Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Crossbill in Breckland, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Friday, 31 May 2013

Little Cressingham (early morning) Thompson Water (early afternoon)

An early morning dog walk started at 'The Arms', I walked along School Road, Fairstead/Green Lane, and then south along the Great Cressingham road back to my starting point.  The day dawned misty, murky, and grey.
The first bird I encountered was a singing Lesser Whitethroat, this male was in typical habitat of  roadside hedgerows broken by mature trees, mostly Oak, between the STANTA access road-fork and the Great Cressingham road leading down to 'The Arms'.  This stretch of road has always been a reliable location for watching and listening to Lesser Whitethroat.
The commonest Warbler species heard this morning was Blackcap with many males singing at various hedgerow and woodland sites along the 4 mile route.
As I left the road to walk along Green Lane, a Garden Warbler was singing, it was briefly seen darting between cover as I approached.

Garden Warbler - picture taken May 2012 Thompson Water, Norfolk.
Also noted along Green Lane was a single singing Whitethroat and Blackcap.
The walk back along the Great Cressingham road produced a Curlew on grazing land adjacent to the road, other than a few more Blackcaps along the route, this appeared to be a relatively quiet morning.

Notes on Blackcap and Garden Warbler songs.
Several bird species can look and sound very similar to other species and may therefore offer a challenge for a birder to separate them in the field.  This is indeed the case with the songs of the Blackcap and Garden Warbler, however, with practice, these confusion species can be separated. Identifying Blackcap and Garden Warbler visually does not generally present a problem, the following notes will hopefully assist those who want to separate these species' song.
The Blackcap, often known as 'poor mans Nightingale', has a pleasant, excited, and hurried song which can often be heard at range.  During the song delivery the Blackcap song includes some 'fluty peaks', therefore the song appears to move up and down the scale.  The song of the Garden Warbler however has a lesser scale range, is not generally heard at range, and always lack the 'fluty peaks' of the Blackcap.

Early afternoon, and cloud began to break to allow some warm sunshine through.  I decided to take Toby for a walk to Thompson Water, this included a break in the hide overlooking the water where I met some new friends, John and Thea, who coincidently, live just a matter of a few houses along the road where I live in Watton, Norfolk.
The hide certainly proved its worth today when some excellent close views of a pair of Reed Warblers were had as they either skulked low down in reeds, or as on a few occasions, sidle up a stem where some good views were briefly had before they returned to cover.  There appeared to be at least 3 singing Reed Warblers near to the hide.  With large areas of inaccessable habitat it is likely that many other Reed Warblers will be present.
Other Warbler species heard included Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, and Cetti's Warbler.
A Mute Swan was incubating on its nest close to the hide and as far as I could see there appeared to be at least 3 eggs in the nest.
Also on the water was a Mallard and 4 ducklings, an incubating Great Crested Grebe, and Cormorant.
Above the water, a pair of Common Terns noisily called whilst a pair of Hobbies were hunting winged insects. One Hobby appeared to have prey in its talons which was delicately passed to its bill.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Lesser Whitethroat

A Breckland species profile.

The Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca is a summer visitor to the UK generally arriving with us around mid-April and departing at the end of September with some remaining as late as mid October.  Here in the UK, the Lesser Whitethroat is at the limit of its range and is absent from Ireland and rare in Scotland.
Here in Breckland, the Lesser Whitethroat is a reasonably common species where it breeds in tall, overgrown, and generally tree-lined hedgerows.  Unlike its conspicuous relative, the Whitethroat Sylvia communis, a species which sings from a high exposed perch and also during a display flight, the Lesser Whitethroat is a much more of an unobtrusive species, preferring to sing from cover, however, with patience, this bird may creep along a small branch or twig to give some rewarding views. 
As a helping guide to those who wish to watch Lesser Whitethroats in Breckland, two reliable sites include Fairstead Lane, Little Cressingham, and Priory Road, Great Cressingham.  Listen for the rattle-like song of this species in the tall, tree-lined hedgerows, stop, and watch, as the bird may appear to show itself to you.

The Lesser Whitethroat is about 1.5 centimeters smaller than the Whitethroat and with practice, observing these two species will soon show the obvious differences between their plumages.  The Lesser Whitethroat is a very attractive Warbler being smaller and more compact that Whitethroat.  The head and ear coverts are grey, although the ear-coverts tend to be darker, this in turn contrasts strongly with the white throat.  Some birds have a white loral stripe, this may extend around the eye to form a white eye-ring.  The mantle is grey-brown and the wings are a uniform darkish brown, this feature is worth considering if the observer has difficulty separating Lesser Whitethroat from Whitethroat which has a rusty panel on the brown wings.  The tail of Lesser Whitethroat has white edges, the underparts are an off-white, and the legs are grey.
Unlike the Whitethroat which has a harsh scratchy song delivered often from a conspicuous perch, the song of the Lesser Whitethroat is generally given from within cover and is delivered in two parts.  The song starts with a quiet warble, generally only heard when close to the bird, this is followed by a highly distinctive rattle which can be heard at range.  My interpretation of the rattle song is “chikka-chikka-chikka-chikka-chikka”, although other observers may have their own way of interpreting the song as does the text in some field guides.

The breeding habitat of the Lesser Whitethroat differs from Whitethroat in being more arboreal in nature.  This species prefers tall overgrown hedgerows with mature trees whereas the Whitethroat has a preference for scrubby habitats and hedgerows.  The nest is a fine construction of twigs, grasses, hair, and plant down, and is usually quite low down in a dense bush or shrub.  4 to 6 young are raised by both parents and the young are able to leave the nest as soon as they are able to flutter.  

I often say that the Lesser Whitethroat is my favourite Warbler species, but then again, I generally say that about whichever species I am watching or studying at that time.  Maybe it is because this Warbler is at the extreme of its north-west range in Europe, or perhaps it is the migration behaviour of the species, or is it because I marvel at what these delicate birds endure, as do other species, in order to visit us to breed.  Whatever the reason, I never tire of watching these birds and the first arrivals in spring always brings a smile to my face.
Lesser Whitethroat arrivals in spring generally goes unseen as this occurs during the hours of darkness, however, autumn migration can be fascinating to watch as passage birds in good numbers can occur in the right habitats.
Knowing where to expect birds, being aware of their behaviour and food requirements, means that it is possible to predict where to find migrants, especially so in autumn.
Within the Breckland area, one of my favourite birding localities in autumn is at Houghton-on-the-Hill, this locality has an elevated position and it is possible to enjoy spectacular visible migration here, additionally, the habitat is such that a number of species occur in good numbers to rest and feed whilst on passage.

         Lesser Whitethroat at Houghton-on-the-Hill August '12 (Paul Newport)
During the summer months, Warbler species diet consists of insects, however, during autumn, their diet, including that of Lesser Whitethroat, turns to berries, this diet increases weight and energy levels in readiness for their long journey back to their wintering grounds in Africa.  I find that Elderberries are a favoured food source, therefore, knowing where a good supply of these fruits exists helps with observing these and other migrants.

Bird passage and migration has always fascinated me and I always marvel at how a creature weighing no more than a few grams, is able to undertake a passage of thousands of miles, encountering man-made and natural obstacles, and breed with us which in itself is fraught with danger.
Lesser Whitethroats winter in North East Africa (Ethiopia, Chad, and Sudan), their passage into Europe takes a very defined route in that they travel from North East Africa, around the eastern Mediterranean, either following coastal routes or taking the small hop from North Africa into Cyprus, crossing over to Turkey, and then north-west through Europe before arriving with us in mid-April.  This route is so precise that this species does not occur in south west Europe (Iberian Peninsula or Italy).  Whilst holidaying in Egypt along the River Nile valley in March 2005, I remember watching Lesser Whitethroats in shrubs and gardens during the early stages of their migration, as they made their way north along the valley from their wintering grounds.  It seems almost incomprehensible that a journey which takes us 4 ½ hours in an aircraft is similarly undertaken by this delicate Warbler over a matter of weeks.   
During September and occasionally through to mid-October, Lesser Whitethroats begin their migration out of the UK, their route is the reverse of the spring passage in that they follow a south-east heading to the eastern Mediterranean and into north-east Africa.  Once again, the Iberian Peninsula and Italy are avoided during this passage.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Breeding Blackcaps and other Warblers

Today saw something resembling the weather we should be getting in skies and warm sunshine.  This is also the time of year when birds are feeding young upon the wealth of insect prey that is now becoming abundant.

Early morning, and I paid a visit to the beautiful church and churchyard of St Mary's at Houghton.  The churchyard here has a wide variety of flowering shrubs, flowers, and mature trees which attracts a host of insect species.  The dense peripheral habitat provides ideal breeding habitat for a number of small songbird species, and it was here that I paid most attention to on this visit.
It became evident to me, not unexpectedly, that Blackcaps were breeding in the churchyard, in fact I heard 2 singing males here this morning.  I concentrated on one pair along the southern boundary where I watched a very busy period of movement to and from the nest site.  Most observations saw the Blackcaps keeping within the churchyard to find insect prey, usually, this was in the mature Sycamores where bugs and insects were collected and taken back to the young in the nest.
Blackcap (female) approaching the nest with food at Houghton-on-the-Hill 26/05/13
Both male and female Blackcaps were very busy collecting for food for the young, although approaching the nest-site with caution, it appeared that these Warblers were comfortable with my presence as no alarm calls were given. 
Also in the churchyard was Goldfinch (pair), Great Tit (pair), Treecreeper (heard), Green Woodpecker (1), Chaffinch, and Blackbird.  

A late afternoon dog walk along the path adjacent to the western boundary of the fen produced 2 singing Garden Warblers, singing Willow Warbler, Blackcap, and Chiffchaff, and a single Whitethroat actively moving about in a patch of scrub. A Treecreeper was also heard.
Little was seen on or over the fen other than a single Grey Heron.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Great Cressingham

What a this May...or the beginning of March. Persistent heavy rain throughout the whole morning giving way to frequent heavy showers in the afternoon...I suppose our weather gives us the green and pleasant land we see in such conditions.
A late afternoon dog walk around the roads and lanes within the Great Cressingham parish produced a few singing Whitethroats in the hedges and in adjacent fields the presence of several Lapwings indicated the likelihood of breeding.

Red Kite by Paul Newport
Walking along Priory Road, a large raptor was hanging in the air facing into the wind, my suspicions were confirmed when I saw that this was a Red Kite.  Even at range, this highly distinctive raptor is not likely to be confused with any other bird of prey species.  As the Red Kite drifted over a large field, a pair of Lapwings flew up to intercept it, their mobbing of the Kite eventually drove it away. The behaviour of these Lapwings again indicates they are breeding on this field.
Walking south along the Peddars Way back to the car, I could hear Stone Curlews literally just beyond the hedge, once I found a suitable gap, I saw a pair of Stone Curlews standing motionless between furrows close to a long flinty strip where it is likely that a nest is sited.
Despite the poor weather conditions, there is always much to see, however, let's hope that this wet, cold weather does not impact negatively upon ground nesting species like our Stone Curlews...this species has already had a rough ride in late March/early April when some Stone Curlews perished in the very cold conditions. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Wood Warbler at East Wretham Heath, Norfolk.

East Wretham Heath is managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.  This is a superb example of the real Breckland scene with its vast open sandy heathland, mature Pine forest, Birch and Oak woodland, Hawthorn scrub, and three meres, two of which have fluctuating levels of water.  
This site also holds a number of Breckland specialities including breeding Redstart.
The previous few days has seen East Wretham attract much attention following the finding of a singing male Wood Warbler, I don't know who found this bird, however, he/she must have felt very excited at the time.
Wood Warblers are very scarce birds in Norfolk, it is unlikely that the species actually breeds in the county, although the occasional singing bird, such as this individual, is encountered in some years. 

20 May
I had a spare couple of hours in the morning so I decided to pop down to East Wretham to see this bird.  Once in Waterloo Plantation, an area of fine old Scots Pines, I followed the 'loop trail' and could hear singing Redstart, then, I picked up an unusual song, a repeated "pew pew pew pew", I knew the Wood Warbler was still here.  As I approached the source of the song, I then heard the metallic trill which is often likened to a coin spinning to a stop on a hard surface.
It was not hard to locate the Wood Warbler visually.  This cracking bird was found in an area of Hawthorn and young Oak understorey within the Scots Pine woodland where it was most confiding as it sang its mixture of the beautiful silvery trill interspersed by the sad sounding "pew pew" song.  This bird often sang within just a few feet from me and usually low down in a tree or bush, although it would sometimes move up into the canopy to occasionally feed.
Wood Warbler 20/05/13 East Wretham Heath by Paul Newport
The song of this beautiful Warbler is very distinctive, as is the birds appearance.  The dark green upperparts contrasts with the broad yellow supercillium, cheeks and throat.  The dark eye stripe accentuates the bold supercillium. The underparts are silky white.  A very noticeable feature of the Wood Warbler is the very long primary projection, this gives the bird a short-tailed appearance.
Whilst watching this Wood Warbler singing it was clear to see how virtually the whole body of the bird shivered during the delivery of the song.
The chosen territory of this Wood Warbler was strongly defended against infiltrators, this was evidenced when a Treecreeper passed through and was chased vigourously by the visitor.  Despite going to alot of effort in securing its territory through song and behaviour, it is nevertheless rather sad that he is unlikely to attract a mate......hopefully I am proved wrong. 
Whilst watching this Wood Warbler, other species heard in the immediate area included 2 singing Redstarts, Blackcap, and a Garden Warbler.
21 May
I wanted to take my good friend and fellow birder, Gary Nutbourne, to East Wretham to see the Wood Warbler, as this would be a new species for him.
I had a couple of hours spare early in the morning, therefore I picked Gary up at 0545, arriving at East Wretham at 0600, on what what was a grey, miserable, windy, and cold morning.  We made are way to Waterloo Plantation and almost immediately located the Wood Warbler in song .  On this occasion, light was poor and the bird remained within the dark cover of a large Hawthorn, however, it regularly sang from an exposed perch and offered some good views.
We also locate visually one of 2 singing Redstarts in mixed Birch, Hawthorn, and Pine habitat, this was an awesome bird and for me, a lasting memory was seeing the bright orange tail of the bird as it flew between cover.
A brief view over Langmere from the hide produced a pair of Little Grebes, a pair of Tufted Duck, a noisy pair of Egyptian Geese, 6+ Shelduck, and a distant calling Cuckoo.

At Little Cressingham at 0945 a single Red Kite and one Common Buzzard seen above School Road.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Hobby highlight

A walk to Hockham Fen along forest trails produced a minimum of 7 singing Willow Warblers mostly in young Pine blocks and Birch scrub habitat.  Also noted was at least 3 singing Garden Warblers, 1 Whitethroat, Chiffchaff, and a number of Blackcaps.
Hobby - a superb master of flight (Paul Newport)
The highlight of this morning goes to 4+ Hobbies hunting for winged insects above Hockham Fen and Cranberry Rough. These beautiful Falcons, superb masters of flight, excelled in their ability to hunt and catch flying insects and occasionally, I could see on Hobby pass an item of food from the talons to the bill.  Most views of todays Hobbies saw the birds against the sky in silhouette form, however, close inspection of single birds revealed their white 'faces' and black moustachial stripes, their blue-grey upperparts, streaked underparts, and on one occasion when seen against a dark background, the reddish ventral area.
A single Hobby was watched on occasions hunting above Hockham Fen, however, most of the hunting was undertaken above the canopy of Cranberry Rough where back and forth sweeps for insect prey was seen.
I always marvel at the sight of a Hobby in flight, these Falcons are superbly designed for speed and can chase and outfly Hirundine species (Swallows), Swifts, and even insects.  Large gatherings of Hobbies can be witnessed over Breckland meres in late summer when they are attracted to the wealth of bird and dragonfly species upon which they feed.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Little Cressingham

An early morning dog walk along Fairstead Lane, Green Lane, ending with a brief visit to the windmill produced 6+ Whitethroat territories and at least 5 Yellowhammer territories.
It was encouraging to see good numbers of Lapwings defending their chosen territories against passing Corvids, clear evidence of breeding.
A pair of Stone Curlews seen on territory with one bird sitting motionless on the nest - calling was often heard.

At least 5 Common Buzzards were seen at 2 sites (2 Shorten's Covert and 3 The Nunneries), this species must now be one of the more common raptor species in Breckland.
Other raptor species seen included an overhead Sparrowhawk carrying prey and a Kestrel which attracted the attention of a mobbing Corvid species.

At Little Cressingham Water and Windmill, Whitethroats were again the most visual and vocal species. Once again, 2 males held territory in the immediate area of the mill.  I always delight at the fortitude of this lovely Sylvia Warbler as they constantly fly around their chosen 'patch' in an effort to secure it with rapid bursts of their loud scratchy song.  Unlike their close relative, the Lesser Whitethroat, the Whitethroat is an easy bird to watch given its conspicuous behaviour and song delivery.
Whitethroat (male) Little Cressingham Mill 14/05/13
Also in the Mill area was at least 2 singing Wrens, a singing Blackcap, Dunnock, Goldfinch, and a pair of Chaffinches which had enjoyed a bath in the nearby brook.
A few Swallows were present including the pair prospecting/nest building in the wheel house, however, House Martin numbers still appear to be on the low side at the moment.

This is the same male Whitethroat as the above bird, but on this occasion he has chosen a perch in front of me from which to sing from.  The female was usually nearby and would occasionally give a scolding alarm note whilst skulking in cover.  Not always visible in certain lights, this shot shows this bird to have a pale loral stripe (the line between the bill and the eye), whilst from other angles this feature may be difficult to pick out. This shows how light can play tricks on certain features of species identification.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Sparrowhawk at lunch

Sparrowhawk (female) Watton, Norfolk 13/05/13.  Enjoying a Collared Dove lunch.
I was just getting ready for work when I saw this female Sparrowhawk at her regular 'plucking post' in my garden.  On this occasion she caught a Collared Dove and enjoyed a full lunch from this kill.  Once finished, I inspected the carcass remains and all that was left was the breast-bone, wing-bones, legs, and a small meaty area on the mantle, otherwise, the head had been torn off and all other meaty areas and internal organs were consumed by the raptor.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Business of Breeding

A very early morning dog walk around Merton and Thompson produced at least 20 singing Blackcaps, 3 or 4 Whitethroat, and 1 Lesser Whitethroat.  A Willow Warbler singing at Low Common, Thompson, must be the same bird which held territory in 2012, he was recognisable by his strange song.  This Willow Warblers song starts off with a mimic of the Chiffchaff song before finally entering into his familar, sweet, cascading voice.  To think that this Willow Warbler held territory here in 2012, flew to West Africa for the winter, and made it back here to secure his home this year, just amazing.

My wife Pam and myself took ourselves for a picnic at the windmill at Little Cressingham, here we witnessed several species engaging in either singing and/or collecting material for the nest.
2 pairs of Whitethroats were noted in the immediate vicinity, both males were singing, also one male was seen collecting fine strands of plant fibre for the nest.        

Sedge Warbler at Little Cressingham Mill - (photographed May 2012)

A Sedge Warbler gave its hurried song within dense riverside herbage. This bird was generally hidden today, however, they are otherwise quite conspicuous songsters.
2 singing Wrens seen again, this included one bird carrying a feather for the nest which was bigger then itself.
A pair of Swallows were once again visiting the wheel house next to the mill, a traditional breeding locality for this migrant. Also, a few House Martins were present as well as a couple of high Swifts.
A male Reed Bunting was seen clambering about in a waterside Elder, he was distinctive at range with his Black head and bib which contrasted with his white underparts.
Common species seen in the area included a pair of Goldfinches, a pair of Chaffinches, one Greenfinch, and a singing Goldcrest in the lone larch by the millpond.
On the millpond, a number of noisy Greylag Geese and an equally noisy pair of Canada Geese were present.  Also, one Mute Swan was on the millpond (the other was probably on the nest), and a pair of Moorhens seen together.
On nearby fields, several Lapwings collectively seen on a number of occasions mobbing crow species, clearly evidence of breeding.  A pair of Stone Curlews were seen on a very stony area of a field which they have been defending against unwelcome intruders, again, behaviour indicating breeding. Their wailing call was heard on a couple of occasions.
Overhead, a pair of Common Buzzards drifted by and a pair of Stock Doves were often seen circling around together.
Hopefully, Spotted Flycatchers will be back at this locality soon, a favoured site for this increasingly scarce species.