Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Crossbill in Breckland, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Tuesday, 25 February 2014


Early morning and I drove to Hilborough to a largish forest clearing to look for Woodlark, a real Breckland speciality.  Full cloud cover reduced light somewhat and there was occasional light drizzle.
The area of forest clearing is on sloping land and therefore will drain well, several strips of old wood piles provide song-posts for woodlark, and the clearings comprise young pine saplings and short cropped grass/moss like habitat which is ideal feeding for this species.
Almost immediately upon my arrival I could hear the sweet "lulululu" song of Woodlark and soon I could see that there was 2 singing males here.
Woodlark display flight at Hilborough 25/02/14
The distinctive display flight of Woodlark, as seen here, is a good opportunity to see the structural differences between Woodlark and the commoner Skylark.  The Woodlark is a smaller bird than Skylark but the main visual difference is the rather odd short-tailed appearance of Woodlark, in fact, at height, observers would be forgiven for thinking the bird looked tail-less.  This tail-less appearance gives the bird a broad-winged look when displaying.
As well as performing song-flight, both male Woodlarks sang from a high perch within the wood pile strips. 
The Woodlarks were also seen on the ground between the rows of saplings where they shuffle along in search of food.
Having left the clearing I walked through mature pine woodland where several Bullfinches were seen in thick scrubby habitat where their presence was given away by their soft piping "puu" call.
Nearby pig fields attracted large numbers of Gulls and Finch species including Bramblings.  Also at the pig fields as I was about to leave, a pair of Woodlarks passed overhead with the male singing and the female close behind.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Croxton Heath, Norfolk

What a beautiful morning this was with bright, sunny conditions with a high of 12 degrees celsius.  As the day wore on however, cloud increased with light showers later in the afternoon.
Crossbill (male) Croxton Heath 24/02/14.
Whilst making my way to Croxton Heath it was evident that much of the standing water (puddles) have receeded since my last visit, this in turn led me to if the drinking pools where Crossbills drink will still be there.
Upon my arrival at the site, I could see that Crossbills were in the area and as I got closer it was clear that the birds were now drinking at different puddles as the former were drying up.
Up to about 10 Crossbills were present with some close views of birds visiting their drinking site.

Crossbill (female) at Croxton Heath 24/02/14.
Crossbills vary in their plumage, this includes amounts of white in the wings.  Most Crossbills have little or no white, however, the male pictured here appears to be a regular visitor as he can be identified by the white tips to the greater coverts, this forms a wing-bar, additionally, the primary feathers are white fringed giving this bird another distinctive feature.

Also noted at Croxton Heath was 2 singing Woodlarks, several singing Skylarks, and a number of Yellowhammers.
A single Sparrowhawk passed over the heath.

A very sad end to a Great Grey Shrike in Shropham, Norfolk.

I was recently contacted by a friend from Shropham, Richard Farrow, who said that a friend of his, Andrew Barnes, also from Shropham, had taken a picture of a dead Great Grey Shrike.
Richard kindly contacted Andrew and had the pictures sent to me, it was clearly a freshly dead Great Grey Shrike.  Further contact with Andrew revealed that the Shrike was found beneath power lines on 12th January 2014.  Given that the bird did not appear predated upon it is conceivable that it collided with overhead wires or a structure of some kind. 
Great Grey Shrike at Shropham, Norfolk.
Given its scarcity, the demise of this Great Grey Shrike is a very sad one indeed.  The bird appears to be in very good condition and I therefore feel its passing was an accidental one.

The Shrike family are one of my favourite group of birds.  These are all very smart looking birds, although not raptors, Shrikes are predatory birds which hunt smaller birds by watching from an exposed perch such as the top of a Hawthorn bush.  Once prey is in sight the Shrike will fly at speed towards its target and if taken will either consume it there and then, or store it by impaling it upon a thorn.  Several prey items may be stored on thorns, this is known as its 'larder'.  This behaviour of impaling prey has given Shrikes their alternative name of 'Butcher Bird'.
Great Grey Shrikes are birds of open country with hedgerows and scattered bushes to watch from.  The Breckland area provides ideal habitat for the Great Grey Shrike with its open heathland, large forest clearings, and wide expanses of open farmland.  Breckland usually supports one or two birds during winter months, however, their wide ranging territories means they are often hard to find.
Great Grey Shrikes are wintering birds only, they may be seen from mid October through to March or April.

Finally, I wish to thank Richard Farrow for providing me with the information on this Shrike, also, I also extend my thanks to Andrew Barnes for allowing me to use his photograph for this post. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Croxton Heath and Threxton, Norfolk

Croxton Heath
I arrived at Croxton Heath at about 0700.  Although cloudy, it remained dry and was once again very mild for the time of year. Some brief brighter intervals were welcomed from about 0900.
As with previous visits, my intention was to watch Crossbills at their regular watering location. As soon as I arrived at the given location Crossbills were already present and indeed, varying numbers came and went throughout my stay with the best single count of about 10 birds.
My previous visit to this location saw a Crossbill which appeared different from the Common Crossbills, and on this visit he was seen again drinking at the puddle. This particular bird has white tips to the greater coverts and white fringes to the primaries, however, the bill appears deeper than Common Crossbill and I was considering this bird as the having Parrot Crossbill characteristics.  Any feedback would be welcomed as I have no experience with Parrot Crossbills.
Crossbill at Croxton Heath, Norfolk 19/02/14...or is this Parrot Crossbill
 A single Woodlark was seen flying overhead calling, the habitat here is very typical for breeding for this species.  Several Skylarks were singing overhead, 3 male Yellowhammers were seen and Song Thrush was singing.
The walk back along Harling Drove produced small numbers of Redwings in Silver Birch woodland.

A late afternoon/sunset visit to Threxton produced at least 2 Chiffhaffs, one of which was seen away from the Threxton STW along the lane in bushes and Oak trees.  A singing Goldcrest was in the single Yew tree in the churchyard.
Further along the lane in the Watton Brook valley was 5+ Stock Doves, 2 Grey Herons, a pair of Egyptian Geese and Mallard.
Back at the church at sunset a Kestrel was seen on the tower.

Finally, any comments on the Crossbill at Croxton Heath would be welcomed via e-mail or as a comment on this post.
I have had response about the bird above and it is a Common Crossbill....perhaps wishful thinking on my part.  This is timely to show that both sexes of Common Crossbills do have some variation in their plumages which may cause some debate, however, the structure of the bird should assist in the identification.  I have no experience with Parrot Crossbills...perhaps I was concentrating too much on the bill structure as I thought this looked deeper than on Common Crossbill.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Improving conditions encourage Raptors

Atlantic storms have been a dominant feature of our weather for some time now, these storms have brought heavy rain and very strong winds, however, we in the east have come off quite lightly compared to those living in the west of the country where flooding has been a significant issue.
Bright conditions have been lacking for some time with thick cloud bringing poor light, however, today, there was virtually wall to wall bright sunshine with a moderate, occasionally fresh south-westerly.

Great Cressingham
About mid morning I parked up at Little Cressingham and walked to Great Cressingham to search for Raptors.  The mild and bright conditions seemed just right for displaying Raptors and having reached my intended watchpoint I met my friend Dave Capps who was already hunkered down waiting for birds to appear.  Sitting out of the wind, the sun was quite warm, this had encouraged my first Bee species to fly past.
Soon after my arrival Common Buzzards started to appear over woodland and nearby farmland, the maximum number seen together was 5 birds, however, with Buzzards coming and going, actual numbers may have been higher.  Individual Buzzards approached at height whilst other were seen just above the woodland canopy where some sparring behaviour was seen between birds.  A single Sparrowhawk was seen briefly displaying above woodland.
Red Kite (one of a pair) at Great Cressingham, Norfolk 16/02/14
After some time watching the Buzzards, another large Raptor appeared high to the distant north, this was a Red Kite and would be one of a pair that would eventually patrol the fields and woodlands in the area in search for food.
Initial views of the distant Red Kite provided stunning views of the raptor in the bright sunshine.  Even though distant, diagnostic features seen included the obvious deeply forked tail which was rufous above and the white 'windows' on the underwing.  Diagonal pale bars were easily seen on the upperwing and the head area appeared bright white, and these features were all visible despite the distance.
Eventually, 2 Red Kites patroled slowly over the woodland and fields in the area in search of carrion.
After spending a very pleasant time with Dave, I left him to make my way back to Little Cressingham.  I soon located a friend of mine and Dave's, our local very pale, almost white looking Common Buzzard.  This bird is always readily identifiable even at height due to his unusual appearance.
This was a good mornings birding, especially as the conditons today brought a long awaited Raptor spectacular.  

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Threxton, Norfolk

Stormy was the way of the weather today with damaging winds bringing down some larger trees as well as debris everywhere in the form of branches and twigs.  Some very sharp showers passed through mid to late afternoon and then by sunset the winds had significantly abated.
With these conditions the best place to find birds would be in sheltered areas, therefore, I spent some time at Threxton STW.
Once again, at least 3 Chiffchaffs were present at the site, and for much of the time these Warblers favoured long weedy cover, including dead Umbellifer stalks, where they hunted for small insect prey.
Chiffchaff (one of at least 3) at Threxton STW 15/02/14
There was also several other small passerine species in the sheltered area of this site with Long-tailed Tits forming the greatest numbers.
Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tit, Treecreeper, Dunnock, Wrens, and a female Reed Bunting were all present.
Goldcrest was singing in the Leylandii belt and the Yew tree in the churchyard.
Finally, within the interior of the STW, 60+ Pied Wagtails were seen.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Croxton Heath, Norfolk

Woodlark (first singing/displaying bird of year)
Crossbills c.10

With the threat of wild, wet, and windy weather by the afternoon, an early morning visit to Croxton Heath was in order, specifically with early displaying Woodlarks in mind.
A hint of brightness in the east at dawn was soon replaced by full cloud cover and poor light, at least the rain stayed away.
As soon as I left the car park at East Wretham Heath at dawn vast numbers of Crow species circled over the heath east of the Thetford road.  I estimated 5000+ Jackdaws and Rooks moving east to west, this, according to my previous visits, is a daily occurence at dawn over the heath with birds leaving their roost sites to their feeding grounds, presumably on surrounding farm and heath land.
I arrived on the vast open areas of clearfell of Croxton Heath and firstly made my way to the tree which has for some weeks now proved reliable for Crossbills.  I could see straight away that a pair of Crossbills were sitting in the tree.
I initially set up close to the tree for views of visiting Crossbills but then I decided to relocate to try and view these Finches actually visiting a puddle to drink.
Crossbills coming to drink on Croxton Heath 14/02/14
Having positioned myself where I could see the puddle, a long wait ensued with Crossbills nervously approaching the water before flying back to the tree, however, in time, several birds visited the puddle to drink.  This was a marvellous sight to see.
I also witnessed other very interesting behaviour with the Crossbills, this included singing males, a mating pair, but most interesting of all I saw a female Crossbill collecting bill-fulls of nesting materials.
Also of particular interest this morning was the presence of my target species, a singing and displaying male Woodlark.  This Breckland speciality is found within forest clearings and heathland where they require short grass to search for insect prey.  Scattered trees and bushes are used to sing from.
Also noted on the heath was Song Thrush, Blackbirds, Meadow Pipits, and Yellowhammer.
My walk back along one of the tracks saw a Woodlark rise up from the ground within feet of me, checking the surroundings here saw that this was very typical breeding habitat with plenty of bare sandy soil, young saplings, and a long wood-pile which will be used for song posts.
This was am excellent visit to Croxton Heath with my target species of Woodlark seen with the superb bonus of seeing Crossbills at their drinking site.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Thompson Water, Norfolk (late afternoon/sunset)

Thompson Water at sunset 13/02/14 
Even on the quietest days in winter, Thompson Water will produce good birds and other wildlife to hold ones interest.  The water itself can appear devoid of birds, as today, however, the swampey reedbeds and woodland carr habitat will hold both common and scarce species.
With the recent theme of windy, wet conditions, it was a pleasant change to have bright sunshine practically all day, however, wild, stormy weather is set to return tomorrow.
On the water, 2 pairs of Mute
Goshawk Thompson Water 13/02/14 (Note the deep chested appearance)
Swans appeared quite stately and a single Cormorant was seen.  A single Grey Heron overflew the water but there was no sign of Bittern, a species which usually winters at this locality.
The only raptor seen was a Goshawk which appeared from beyond the trees to the east and although quite distant, the size and deep-chested appearance of this raptor was diagnostic.
Thw woodland carr habitat along the west boundary of the water held Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, Great and Blue Tits.  A couple of Goldcrests were in song.
Finally, the drive through Thompson produced 2 Red Foxes, one at Thompson Grove (woodland) and one in the village. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Threxton, Norfolk

Although the day started reasonably pleasant with some bright intervals, increasing cloud was to bring a spell of wild, wet, and very windy weather by mid-afternoon.
I decided to pay another visit to Threxton STW early afternoon whilst it was still dry, however, increasing cloud and poor light indicated rain was on its way.
Chiffchaff at Threxton 12/02/14 (One of 3..or more)
As is typical with these micro-climate locations, there was much bird activity as soon as I arrived at this site and it soon became evident that Chiffchaffs were once again present along with a number of Tit species and Goldcrests.  Sewage treatment works are good sources of food in winter for birds and today I saw that there was lots of winged midges around the complex, this coupled with the sheletered warm cover of trees will attract a host of scarce and common birds throughout the winter.
Throughout my hour long stay at Threxton STW, it was clear that at least 3 Chiffchaffs (possibly more) were present, and on a number of occasions song was heard as well as the "hweet" call.  On this visit Chiffchaffs frequented an Elder bush where they skulked amongst the branches, but, as with yesterday, these Warblers often flew to the ground amongst dead Umbellifer stems.
Coal Tit at Threxton 12/02/14
A number of Long-tailed Tits were ever-present in the immediate area, also at least 2 Coal Tits were seen, including this lovely bird in one of the Elders.
2+ Goldcrests were either seen ot heard including a male in full song in the old Yew in the churchyard.
Other common species in the area included a pair of Wrens, Dunnock, Robin, and Blackbirds and Goldfinch.
Finally, the interior of the STW held 50+ Pied Wagtails feeding on the short grassed areas, all of these birds reacted noisily when a Sparrowhawk passed over low.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Threxton, Norfolk

3 Chiffchaffs (including one singing briefly)
1 Peregrine
1 Grey Wagtail
50+ Pied Wagtails
Long-tailed Tits
1 Reed Bunting
1 Kestrel

The day started pretty foul with strong south-westerly winds and at times, driving, and stinging rain.  The afternoon saw brighter conditions with strong sunlight, however, the wind remained strong and cold.
I made two visits to Threxton today, the first at around 0945 was on my return from a four mile with my dog Toby, the second at 1400 was a dedicated watch of the area.
A Chiffchaff was singing at Threxton sewage works this morning in strong winds and driving rain. This species winters in small numbers in the UK, however, the vast majority winter in the Mediterranean basin and North Africa to as far south as south of the Sahara Desert. Chiffchaffs winter with us when winters are mild and they are often found in and around sewage treatment works, these works form micro-climates as waste and the surrounds attracts midges, and the woodland screens, usually Leylandii, provide warm roosting areas at night.
Chiffchaff - one of 3 today at Threxton STW.
At 1400, I visited Threxton STW for a second time, on this occasion, sunlight was strong but the wind remained strong and biting.
Checking a sheltered side of the
Leylandii belt, I immediately found 3 Chiffchaffs together...a very pleasant surprise.  I expected to hear or see one Chiffchaff but 3 was great.  These birds undoubtedly all wintered at this locality due to the relatively mild weather in the UK.  As seen in this picture, the Chiffchaffs often appeared on dead branches, they also flew into the cover of trees or dropped to the ground to feed amongst dead umbellifer stalks.  No song was heard on this visit however the familiar "hweet" call was heard at times.
Within the STW, 50+ Pied Wagtails fed upon the short grassland, all reacted noisily when a Peregrine drifted over low east to west.  A Grey Wagtail was also present at this locality.
The leylandii belt along the west side of the STW also held a small number of Long-tailed Tits and a Goldcrest, one of which was seen to display its flared red crown stripe. One female Reed Bunting dropped in for a short while.
I departed this locality at about 1500 very pleased with the variety of species seen on this short visit, especially the 3 Chiffchaffs...a great find.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Little and Great Cressingham, Norfolk.

50+ Bewick's Swans - (high) east
2 Red Kite (pair) Great Cressingham
Bramblings - Little Cressingham

Although the morning started dry, cloud was increasing after sunrise and by the end of the my walk it was clear that full cloud cover was moving in which brought rain by the afternoon.
Starting in Little Cressingham, I walked at dawn along the Peddars Way north for Priory Road, onto Great Cressingham and then back to Little Cressingham via Fairstead Lane (5 miles).
At North Bridge north of Little Cressingham, the dense hedgerows here in the valley held several Goldfinches, Bullfinch, and calling Redpoll.
Walking away from North Bridge along the Peddars Way I soon became aware of distant approaching Swans, I then picked up a flock of 50+ Bewick's Swans in the western sky which eventually passed high north of me, I watched them as they departed east.  These birds, also known as Tundra Swans will be heading off to their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra of Russia. 
Huge numbers of Crows were stirring on land west of the Peddars Way and on one occasion their noisy, strained calls indicated the presence of a raptor, however, I did not see one.
Bramblings at Little Cressingham 06/02/14
Leaving Great Cressingham, distant raptors appeared over woodland, it soon became evident that these comprised 2 Red Kites and Common Buzzards.  When confronted by these species together, this is a good time for those new to birdwatching to observe the obvious differences between these species.
During my observations of the Red Kites I noticed some aggression/sparring between these and the Buzzards with the Kites appearing to be the aggressors.
Later, whilst walking back to Little Cressingham, I watched a Red Kite (probably one of the earlier pair) approach quite low drifting over the land, I could see the bird watching the land below for carrion.  I could see the Kites tail twisting and turning, this acted superbly as a rudder, steering and controlling the flight as it passed over the land.
Maize strips are always good places to stop in winter to check for Finch and Bunting species where they feed upon the plentiful supply of weeds and seeds.  One particular maize strip near Little Cressingham this morning held a good sized mixed flock of Bramblings, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, and Yellowhammers.
Bramblings are beautiful Finches which visit us in winter from their breeding grounds in the Birch woodlands of Scandinavia.  The Brambling seen in the right of this picture is a male, as spring approaches he will become brighter with a solid Black head.  A noticeable feature of Bramblings in flight is their narrow white rump.  Bramblings will depart our shores for Northern Europe in March and April, however, I have seen this species as late as May, by which time the males are acquiring their stunning breeding plumage.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Early signs of Spring.

I don't want to get too carried away with the pleasant, although windy conditions today as winter still has time to show itself, however, it is nice to get January, the longest winter month behind us now and February is a fairly short month. 
Birds have for some weeks now been re-affirming their territories for the forthcoming breeding season.  This morning, as I do most weekend mornings, work between 3 and 4 hours delivering newspapers to various Breckland villages, hamlets, and isolated farm and manor houses.  Walking to work through Watton, Norfolk, at 0500 today, I was greeted by a singing Robin in the high street, how lovely it was to hear him before the noise of the day drowns his song.  Once on my round, I heard several Goldcrests in song, also Song Thrushes, and a Treecreeper were in fine voice.

Little/Great Cressingham, Norfolk
Upon returning home from my round I had some breakfast and after a short while the next task of the day was to take my beautiful Border Collie, Toby for his morning walk.
First thing that was evident to me on Fairstead Lane since my last visit was the high water levels in Watton Brook, in places the levels rose to the point where adjoining land was flooded.  The fields are currently saturated and much standing water was seen on some grazing land.  This is a timely moment to remember those poor people in the south-west of England who have endured the worst flooding for more than a century, many homes and livelihoods seriously affected by what is unprecedented conditions for those living in those areas.
Walking along Fairstead Lane, recent harvested fields of sugar beet have attracted large numbers of Fieldfares, Starlings, Pied Wagtails, and some Meadow Pipits.
Red Kite at Great Cressingham, Norfolk 01/02/14.
Continuing along Fairstead Lane, I couls see ahead of me a number of Common Buzzards soaring above woodland, this immediately raised interest as other raptor species may be present.
Walking along a field edge produced this stunning Red Kite, despite the strong wind, this bird demonstrated its mastery of flight and used that beautiful forked tail as a rudder to steer and balance its progress.
Red Kites have yet to enjoy the rapid expansion seen by Common Buzzards, however, I think this will change for the better in the coming years.
Walking back to my starting point I was watching the behaviour of Wood Pigeons, their flight and departures from trees and woodland where they were perched was unhurried......not the panic and disorganised explosion of birds I would expect to see if Goshawk or Peregrine were in the area....the Pigeons were safe......for now!!