Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Killdeer - laid to rest at last

Some 12 years after first dipping on this Yankee wader, I finally bag it! Is this the same bird which started in Scotland and has moved south? If so - thank you! A couple of record shots in the wind (and it wasn'tthat close!). See how it just blends in with the field!

Killdeer Breydon Water, Norfolk.

It was presumably the bird which ended up a few days later in The Netherlands.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Brecks birding

Day 4 | A Speyside Wildlife holiday.

Marilyn, Jenny, Barry and Steve are the early birds with a dawn raid on Lynford. The dawn cacophony of the hotel is only surpassed by that at Lynford! We wait in the mist for some of the birds to pack in singing and show themselves. It’s a long wait and we are getting colder and colder at the Hawfinch stakeout. A Tawny Owl hoots away and awakens another which begins to call ‘koo-wick’. Great Spotted, Woodpeckers drum, Green Woodies yaffle, Robins warbler, Pheasants cough (and flutter their wings), Jackdaws chack, and Tits shurr away. Oh, and dogs bark! The nearby kennels have just awoke.

Frustration and cold is setting in when Steve spies a couple of dots sat up high distantly on trees in the arboretum. ‘Hawfinches!’ exclaims Steve. At last! We each take it in turns to look through Steve scope at two dumpy blobs. ‘If you look carefully you can see the large bills when they turn their heads’ says Steve. ‘Honest’. We leg it in to the arboretum but by the time we get there the birds have gone. A couple of minutes frantic scanning of all the trees. ‘There they are!’ states Steve as they fly into a tall tree. Scopes are up and on them. They are not great views but we can at least now see what they are, and they are clearly Hawfinches. Their huge bills are obvious and you can just make out their colours and the black facial mask through the mist. Times running out so we head for the van, but not before Steve finds another new bird for the trip – three Bullfinches sat high up in a tree. Great stuff.

We hot foot it back to the hotel (spotting a flock of 11 migrating Curlew on route) for breakfast with the others before saying out goodbyes and each heading into the Easter Monday holiday traffic. What fun!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Brecks birding

Day 3 | A Speyside Wildlife holiday.

Woodlark Thetford Forest.

We wake to a dank, grey morning and with the clocks going forward an hour overnight, no pre-breakfast birding so we all meet at the breakfast table to fuel up for the day ahead.

Our first port of call is a return visit to Santon Downham in a hope to find Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We arrive to find little in the way of birdlife. We begin our search with a couple of Bramblings and assorted tits. Great Spotted Woodpeckers are very much evident – drumming, feeding, chasing each other. Green Woodies can be heard ‘yaffling’ from all directions. Then we are in luck. A couple of birders find a pair of Lesser Spots feeding actively in the wood. We are on to them in a flash with most of us getting views before they start to lead us a merry dance before eventually disappearing. A Marsh Tit keeps us entertained whilst we keep up the search for the Lesser Peckers. But they continue to evade us until Steve picks up a bird flying through the wood, straight over our heads and away. Shucks!

We move on to Lynford arboretum for our second challenge - Hawfinches. We search the hornbeams in the paddock with little joy. A pair of Siskin chase each other around and a Green Woodpecker hammers away at the dead wood at the top of one of the trees. But the birds are pretty thin on the ground. ‘Hawfinch!’ shouts Steve pointing to two chunky birds flying past us flashing their broad wing white bars. Unfortunately they head straight over and out of sight. A further hours wait and still no show so we head back to Santon Downham for lunch.

Our after lunch walk is through Thetford Warren. The grey day continues to suppress bird song and activity and the walk in is to the sound of our own voices and noisy feet! We eventually arrive at a clearfell site but still no birds. A Woodlark appears and lands on a tree stump. Fluffed up in the cold it sings mournfully, half-heartedly. It’s so close. Through the scopes we can see every detail - the supercillium over the eye joining at the back of the nape, the black and white patch on the folded wing, the streaked chest and the pink legs and feet with pale claws. Wonderful stuff! Its song gradually gets more purposeful until it takes flight, flutters over our heads and is joined by a second bird and they sweep down to the path and begin feeding.

After a warming coffee we head off on to the heaths. By the Elveden Monument we search for the recent Great Grey Shrike to no avail. A pair of Stonechats provide us with a new bird for the weekend, the male looking smart in his black, white and orange-red garb. Back on the road, Marilyn remarks we haven’t seen a Brown Hare all day, and within minutes, Steve obliges with not one, but three! A few minutes later we are parked up and watching five Stone-curlews. Two birds break from their statuesque poses and after some posturing do the unthinkable. Take flight! In an instant they turn from cryptically patterned statues matching brilliantly their surroundings, to great big black and white things sweeping across the heath! Wow!

Late afternoon we arrive at Lackford Lake. It’s still cold and grey and the group is quiet and expectations are low. The sailing lake holds Egyptian Goose and Goldeneye when a Sedge Warbler suddenly breaks in to song behind us. We turn our attention to this African migrant. Movement in the reeds reveals only Reed Bunting. A second bird sings, but neither show. We continue to wait when a Water Rail begins to ‘sharm’, but neither it or the Sedge Warblers are seen. We move on to the hide where a flock of Sand Martins reveals a lone Swallow. Two female Goosanders sleep on one of the islands and a ‘sinensis’ Cormorant sits regally amongst the more drably coloured ‘carbos’.

Our last stop of the day is Micklemere, just a stones throw from the hotel. The place is teeming. Snipe eagerly stab along the soft muddy fringes of the mere. Teal are absolutely everywhere, with Gadwall and Shoveler dotted among them. The odd Redhank picks its way between the Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a lone Dunlin runs around a small gravel island. Two Ringed Plovers land on a distant island by a couple of Shelduck.

Time though runs out and we must make our way back to the hotel to freshen up before another sumptuous dinner. Over coffee we vote for place of the trip with Cholsley Barns draws with Cavenham Heath; species of the trip goes to today’s Woodlark (with Stone-curlew, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Sparrow, Barn Owl and Golden Pheasant all tying for second place with a vote each); and magic moment is our first mornings Stone-curlew watching on Cavenham Heath.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Brecks birding

Day 2 | A Speyside Wildlife holiday.

A tree-climbing Egyptian Goose Flitcham, Norfolk.

We all get a lay in this morning, and after our scrummy breakfast we head for the North Norfolk coast. After stopping briefly at Gayton to watch a couple of Egyptian Geese in a paddock, we spy a Common Buzzard on route to Flitcham where we are greeted by a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker in the car park. Within seconds of entering the hide we are watching a Kingfisher perched up by what looks like a nest hole. The pools hold assorted ducks including Tufted, Gadwall and Teal, and around the meadows are at least six Egyptian Geese. Two birds are ‘up’ the lower part of a large tree in front of us. They climb around and jump up and down like a couple of kids playing chase! A couple of Curlews probe the ground between the Greylag Geese. A Chiffchaff sings cheerfully from the nearby bushes but out of view.

We make haste for the coast and arriving at Titchwell in thick fog we find a congregation of eager searchers in the car park. ‘Firecrest’ is the reply to our enquiry and within a few minutes we are all enjoying fantastic views this ‘jewel’ warbler. It flits around actively feeding, flashing its broad white supercillium, fire-orange crown and day-glow shoulder pads. Fantastic!

We hit the reserve, and after negative news of the Arctic Redpoll, we head to the Fen Hide were only a single Snipe sits in the mist. We head on down the north bank and the first pool on our left holds a selection of wildfowl including Little Grebe, two male Pintail and three Ruddy Ducks, the males looking all dapper with their white cheeks and blue bills. The main freshwater marsh is shrouded in mist and only the first 50 yards are viewable. A few Avocet sweep their upturned bills through the water and a Ruff, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit feed busily in a corner.

We pick our way along the north bank, the mist coming and going. A handful of Wigeon and Brent Geese feed on the saltmarsh. Arriving at the brackish lagoon Steve spots a Spotted Redshank in the near corner feeding alongside a Black-tailed Godwit. We get great views of this elegant wader, with its needle fine bill and clean grey plumage, but no signs of summer plumage. The godwit by contrast is flushed with the orange-red of breeding dress. With the fog still unsure whether to clear or stay, we retrace our steps back towards the centre. A couple of Little Egrets are on the saltmarsh and Marilyn finds us a couple of Pochard.

An obliging cock Pheasant Titchwell RSPB car park.

We lunch in the car park, and are joined by a cocky Pheasant, and after coffee and retail therapy at the centre we begin our way southwards. We are only minutes away from Titchwell when we find a couple of Redwings feeding under the garden trees of a splendid house before heading on to Choseley barns. On arrival there are loads of birds on the overhead wires. Redwing. Fieldfare. Corn Bunting. Bingo! Feeding on the ground by the barns was a mixed flock of finches and buntings including Yellowhammers and more Corns. ‘Tree Sparrow!’ shouts Marilyn. And there among all the birds is a lone cheeky little chestnut-crowned sparrow with its exquisite little black cheek patches. There are birds all around us, decorating the hedgerows and trees, the bright yellow heads of the male Yellowhammers dazzling like little baubles. All the birds take flight and seek refuge in the hedges and trees. ‘Must be raptor around’ muses Steve. ‘They pick them up long before we ever do’ he adds. ‘Marsh Harrier!’ yells Barry and with that a cream-crown harrier glides into view from behind the barns. Great stuff.

We move off and drive slowly along the narrow lanes. We stop to check gulls following a couple of tractors. ‘Is that a Grey Partridge?’ asks Barry. Confusion ensues as we get directions, but eventually we all get on to a fantastic male Grey Partridge with a brilliant peachy-orange face. It moves and is followed by a much plainer bird. ‘That’s got to be the most poorly marked female I’ve ever seen’ comments Steve.

We move on to Tottenhill were the old gravel pit is swimming with waterbirds – Shelduck, Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Little Grebe, Goldeneye, Ruddy Duck, Great Crested Grebe. Back in the van we are approaching Wormegay when Steve spies a distant white shape over a rough field. With nothing else on the road we reverse, pull over and Steve begins giving directions to where the bird isn’t! ‘There it is!’ shouts Steve. And everyone latches on to the ghostly shape of a Barn Owl floating over the fields. It drifts lazily across a patch of rough grassland before arching and diving in to the grass. It’s down for a long time. It rises with prey clutched firmly in its talons and heads off purposely. We follow it straight to a triangular nestbox on the side of a sturdy oak. There aren’t many better birding sights than a Barn Owl so the mood as we headed back in to the Brecks was buzzing.

Our run across Clamps Heath finds us a lone male Wheatear flitting among the Rabbits, but the otherwise the heaths are pretty birdless, so we head back towards the hotel. Whilst winding our way through the back roads we chance upon a Little Owl sat in a bush which all too hurriedly disappears into some nearby trees.

Dinner is a jolly affair with several of us enjoying some local produce, Pheasant, shot on a nearby estate! Well, it is a birds weekend isn’t it?

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Brecks birding

Day 1 | A Speyside Wildlife holiday.
Lead by - yours truly
Guests - Denise, Syl, Marilyn, Jean, Barry and Jenny

Woodlark Thetford Forest.

All bar Denise opt for the pre-breakfast outing. Driving across to Tuddenham, we encounter our first Breck heaths nestled between the sand and stone open arable fields. The fields are stuffed with Red-legged Partridges, Pheasants and the occasional Brown Hare. The short sward heaths were teeming with Rabbits – hundreds of them in every direction! We scan one section and the whole heath appears to be dotted with pairs of little ears! Syl spies a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers on a telegraph pole in front of the van. We park up and almost instantly Steve picks out our early morning quarry – a Stone-curlew. Scopes are soon trained on to this odd-looking heathland dweller. ‘Where there’s one there’ll be two’ states Steve, and sure enough, a second bird is found within feet of the first. And a third. Then a fourth! We enjoy the Stonies before taking a wander along the track. The air is full of the rich spring song of Skylarks. It’s wonderful! Meadow Pipits chase each other across the heath in the dizziness of spring fever. The woodland edge is alive with birds. Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits flit around. A flock of Fieldfares alight in the top of one of the birches before swooping down to feed hungrily on the Rabbit-grazed heath. They’re not the only thrush either. Mistle Thrushes ‘rattle’ as they swoop through the trees and Blackbirds ‘chack’ to one another. A pair of Woodlarks chase each other around briefly before disappearing out of sight. Damn! Steve explains they are known as ‘Lulus’. ‘Why’s that?’ asks Jean. ‘Well’ begins Steve. ‘When they sing, they go. . . . yeah-eh-eh-eh-eh-eeh-eh. I just wanna . . .’ Steve’s impersonation of the wee Glaswegian songstress might have been good enough for everyone to get who it was, but he needn’t worry about winning Stars in their Eyes.

The unexpected sight of a couple of Shelduck ‘grunting’ as they fly across the heath and Green Woodpeckers ‘yaffle’ from all directions. Our hour is up so its hot-foot back to the hotel to join Denise for a sumptuous breakfast.

After breakfast we head into Thetford Forest near Elveden. The conifers are quiet apart from a lone Coal Tit belting out its own hit single. But there are no winter finches or Crossbills. A more open area finds a Chiffchaff feeding a couple of Great Tits. As Steve begins to explain the likelihood of seeing a Goshawk ‘Well, we have about a one in fifty chance . . .’ he looks up there’s a male Gos drifting over the clearing! Everyone is on to it in a flash, including Syl who is on the phone! Wow! Everyone is ecstatic as we head off towards the area we were intending to look for Goshawk from. As we arrive there are several birders present, all looking in different directions. Scanning the distant trees Steve’s spies a raptor. ‘Another Gos!’ yells Steve. We are all on to the bird, another male, as it circles and then glides off across the treetops. Two Goshawk’s in ten minutes! But the excitement doesn’t stop there. The clearfell area in front of us has rows of mangled stumps and branches acting as shelter belts for the seedling pines. The distinctive, almost melancholy sound of a Woodlark rings out. Jenny tracks it down and we enjoy our first decent views of this woodland star. Denise then spots a male Yellowhammer sat up on a near branch. It’s out in the open back on, its gleaming yellow head contrasting with the mottled plumage and brilliant chestnut rump. The Woodlark takes to the air and flies around calling enabling us to see its distinctive ‘no-tail’ shape. Its all wings! It eventually lands, right by the Yellowhammer and we get great views including its funky DJ eyebrows ending in a V on the back of its neck.

We transfer to another open Breck heath (more Rabbits!) where we are soon watching two more Stonies (Denise’s first). Syl picks up the first two of four ‘normal’ Curlews which are soon dancing around the sky uttering their ‘bubbling’ song. In the long grass a tail appears to have lost its owner. Eventually a Pheasant appears below it and claims ownership!

With hunger pangs fast getting the better of us, we make haste for our lunch stop. But do we? The main Brandon road is at a standstill so its ‘route B’. But the A11 is even worse (naturally!). So route C is deployed as Steve winds his ways down the back roads finding our way to Santon Downham, and to the St Helen’s picnic site which has the three essential things of a good lunch stop. Picnic benches. Loos. And Bramblings! Just as we sit down to tuck in to our sarnies, Steve picks up a female flitting around a riverside tree. We all enjoy good scopes views (with full mouths) before a moulting male (alas without black head) is also found.

With lunch over, we head off for a walk, across the river and in to the conifer wood. The tall pines and blue skies are almost alpine looking. Goldcrests sing all around us but it takes some time to eventually find one when Jenny picks one up feeding in a nearby tree. Goldcrest clocked it’s onwards until Steve stops us dead in our tracks. ‘Siskin!’. We look upwards to search for the owner of the clear ‘spee’ calls and their, dancing between the treetops is a male Siskin, the yellow panels on wings and tail appearing translucent as it flurries between trees. It eventually takes a break and lucky for us, lands out in the open and lets us have some cracking views. ‘That’s my first Siskin this year’ comments Marilyn, hinting at the dearth of Siskins in most parts of the country.

Walking along the road to the village we pick up a Marsh Tit and get great views of a couple of Nuthatches and another Brambling. We take the riverside walk back to the car park adding a few more Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Mute Swan and a Treecreeper to our tally. Jenny points out a tree stump featuring an obvious face. ‘That’s ET’ says Steve. And it is. Spot on!

We head for Lynford and a frustrating hour searching for the not-to-be-seen Hawfinch. The trees where they are meant to be are alive with Redwings, Song and Mistle Thrushes, finches, tits, Jays – but no mighty ‘seedcrackers’. Jenny and Marilyn see a Little Grebe on the lake, but its time to move on.

We arrive at our final stop, a woodland area near Watton. We walk along the rides as silently as possible. Nothing. Steve goes for a wander and soon beckons the group to him. A frustrating few minutes pass as we track our quarry. Bingo! There it is. A day-glow male Golden Pheasant. What a sight! We watch it as it picks at the ground as it wanders along the heavily scrubbed woodland floor. Its golden mane gleams in the half-light, and you can still make out the red nad blue of the plumage. Stunning!

With dusk approaching, not to mention our dinner, we head back to Bradwell, broad grins on tired faces.

We do our first checklist either side of a great dinner before retiring to the bar for coffee and a few laughs with the hotel owners Carol and Richard - Guatemalan bandits, birders disappearing in jungles – the usual sort of stuff!