Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Crossbill in Breckland, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Monday, 31 March 2014

Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk

Houghton-on-the-Hill, Houghton Springs, and Houghton Common.
0705 I arrived at this beautiful, peaceful locality to the song of 3 Chiffchaffs, one Blackcap, a singing Song Thrush, and a calling Coal Tit in the churchyard.  A single Common Buzzard was seen.
Walking down the track west of the church I checked the bare land for signs of Wheatear, however, none were seen.
I followed the Peddars Way to make for Houghton Springs (0725), this was my first visit to this rich, damp habitat for some time.  This area is centred around a streamand the surrounds comprise damp grassland with patches of Phragmite reedbeds, Juncus rushes, and some fine looking Sallows.  Damp woodland also features here as well as a couple of mature Scots Pine belts.
Houghton Springs has been a reliable site for displaying/singing Snipe, however, on this visit I saw none.  Expected species associated with this kind of habitat were seen, these were 2 pairs of Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, 2 singing Chiffchaffs, 2 singing Song Thrushes, Wrens, and Goldfinch.  Overflying birds included a pair of noisy Oystercatchers and a pair of Shelduck.  An area of cleared land north of the stream held at least 2 pairs of Lapwings.
The rich hedgerow habitat along Common Lane held 3 singing Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches whilst on the Common itself a further 3 singing Chiffchaffs were heard.  The hedgerow habitat between the Common and the church held 2 singing Blackcaps, of these, one was watched moving along the hedgerow thus indicating a possible recent arrival/passage bird.  Long-tailed Tit (pair) Yellowhammers, and Linnets were all seen along this hedgerow.
Dunnock - one of a pair watched at Houghton-on-the-Hill 31/03/14
St Mary's Church 0825
For the next hour or so I sat with Toby on one of the benches within the beautiful surroundings of the churchyard. 
My immediate surrounds in the churchyard saw varying blossoms, Daffodils, and other pink and white flowers providing stunning colours.  There has been winter felling of some trees in the churchyard, however, mature Hawthorn amd thick Ivy cover will provide good breeding and feeding habitat for birds.
As with my arrival at dawn, Chiffchaff and Blackcap continued to sing.
One Blackcap was singing in woodland west of the churchyard, this particular bird later came quite close to sing before flying back to the woodland.  An interesting sighting came at 0910 when 2 male Blackcaps visited the same corner of the churchyard, both were seen in Ivy where they may have come to feed upon berries.  Were these Blackcaps those on territory or recent arrivals/passage birds?
The Dunnock pictured above was one of a pair watched for some time in front of me on the lawned area and in shrubs within the yard.  One of these birds was seen collecting beak-fulls of grasses and mosses for nest construction.
To the north of the churchyard I could hear a Little Owl calling, also Long-tailed Tit and Robin was seen.
This beautiful, isolated locality is one of my favourite places to "get away from it all" and enjoy the tranquility of this very rural part of Breckland Norfolk.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sunrise at Little Cressingham and Thompson area (with Tony, Lorna, and Ros Brown).

Threxton/Little Cressingham (at dawn).
What an absolutely beautiful dawn it was on this, the first day of British Summer Time. This was a mild dawn with some high cloud but visibility was good.
When experiencing difficulties in life, it is at such times that it is worth remembering a loving family unit that keeps one together, my dog Toby, friends who are prepared to listen and whose company I enjoy (you know who you are), and finally the beautiful British countryside and its wildlife which is always there and free despite what troubles are thrown our way.
Little Owl at Threxton, Norfolk 30/03/14
My first stop of the morning was at Threxton where I checked out the traditional Little Owl site where this delightful Owl with its permanent look of 'surprise' was sitting.  The Little Owl's home was in a hole in a dead roadside tree.  The tree is in a wide grassy verge beside arable land where it can hunt for prey such as worms, beetles.
Little Owls will also use holes in old buildings for nest sites as well as the traditional hole in a tree.

Having left the Little Owl I made my way to Little Cressingham (The Arms area) in order to take Toby for his walk.  Walking north along the Great Cressingham road, roadside trees held 40+ Redwings, however, as I walked further north towards 'The Fairstead', a very large mixed flock of both Redwings and Fieldfares were in the roadside trees and surrounding hedgerows.  As I approached these Thrushes, the chattering and song of Redwings was awesome.  These beautiful Thrushes will now be on their way back to their Scandinavian breeding grounds.
Also along this route 2 pairs of Common Curlews were present, this included males performing their noisy song-flight. 

At 1000 I had the great pleasure to meet Tony and Lorna Brown and their daughter Ros from Cambridge.  Ros recently contacted me in order to use some of my photographs for a college publication.  A reason for their visit was to hopefully make contact with Goshawk, a species this family have yet to see.  I took them to a traditional local site to see this magnificent raptor, however, the bird failed to appear on this occasion and the only raptor evidence seen was at least 4 Common Buzzards.
Whilst hopefully waiting for a Goshawk to appear, the mournful song of a male Woodlark was heard and we soon saw the bird quite high performing its circular display-flight, a species new to Ros and her parents.  Later, the Woodlark returned, however, it soon became apparent that a second male was present and a short search soon found this additional male singing on high.
Other species seen included singing Chiffchaffs, 2 Blackcaps, Yellowhammer, Coal Tit, and overhead a couple of Cormorants were seen.
Finally, prior to going our separate ways, Tony picked up a large suspect raptor through the tree canopy flying high and east, sadly this remained unidentified.......Osprey perhaps!!!!!

Merton (dusk)
A sheet of grey cloud hung over the area at sunset and as a result light was very poor, despite this I was rewarded by the sight of a few Tree Sparrows in the village which included a pair observed mating within a large Hawthorn.  This was very encouraging given the scarcity nationally of this beautiful Sparrow.

I will end this post by saying it was a great pleasure meeting Tony, Lorna,  and Ros Brown and I hope we meet again at some time...thank you all for joining me.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Ashill, Thompson, and Little Cressingham

ASHILL (Common Lane to Quidney Farm) 0540-0700
Dawn was quite misty, however, it was relatively mild at about 5 degrees.  The morning sun eventually began to burn off mist from about 0700 although pockets of thicker mist was encountered on the drive back to Watton.
The morning started well with my first ever observation of a pair of Common Buzzards mating in a tree to the north of the lane.
At least 4 singing Chiffchaffs were heard along the route with 2 of these at Quidney Farm, also, notable counts of Linnets were seen with two groups numbering 10+ and 20+ in either hedgerows or in trees where several males sang.
The fields east of the old rail cutting held displaying Lapwing, occasionally the male bird came close enough for me to hear the humming of the wings as he passed by.
This wonderful site this morning was bathed in fairly warm sunshine as I arrived and straight away following my arrival several species were encountered in the damp woodland.  Treecreeper was singing as was Nuthatch, and a pair of Long-tailed Tits foraged close by in low branches.  Higher up a Song Thrush was in Ivy feeding upon berries and just above this bird was a stunning Redwing with a very strongly detailed head pattern.  A beautiful male Coal Tit passed through singing.
Most notable on the common this morning was the finding of at least 10 Chiffchaffs in song, however, only a single Blackcap was heard in song.
By the time I had left this wonderful site I had encountered 3 Nuthatches, Goldcrest, 2 Coal Tits, 2 Song Thrush, Wrens, 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker (one 'drumming'), and 2 singing Stock Doves.
Chiffchaff at Thompson Water 29/03/14
As soon as I made my way along the Peddars Way to make for Thompson Water the first bird heard was a calling male Golden Pheasant. a bit further along the path numerous Redwings were in treetops chattering away and singing.
Chiffchaffs were once again present in good numbers at Thompson Water.  It is generally typical for this species to be well established on territory before other Warbler species arrive from the south.  A single Blackcap was in song, again, it is typical for this species to be encountered in late March, however, the vast majority of Blackcaps will arrive in early to mid April.
An overview of the water to check for early Hirundines was fruitless.
On the water a few Tufted Duck were seen and a Great Crested Grebe nearly went un-noticed within surface weed.  2 Cormorants were perched at the usual site.
One, possibly 2 Cetti's Warblers delivered their explosive song from dense cover along the eastern fringes of the water.

Siskin at Thompson Water 29/03/14
At the hide, a good range of species were seen including 2 pairs of Reed Buntings, several Siskins, Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit, and Robin.
A number of Siskins were both seen and heard above the woodland around Thompson Water.  The flight call is quite easy to identify and remember, it is a rather mournful "tsu". 
This is a male Siskin, he can be identified by his black crown and bib, and brighter greens and yellows.
Most Siskins seen in the woodlands at this time of year will be winter visitors from Scandinavia, however, smaller numbers will remain in the brecks to breed. 

Reeve's Pheasant Little Cressingham 29/03/14
An afternoon walk along Fairstead Lane and Green Lane produced this single male Reeve's Pheasant.  This is a larger bird than the more familiar Common Pheasant.
Note from this photograph the size difference between the species, the Reeve's is a much stockier bird with a world-beating tail which appears in the Guinness book of records as having the longest tail feather of any astonishing 8 feet.
A couple of Chiffchaffs were singing along the route.
Finally, it was encouraging to see a number of Lapwings on arable land adjacent to Fairstead Lane.



Friday, 28 March 2014

Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk

An early morning walk (0615-0745) around lanes and tracks starting at St Mary's Church produced a single Common Buzzard and a number of singing Chiffchaffs (c.5), and also in an overgrown thicket in the corner of an inaccessable part of a field was a singing Blackcap (my first record of this Warbler for the year.  This area also held at least 3 Bullfinches.
The hedgerows on Houghton Common held good numbers of Linnets and a singing Yellowhammer and back near the church a foraging Goldcrest was moving quickly through pine needles within mixed woodland habitat.  Also here, a male Chiffchaff was watched moving through treetops around me singing away and holding his territory.
Evidence of passage was seen when a flock of 20+ Redwings flew above me and away to the north-east, it is now time for our wintering and passage Thrushes to make their way back to their Scandinavian breeding grounds....good luck to them in their journey and see you in Autumn.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Stone Curlew

Today on my Breckland patch I found a pair of Stone Curlews, this is my first record of this species for the year.  March 2013 saw a very cold run of easterly winds which held up bird migration in general, however, Stone Curlews made it back on time and many sadly perished due to the freezing temperatures, this in turn led to birds being emaciated due to not being able to feed.  Fortunately, it would appear that spring 2014 will be much kinder for this wonderful enigmatic species.
Stone Curlew (one of a pair) back on my Breckland patch 24/03/14

Friday, 21 March 2014

East Wretham and Croxton Heaths (with Richard Farrow)

0600: I met with my good friend Richard Farrow at East Wretham Heath car park for what was to be a very good visit to this very typical Breckland location and habitat.
Our route today took us from the car park and over the heath to Harling Drove.  Walking west along Harling Drove we then diverted off to the left to visit Fenmere and Ringmere.  After this diversion we then walked further west along Harling Drove, eventually making our way for the large forest clearings at Croxton Heath.  After a pleasant hour or so overlooking a deep pit (for Crossbills) we then continued along forest trails back to Harling Drove and then slowly walked through fantastic mature Scots Pine woodland before finally spending some time overlooking Langmere from the hide.  We then made our way back to our starting point at the reserve car park.
Weather conditions: The day remained dry although it was cloudy until 0900 when bright sunshine replaced the earlier somewhat low light conditions.  The wind was cool, especially in exposed areas, although the rising sun did bring warmth to more sheltered areas.

From the outset birds were apparent with the first bird of the day being Blue Tit in the car park area.  Walking along Harling Drove, we checked Langmere, a large Breckland mere, here, waterfowl was well represented by 2 Mute Swans, 2+ Shelduck, 30+ Shoveler, several Teal, and Mallard, whilst around the fringes of the water, a pair of Oystercatchers and Lapwing were present.  The latter species will breed at this locality.
From Langmere, we crossed harling Drove to visit Fenmere and Ringmere.  Fenmere was quiet with a single Coot and Moorhen seen but it was encouraging to hear Chiffchaff singing.  Ringmere was more productive with several Teal and calling (whinnying) Little Grebes, also a number of Coot and Moorhens were ever-present.
Continuing along Harling Drove common species seen and heard in pine woodland included singing Goldcrests, Long-tailed Tits, Great and Coal Tits, and Chaffinches.
Eventually, our walk brought us to the large clearings on Croxton Heath, one of my target species for the day was both seen and heard almost straight away, a singing male Woodlark. This typical Breckland species passed over us giving its sweet "lululululu" song. The commoner, and larger Skylark was also present.

Crossbills:  We then made our way to the site which has been reliable throughout the winter months for Crossbills, however, it was noticed upon our arrival that the puddles where this beautiful species drinks were dried up, however, all was not lost, a nearby pit was also a relaible site for drinking Crossbills.  It was evident overhead that Crossbills were in the area, therefore Richard and I decided to sit and wait, our patience was rewarded with Crossbills coming and going virtually all the time with a maxima of 5 birds at any one time.  These striking birds, mostly the beautiful brick-red males, occasionally dropped down to drink.  As well as Crossbills, single Siskins dropped in to drink as well as a small group of visiting Goldfinches.  Richard and I also commented on the number of Yellowhammers seen...very encouraging indeed.  Both Dunnock and Wrens also inhabited this area.  As well as these wintering and resident species, both male and female Chiffchaffs were both seen and heard.
Adder on Croxton Heath, Norfolk 21/03/14 (One of at least 8 seen today)
Adders: Having left the Crossbills at the pit Richard and myself walked along forest rides in order to make our way back to Harling Drove.  By this time the cloud had moved away to leave bright, sunny, and warm conditions in sheltered areas.  The first encouraging sign was the finding of a Common Lizard running to cover in Bracken, this was a sign that Adders would surely be out sunning themselves.  As we continued along the forest rides we checked the Bracken fringes and understorey of the relatively young conifer plantation.  This slow check of the woodland edge was to prove very rewarding with at least 8 Adders seen, of these, a couple were the much larger female snakes.  Perhaps one of the most memorable events was the finding of 3 male Adders together in a small area of Bracken, vegetation, stumps, and banks for stunning.  This site would undoubtedly be worth checking for the beautiful 'dance' of the male snakes.
It was of particular interest that whilst watching Adders we saw a female Chiffchaff almost at ground level in Bracken, here she remained for a while perhaps prospecting for a nest site.  Clearly, it is worth remembering that this ground nesting species will have to contend with several dangers whilst incubating and raising young, especially given the species is sharing habitat with predators such as Adders.

Continuing east along Harling Drove, we eventually made our way to the gate which was to take us through the fantastic Scots Pine woodland and eventually the hide overlooking Langmere.  No more Adders were seen, perhaps due to the fact that despite the sun, a cool wind did cut through the trees.
Our final destination was the hide.  Very strong light saw many species silhouetted against the water, however, a good range of species was seen including the earlier noted Shoveler, Teal, Oystercatcher, and Lapwings.  Notable species seen from the hide, both picked up by Richard, was a single male Sparrowhawk circling overhead, his presence caused some Teal on the bank to fly to the safety of water, also, Richard picked up an easterly movement of about 15-20 Golden Plovers, clearly migrants making their way back to their upland breeding grounds.

At about 1300 we finally reached the end of our visit to East Wretham Heath.  This was the end of a very pleasant day and it was a great pleasure to have been joined by my good friend Richard Farrow.....thank you Richard and look forward to seeing you very soon. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Comments made by a female North Norfolk 'twit'cher regarding new cafe facilities at Holme Dunes reserve.

'Beach dudes with buckets, spades, and dogs' is how a female North Norfolk twitcher described potential visitors to new cafe facilities at Holme Dunes reserve in North Norfolk.  She describes this news as both 'good and bad', good if it is full of birders, and bad if visited by people wanting to enjoy themselves on a day out.
I am a lifelong Birder (not a twitcher thankfully) and I think it is very important that we share our passion with anybody who wishes to learn, be they birders or not.  The beach, dunes, woodlands, marshes etc, are not the sole domain of birders, it is there for all to enjoy.  Some of those children playing on the beach with their buckets and spades may well be the future custodians of our countryside and as such should be encouraged to visit our wonderful natural heritage.
I say to those people who look down at non-birders, embrace and teach those willing to learn.  Those who dismiss non-birders presence have no right to discourage, after all, how do you think residents and businesses feel when hoards of twitchers descend to see a bird and potentially disrupt peoples lives.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Chat lifts spirits.

I have had 'flu before, but I have never had a virus like the one which knocked me for six since the latter part of last week.  I think I am now recovering, however, after a short walk this morning my body was telling me I am not strong yet as I just could not get any pace up at all.
At 0830 I took a very short walk along a quiet road near Bodney.  Cloud was variable and quite low and the cool wind blew from the north-east. The wide expanses of arable land with few hedgerows here leaves one feeling very exposed.
I was hoping to find an early Stone Curlew, given that the species is an early arrival, however, none were seen on this occasion. 
Very little else was seen until I detected the movement of a small bird between the ground and a coppiced Ash on a field/track edge.  Stopping to locate the bird in my binoculars I first saw a small passerine with an Orangey/Peachy breast and light brown head, this was a beautiful female Stonechat.  This was quite a lucky find as the bird was keeping low in the wind and showed no more after this initial contact.
Stonechats are quite scarce birds in Norfolk but I do find singles or pairs in most years on my patch, generally in autumn and spring.  This is a resident species which makes small movements away from their breeding grounds in the winter months, and being short distant migrants it is therefore likely that this bird will be one of a pair that will hopefully breed locally.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

East Wretham Heath for Adders

With dry settled conditions and unbroken sunshine and warmth through the morning, my objective was to locate Adders at East Wretham Heath.  The conditions suggested I should be in luck.
Adder at Eas Wretham Heath, Norfolk 05/03/14 
A number of suitable habitats were checked i.e. raised sunny, bracken covered banks, however, it wasn't until I walked along a track leading to mature Scots Pines and very thick bracken that I found my first Adder of the year.  This beautiful snake was sunning itself on track-side bracken.
Adders will emerge from their winter hibernation in late February if the conditions are right.  Male Adders emerge about a month prior to female Snakes.
As a dog owner myself, this is a timely reminder to keep your pets on a short leash when venturing into Adder habitat as curious dogs are frequently bitten each year.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Woodlarks near Hilborough, Norfolk

Although the night was cold and clear, at dawn, thick fog descended with some icy patches underfoot. The rising sun burnt off the fog quickly to give a mostly bright morning with quite mild temperatures.
My intention this morning was to visit pine woodland and clearings for Woodlark, the conditions indicated that the species would be displaying.
As I approached the clearing I could hear Woodlark singing, therefore I decided to find a suitable spot to sit and wait.
After a lengthy wait I could once again hear calling Woodlark, a sweet "toolueet" was often heard.
Woodlarks then started to appear very close in front of me, in total, 4 birds (2 pairs) were present.
Typical Woodlark breeding habitat near Hilborough, Norfolk
Throughout my stay the Woodlarks were quite restless, they never stayed in one place for long.
The picture to the left shows typical Woodlark habitat. Formerly, this was a commercial pine crop, this has obviously been felled and planted with a new crop on pine saplings.  At the current time the saplings stand at about 18 inches tall, with these saplings being quite young the rows between the trees are quite wide with short cropped vegetation which Woodlarks need for feeding. As these Saplings grow to probably about 6 to 8 feet in height, the rows between the trees will fill in and will thus become unsuitable for Woodlark.  The birds will therefore need to move on for freshly clearfelled areas of forest in the Brecks.  The long rows of dead wood within the areas of clearfell serve as song-posts for the Woodlark.  Breeding occurs on the ground in a suitable well vegetated grassy tuft close to the base of a tree.
Woodlark near Hilborough, Norfolk 04/03/14
Woodlarks can be quite conspicuous when performing their song-flights above their breeding territory, however, song can be delivered from a conspicuous perch.  It becomes difficult sometimes to see Woodlarks when they are on the ground shuffling along in search for food, this difficulty in seeing the bird is made more harder as the bird blends in very well with its surrounds.  Sitting and watching the ground for movement is probably the best way to see the bird as it disappear inyo a rut only to reappear on a raised tuft.
Woodlark near Hilborough, Norfolk 04/03/14.
The Woodlark pictured above was mobile and soon went out of sight behind saplings.  I could not see it again until it flew up over a woodpile. 
The left picture shows a Woodlark on a typical perch within a dead woodpile in the clearing.  The conspicuous perch seen here will serve as a song-post as well as to observe its surrounding from.
The plumage of the Woodlark is such that it may sometimes take some searching to find the bird hidden within the woodpiles, especially if the bird is silent.

This post has been dedicated to Woodlark, other birds seen in the area included 1 Common Buzzard, a number of Siskins.  Within the woodpiles both Wren and Dunnock skulked, and a Robin often popped up to show himself.
A constant stream of Gulls low overhead may have been making to nearby pig fields to feed. 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Croxton Heath with David Neill Andrews

Today, I met for the first time David Neill Andrews, we met through a social network site through a friend that I formerly worked with.  This was David's first visit to 'The Brecks', therefore, it was my intention to take him to East Wretham and Croxton Heaths in order to give him a feel of the Breckland landscape.
I will start this post by stating that David is a superb photographer, I have seen some of his 'trick' photography, which clearly takes hours of commitment to achieve, also, his landscape work is second to none.  I have recently seen some truly fantastic shots of Blythburgh, an area of visited a lot on the 60's and 70's, David's shots have not only appeared in newspapers, they have also brought back many fond memories of this beautiful area.  Watch for this mans work.

We arrived at East Wretham and Croxton Heaths late morning to a morning of reasonable light, however, as our stay wore on, light was variable from quite good to fair, depending on the thickness of the increasing cloud cover.
As we made our way along Harling Drove I pointed out to David the large mounds on East Wretham Heath.  These 'bumps' on the ground were formed by the Yellow Meadow Ant, seeing these fantastic creations is an indication of how undisturbed the land is.  If you find a meadow or field with these nests, it is likely it has not been disturbed for decades, even centuries.
Further along the drove we overlooked Langmere, a natural mere whose water levels greatly, although I must admit not to knowing why the levels change so much as they can appear empty in very wet times.  On Langmere was a few Shelduck and Teal, also, we saw 3 Lapwings, one of which briefly displayed.
After a bit of walking we arrived on Croxton Heath, the large open clearfell is exposed to the wind and as a result I could only see Skylark, not Woodlark which I was hoping to show David.
My target species for today was Crossbill, this would be a new species for David and as we approached the site which I have been watching regularlyI could see that a couple of Crossbills were in the lone tree within a clearing.  Upon arrival at the location we sat and waited for our quarry.
After a short wait, Crossbills began to appear in the tree and after spending some time here they eventually and tentativly dropped through the branches...I knew they were preparing to come to drink.
The odd Crossbill made a sweep over the pond, presumably to assess the safety risk and after a short wait the birds dropped to the puddles to drink, a wonderful and very rewarding sight as all to often the only Crossbills seen are high in trees feeding from pine cones.

Crossbill (male) on Croxton Heath 02/03/14
Throughout our stay at this locality, Crossbills typically flew off, presumably to have a feed, however, they reliably always returned to drink.  The single largest gathering was of about 10 birds, most of which were the beautiful 'red' males.
As we sat still close the puddles, the Crossbills appeared to accept our presence, although it was clear that once on the ground they nervously drank whilst watching us.
Whilst watching the Crossbills David commented on the birds having a 'Parrot' like appearance, their plumage and large odd shaped bill do have 'Parrot' like quality.
Singing was heard on brief occasions, however, I earlier pointed out the Crossbills highly distinctive, hard and far-carrying "chip chip" call.  This is something that is a familiar sound in the Breckland area, and is also one easy to remember as no other bird has such a 'hard and sharp ' call.
Whilst spending time watching these Crossbills we also saw a hunting Kestrel, this bird was typically hovering before plummeting like a stone onto prey on the ground.  One Common Buzzard was also seen distantly.
Having watched the Crossbills for some time, we then waslked back through the forest rides and heathland back to our starting point at the car park at East Wretham Heath.

Back at my home, we had a welcome hot drink and sandwich and talked about the days birding/photography trip.
David, I thoroughly enjoyed out visit to East Wretham and Croxton Heaths and look forward to meeting up  again soon.
Finally, watch for David's work, he is an excellent and passionate photographer.