22nd March 2015 – Brightening Up in the Brecks


Back down to the Brecks for another Tour today. It was a lovely bright morning first thing, if a little cold.

We met at Lynford Arboretum for the start of the day. We headed straight for the gate, where a Hawfinch had been showing a little earlier, but there was no sign down in the leaf litter. There were plenty of things to look at – a couple of female Bramblings with the Chaffinches, several Siskin too, Marsh and Coal Tits with the usual Blue and Great Tits, and a smart Nuthatch down on the ground just in front of us. But no Hawfinch.

IMG_3374Brambling – this female among several still lingering at Lynford

Walking a little further one, some soft, electric ‘ticking’ gave away the presence of a Hawfinch in the trees, but unfortunately it dropped down before we could get everyone onto it. Even worse, it didn’t do the decent thing and drop down into the leaves from the gate.

We decided to have a look round the Arboretum instead, to try our luck there. We hadn’t gone far before we heard a Firecrest singing. With a bit of careful positioning, we were able to see it flitting around in a pine tree, flashing its orange and yellow crown and striking black and white face stripes. It disappeared, but we picked it up again in a holly a little further on as it started singing again. What a stunner! A Goldcrest was singing nearby, and we listened to the differences in song from the Firecrest.

We hadn’t gone much further when we heard the unmistakeable call of a Hawfinch flying over behind us. We turned round just in time to see it land right in the top of a bare tree. With the scope on it in seconds, everyone had the chance to get a proper look at it this time before it dropped down from the top and was lost from view. It was not perfect – the light was behind it – but it was a good start. We picked up another Hawfinch shortly afterwards, calling from the trees, but it flew off before we could get on it.

We decided to try our luck back at the gate, but a couple of photographers were now standing there talking very loudly. There was a nice male Brambling though, down amongst the leaves, which we all admired through the scope – its much brighter orange shoulders and breast compared to the females we had seen earlier, and its black head starting to show through but still partly hidden by brown fringes to many feathers. But again, there were no Hawfinches here. Still, with at least one in the bag, and a Firecrest too, we decided to head off elsewhere.

A quick diversion before the start of the tour had produced three Stone Curlews in a field, so this seemed like a good place to head next. These birds have only arrived in the last few days, so it would be good to see them. Unfortunately, when we arrived, there was no sign of them where they had been earlier. A search of the nearby fields also drew a blank, although we did have good views of a pair of Grey Partridge together with a Red-legged Partridge – interesting to see side-by-side. But frustrating!

Fortuitously, someone else had also seen them, later in the morning but before we got there, and a quick phone call confirmed where they had moved to. They were sitting down and well hidden in the vegetation, so still took some finding. Finally we got onto a Stone Curlew, just a head poking out. It was incredibly well camouflaged in the stony field, so much so that it was impossible to get everyone onto it with binoculars, and even hard to pick it up again when you knew where it was if you took your eyes off it. But we got it in the scope and admired the bright yellow iris and yellow-and-black bill. We had been watching it for some time when we realised a second Stone Curlew was just a couple of metres away from it and we hadn’t seen it.

IMG_3385Stone Curlew – proper camouflage for a stony field

With that target finally attained, we decided to head off to look for Goshawks. We were still on our way to one of the regular sites when a large bird appeared, circling over the field beside the road. The shape was unmistakeable – a hawk, and a big one at that. Thankfully, there was a convenient field entrance to pull into and we leapt out of the car and confirmed what we had thought. We watched the Goshawk, a young bird in its 2nd calendar year (born 2014), circling leisurely and drifting towards the area we had expected to see it! What a lucky break.

Having done so well, seeing a Goshawk on our way there, we felt optimistic. But it had clouded over on our way and was now overcast and with a chilly wind blowing. There was raptor activity but not as much as usual – lots of Common Buzzards, but not circling very high; several Sparrowhawks; a Kestrel; a brief Red Kite disappearing behind the trees. Having already succeeded with our target, we didn’t waste too much time getting cold and decided to move on.

We drove on to a convenient site and stopped for an early lunch. A quick walk into the forest and the clearing initially seemed very quiet. Then with a melodic ‘tulee, tulee’ a very short-tailed lark appeared and circled in front of us – a Woodlark. A second bird was still calling from the trees. They both flew off a short distance back the way we had come. We had a quick look at them through the scope, but they were rather distant and hidden in the vegetation, so we walked back after them. They seemed very jumpy today – Woodlarks are often much more accommodating – and flew off before we even got near. We decided to leave them be.

We hadn’t gone much further back along the path when we heard the Woodlarks flying back towards us again. We stood still and watched the female land in the trees, while the male circled overhead singing. Then, quite unexpectedly, he flew down towards us and landed close by, feeding on the short grass. We got much better views this time. We watched them both for some time – the female flew down as well, and they fed quietly together.

IMG_3395Woodlark – a pair eventually gave great views today

The next bird we wanted to see was the Great Grey Shrike which has been wintering in the area. Another short walk into the forest, and it didn’t take long to find it, sat up on a tree stump in the distance. Unfortunately, by this time, the sun had decided to join us again and the view was now remarkably hazy. We worked our way slowly round the clearing, stopping to admire it each time, being careful not to flush it, and eventually got ourselves much closer, though still at a discrete distance. The Great Grey Shrike had flown down into the clearing to catch something – it appeared to be an invertebrate of some description – but afterwards it flew back up and landed in the trees in front of us again. Finally, we got a much clearer view. Another cracking bird, presumably it will be on its way back to northern Europe soon.

IMG_3421Great Grey Shrike – feeding around the clearing again today

Our targets for the day were now falling like dominoes. With time to spare, we headed over to Lakenheath Fen. We had not even got to the reserve, not even got to the river and the county border, when a glance out of the side window of the car caused us to make a quick halt. There, on the pool next to the road, was a Great White Egret. Even better, there were three Grey Herons and a Little Egret on there with it. There was no mistaking how big it was – with its neck stretched, it  looked bigger than the herons! We had just reversed back and got the car off the road when a ‘yoof’ on a quad bike coming the other way dropped it down a gear, got it to backfire loudly, and they all flew off. Thanks.

P1120629Great White Egret – looking bigger than a Grey Heron

We headed round to the reserve and up to the Washland viewpoint. Not surprisingly, there was the Great White Egret, hunkered down on the edge, dwarfing the Little Egret next to it. It flew out onto Hockwold Washes, landed amongst a group of six Little Egrets and started to feed. A great opportunity for comparison. We got it in the scope and got a really good look at its yellow-orange carrot of a bill.

P1120643Great White Egret – dwarfing the Little Egrets

There were lots of ducks out on Hockwold Washes – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler, Tufted Duck. The cracking drake Garganey was still out there as well. We had just got it in the scope when a Marsh Harrier drifted over and flushed everything. When the ducks had finished wheeling round and landed back on the water, a quick scan thankfully revealed the Garganey again and everyone got a good look at it this time. Very smart.

IMG_3440Garganey – this drake was still out on Hockwold Washes today

Several Cetti’s Warblers sang from the depths of the reeds, but one flew across briefly before diving back into cover – all too often you don’t see them at all. We also stopped to admire all the birds on the feeders – a remarkable collection of Reed Buntings, plus a few tits, Chaffinches and Goldfinches. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to explore the rest of the reserve today.

P1120635Reed Bunting – one of the many round the feeders at Lakenheath Fen

On the drive back, a large raptor appeared just above the trees in front of the car and glided across the road, across the clearing and into the trees. Another Goshawk, this time an adult, on its way home.

We had seen Hawfinches around Lynford Arboretum earlier on this morning, but the views were brief and not the best. We decided to have a quick walk round there again to end the day. The few hardy souls still standing patiently by the gate reported that one had been there earlier, but not for some time. We had a quick look, and found several Bramblings still, but no Hawfinch. We decided to try our luck elsewhere.

Walking along the path, we had a nice pair of Siskin, with the female on the ground collecting nest material just a few metres ahead of us and the male keeping watch from a bush nearby. The large flock of Redwings which has been around in recent weeks seemed to be absent this morning, but had not departed on its way north – it was back in the rough grass fields again this afternoon. We walked round the paddocks as well to no avail. Still no Hawfinch.

We were just about to give up when a heavy finch-like shape with a short tail dropped into the trees above us, out of sight. It had to be, but it still took some finding. Eventually, we picked it up, in the very top of a fir tree, a smart Hawfinch. This time, we got it in the scope and all got a really good look, admiring the monster of a bill and the short white-tipped tail we had seen overhead. It was just where we had thought it might be, sunning itself in the late afternoon light – we had just been a few minutes early! Great birds, so sad they are in such decline – catch them while you can.

IMG_3442Hawfinch – this one finally gave itself up for us in the late afternoon sun

That seemed like a great way to end, so we headed back towards the car. It didn’t stop us picking up a lovely Grey Wagtail on the way. And yet another Hawfinch, though this one, like those from the morning, called from the trees and flew off before we could get onto it. But it didn’t matter any more.

Quite a day, quite a list.

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