Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Water Rail at Thompson Water, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Little Cressingham (early afternoon)

Today saw 100% cloud cover, there was no sign of any sunshine and the light was mostly always poor.  A significant difference to the weather today was the easterly wind, a change from the prevailing south-westerlies which we have been used to for some time now.  The wind direction appeared to have an affect on movements of Starlings as you will see.
Buzzard at Little Cressingham 29/01/14
Starting at Watton Brook bridge on Fairstead Lane, this afternoon's walk took in Green Lane, Fairstead Lane, and the windmill at Little Cressingham.
Upon my arrival, this Common Buzzard was seen in the Watton Brook valley downstream from the bridge.  The abundance of the white in this bird makes this individual readily identifiable and he/she is a frequently seen bird in this area.  I think the markings on this Buzzard are stunning.
Continuing along Fairstead Lane, large number of Starlings were seen flying from one side of the road to the other, these, and a scattering of Fieldfares were seen feeding where Sugar Beet had recently been harvested.  The wet and recently disturbed land would have provided good feeding in the form of various invertebrates.
Walking along Green Lane I was intent on finding a roosting Tawny Owl, I did not find one however I flushed a Woodcock from edge of the path....a stunning cryptically coloured bird which blends in perfectly with its woodland floor habitat.
Once back on Fairstead Lane, I noticed someone approaching me from the Great Cressingham area, it was Mick Saunt, a fellow birder who I occasionally meet when out birding.  Mick and myself walked along Fairstead Lane towards Little Cressingham village, we discussed the interesting movement of good numbers of Starlings this afternoon.  With the wind briefly coming from the east before they move round again to the more familiar south-west, could these Starlings be part of a movement from europe to escape the colder weather there. A small flock of about 15 Lapwings passed over.  A quick check of fields produced a single Mute Swan in an area always susceptable to flooding.
Finally, a quick visit to Little Cressingham mill produced 2 Common Buzzards, 2 Grey Herons, Moorhen, calling Teal, and 2 Snipe which Mick picked up flying low having probably been disturbed by the Buzzards.
Good to see you again Mick and look forward to meeting you again soon.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

A gathering of Tits at Great Hockham, Norfolk.

With many birders obsessed with chasing rare birds it becomes easy to miss the commoner birds around us.  It is in my opinion just as interesting to watch the behaviour of more abundant species, in fact, I think it is important to observe familiar species as comparisons may be essential when one finds something more unusual, scarce, or rare.
Great Tit at Great Hockham, Norfolk 18/01/14
I visited Great Hockham mid-afternoon in bright sunshine. The locality visited is a regular and reliable site for watching Tit species feeding amongst leaf litter under a Beech tree.
Great Tits were present in double-figure numbers with smaller numbers of Coal Tits, a few Blue Tits, and a Marsh Tit.  All of these birds were seen searching for food amongst the leaf litter, they would have been after mast and possibly invertebrate species.  It was interesting to hear a single sharp "tsit" call which caused all birds to fly for cover, this behaviour clearly shows that feeding in numbers is beneficial to the groups safety as more eyes are watching for potential predators.
The Great Tit above is a female, this is evident by the narrow black stripe which runs down the centre of the birds underparts, on the male this stripe is solid along its length and noticeably broader.
Marsh Tit at Great Hockham 18/01/14
With Great Tits forming the majority of birds feeding amongst leaf litter, it was good to see this single Marsh Tit make an appearance under the Beech tree.
This relatively common Tit species is also a very noisy one with the bird announcing itself with a loud "pitchou" call.
A walk around some of the forest trails at Great Hockham produced further common species, most notably, a mixed flock of Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Treecreeper, and Goldcrest.  This social gathering will see birds searching for food in the winter woodland, also, the greater numbers of birds increases the chances of an approaching predator being spotted, the alarm will be sounded therefore increasing chances of survival within the group.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Croxton Heath, Norfolk (with Dave Capps)

Highlights

Merlin high over Croxton Heath
15+ Crossbills

At 0650, I met my friend Dave Capps at Tesco's car park in my home town of Watton in Norfolk, we had decided the night before to visit Croxton Heath and duly made our way there arriving at about 0710.
Having arrived at the car park at East Wretham Heath, we made our way on foot over the heath to meet the Harling Drove path for Croxton Heath.  Our arrival at the heath (forest clearing and commercial pine crop) was just prior to sunrise, and the first first birds of note was overflying  Bramblings which gave their distinctive nasally "zweeeu" call.
The hope was to see Red Deer within the clearing, none were seen, however, Dave picked out movement within the clearing, then, 3 Roe Deer were seen running around the clearing, these animals seemed oblivious to our presence and during their chases, so much so that they almost ran us over.  Two of the deer ran off together whilst the third headed off over the clearing....rivals for a female perhaps.
Continuing our walk around the forest trails it became evident that Crossbills were on the move with several overhead birds giving their distinctive, hard, "chip" calls.
As we approached the next clearing, thoughts were on Crossbills which favour a lone tree where they congregate in order to drink at puddles on a nearby track.  Once the tree was in sight I could see several Crossbills in the tree so we made our way to the locality and watched these delightful Finches for a good 30 minutes or so. 
Crossbill (female) at Croxton Heath, Norfolk 17/01/14
Typically, these Crossbills were quite active as they nimbly climbed along the upper branches of the tree to nip at buds but they also dropped down through the branches when they decided it was time to drink from the puddles.
Occasionally the Crossbills were disturbed and flew off, however, they soon returned to the tree, the 'chipping' calls were brilliant.

I thought I was quite good at detecting movement, however, whilst watching the Crossbills Dave called "Raptor", looking up I saw a fairly high Merlin circling then flying off north.  This small Falcon is a very scarce winter visitor to the Brecks, and this bird was one that I almost missed had it not been for Dave's very keen ability to detect movement.....thank you Dave...and what a superb call. 
From our position by the tree Dave also picked up Common Buzzards just over the distant tree line, later as we walked along the periphery of the heath 3 Common Buzzards were seen and calling.
The walk back along Harling Drove Dave picked up tracks off Red Deer which had possibly gone through whilst we were on Croxton Heath.
The return walk along Harling Drove and East Wretham Heath brought a single Redwing on the ground within feet of us, these birds are generally very flighty and I thought the bird may have been injured, however, it eventually flew off strongly.
Approaching our starting point at the car park a single Green Woodpecker was seen in Hawthorns.

I will end this entry by thanking Dave Capps for joining me this morning.  Dave is a true countryman who has superb skills at 'reading' the land, also, his ability for detecting wildlife through sight, sound, and smell is second to none, after all he picked up on a high, passing Merlin...which I may have missed initially.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Little Cressingham and Hockham Fen, Norfolk.

Another dry and mild start to the day, a complete contrast to the wintry scenes seen here this time last year, in fact, it felt that mild you would be forgiven for thinking that dawn resembled an early spring morning.
Siskin (female).  Flocks seen at Lt Cressingham and Hockham Fen
Little Cressingham
Even though we are still in winter, birds will already be establishing their breeding territories, this was evident this morning when I heard a distant Mistle Thrush in song within Seven Acre Plantation.  A further 4 of these large Thrushes were seen between 'The Arms' and Hopton Bridge, these included a single flock of 3 together.
Further along the Great Cressingham road at the wooded pit north of 'The Arms' , several Chaffinches were seen on the ground where they fed upon spilt seed etc, also here was a few Yellowhammers and a Brambling (heard only).
Approaching Hopton Bridge in the Watton Brook valley, my thoughts were with the Siskins seen here yesterday, I soon found these beautiful little Finches in the Poplar and Alders by the brook, some were feeding others were preening.
Bramblings were seen along Fairstead Lane.
As I approached 'The Fairstead' I overlooked the large area of grazing and saw good numbers of passerine species along Fairstead Lane, I walked to where these birds were and found several Chaffinches, Yellowhammers, and a few Bramblings, these birds were gathered here for the good feeding (maize strip) and the excellent cover offered by the mature wooded hedgerows.  
Walking back along the Great Cressingham road towards 'The Arms' I stopped to overview the flooded fields in the Watton Brook valley, here, an impressive gathering of 300+ Common Gulls stood around, and some in, the water.  Slightly further along at the Hopton Farm drying barns 2 Common Buzzards were seen calling in the conifer woodland. 

Hockham Fen
The afternoon saw very bright and mild conditions with a temperature of 10 degrees celsius.
Species typically associated with conifer woodland were both seen and heard on this shortish visit, these included Goldcrest, a number of Coal Tits, Great Tit, Blue Tits, and a Nuthatch.
At the fen itself, a single Common Buzzard called from trees and a number of Teal sprung from the marshy habitat...I wonder if the number of Teal here are in four-figure numbers, as seen on previous visits.
The tall trees around the periphery of the fen held what appeared to be good numbers of Siskin (30+), this was surely a low estimate of the true numbers present.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Little Cressingham, Norfolk.

A short afternoon walk from 'The Arms' to Hopton Bridge over Watton Brook was quite productive for small bird activity.  Great Cressingham road, which runs north from 'The Arms' is always worth checking as the field edges has always been used for growing maize for game, this in turn attracts Finches and Buntings.  The deep pit on the roadside has plenty of dense habitat of Scots Pine, Ash, and shrubby understorey.  The periphery of this small woodland patch generally holds good numbers of birds in winter, from various bushes, birds drop down to the ground where they feed upon seed spills, a check this afternoon revealed at a minimum, 20+ Yellowhammers.  Although not seen on this visit, check this area for Bramblings in winter.
Peregrine Falcon at Little Cressingham, Norfolk 15/01/14
Continuing north, I then crossed the B1108 road and made for the Watton Brook valley at Hopton Bridge.  A mixture of Alder and Poplar trees are always worth a look in winter and on this visit a flock of 30+ Siskins flew around the trees, on occasions, this flock alighted in the tops of Alders to feed from the cones.  Also seen here was 2 Redpolls which flew south towards 'The Arms'.
Beyond Watton Brook, I stopped by a gate to overview the valley with raptors in mind.  I later heard behind me a number of Pied Wagtails giving agitated calls, this clearly indicated a raptor, I turned and this Peregrine Falcon passed over south and headed towards 'The Arms'. Unfortunately, light was very poor, however, this shot of the Peregrine flying away from me shows this as probably a juvenile bird as the underparts of the bird appears heavily barred whereas adult birds are strongly streaked.
I think there are probably at least 3 Peregrine Falcons on my Breckland patch this winter, it is therefore worthy of note that if you see an explosion of Wood Pigeons and Crows flying aimlessly and hurriedly away, watch for two Breckland species, Goshawk or Peregrine......the behaviour of other species can help towards seeing these powerful raptor species. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Croxton Heath for Crossbills......again

With such a vast patch to find and watch birds in, I must apologise for once again concentrating my efforts on a recently much visited location in order to observe Crossbills.  I do find this species Breckland speciality a fantastic bird to watch.
At dawn, I became aware of overflying Crossbills over the heath, most were heard, but some were seen quite high presumably heading to their feeding sites.
Crossbill (male) on Croxton Heath 08/01/14
I made my way to a location I have found very reliable for Crossbills, at least while there is water along the track where they come to drink.  Initially, small numbers of Crossbills visited a lone tree within a forest clearing, however, during my stay, a single flock of 30+ congregated.
Throughout my stay, Crossbills were coming and going all the time. For most of the time the birds spent their time perched high in the lone tree from where after a time, birds nervously dropped down through the branches before tentatively flying to the ground to drink from puddles.
Behaviour seen included several birds preening and males in song.  Whilst in the treetops, some Crossbills demonstrated their acrobatic skills by hanging upside down from branches to reach for buds and seeds to feed upon.
Crossbill (female) Croxton Heath 08/01/14
Although not always apparent when in flight, when perched the differences between the sexes of Crossbills are clear to see.  Male Crossbills are stunning brick-red birds with dark wings and if seen from behind, the birds have a beautiful crimson rump.  Females are duller birds, sometimes appearing brownish or mousey-grey birds, however, most have a greenish tone with a yellowish-green rump.
Juvenile Crossbills appear brownish-grey but are clearly aged by their heavily streaked appearance.
Although found throughout Britain, the Breckland area probably supports the greatest numbers of this fantastic bird, a species which is always sought after by visiting birders from other parts of the country.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Helicopter tragedy on the North Norfolk Coast.

Yesterday evening (07/01/14), a US Air Force Military helicopter from the neaby American airbase at Lakenheath, crashed into marshes at Cley-next-the-Sea on the North Norfolk Coast killing all 4 crew (RIP).  It is too early to consider the causes, however, 'bird strike' may have been a factor given the number of Geese and other wildfowl in this area at this time of year.
Thoughts are clearly with the families and friends of the crew who died and to those personnel of the emergency services involved in the incident.    

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Good start to the new years birding

Clear skies at dawn was soon followed by increasing cloud cover giving total coverage after sunrise. The wind was a moderate, increasing to a fresh south-westerly.  Mild.  Poor light owing to cloud cover.

Main highlights
15+ Crossbills on Croxton Heath
Goshawk (1) Croxton Heath towards E. Wretham Heath (0857)

East Wretham and Croxton Heaths, Norfolk.
Although not always considered to be the most species-rich habitat, the vast heathland, pine forests, and extensive clear-felled areas will hold birds which are well adapted to these habitats, and which may be more difficult to find away from the unique Breckland area.
At dawn, Crossbills were heard overhead in small numbers, most were unseen, although, singles and pairs were occasionally seen.  I made my way to the clearing which I have recently found has attracted Crossbills to drink from puddles in deep vehicle tracks....and waited.
Crossbills at Croxton Heath on New Years Day 2014
Whilst in the area, a single Brambling passed overhead and single/pairs of Crossbills were always present.
Corvid species were typically noisy, however, a particularly noisy small group of Crows held my attention and then a single Goshawk distantly flew over pine trees towards East Wretham Heath.  This large raptor had little problem flying into the strengthening wind, slow, powerful wings beats were broken by long glides. Despite the range the heavy, deep chest of this bird was evident.
Crossbill numbers began to build and silently a flock of 15+ Crossbills gathered in the single tree by the track, as with previous observations, these beautiful Finches were here to drink and after a while singles dropped to the ground to drink from the puddles.  I was able to take a few shots of the Crossbills, however, the poor light affected the quality sadly.
The long walk back along the forest rides and Harling Drove produced a number of common species: Goldcrests (3+), Treecreepers, Wrens, Dunnock, and a few overhead Linnets.  A small flock of Redwings were both seen and heard in Silver Birch woodland along Harling Drove.  A couple of Song Thrushes also seen and heard.
A brief view of the diminishing water at Langmere produced c.25 Teal and walking back to the car park a single Shelduck overflew the heath.

Finally, I would just like to wish all of my followers a very happy, healthy, and bird-filled 2014.