17th March 2016 – Spring in the Brecks


A private tour to the Brecks today. It was another slightly foggy start, but thankfully the fog was burning off already by the time we met up, and it looked like it was going to be a beautifully bright and sunny day.

Our first stop was down by the river at St Helens. Although the sun was shining now, it was still a little cool in the valley and it seemed like the birds were a little slow to get going. We walked along the river bank towards Santon Downham and there was no sign of any Grey Wagtails here at first. The Siskins were not singing or displaying this morning, but several were still buzzing round the tops of the alders with a little group of Goldfinches. However, it would have been hard to hear anything singing at first, with the roar of a succession of USAF jets from Lakenheath airbase taking off and flying off low overhead.

Between the noise of the jets, two Marsh Tits were singing against each other, one on either side of the river bank. We stopped to look at the one on our side, picking at the bark of one of the tree it was in between bursts of song. Further along, a pair of Treecreepers appeared in one of the poplars beside the path – one ascending on each side of the trunk! We could hear Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Green Woodpecker called from the trees on the Suffolk side, but those were the only woodpeckers we could find along here this morning.

IMG_0199Gtey Wagtail – singing on the footbridge

As we walked back towards the footbridge, a Grey Wagtail flew up and landed on the handrail. We had a great look at it for a few seconds as it stood there singing, before it dropped down to the slipway just beyond. As we walked up onto the bridge, a second Grey Wagtail appeared and the two flew off upstream together. A pair of Pied Wagtails were around the bridge too, and were even more obliging – the female perching up in a tree only a metre or so in front of us as we crossed to the other side.

We could hear the chattering of a large flock of birds in the trees just over the bridge as we walked down to the river – the large flock of Redwings that have been hanging around here for some time now are getting increasingly vocal as the weather warms up. Unfortunately, there was a lot of human activity down around the horse paddocks this morning, which meant that they were not coming down to feed here today.

With the weather warming up, we decided to move on and make our way into the forest. As we walked down the ride through the trees, we stopped to scan over a small open area and a pair of Woodlarks flew up from behind us calling. Otherwise, the walk out was rather quiet, just a few tits and Goldcrests singing from the plantations either side. As soon as we arrived in the clearing, another pair of Woodlarks flew across in front of us and landed on the other side. We made our way round, hoping to get a better look at them, but they were very hard to see down in the furrows – we got a couple of brief views in the scope. They seemed to be more focused on feeding this morning, than singing or displaying. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were much easier to see down on the ground.

The sky above us was blue, with only patchy cloud, but although it had warmed up considerably, there was still a chill in the light NE wind and some lingering haze over the trees. We took up a position where we had a good all round view of the clearing and waited for the raptors to appear. A Sparrowhawk appeared first, but disappeared straight out over the trees at the back. Slowly the Common Buzzards started to spiral up, with six circling together at one point, but perhaps even they were a little half-hearted and didn’t seem to gain much height before dropping down to into the trees again. Maybe the thermals they were looking for were slow to get going. Another Common Buzzard had a tussle with a Kestrel over the clearing in front us.

The Woodlarks finally started to get a bit more active. Two briefly landed on the fence in front of us, so we could get them in the scope quickly before they flew off again. Some were starting to sing now, and we could see one circling out over the clearing in front of us in full voice as four more flew off over the trees. The Skylarks were singing too, and it was good to contrast the joyful sounding song of the Skylark against the more mournful tones of the Woodlark. We heard Crossbills flying over as well, but unfortunately they didn’t stop.

The Goshawks kept us waiting today and then, like buses, arrived all at once! We were watching some Common Buzzards circling other the trees when a different shaped raptor appeared – its narrower wings angled down rather than raised like the Buzzards and its longer tail fanned. It was a little distant into the sun, but it climbed rapidly and effortlessly up past the clouds, with barely a flap of its wings. Trying to get everyone onto it, we realised there was a second Goshawk circling up nearby and then a third further over.

One started to head off over to the back of the clearing in a long glide – we watched it head over that way and disappear. A few minutes later, what was presumably the same Goshawk was circling up again, this time a little closer. The air was still a bit hazy, but we could see its bright white undersides and pale silvery grey upperparts alternately as it turned. Looking back, what was presumably the first Goshawk was also closer now, still circling over the trees. It looked to be several shades of grey darker on the upperparts than the one we had just been watching – probably a younger bird, most likely in its 3rd calendar year. It too turned and started a long glide across over the trees and over towards the back of the clearing before it was lost to view.

With out main target here duly achieved, we started to make our way back. We hadn’t got very far when a pair of Woodlarks flew across and landed by the path a bit further on ahead of us. Moving slowly forwards so as not to disturb them, we got quite close and had a great and more prolonged view of them this time. The male was also now doing what we had hoped he might have done earlier – he perched up on top of a small mound of earth, singing quietly and preening, while the female fed quietly in and out of the furrows nearby.

IMG_0218Woodlark – finally gave us great views as we were about to leave

We had bumped into some friends in the clearing who told us that the Great Grey Shrike was showing well at Grimes Graves this morning, so we headed round there next. It was easy enough to find – mostly pale silvery grey and white, it shone in the bright sunshine as it perched right on the top of the bushes and small trees. It was a little distant at first, but as we stood and waited in the trees it gradually worked its way a little closer, flying down to the ground and back up to the top of a different bush.

IMG_0268Great Grey Shrike – came much closer to the path as we were leaving

When the Great Grey Shrike started to work its way back away from us across the clearing, we decided to take our leave, but as we walked back on the path, we found it had moved to a bush quite close to the fence – giving us great views from here.

It was lunchtime now, so we stopped at Santon Downham for a break. We were just packing up when a Treecreeper appeared in the trees behind us and proceeded to poke around in the bark low down in several of the birches in the sunshine.

P1180949Treecreeper – joined us for lunch today

Afterwards, we walked up to the churchyard. It seemed a little quiet here at first, apart from the piping of the local pair of Nuthatches and the roar of the occasional jet from Lakenheath again! We stood for a few seconds at the gate to the churchyard, where the treetops were in full sun but sheltered from the wind. We were surprised to see a small bat, probably a pipistrelle sp, flying in and out of the tops of the firs. Not what you would expect to see flying round here in the middle of a sunny day!

P1180960Bat sp – flying round the treetops in the middle of the day

We were distracted by the bat, when we heard a Firecrest singing behind us. It was up in the top of a fir tree where it made itself impossible to see, then it dropped out of the back. We followed the song for a bit and eventually it appeared in an ivy-covered tree. It came onto the outside a couple of times, briefly perching out in full sun, but you had to be quick to get onto it and not all the group could see it.

The Firecrest went quiet for a while, but we stuck with it and finally it started singing again lower down in the ivy around the trunk of a fir tree. The ivy wasn’t as thick here and down at eye level it was much easier to see. We had some great views of it as it flitted around in and out of the leaves, though you still had to be quick – Firecrests rarely stay still for long!

Our last destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. The trees were rather quiet as we walked in, but it was mid-afternoon now. A Coal Tit was singing and a few Siskins were calling from the tops. We stopped by the gate briefly – once again, there had been no sign of the Hawfinches down here, for whatever reason. There were lots of Blue Tits and a few Great Tits coming down to the fat balls, which are disappearing fast with all the activity.

P1180980Blue Tits – eating their way through the fat balls very quickly!

We walked down to the bridge, where a selection of fruit cake and brown bread had been spread on the posts today. There were lots of Chaffinches and a steady stream of Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits coming down to feed, but no sight of the Nuthatches here – they could be heard calling in the trees instead – and a comparative absence of the Marsh Tits and Reed Buntings. Today’s food didn’t seem as popular as other recent offerings!

P1180989Long-tailed Tit – coming down to the food put out on the bridge

We turned onto the path by the lake and had a scan of the ground beneath the hawthorns and hornbeam in the paddocks. It looked rather quiet under there today, although it is always hard to see birds when they are feeding on the ground here. The Little Grebes were laughing maniacally behind us, so we carried on a bit further along the path to get a look at them.

One of the Little Grebes was diving on the edge of the reeds and we were just watching it, when we heard the distinctive call of a Hawfinch. Turning back towards the bridge, we could see it perched in the top of the trees just above. A photographer on the bridge was completely oblivious, just out of earshot from us to point it out to him! We got the Hawfinch in the scope and it remained, obligingly, up in the trees in full view for a minute or two, so we could all have a very good look at it through the scope, admiring the huge nutcracker of a bill. Then it flew off over the wood away from us.

IMG_0271Hawfinch – perched up obligingly in the trees by the bridge

We continued on round the lake to see if we could find anything else around the edge there today. The pair of Mute Swans look like they are nesting already and there were several pairs of Gadwall around the lake. We stopped to admire a drake in the scope – one of the most underrated of ducks, lacking in bright colours but delightfully and subtly patterned.

IMG_0296Gadwall – a beautifully patterned drake

There was nothing else of note around the lake today, but we did find the male Reed Bunting. Eschewing the food on offer at the bridge, he was feeding down in the overgrown vegetation between the path and the paddocks. He flew up as we passed and perched in a nearby tree in the afternoon sun. The Kestrel was also moving around the wires across the paddocks again, dropping down into the grass occasionally as usual.

IMG_0306Reed Bunting – enjoying the afternoon sun by the lake

Heading back to the bridge, we made our way down the path along the edge of the paddocks. We could see a Hawfinch distantly in the tops of the trees beyond, but we were looking into the sun, so we carried on round to the far end in the hope of getting a better view. Unfortunately, by the time we got round there it had disappeared again. We waited a while in case it should come back, but all was seemingly quiet. We had already enjoyed good views of Hawfinch earlier, so we decided to head back.

We should have hung on a few more minutes, because we glanced up as we walked back down the side of the paddocks to see a Hawfinch silhouetted in the tops again. We got it in the scope and when it flew across to another tree, we could see there were actually three Hawfinches together before they dropped down out of view. As we walked on past the hornbeams, we could hear another Hawfinch calling and we saw a female briefly hopping about in the trees – so there were at least four Hawfinches here this afternoon.

Then it was back up to the car and time to call it a day. What a glorious day it had been – it really felt like spring today in the Brecks.

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