Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Crossbill in Breckland, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Thursday, 28 February 2013

My passion for birding and how it all started.

My life passion for birding began when I was about 5 years of age in the early 1960’s and I often tell people that my interest started with a connection to Lord Nelson.  I was growing up in Beccles on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, and one of our neighbours were named Suckling, these lovely old people used to collect Typhoo Tea cards for me and most were birds.  The Suckling family were the direct descendants of a Captain John Suckling who captained the first ship that Nelson sailed on.  
Sadly in my youth, I rarely kept written records of birds I saw, however, I have fond memories of my birding experiences as I wandered the marshes in the Waveney Valley in the Beccles area.  One of my earliest memories was watching 3 Waxwings feeding in a Crab Apple tree in our garden.
Wandering the marshes and Beccles common in the 1960’s and ‘70’s brought records of breeding birds sadly long gone from that area including Bittern, Wheatear on Beccles Common, and breeding Yellow Wagtail.  I remember one of the first nests I found was that of Yellow Wagtail with young, sadly, that locality is now a sports ground.

Between 1982 and 1992, I regularly watched Stradishall Airfield (M.O.D.) in the south-west corner of Suffolk.  I was working in that area at the time and the airfield was my local patch.
Winter months were always especially productive on Stradishall Airfield with Short-eared Owls seen every year with the most seen in one year totaling 6 birds together.  Occasional Long-eared Owls roosted in a patch of woodland. 
Stradishall Airfield was also a regular wintering site for Hen Harrier, these birds were seen every year as singles, or occasional two were present, most were females, however, the stunning male was seen now and then.
Other scarce species seen included Great Grey Shrike, Merlin, Firecrest, Whinchat (12 together on one autumn passage), and Wheatear.
Breeding birds included many pairs of Meadow Pipits and Grasshopper Warbler, however, the best breeding record occurred in 1984 when a pair of Black Redstarts bred in an old hanger, sadly the hangar has been demolished.
I have no idea about the status of the birds on Stradishall airfield now, however, I recently read that the site is a proposed locality for a solar farm; clearly, this will impact significantly on the birdlife there.

I have lived in the Breckland area of Norfolk for almost 21 years now.  I have some fantastic birding experiences both in the UK and in the Mediterranean Basin; however, my passion for Breckland is such that I would not live anywhere else.  I am passionate about ‘patch birding’ and I do not consider myself to be a twitcher.
Breckland is a very unique part of the UK with a number of speciality bird species.  This can appear a wild, isolated, and at times very bleak (I love bleak) area, with vast expanses of farmland, heathland, forest, fen and meres, and it has a very ancient feel to it with evidence prehistoric human activity within it.
Very close to my home lies the vast area of heathland and forest known as STANTA (Stanford Training Area), this is a very large army training area, and although not accessible, some outlying areas close to STANTA used for military training can be overviewed.  Luckily, there is one part of this area which is accessible and offers a good indication of how the Breckland area of Norfolk looked centuries ago.  
My ‘patch birding’ has provided me with some very special memories, none more so than a Pied-billed Grebe which I found on Thompson Water in March 1999.  This American Grebe species remains my rarest personal find to date.
Other local rarities seen over the years include Balearic Woodchat Shrike at Great Cressingham in 1995, and a Hoopoe in 2007; incredibly, this spectacular bird was just two gardens away from being a garden record for me.
Breckland specialities always hold special interest for me and I am fortunate to have Stone Curlew, Woodlark, Hobby, Goshawk, Crossbill, and wintering Great Grey Shrike occurring on my patch.
Migration has always fascinated me and both common and rare species occur on my patch.  One particular site near North Pickenham, about 5 miles from my Watton home, is regarded as my visible migration watch-point, especially so in Autumn when common species stop to feed on passage, or raptors can be watched migrating north to south through Norfolk.   September 2008 was a particularly good year for raptor passage, the 14th produced Honey Buzzard, Osprey (2), Buzzards, Hobby, and smaller passerines species passing overhead – one of those very memorable occasions in birding.

I have also encountered some exciting passage species from my garden, the star bird for me occurred on September 17th 2012. I was looking out for raptors from my back garden on the last day of my leave from work, I was just about to pack up after 4 hours of sky-watching, when at 1345hrs, I picked up an unusual raptor species approaching from the north-west, this was a juvenile dark-morph Honey Buzzard, this very scarce raptor passed directly above my garden on its journey south – another unforgettable birding moment.   This photograph is of the approaching Honey Buzzard - a very exciting moment for me.

Thrush species are encountered as both Spring and Autumn birds of passage on my patch, especially so in Autumn when the first waves of Redwings are heard at night passing overhead giving their piercing “seeeep” call.  Fieldfares and Blackbirds are also common autumn migrants and I wonder how many of my readers realize that many of the Blackbirds seen in your garden in winter are of continental origin.  Ring Ouzel also passes through my patch in small numbers in Spring and Autumn, it is always worth checking through large flocks of Fieldfares in March and April for this spectacular looking Thrush.  

This post has been written to show how my passion for birding started along with an account of some memorable moments over the years.  I hope in time to provide a species by species account of my records, showing the status of those species, where I have seen them, and when you can expect to see them and where.




Thompson Water and the Peddars Way.

A very spring-like day today with bright sunny conditions, however, the wind continues to feed in from the north-east giving a distinct chilly feel.  Conditions could be much worse and overall, this was a pleasant day with common birds in song.

A number of Song Thrushes were in song and a 'drumming' Great Spotted Woodpecker was affirming its territory high in a Silver Birch.
Several Treecreepers were in song in the damp woodland alongside Thompson Water as well as along the Peddars Way. These small arboreal species will use cracks, peeled bark, and dead wood as nest sites. Their song, as with other species, is used to either attract a mate, or, as in most cases, to defend and affirm their chosen territories.
Nuthatches were also present as expected with one bird seen on the ground where it may have been collecting mud to secure a nest site.  Nuthatches are hole-nesters, they use mud to reduce the size of the entrance to the nest-site so that it becomes a comfortable fit for the species to enter and leave.

The conditions today seemed ideal for displaying Goshawk, however, my only visual was of a single male passing over woodland.  This enigmatic raptor displays from late February into April, therefore, plenty of opportunity exists to see their stunning performance. I will say that I feel honoured and extremely privileged to have Goshawk on my local patch.

A pair of Common Buzzards were displaying above heathland/woodland habitat sometimes at height, although they did make a relatively low pass close to me.
The only other raptor species seen this morning was a lovely Kestrel hunting above heathland.  Other species seen along the Peddars Way included Siskin, Mistle Thrush (singing), Green Woodpecker, Carrion Crows, and singing Yellowhammer. A distant Skylark was singing above heathland, however, Woodlark is still yet to appear.

The return walk through the damp woodland habitat alongside Thompson Water produced singing Cetti's Warbler and a calling Water Rail whilst on the water was 2 pairs of Mute Swans, a pair of over-flying Greylag Geese, a pair of Gadwall, a pair of Mallard, one Cormorant, and many Black-headed Gulls.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Cranberry Rough (our deep south)

I visited Cranberry Rough on an afternoon when bright sunny conditions prevailed, it was a pleasure to have brighter conditions following a prolonged period of dull cloudy weather.
Cranberry Rough is a small Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve which is virtually inaccessable throughout much of the year due to the very swampy and tangled woodland, a site that could be likened to the swampy habitats found in the deep southern states of the USA.

I decided to sit for an hour on an old stump and watch the damp woodland ahead of me. 

High above in the canopy of the Alders, many Siskins were silently feeding upon the cones. Most of these small Finches will be visitors from Northern Europe where they breed.  Small numbers do breed in Breckland, however, the majority will be winter visitors.

Lower down in the woodland, several Treecreepers and Nuthatches worked the larger limbs of the trees. Treecreepers, including this photographed bird, were watched searching the cracks and fissures of the tree bark for spiders and other small invertebrates to feed on.
Nuthatches were both seen and heard, this uncluded one bird seen close to chisseling with its dagger-like bill into softer wood for food.
Also seen around this part of the reserve was Marsh Tit, Great Tit, Robin, and Wren.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Thompson Water and the Cressinghams.

The main feature of the weather today was the very cold east wind, the skies were leaden but visibility was good.  Despite the low light and cold wind, this was a reasonably productive day for birds.

With spells of cold wintry weather in recent weeks, it was heartening to hear a singing Cetti's Warbler within the swampy scrub along the east side of the water.  I have not heard this species on recent visits, therefore todays bird shows the resilience of this bird in hard weather.
A Water Rail was heard calling its pig-like squeal from deep within swampy/reedy cover.
On the water, a Cormorant was fishing, also Teal and Gadwall were present. 

The woodland around the water held Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Coal, Marsh, Blue, and Great Tits, whilst overhead, several Carrion Crows were typically noisy.

Treecreepers are very active little birds and in winter they join flocks of Tits in search of food. This species climbs limbs of trees in a mouse-like fashion whilst searching fissures and cracks for spiders and other prey items.

PEDDARS WAY (Great Cressingham/Little Cressingham) early afternoon.
Parking on the north-side of the Great Cressingham/Saham Toney road on the Peddars Way, I could see straight away that something was moving on the road ahead of me, it was a male Kestrel with prey.  The prey was ripped into mouth-sized pieces until it was small enough to be swallowed whole.
There appeared to be little about along the Peddars Way at Great Cressingham, clearly birds were sensibly keeping in cover for warmth away from the cold east wind. However, 2 Goldcrests (one seen) were moving along the roadside hedges.  A few Yellowhammers and Chaffinches were also seen.

At North Bridge north of Little Cressingham on the Peddars Way, a single Little Egret was feeding in flood-water in the Watton Brook valley.  This bird then flew to the steep banks of Watton Brook and in doing so showed off its beautiful white plumage, long black dagger-like bill, black legs and yellow feet.  It is amazing that just 15 - 20 years ago, this species would have attracted a lot of attention as it was then considered a rarity in the UK, however, it is now reasonably common and increasing and may even be encountered along urban waterways.
Also at North Bridge Bullfinch was seen, the habitat here is ideal for this very attractive Finch species.
On Watton Brook, about 6 Teal were seen, this tiny yet attractive bird is Europes smallest Duck species.
Driving towards Little Cressingham village along the Peddars Way, another Kestrel was seen in flight.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Swans and Raptors.

An early start at Galley Hill in Hockham Forest produced a herd of 12 Red Deer crossing the road in the half-light.
The expected species were heard in the forest including several Treecreepers and Goldcrests, however, an early singing Woodlark eluded me - perhaps still a bit early.
Large numbers of Teal were present on Hockham Fen, however, these birds were not seen due to being concealed within the rushy cover.
At sunrise, a flock of 50+ Whooper Swans flew east heading for their breeding grounds in Russia, a sign of winter coming to a close.
With the Swans passing over, I picked up a raptor species heading towards me, this was a Peregrine Falcon, it flew quite low and leisurely, directly overhead and off towards the East Wretham area.

THOMPSON (Peddars Way)
Brighter conditions greeted my arrival at this locality and it was evident from the outset that common species were defending their territories, these included Song Thrushes and 'drumming' Great Spotted Woodpecker.  Also, Marsh Tit was singing its loud repeated and rapid "chip-chip-chip-chip" song. Robins and Wrens were ever-present close to the woodland floor.

On the Peddars Way, I decided to sit and wait for activity to increase with the rising sun.
Carrion Crows were noisily calling over heathland and at least 4 Mistle Thrushes were seen including a singing male.  A single Green Woodpecker was seen in flight and a single Sparrowhawk was seen soaring over a block of pine woodland.

At 0950, I was watching a Magpie fly away from me over mixed woodland, however, this bird turned back and then began to fly strangely erratically, the reason became clear, it was being hunted by a Goshawk.  The Magpie dived fast towards the woodland below closely followed by the chasing Goshawk, which, twisted and turned following its intended prey, and revealing not only its white underparts briefly, but also gave a good size comparison to the smaller Magpie.  The Goshawk was in view for a matter of seconds, however, this is yet again a memorable sighting of this magnificent and powerful raptor.  Although not seen, I think the Magpie was probably caught.

The return journey through Thompson produced another single Sparrowhawk close to Thompson Grove.

A brief stop alongside Merton Common where sugar beet was collected from, surface water had formed in the depressions and vehicle tracks, here, several Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails fed from the waters edge and the soft mud.
This Meadow Pipit was one of those seen feeding from the wet, muddy surface close to the road.
Meadow Pipits are often found in close association with Pied Wagtails, although their plumage often makes them hard to find against a muddy background.


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Thoughts of Spring and the miracle of migration.

With the countryside still gripped in winter, thoughts now at this time of year are of returning summer migrants from their African wintering grounds.
Within 4 weeks from now, the first summer migrants will be making their presence known, usually it will be the odd Chiffchaff singing its repetitive song from a small patch of woodland where it intends to breed, or in a hedgerow or garden as a bird of passage.
The mystery of migration is something which I find fascinating, it is the timing, the routes taken, the hazzards presented to each species, including unfortunately man-made barriers and hazzards in the form of trapping and shooting, something I find disgusting and unnecessary, and of course, the vast distances covered.

I photographed this Lesser Whitethroat in August 2012 at Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk.  Since this shot was taken, this beautiful Sylvia Warbler would have migrated South-East through Europe, either crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Cyprus and into North-East Africa, or continuing along the eastern Mediterranean shores, again into North-East Africa, where it would have wintered.  At the time of writing, this bird (if it survived) will be making the return journey North-West through Europe, arriving with us in mid to late April to breed.  The precise nature of the journey undertaken by Lesser Whitethroats means that the species is absent, or very rare in south-west Europe.
I remember, whilst having a holiday along the River Nile in Egypt in March 2005, watching Lesser Whitethroats making their way along  through sparse shrubs along the bank of the river, evidence of migration actually happening right in front of me - who knows, perhaps those birds were destined to breed in a green, leafy lane somewhere in Norfolk.  The miracle of migration.

Little Cressingham (Fairstead Lane) mid-late p.m.

It is hard to believe that within 4 weeks from now, the first summer visitors will be arriving back in the Brecks in order to breed, or to make their passage through the area to their northern summering grounds.  I say this as today the visit to Fairstead Lane seemed quiet, the visibility was good, but the light was very poor with a very grey feel, and it remains quite raw at the moment.
With the promise of a much milder weekend ahead, thoughts of song and territory defence in readiness for the forthcoming breeding season are in the mind.
It is true of course that territory defence occurs not long after the end of the previous autumn/first winter period, it just goes unnoticed for much of the time.

The walk along Fairstead Lane this afternoon initially produced a flock of some 50+ Linnets and a number of Lapwings on the land west of Watton Brook.
I heard a couple of calling Common Buzzards, I then saw one of these birds flying fast and purposefully towards another, it then peeled off having driven what I suspect was an intruder in its territory.  I have seen Common Buzzards in previous years collecting nesting materials about this time, therefore, this behaviour would indicate defence of its chosen territory.
To the distant south, I saw a very large flock of Crow species heading slowly east, these were undoubtedly were making for their roost site.
The walk back along Fairstead Lane produced the odd Thrush species, however, back at the field west of Watton Brook and Shorten's Covert, several Fieldfare and Starlings were feeding on the land.
Finally, back at the car and ready to depart, a small flock of about 23 Skylarks flew over south - it is likely that most, if not all of these birds, are of continental origin. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Thompson Water 1400-1500

A notable feature of todays weather was the strong northerly wind which was driving frequent heavy showers of rain and sleet through.
With little seen on the water itself, I decided to concentrate on the mature, damp woodland carr habitat around the water.
This time of year sees mixed flocks of birds roaming through woodland habitat in search for food and on this visit this was indeed the case with a number of Long-tailed Tits, smaller numbers of Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Treecreepers, and Goldcrest moving through trees where they search under leaves and in the fissures of tree bark for small prey items.  Roving flocks of birds have a greater chance of finding food on cold winter days, also their strategy would undoubtedly be to have safety in numbers as the more birds involved, the greater the likelihood of them being able to sound the alarm if a Sparrowhawk, or other predator approaches.
Also heard in the area was Nuthatch and Marsh Tit whilst at the hide alongside the water, a Robin was ever present.
4 Cormorants were seen in their regular tree in the north-east corner of the water.
Robin - Thompson Water

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Tree Sparrow Heaven

An early morning visit produced a female 'redhead' Goosander flying a circuit around the water before descending into surface weed.  The presence of this 'sawbill' species highlights the fact that we are not done with winter yet.  Also seeking cover within the surface weed was c.20 Teal.  In more open water was 3 Mute Swans and a pair of Mallard.
A small flock of Redpolls were seen feeding amongst the finer twigs of a Silver Birch tree close to the waters edge.  Also noted in the woodland habitat around the water was Treecreeper, Marsh Tit, and Goldcrest.

On my way home I stopped at Merton village hall, this wonderful small site is an absolute haven for birdlife with much habitat for cover and feeding.
A gathering of 30+ Tree Sparrows was a very encouraging find.  This area has always been good for Tree Sparrows, both for wintering and breeding at.
                                                                 Tree Sparrows at Merton

An afternoon walk produced very close views of a single Common Buzzard along Church Lane where it was passing slowly above a large flock of sheep, presumably the bird was either looking for a dead animal, or a tasty Rabbit.
Very interestingly, this walk produced a total of about 20 Bullfinches in varying sized flocks - an encouraging number of birds.
2 Kestrels flew north at North Bridge.

All in all this was a good day with encouraging counts of Tree Sparrows and Bullfinches.