Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Crossbill in Breckland, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Happy Christmas

I am writing to wish all my followers of my blog a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS and best wishes for a happy, healthy, bird-filled 2014.
I have noticed that at the time of writing I have had an incredible 13998 'views' of my blog.  I love to share my birding experiences with others and I extend a BIG thank you to you all for following this blog.
Happy Christmas and best wishes for 2014

Monday, 23 December 2013

Crossbills at Croxton Heath, Norfolk 23/12/13

This visit to Croxton Heath was quite different to my previous one in that the morning was very dull...low light would make photography a challenge.  My objective was to find the watering hole (puddles in track) where Crossbills come to drink.
Walking the miles of tracks through forest and forest clearing brought thoughts of a wintering Great Grey Shrike, there is plentiful habitat to support this species and I am sure in time one will turn up. 
As I made my way to my objective I started hearing the very familiar, strong "chip" call of Crossbills and viewing through binoculars, I could see some birds in a single tree within a large clearing where these birds come to gather before dropping down to drink from the puddles.
Once in position, I sat and watched a few birds in the tree, however, in time, numbers grew to 30+ Crossbills, all with one objective, to drink from the puddles.  Sadly, light was never to improve during my visit, but both the sight and sound of these stunning birds, and observing their behaviour, made for a good visit. 

Crossbills on Croxton Heath, Norfolk 23/12/13
Whilst watching the Crossbills I saw a Peregrine Falcon approaching low from the west, as it passed by the Crossbills reacted very noisily and flew off together towards the falcon ensuring they shadowed it from behind, once they were confident the raptor had left their territory the Crossbills returned to the same tree.
I could see Crossbills dropping down onto the track to drink, however, they were generally out of sight within a depression on the ground.
Although usually high in the lone tree, the Crossbills would now and then fly around and settle on smaller trees close to the track, this was when I was able to take the above shot.  This picture gives a good indication of the differences in plumages between the duller females to the beautiful red male birds.
Other birds seen during my visit included Bullfinch, Goldfinch, Song Thrush, and Eagles, that's F15 Eagle fighter aircraft from the nearby american airbase at Lakenheath.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Hockham Fen and forest, Norfolk

Following a slight frost at dawn the morning was very bright and sunny with good visibility.  My intention was to go to East Wretham Heath for Crossbills again, however, a police road block at the Illington cross roads clearly meant an accident ahead, I had to rethink my plans.  I did a U turn and made my way back to Hockham for a walk through the forest and to the fen and back.

Firecrest at Hockham Forest 20/12/13
Hockham Fen appeared quiet, however, it was clear that many Teal were present in the marshy habitat, although few were seen the "kleep" call was heard.
Overhead movements of birds held most attention with small numbers of Crossbills heard, this included 3 seen together including a male bird.
Small parties of Thrushes passed over including a flock of about 10 Redwings over.
About 6 Meadow Pipits were seen including a flock of 4 birds.
Back at the car, my attention was drawn to both mobile flocks of birds moving through trees as well as several Great Tits and Chaffinches feeding amongst leaf litter. The mobile flocks included Treecreeper, Nuthatch, and a number of Coal Tits.
Whilst watching for movement in the trees, I noticed a tiny bird flitting about low cover, a quick look revealed this to be a stunning Firecrest, I just managed to take the above hurried shot of this jewel of a bird.  I attempted to follow this highly mobile bird and eventually tracked it to a Holly tree, again, the bird was very quick amongst the cover.  I attempted to focus on the Firecrest with the camera and just managed to glimpse an extremely brief view of the bird with its back to me...the beautiful reddish crown stripe was flared...I did not get a shot, it would have revealed this beautiful feature of this bird.
The finding of this Firecrest is a classic example that it is important to scrutinse flocks of Tits in winter as something more unusual or even rare may turn up.

Thursday, 19 December 2013


One of the species which is always associated with the Breckland area is the Common Crossbill, this is often a target bird for birders visiting our unique area.  As well as this species, a much rarer form occurs, the Two-barred Crossbill, whose nearest usual range to the UK is Finland.  At the time of writing, Two-barred Crossbills are present at Lynford Arboretum in Norfolk.

Croxton Heath, Norfolk
At dawn today I visited East Wretham and Croxton Heaths, these large areas of Breckland heath and forest often support wintering Great Grey Shrike, however, I did not seen one today despite searching suitable habitats.  This species is very wide ranging, therefore, it will be worth checking frequently throughout the winter months.
The main focus this morning was on a party of 30+ Crossbills which I found in a single tree alone within a large clearing.  These birds would often fly around together before coming to rest again in the same tree, they would also visit bushes in the clearing.  Due to Crossbills dry diet, water is important to the species, and I noticed this tree was close to a track with lots of puddles, it was therefore very likely that these Crossbills were here to drink.

Crossbills Croxton Heath, Norfolk 19/12/13
Birders are often attracted by the sound of the Crossbills harsh, repeated "chup" flight call, again, a very distinctive sound of Breckland.
Pine trees, especially Larch, are the species to search for this bird. They will often feed silently, however, if you are lucky enough to be close to a tree where Crossbills are feeding, dropping cone debris is a sure sign of their presence.

Crossbill (male) Croxton Heath 19/12/13
Male and female Crossbills are very different in their appearance, males are highly distinctive as they are a striking brick-red whilst females are a dull green.

Juvenile  Crossbills are similar to females but are heavily streaked.
Young Crossbills are born with 'normal' bills, it is not until they grow that the mandibles cross at the tip to form the highly distinctive bill which has evolved to prize open pine cones in order to extract seeds.  

The picture here shows a male Crossbill, it is just possible to see that highly strong, specialised bill crossing at the tip, a fantastic tool for the job it was designed for.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Great Hockham at dawn

The morning fog and very dull conditions gave a very monochrome appearance to the forest and fen at Great Hockham, despite this, there was a very magical feel with everything seen appearing in silhouette.  Although light was not good for photography, I am quite pleased with the image of the Red Deer hind appearing as a distinctive and familiar shape in the mist.  She was later joined by her half-grown calf.

The distinctive form of a Red Deer hind in the mist
The visit to Hockham Forest produced a good variety of bird species, some of which were represented in good numbers.
I became aware of several Bramblings overhead, however, things were to improve when I stood by a single Holly tree and watched a total 70+ Bramblings leaving their communal roost site in varying numbers.  As they climbed away they gave their very familiar and nasally "zweeeeu" flight call.
At the nearby fen, I could see two large tightish flocks of Teal totalling 1000+ birds, flying low around the fen, appearing to settle but then flying around again before finally settling en-masse within the swampy habitat.
Although unseen in the fog, the familiar strong call of Crossbills was heard as they passed overhead.
Mixed roving flocks of birds are a familiar sight within the winter woodland and this morning the expected mobile flock of Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Treecreepers, and Goldcrest were all encountered.  A small flock of about 8 Redwings were seen.
Despite the poor conditions, this visit to Hockham Forest shows that birds and animals can still be seen or heard, even though at times this can be challenging.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Peddars Way (Little Cressingham/Great Cressingham) late afternoon

After a foggy morning the day was very grey with plenty of cloud and poor light.  Light never improved when I walked along a short length of the Peddars Way between Little and Great Cressingham from about mid-afternoon.
A check of a recently harvested field of sugar beet which is now grazed by sheep produced 5 Grey Partridges.  One of these birds was watched closely and photographed as it nipped at edges of leaves and weeds.  Grey Partridges are now scarce and declining birds in the UK. 

Grey Partridge (one of 5) at Little Cressingham 10/12/13

The Grey Partridge is a clearly more distinctive then the very numerous Red-legged Partridge, a species which is raised in their thousands for the shoot.  The brick-red head area and throat lacks stripes which straight away separates this species from the Red-legged Partridge.  As seen in the above photograph the breast is very neatly vermiculated, this leads into the solid dark brown patches on the belly.
Walking for a short distance north along the Peddars Way, I noticed that the hedgerows had recently been cut, here, several Bullfinches were encountered giving their piping call as they flew ahead of me.
A flock of 60+ Goldfinches flew overhead and a short while later, a small flock of about 20+ Linnets were seen.    
Back at the car, I was preparing to leave when I looked up and saw 2 large groups of Lapwings (total of 1000+ birds) flying in mostly long drawn out lines across the sky in a westerly heading.