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.





  1. What a lovely and fascinating report, Paul. Makes me wonder why more birders do not try and emulate your effort.


    1. Bob, that is very kind of you to say so. Thank you very much. Hope both you and Jenny are very well.