6th May 2023 – Nightingales & Spring in the Fens

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A Spring Day Tour today, down in the Fens & Brecks. It was Coronation Day, but the date for this tour had been arranged last year, so it would be a nice way to spend it, away from the TV, for those who didn’t want to stay in and watch. It was a bright start, but clouded over later in the morning and then the rain arrived early in the afternoon. We made the most of the weather while we had it.

We met at Lynford Arboretum and heading off into the Brecks for the morning. As we got out of the minibus, a scan of the surrounding fields revealed a couple of Stone Curlews over towards the back. We got them in the scope and had a good view of them walking round in the short grass, amongst the flowers. A great way to start the day.

Stone Curlews – out in the grass

There were lots of birds singing and as we walked a little further down the road, we stopped to look at a Garden Warbler perched on the front of a bush. A nice view of what can sometimes be a more retiring species. We could hear Blackcap, Common Whitethroat and Willow Warbler singing too, as well as a Cuckoo off in the distance. A male Yellowhammer was perched in the top of a nearby hawthorn.

We could hear our first Nightingale singing further down still, so we walked on. It was in an area of deep cover and we couldn’t see it but it was lovely just to stand and listen to it for a while. Back up the road, we took a small path in between the bushes. Another Nightingale was singing from deep in the vegetation ahead of us, but again it was well hidden. It sounded like it might be round the far side of the bushes, so after trying different angles eventually we tried to walk past it along the path to view from the other side but it went quiet.

There were several more Common Whitethroats singing, and we got some nice views of one, noting the rusty edges to it wings in particular. There were more Garden Warblers, very vocal today, and as we watched one feeding high in an oak tree, a male Blackcap appeared in a nearby hawthorn. Two Reed Warblers were singing in the brambles too, odd to hear them out here, well away from any reeds and out of context! We could hear a regular (Eurasian) Curlew calling in the distance.

Further on, we could hear another two Nightingales, singing against each other. One was well hidden, but the other was singing up in a young oak tree. We could see it moving through the other side, and eventually managed to get it in the scope, although we could unfortunately only see parts of it. We could see it quivering as it sang. We thought we might be able to get round to view from the other side, but it was a big loop to get on the right path. We passed yet another two more Nightingales and could hear a Woodlark singing, but by the time we got round the bird had gone from the oak. The Nightingales just were not going to perch up for us today!

We decided to try another area. As we walked up, we could hear a Lesser Whitethroat and eventually had nice views of it singing from the top of a small clump of hawthorn. A couple of Long-tailed Tits were flitting around below. There were several Cuckoos calling now, two males, one giving excited ‘cuck-cuck-oo’s and a female bubbling nearby. Walking round the bushes we found one of the male Cuckoos perched on the wires.

Cuckoo – perched on the wires

There were another three Nightingales singing at the top of hill, but the particular bird which had been singing on a very visible perch the other day was not very vocal today. It gave a quick burst of song, so we positioned ourselves hoping for it to hop into view, but it wasn’t going to oblige today. It was mid-morning now and it seemed like the Nightingales might be going quiet so we made our way back round to the road.

Two Nightingales were still singing down by the road, so we stopped to listen. We could see one briefly hopping around in a hawthorn, but it didn’t stay still and disappeared before we could get the scope on it. We had been spoiled with the number singing here today though, at least 10 different males. A fantastic sound, great birds just to listen to, and such a shame the species has disappeared from so many former breeding sites – catch them while you can still!

Time to move on, we drove round to Lakenheath Fen next. As we walked out along the main track, we stopped to watch a Common Whitethroat singing in the sallows. A Reed Warbler was singing its rhythmic song further back and then another Reed Warbler flitted up into the tree in front of us too.

Common Whitethroat – singing in the sallows

We stopped for a rest at New Fen Viewpoint. There was just a lone Greylag and a pair of Tufted Ducks on the pool in front. A Little Grebe laughed from somewhere out of view. Two male Marsh Harriers drifted back and forth over the reeds and a male Reed Bunting started singing from a small bush. We could hear a Cuckoo calling in Trial Wood, and then it flew out over New Fen, turned and came right overhead, before disappearing into East Wood.

We could see several Hobbys way off in the distance, and as we walked on, one appeared hawking over New Fen briefly before drifting off over the poplars. A Mistle Thrush was singing in the trees and another Cuckoo, our third male here, was singing now in West Wood. A couple of Large Red Damselflies fluttered up from the sides of the path, but there were not many dragonflies out yet.

Just before Joist Fen, a Bittern flew up from the reeds to our right. It came low across the track right in front of us, a great view, before dropping back down into the reeds on the other side.

Bittern – flew across the path

We had brought lunch with us today, so we could sit and eat while we enjoyed the view from Joist Fen Viewpoint. Even though it had clouded over now, there was still lots to see. Probably because it had clouded over, there were lots of Hobbys hawking out over the reeds in the middle. We counted a minimum of 36 in the air together, although they were hard to count as they were very mobile and there were lots of Swifts in the air too.

We watched the Hobbys catching flies and eating them on the wing, bringing their feet up to their bills and discarding the hard bits. Occasionally, one came closer and we could see its rusty trousers. There were several Marsh Harriers up too and a Sparrowhawk came over, with bursts of flapping interspersed with characteristic glides.

Hobby – one of at least 36 today

There were a few ducks on the pool in front of the viewpoint, several Mallard and Gadwall and a drake Shoveler, plus a couple of Great Crested Grebes. Then we noticed a smart drake Garganey swimming around behind the reeds. From the far end of the viewpoint we could get the scope on it, and admire the bold white stripe on its head and ornate scapulars.

Garganey – in front of the Viewpoint

A Lapwing was displaying from time to time, flying up from the cut reeds beyond the pool and singing. A Cormorant was loafing on the usual post behind. There were more Cuckoos out here and at one point we picked up a pair flying in towards us over the reeds, the male flying right across in front of us. Periodically, we could just hear one or two Bitterns booming.

Cuckoo – flew past in front of the Viewpoint

It had been threatening for a while on and off, but now it started to drizzle, so we decided it was time to walk back. We hadn’t gone far when a Bittern started booming close to the path now, so we stopped to listen. An amazing sound.

It was still just light drizzle as we got back to the Visitor Centre, but after a stop to use the facilities the rain was already getting a little heavier. We walked out for a quick look at the Washland, and as we got up onto the bank we looked across to see a Great White Egret flying across the middle and drop down into the grass on the far side. There were lots of Mute Swans on the water, and a selection of ducks, including several Shelduck and a pair of Teal.

This is normally a nice place to stand for a while and watch the comings and goings, but we hadn’t been here long when we looked round behind us and could see some very ominous dark clouds approaching. We made a quick exit and hurried back to the Visitor Centre, arriving just in time as a torrential downpour started. We sat inside and had a break for ice cream (the gooseberry is particularly recommended!) or hot drinks. There were Reed Buntings on the feeders, and a male Greenfinch and a Collared Dove dropped in.

The heavy rain eased quickly, but it was still falling steadily. We decided to head back to Lynford. When we got to the Arboretum, the rain wasn’t too bad so we put on our coats and decided to have a short walk round to see what we could find. Mid afternoon and rain is not a great combination and it was rather quiet here now.

Two Swallows were perched in one of the trees by the cottages with the Goldfinches, looking damp. A couple of Yellowhammers were still under the trees from the gate, and a Coal Tit appeared on the fat balls briefly. There were Jays calling and one flew across the path in front of us. Another Coal Tit was on the feeders by bridge and a Cuckoo was singing over towards the battle area – it had been a very good day for them today. We had a quick walk down beside the lake, where a couple of Canada Geese on the lawn beyond were the only birds of note. We made our way back up through the middle of the Arboretum, and found a couple of Siskins feeding on the cones up in the larches.

It was time to head for home. We had enjoyed a very nice day, and the rain hadn’t managed to rain (too much) on our parade!

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