we would finish up later. We were looking for Nightingales, but it was decidedly chilly when we arrived and got out of the minibus and there were few birds singing. We could hear a Yellowhammer in the distance.

As we walked down the road, a few birds started to sing – Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Common Whitethroat and Garden Warbler. A Goldcrest sang nearby and a couple of Long-tailed Tits flicked through. We heard our first Nightingale further down and walked on to listen, but it was only singing half-heartedly and quickly gave up. Another started up further along still, so we carried on and a third Nightingale began to sing too. We stopped to listen to the two of them duetting, although still neither of them really giving it both barrels.

We realised that one of the Nightingales was very close to the fence, so we edged down and, looking round from behind the trees, we could see it in a small bush. We were looking through the bare branches and it wasn’t a clear view, but it did remain in view for a couple of minutes so we could all get a good look at it, before it dropped down into the vegetation below.

Nightingale – through the branches

A Green Woodpecker yaffled and flew over and our first Cuckoo of the day called in the distance and we saw it flying off away from us over the trees too. There were a couple of Common Whitethroats singing in the bushes and a smart male Yellowhammer flicked between the tops of the trees. Down at the bottom, we looked out over the airfield and found a single Stone Curlew on the short grass. A Common Buzzard was preening on the fence nearby.

Walking back up the road, one of the Nightingales sang a bit more strongly for a minute, so we paused to listen. We cut in on one of the smaller paths, and found another Nightingale singing in the trees, but it was well hidden and we couldn’t see where it was perched before eventually it stopped.

Out into the open, we stopped to watch another Yellowhammer singing from a small hawthorn and a Willow Warbler flew in, landed below it, and started singing too. There were more Garden Warblers singing in the bushes beyond – perhaps, having arrived later, they were more programmed to keep singing despite the cold weather.

Yellowhammer – singing

It was already mid-morning, and there was still no sign of it brightening up yet. It felt like those birds which had been singing were starting to go quiet, so we decided to move on. As we walked back towards the minibus, we heard a female Cuckoo bubbling behind us and turned to see it perched on the wires. It flew and came across the heath towards us, pursued now by a male Cuckoo which started to call.

Cuckoo – a female

Our next destination was Lakenheath Fen. We checked in at the Visitor Centre and stopped for a hot drink to warm up. As we had some mobility limitations, we were very kindly granted a permit to drive up to the small car park by New Fen today. We disembarked and walked over to the New Fen Viewpoint – there were a couple of Greylags and a Tufted Duck on the pool. We could hear Cuckoos calling and a female flew out of Trial Wood and then back in to the poplars, where it landed briefly. Our first Hobby of the day was a rather distant one, circling over West Wood.

We took the small path through the reeds. A Sedge Warbler was flitting around low down in the reeds and singing occasionally and showed well. Along the path, there were more Reed Warblers singing so we stopped to listen to a couple and try to hear the difference in song between the two species. We heard Bearded Tits pinging from the reeds too, but they remained down out of sight.

Sedge Warbler – singing

Three Marsh Harriers circled low over the reeds, two males and a female. Another Hobby drifted over, catching insects over the reeds before flying away and landing in East Wood. A (Eurasian) Curlew flew over and disappeared over away across the river and having heard them calling we saw two Stock Doves which flew out of Trial Wood and off over the reeds too. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reeds.

Just past the junction to Mere Hide, we stopped to listen to a male Bittern booming in the reeds – an impressive sound, like a foghorn or someone blowing across the top of an improbably large bottle. While we were standing here, we talked about Bittern movements and related the story of the ringed female Bittern which has been returning here each year to breed. Having been found by a small pond in Letchworth in September 2016, possibly after a brush with a car, it was released at Rye Meads once it had recovered.

We first photographed a ringed female Bittern at Lakenheath in June 2017 and with so few Bitterns ringed, it seemed most likely it would be the same bird, but it was not confirmed until May 2018 when someone else managed to get some more photos and could read part of the ring number. This bird had been seen over the winter back at Amwell, so it appears to commute between the two areas. We had seen it again here last year.

Bittern – flew across

We had just finished the story when someone spotted a Bittern flying towards us over the reeds. It turned across the path in front of us and dropped down into the reeds just a short distance from where we were standing. It couldn’t be could it? Sure enough, checking the photos, it was the female Bittern with the ring on its left leg, back again here for its 7th year! What were the chances of that?!

Bittern – the ringed bird!

There was no sign of the Bittern in the reeds, so we carried on along the path. A pair of Great Crested Grebes were on one of the pools and we could see that one was carrying a couple of stripy-headed juveniles on its back.

Great Crested Grebe – with juveniles aboard

The sun was finally starting to come out and we had brought our lunches with us, so we settled in at Joist Fen Viewpoint to enjoy the view and eat. Gradually the layers of clothes came off, hats and gloves, coats and fleeces too.

As the temperatures climbed, the number of Hobbys increased steadily. There were about 15 when we arrived but by the time we left there were a minimum of 50 – so many, they were increasingly hard to count, but a very impressive sight. From time to time, one or two would drift closer, overhead at times, and we could watch them catching and eating insects on the wing.

Hobby – one of 50+
Hobby – occasionally overhead

Thankfully, some of the group were looking the other way, as a Bittern flew across behind us and landed in the reeds. About an hour later, it came back out and flew over the path, dropping into the reeds at the back of one of the small pools the other side, where it was just visible for a minute or so before it walked deeper in. We had certainly been spoiled for Bittern sightings this week!

There were Cuckoos back and forth at times too and Marsh Harriers circling up over the reedbed. A Lapwing was displaying out over the pool in front, twisting and turning and singing, but struggling to command the attention of the gathered photographers who were all bewitched by the other species on show. A Cetti’s Warbler taunted us from an elder bush to one side of the viewpoint.

As the weather warmed up, there were more insects too. Butterflies out now included Orange Tip, Green-veined White, Peacock and Red Admiral. There were several damselfies in the vegetation too, including our first Variable Damselfly and Red-eyed Damselfly, plus Large Red and Azure Damselflies.

Variable Damselfly – our first this year

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and walk back. It was a bit quieter now, in the heat of the day, but there were several Hairy Dragonflies hawking along the sides of the path by Trial Wood and two Cuckoos flew across over New Fen, bidding us farewell. Back at the Visitor Centre, it was not hot drinks on the menu now, but ice cream. What a difference a couple of hours makes!

We had a quick look at the Washland, but there apart from lots of Mute Swans and Gadwall, there was not much else of note on here today. A couple of Grey Herons circled up in the sunshine.

We had time for one last quick stop on our way back, so we called in at Weeting Heath. The Stone Curlews were showing very well from West Hide, the pair with two chicks now and walking around with them, feeding actively despite it being the heat of the afternoon, although a little bit of high hazy cloud helped to reduce the heat haze.

Stone Curlews – adult & juvenile
Stone Curlews – the pair

A Eurasian Curlew lifted its head, stood up and turned round, and then settled back down to incubate its eggs. When it went back to sleep it all but disappeared. A nice way to end, we headed back to Swaffham and said our goodbyes.

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