Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Crossbill in Breckland, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Friday, 22 March 2013

Thompson Water, Norfolk.

Thompson Water lies about 4 miles south of Watton within the Breckland area of Norfolk. The Peddars Way long distance footpath passes between the southern boundary of the water and the large army training area known as STANTA (Stanford Training Area).  This beautiful mere which is now managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, was excavated along the route of a tributary of the River Wissey in 1847.
Thompson Water is a large body of water which is for the most part encircled by reed-beds and dense, scrubby, Willow habitat, this in turn is entirely surrounded by mature woodland carr comprising mostly of Oak and Birch with an under-storey of some very fine Holly specimens.
The following is an insight into the birdlife which can be expected to be seen at Thompson Water along with some of my rare and scarce species seen.
Thompson Water 1st January 2013
Despite being only 4 miles from Watton, Thompson Water can have a very desolate feel to it in winter with the only evidence of human activity being the sudden sound of gunfire from nearby STANTA.
Winter Duck species can appear in their hundreds on Thompson Water in winter, however, on other occasions there may be little evidence of life on the water, this is probably due to birds relocating to a nearby mere within inaccessible STANTA following disturbance.
Teal have been present on Thompson Water in three-figure counts, also good numbers of Pochard, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Mallard, Gadwall, and Shoveler have been seen.  Scarcer species which visit during cold weather includes Goosander, Goldeneye, Smew, and Pintail.  Resident Mute Swans are occasionally joined by small numbers of Bewick’s and Whooper Swans.
Most winters sees Thompson Water hosting a Bittern, this Heron species is usually seen flying from the cover of  a dense patch of reeds to another, however, during icy weather, the bird may be seen breaking cover of the reeds to walk on the ice.  Water Rails also visit in winter, this highly secretive species may be glimpsed working its way through the cover of reeds although it is more likely that the squealing pig-like call is heard.  I suspect that Water Rail has bred at this locality.
Providing the water is not frozen, a Kingfisher adds colour to the dullest of days as it flashes by between perches.
On cold days, the distinctive loud song of Cetti’s Warbler can be heard breaking the silence.  The first pioneer Cetti’s Warbler arrived at Thompson Water in March 2007, I always suspected this bird, which initially arrived in the UK in Norfolk in 1974, would eventually arrive at Thompson.
Raptor species are well represented at Thompson Water.  Common Buzzards are a daily occurrence, as our Sparrowhawk, Kestrel.  A scarcer visitor is Goshawk, this powerful raptor has been seen chasing Crows and Pigeons over the water, or just gliding majestically from one side of the water to the other.  Peregrine Falcon is seen occasionally at Thompson Water, my most recent bird occurred on 1st January 2013.
The winter woodland around Thompson Water holds species typically associated with damp, deciduous woodland habitat. Tit species include the noisy Marsh Tit, Great, Blue, and Coal Tits, and rarely, a buzzing call announces that Willow Tit is present.
Nuthatches, Treecreepers, and all three Woodpecker species occur.
Mixed flocks of Siskins and Redpolls sometimes number in their hundreds and may be found feeding in either Silver Birch or Alders.
Another winter visitor which occurs quite commonly is the Brambling, this beautiful Finch often passes overhead and announces itself with its nasally “zweeup” call.
A Breckland speciality is the Crossbill, this species is encountered quite frequently and following irruptions from the continent, some flocks are quite large.
Hawfinch is a very elusive species which can be a challenge for any birder due to its very flighty nature. I have yet to see Hawfinch at Thompson Water, however, I have seen this enormous Finch close by along the Peddars Way.  A friend of mine saw a single Hawfinch over-fly the water in summer 2012.
I have found rare and uncommon species at Thompson Water, on one such occasion, February 24th 1996, whilst overlooking the water, a Black-throated Diver arrived on the water from the south.  I noticed that this bird was slightly oiled and on February 27th 1996, this bird was very sadly found dead.  This record coincided with a number of other Black-throated Divers around the UK which were found to be oiled, clearly, a testament to mans’ lack of respect for the environment.
Another uncommon visitor to Thompson Water, and indeed my only record to date, was of a pair of Bearded Tits (December 1993) which were seen in the reeds and giving their distinctive ‘pinging’ call.

                 Goosander - a winter visitor to Thompson Water
I will start of my spring summary by writing about the rarest bird that I personally have found.  On March 31st 1999, whilst walking to Thompson Water, I heard a very strange call unlike anything I had ever heard before.  Once at the water I saw a strange bird, which resembled an oversized Little Grebe, close to the reeds on the opposite bank, looking at it through my binoculars I was in a state of disbelief because I was looking at a PIED-BILLED GREBE.  This is an American Grebe species and this bird constitutes the second record for Norfolk, the first occurred near Welney 9th to the 12th November 1968.  This Pied-billed Grebe remained at Thompson Water until 11th May.  I was able to call my good friend Micky Stainthorpe and his son Matthew who also enjoyed this potentially once in a lifetime bird for Norfolk.
Early Spring can still have a feel of winter to it, however, Great Crested Grebes arrive back at Thompson Water and have acquired their beautiful headdresses for the forthcoming breeding season.
The woodland around the water becomes alive with the sound of common bird song and ‘drumming’ Woodpeckers, including Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, are heard, then, by mid-March, the first returning summer migrants are heard, these are generally Chiffchaff which are closely followed by Blackcap and Willow Warbler.
As the days begin to lengthen, further returning migrants are either heard or seen, these include the first Sand Martins and Swallows which are seen hawking for insects over the water or skillfully taking a drink from the waters surface.
The reed-beds around the water also attract migrants which come to breed; the commonest of these are Reed and Sedge Warblers, the latter generally arriving late March or early April.
As April gathers pace, later arrivals include Garden Warbler.  This relatively common Warbler is sure to test the novice birder with its song as it has some comparison to the commoner Blackcap, once the distinctive characteristics of the songs are learnt the differences are quite noticeable.
Thompson Water is also a good site for raptor watching. Common Resident species include Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, and Kestrel, these are joined by passage Osprey in Spring which may to stay for a couple of days whilst heading north to breed. Marsh Harrier also passes through on migration in April and on one occasion (Spring 1993), I saw the much rarer Montagu’s Harrier pass through on a particularly warm evening. 
Cuckoos are present in good numbers in the area with 2 or 3 calling birds being heard from the water and often a calling male will be seen in the tops of one of the trees at this site.  Clearly, a number of host species have the potential for being parasitised by Cuckoo.
Close to Thompson Water, a number of Breckland specialities can be heard, these include calling Stone Curlew, Common Curlew, and Woodlark. The latter species occasionally passes over Thompson Water whilst performing its beautiful song-flight. During the hours of darkness, the enigmatic Woodcock performs its strange ‘roding’ display flight whilst in nearby Tawny Owls call as does the much scarcer Long-eared Owl.
For me the raptor highlight at Thompson Water occurs in April when Hobby arrives.  This spectacular Falcon breeds in the area, however, I have seen double figures on warm evenings gathering over the water to feed upon insect prey which are snatched mid-air and eaten on the wing. Hobbies also hunt Swallows, Martins, and Swifts, and it is a marvel watching this most agile Falcon twist and turn in the sky whilst in pursuit of its prey.  I have even seen Hobby take insects from plants on the waters surface.

                   Garden Warbler May 2012 Thompson Water
Mid to late summer sees wader passage at Thompson Water, the most reliable species to be seen will be over-flying and calling Greenshank and Green Sandpiper.  Common Sandpipers can be seen resting on one of the many fishing platforms.
Most species are busily feeding young at this time of year and attention often turns to insect species, if you can stand the myriads of biting Mosquito’s.  Warm summer evenings attracts Hobbies over the water which will hunt Dragonflies and other winged insects, their skill at chasing, turning with supreme agility, and dismembering insects, is breathtaking.  Swallows, Sand Martins, House Martins, and Swifts, all visit Thompson Water in order to feed and gather insects for their young. All of these species are potential prey for the Hobby.   Later in summer, adult Hobbies are joined by their young; the younger birds sit, watch, learn, and then hone hunting skills from their parents.
Another Breckland speciality is the Nightjar; this is another enigmatic species whose strange ‘churring’ song can be heard from a heath close to Thompson Water.
Warbler species can be seen flying to and from their nest-sites feeding their young, and having fledged, not only can their plumages provide a challenge to the novice birder (and me sometimes), their wide variety of squeaks, whistles, and chirps, can all be very testing at times.

Many of our summer migrants would have departed with the onset of autumn, however, some later Warbler species hang on feeding up on a variety of fruits in order to build their fat reserves for the long journey ahead of them.  This time of year also witnesses passage species dropping into Thompson Water as well the first winter visitor arrivals.  It is a very testing time seeing large numbers of birds, different age groups, summer visitors hanging on, and winter visitors arriving, this mix can provide a real challenge, but that is the beauty of birding.  The sheer varieties of common species are undoubtedly joined by something rarer.
As with spring migration, an Osprey may visit Thompson Water to feed and build energy reserves for their migration to Africa.  Early autumn continues to witness Hobbies at Thompson Water; their young are becoming superb aerial hunters just like their parents.
Winter Thrushes arrive in October including large numbers of Fieldfares, Redwings, and Blackbirds. Along with these a variety of Finches join the mix including Siskins, Redpolls, Bramblings, and Crossbills.
Some unusual species also drop in or pass over Thompson Water in autumn.  Picture the scene: A very good friend and birder, Gary Nutbourne called me at home on 24th October 1993 to say he saw an unusual Diver species on Thompson Water. I met Gary shortly afterwards at Thompson Water but could not locate a Diver species, however, I was watching a Sparrowhawk soaring above the wood when a strange Crow came into view, raising my binoculars I exclaimed "it’s a ******* Hoodie".  This was a Hooded Crow, a rare bird in inland Norfolk. 
With autumn descending into winter, attention turns to the water for good numbers of Duck species, as well as something a bit more unusual such as Goldeneye, but also, the woodland, where mixed flocks of Tit species along with Nuthatches, Treecreepers, Goldcrests, and perhaps a wintering Chiffchaff or Blackcap move through in search of food..
Despite the odd gloomy, dull day, a Cetti’s Warbler continues to give a burst of its explosive song and thoughts of next spring maintains focus on this very beautiful site.

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