Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Crossbill in Breckland, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Ashill (Common Road), Norfolk

Quite a different morning from that which was forecast. Low cloud initially was soon replaced by warm sunshine.  I was expecting quite dull conditions.
My intention was to hopefully find or at least hear Turtle Dove, a species which has shown site fidelity on my patch for years.  None were heard on this visit sadly, perhaps they are on territory, perhaps they have not arrived yet.  Turtle Doves are heavily hunted in the mediterranean basin, especially Malta, I am hoping my birds are safe.
This was a pleasant walk with a good variety of species with evidence of passage overhead:

1 Common Buzzard
1 TREE PIPIT heard passing overhead
7 Whitethroat territories
2 Lesser Whitethroat territories
4 Blackcap territories
1 Willow Warbler
1 Chiffchaff
Blackbird singing
2 Goldcrest (pair)
Linnets
Goldfinch several pairs
6+ Bullfinch (3 pairs)
Greenfinch - several in area of old rail cutting (including displaying male)

As expected, several Whitethroats were singing and holding territory along the route and 2 Lesser Whitethroats were singing in typical habitat.
Most species variety was seen along the old rail cutting where some fine trees, hedgerows, and thick scrub, provide good breeding habitat.  It was immediately east of the cutting where I sat for a while hoping to catch a sight of the singing Lesser WhitethroatBlackcaps, Chiffchaff, and Greenfinches were seen.  It was whilst watching this area that I heard a calling TREE PIPIT passing overhead, a good migrant species record.
Further along the road to the east some really fine habitat exists which today supported Lesser Whitethroat (1), Blackcaps, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler (1), Bullfinch (pair), and a pair of Goldcrests including a singing male.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Great Cressingham, Norfolk

At 0015 I went to Great Cressingham to take Toby for a late night walk on the Peddars Way, there was no wind, cloud cover and it was eerily quiet.  The only call I heard which broke the silence was that of fairly distant 'hissing and screeching' of young Barn Owls begging for food in their nest.  To the untrained ear this sound must appear unnerving in the still of the night.
0445 - I returned to Great Cressingham for a 3 mile circular walk with Toby.  The first bird of the morning was a briefly calling Tawny Owl.  As we set off for the walk both Song Thrush and Blackcap were in song and to the north a Common Curlew briefly sang.  The Curlew breeds locally on grazing grasslands and heaths, this bird was probably collecting food. This, or another Curlew was later seen close to in the early dawn half-light flying close to the road.
With improving light, Whitethroats began to sing, it was clear that many territories ar now occupied by this beautiful Sylvia Warbler.
This walk started with a Tawny Owl species and it ended with a Barn Owl flying over open arable, probably from its nest where I heard young calling just 5 hours previously.

Peddars Way (Great Cressingham/South Pickenham)
Whitethroat (male)
A walk north along the Peddars Way from the Watton/Great Cressingham road to the South Pickenham estate produced at least 8 Whitethroat territories.  Several males also displayed their conspicuous song-flights.
A protracted watch of a typical Whitethroat habitat also produced an overflying Red Kite being mobbed by a corvid species and a pair of Buzzards high gliding east.
Before I left the Peddars Way, a pair of Buzzards (possibly the same pair seen earlier) soaring very high overhead.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Migrants still arriving....and passing through.

An early morning walk from 'The Arms' to The Fairstead within the Little Cressingham parish produced Whitethroats at several hedgerow locations along the route.  At The Fairstead a singing Common Curlew was heard.  Close to 'The Arms' I checked a small well-wooded pit which always is worth a check due to the density and variety of habitat and heard Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat, and Chiffchaff.  It was while I was watching this area that I saw a Cuckoo fly into a small tree alongside the road.  This enigmatic bird then flew to other treetops to the north and then went out of side, evidence of a passage bird perhaps.

Thompson Water 1300-1445
A good range of both summer visitors and resident bird species were heard or seen over and around this beautiful site on this visit from the outset as follows:
Hobby at Thompson Water hunting insects 28/04/14
2 Common Tern (pair)
1 HOBBY
2 Garden Warblers
Reed Warbler
2 Cetti's Warblers
Blackcap
Chiffchaff
2 Marsh Tit (pair)
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Nuthatch
Treecreeper (pair)
Siskin
Great Spotted Woodpecker
1 Lapwing
2 Cormorant
3+ Grey Heron
Mute Swan

From my arrival a single Hobby provided great views as it swept back and forth over the water and surrounding woodland where it was hunting insects.  It was possible on occasions to see the bird pass food from it talons to the bill.  This spectacular Falcon often showed great agility as it twisted and changed direction whilst in pursuit of prey.
Also over the water was a pair of Common Terns, these sleek looking birds also showed great agility as they hawked for insects over the water.
A target bird for me today, and not unexpected, was Garden Warbler, 2 of these were present including one bird seen in traditional habitat by the raised bank. 
Garden Warbler photographed at Thompson Water May 2012
The Garden Warbler pictured here was photographed in May 2012 and in the same habitat where the bird today was singing.  Garden Warblers are birds of open woodland and woodland edge and to some, especially those new to birding, may experience some difficulty separating the song of this bird from a close relative, the Blackcap.  Although the songs of these species are similar, the song of Garden Warbler is slightly deeper in tone, is more protracted than Blackcap, and lacks the fluty excited peaks heard in the Blackcap song.
At least 2 Cetti's Warblers were singing in dense waterside scrub along the eastern side of the water. I am sure more birds are holding territory at this site.  Cetti's Warbler were first recorded in the UK in the early 1970's in the Broadland area of Norfolk.  Since this time this species has spread from their original foothold and was first recorded at Thompson Water in 2007.  I was concerned that a couple of successive severe winters may have had a negative impact on the survival of Cetti's Warblers, however, it was very reassuring to hear these birds singing in the following springs.  I have counted a maximum of 5 singing birds at Thompson Water....a very welcome addition to my patch.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Merton (Dawn chorus), Hockham Fen, and Great Cressingham in Norfolk.

Merton for the Dawn Chorus
0445 Starting off from the tiny village of Merton in Norfolk, the plan this morning was to circumnavigate the beautiful parkland which abuts the large Army training area known as STANTA (Stanford Training Area).
This is a typical parkland/farming estate centred on Merton Hall, the seat of Lord Walsingham, which like many in Norfolk, is now a fraction of the very large estate it was formerly.  The walk this morning took me around Merton Wood and peripheral farmland.
A calling Tawny Owl was heard in woodland alongside the Thompson road, this is a common resident species in this area.
Initially, Blackbirds formed the majority of the songsters heard in the half-light, with lots of singing males heard.  Song Thrushes were also quite numerous as well, which was encouraging.
As far as summer visitors are concerned, the most numerous species heard was Blackcap, this is the commonest breeding woodland Warbler in this area.
Common birds were also stirring with Robins, Wrens, ChaffinchesMarsh Tit (1), and Treecreeper all in song.
The final stretch of this walk towards Merton village produced a single singing Whitethroat and a singing Willow Warbler.  A few Tree Sparrows, a Merton speciality were calling from their dense Hawthorn roost in the village.
A target species for me this morning was Nightingale, however, not a single bird was heard within what is good breeding habitat for this species.  Twenty years ago, I frequently walked the same route and could hear at least 8 singing birds.  The reason for this serious decline may include range contraction, we are the extreme north-western limits for this species in Europe.  Draw an imaginary line from the Humber estuary to the Severn estuary, Nightingales are rare beyond that line, therefore in Norfolk we are certainly almost at the limit of its range.  I know that in my area habitat destruction has seen the loss of the enigmatic Nightingale.  One such site in Merton used to hold the finest bank of Blackthorn I have ever seen, this site held Nightingale annually, then it was completely grubbed out for no reason at all, this completely unnecessary action still angers me all these years on.


Hockham Fen
What a magical, beautiful site this is, and for many an unexpected habitat within the hundreds of square miles of Thetford Forest.  This really is a jewel nestling within my local Breckland patch.
This was a very rewarding morning once again, however, I did not see the Marsh Harrier on this visit.
A good range of both resident and summer visitors were seen and heard. 
I sat at the base of an old Sallow, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible and from my watch-point I heard 2 Sedge Warblers 1 Reed Warbler, and 2 Reed Buntings in song.
About 6 Grey Herons were seen and wildfowl were represented by several noisy Greylag Geese, 4 Tufted Duck, and a pair of Mallard with ducklings.
Goshawk (one of a pair) over Hockham Fen 24/04/14

At 0835 noisy Corvids alerted me to a possible raptor nearby, then, a Goshawk overflew the Fen.  At 0925, a single Goshawk passed over again but on this occasion was met by a second bird. The second bird was seen to plummet earth towards woodland with wings held close and dropping at great speed.  The other Goshawk, this male, soared to a great height and was seen to display its dramatic dive and pull-up...a.very memorable observation.





Great Cressingham (late afternoon)
Whitethroat (male) Great Cressingham 24/04/14
At least 3 Whitethroat territories were located along a short section of the Peddars Way including this male which was one of a pair.  His behaviour included the conspicuous display-flight and his agitated calling from within the hedge as I passed by, however, he popped out allowing this photo to be taken.
Not so conspicuous was a singing Lesser Whitethroat along Priory Road, he was typically singing his warble and rattle song out of sight.
Also seen in the area was a single Chiffchaff, Goldfinches, Yellowhammer, and a pair of Buzzards.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Great Cressingham (pre-dawn), Hockham (early-mid morning), and Ashill, Norfolk (late afternoon).

As we are now in the third week of April, the passage of birds and arrivals of summer migrants picks up apace.  Whereas autumn migration is more protracted, urgency is the key with birds needing to find their way to their breeding grounds in order to set up territory.
This morning it was evident that spring migration has quickened with the following highlights noted:

1 QUAIL still singing at Great Cressingham
1 Marsh Harrier (female) at Hockham
1 HOBBY at Hockham (my earliest date for this Falcon)
2 Sedge Warblers
6 Lesser Whitethroats (included 4 in song at dawn on 3 mile dog walk)  

Great Cressingham (pre-dawn)
I arrived on the Peddars Way with some light mist hanging over some fields and valleys, and the air was still, it was beautiful.
As I got out of my car, I immediately heard the highly distinctive song of a male QUAIL a short distance to the north of me.  The relative quiet of this early hour accentuates the song of this highly enigmatic species.
My early morning 3 mile walk with Toby produced 4 singing Lesser Whitethroats, 2 Whitethroats, and 3 Blackcaps
Driving back to Watton near Saham Hall, the 5th singing Lesser Whitethroat of the morning was in a well-wooded hedgerow.

Hockham
I arrived at this locality at about 0630, some mist was evident but this was soon to burn off to give bright, sunny conditions.
As soon as I arrived I saw 7+ Crossbills high overhead, then, I could hear 2 singing Sedge Warblers somewhere within a small patch of Phragmite reeds and Sallow.  There will undoubtedly be other birds in similar and distant, inaccessable areas.
At least 6 noisy Greylag Geese were seen as well as a few singleton Grey Herons in flight.
After a while I checked some of the peripheral woodland of Scots Pine and Larch when a small party of Crossbills alighted to feed.  A few Goldcrests were in song with one bird typically high in the canopy of a Scots Pine.
I later made my way back to my earlier location when I could see a female Marsh Harrier hunting back and forth over her territory.  It was interesting to note that when Buzzards (3 in total) appeared she would gain height and keep an eye on them and then return to hunt when the Buzzards moved off.


Marsh Harrier (female) at Hockham 21/04/14.
 

The photograph below of the Marsh Harrier shows one of the very distinctive features of the flight behaviour of this raptor, the wings are held in a shallow V as it quarters aboved the ground, quite different from the much bulkier Buzzard.  Also note the beautiful creamy head and inner leading edge of the wings, a feature which aids the sexing of this species.


Marsh Harrier (female) at Hockham 21/04/14


Mid to late April sees migration picking up and it is generally safe to predict when migrants return to us to breed or are seen on passage, however, as with the Quail, some species do take me by surprise as happened this morning when my first HOBBY of the year passed over and did some sweeps for insects.  I usually see this magnificent Falcon during the latter days of April or early May, this particular Hobby is my earliest ever record for this species.

Hobby at Hockham 21/04/14 (My earliest record for this species)
Other migrants seen this morning included a couple of Swallows and a north-bound Redpoll.  Resident species seen included Great Spotted Woodpecker, Carrion Crows, and the odd Siskin which may be a local breeder or a late migrant.

Ashill (late afternoon)
A walk along Common Road to as far as the old railway cutting produced a singing Lesser Whitethroat in a well-wooded hedgerow and dense Bramble scrub.  Also by the rail cutting a Chiffchaff and Blackcap was singing.  A check of the fields produced no migrants as far as I could see.




Sunday, 20 April 2014

Little and Great Cressingham (Peddars Way)

Dry at dawn soon followed by some very heavy showers early morning.  The day then remained dry with variable cloud. Moderate to fresh north-easterly wind.
With heavy showers passing through at dawn I walked the Peddars Way north of Little Cressingham hoping that more migrants may have made landfall.
Expected species were heard and seen, however, there did not appear to be any increases in numbers from my previous visit to this area.
Encouragingly, the singing QUAIL was still in crops close to where I initially heard the bird early on 18th April.  I hope it stays to breed.  Quail are very scarce breeding birds in the UK, most years I  hear just one, possibly two singing birds on my patch.
The presence of this Quail on my Breckland patch is tinged with  sadness and, some anger.  Quails are heavily hunted in the Mediterranean when on passage from Africa to their breeding grounds in Europe.  The human race can survive quite adequately without hunting wild birds on passage.  Conservation, bird protection, education, and the outlawing of hunting birds in the Mediterranean is a growing force, however, in some instances those protecting birds are sometimes under threat themselves from hunters. 
Whitethroat (male) photographed at Little Cressingham in May 2013.  More arrivals expected in the next week.
A single singing Whitethroat and a few Blackcaps were in song, also, several Linnets lined the hedgerows along the Peddars Way.  Over the next two weeks or so the main arrival of passage migrant and summer visitors will be seen and most hedgerows and woodlands will hold increased numbers of Warblers.
Walking back to the start point at Little Cressingham I could see a pair of nesting Mute Swans in the Watton Brook valley, also, overhead in the village, a single House Martin was seen.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Little and Great Cressingham (Peddars Way) for migrants.

A bright sunny day with some warm sunshine in sheltered areas, however, the moderate north-easterly wind had a cool feel to it.
Walking north along the Peddars Way from Little Cressingham I first checked the bare field for migrants but as far as I could see there were none.
Reaching North Bridge typical species seen and heard included Bullfinch, singing Greenfinch and Chaffinch, and a singing Blackcap.  The Peddars Way then runs north through open country with vast areas of arable on both sides of the road, crops here probably held few migrants, however, field egdes have been left uncultivated which are worth checking for migrant species, again, I could not locate any.
North of the Peddars Way/Great Cressingham crossroads the path is lined on both sides by well established and well stocked hedgerows with the thickest being on the right (eastern) boundary.  More breaks in the hedge on the left allow for views of the very large field beyond.  I reached one such break in the hedge to check the uncultivated field edge of bare soil hoping for Wheatear and almost as soon as I had this thought I saw a single Wheatear standing close to the crop.  After a few seconds the Wheatear flew up into a small tree ahead of me.
1st summer female Wheatear Great Cressingham, Norfolk 19/04/14
This female Wheatear was found in almost the same locality as the 1st summer male bird on the day before.  The pale fringing on the primary, secondary, and coverts ages this as a 1st summer bird.  I generally see most of my passage Wheatears in the Brecks from mid to late April.
A colloquial name for Wheatear is "clodhopper" and for me this a very appropriate name given its habit of running between and 'hopping' onto slightly more prominent clods of earth on open fields.
Also seen and heard along this length of the Peddars Way was a single singing Lesser Whitethroat and a fine looking singing male Whitethroat.
The walk back south along the Peddars Way produced a soaring Common Buzzard high above a traditionally used mixed woodland habitat for this species.
Before leaving I could hear the familiar call of a young Blackbird in the Watton Brook valley, whilst a male Blackcap sang in the area of the mill.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Early morning migrant magic at Great Cressingham, Norfolk.

At 0645 I arrived on the Peddars Way at Great Cressingham to bright conditions with a light to moderate north-easterly wind.  Despite the brightness a couple of dark clouds passed over giving very light drizzle, but this soon passed to leave bright dry conditions. 6 degrees celsius.
I decided to take Toby for a walk along the Peddars Way to check for newly arrived migrants with an emphasis on hopefully seeing my first Lesser Whitethroat of the year.
As soon as I got out of the car a male Whitethroat was singing in the track-side hedgerow ahead of me, and then as I continued along the path my predicted species, a singing male Lesser Whitethroat was found singing (and seen), again, in the track-side hedgerow.
The next species however was certainly not predicted and came as a complete surprise to me, it was a singing QUAIL.  This bird appeared to be singing quite close to me but I could not locate visually within a field of young wheat.  This is an extremely early bird as they are not generally heard in Norfolk until the second half of May.  Quail is our only migratory member of the Partridge/Pheasant family, it is thought to winter in the Senegal and Sudan area of Africa.
1st summer male Wheatear Great Cressingham 18/04/14.
As the Quail continued to occasionally sing I walked a little further along the Peddars Way and found this 1st summer male Wheatear.  The Quail was singing somewhere close by in the crops seen here behind the Wheatear.
This Wheatear can be aged by its pale-fringing on the wing feathers, in adult plumages the wings are a solid blackish.
A little further along the Peddars Way, a second Whitethroat was heard in song, also a singing Blackcap and Chiffchaff were heard.
Evidence of breeding was also seen with a Linnet carrying nesting material.


NORTHAMPTONSHIRE (Great Addington)
Late morning and we arrived at our daughters home in Irthlingborough to deliver Easter presents to our three grand-daughters.
Red Kite near Great Addington, Northamptonshire 18/04/14
At about 1400, I drove out to Great Addington for a walk in the rolling countryside to look for migrant species.
The most evident species seen was Red Kite with at least 6 birds together.  Although for much of the time the Kites were soaring and hunting for prey below, occasionally these beautiful raptors displayed great agility when engaged in chasing or diving steeply to the ground to pull up sharply.  4 Common Buzzards were also seen.
In the hedgerow close to where I parked, a male Lesser Whitethroat was singing, he was occasionally seen when flying between cover.
The only other migrant species seen on this visit was a single Swallow which overflew farmland and the nearby road.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

East Wretham and Croxton Heaths, Norfolk (with Andy Egan and Tony Foreman). A fascinating story of Tree Pipit migration.

At 0600, a former work colleague and good friend Andy Egan arrived at my home in Watton, this was our first meeting in 25 years, therefore there was much catching up to do.  This was to turn out to be a superb day.
We arrived at East Wretham Heath and we were duly met by another very good friend, Tony Foreman.  Following introductions we set off over the heath. The plan was to meet the Harling Drove and walk west to Croxton Heath and check the vast forest clearings for Breckland specialities.  We also searched for Adders, however, despite some warm sunshine in sheltered areas, the wind may have been too cool for these snakes to show.  Walking east back along, the next area to walk through was the mature Scots Pine woodland known as Waterloo Plantation.  This woodland was planted in celebration of Wellington's victory over Napolean at the battle of Waterloo.  An overview of Langmere produced a few birds, however, a check of open woodland was to produce a stunning bird for which this locality is known for.

Warbler species were now well established with several Blackcaps, Willow Warblers, and Chiffchaff in song.  Willow Warblers were most numerous within the relatively young mixed plantations of pine and Silver Birch.  It was along these woodland edges where we checked for Adders within what is superb habitat, however, none were found on this visit.
The large clearings on Croxton Heath produced 2 predicted species, the first was a single Woodlark performing its display flight and mournful, but sweet song high overhead.  As we walked through the clearing I saw a bird fly up and drop down in a familiar 'parachute' display and alight on top of a small Holly, this bird was a Tree Pipit, this was to be the first of 3 singing male Tree Pipits seen, one of which was accompanied by a female bird.
Tree Pipit (male) Croxton Heath 17/04/14
The male Tree Pipit pictured here on Croxton Heath has a fascinating story of migration to tell.  This photograph shows this bird has rings on both legs, subsequent communications with the BTO revealed that this bird was ringed at this site on 20 April 2013.  Since this time, this bird eventually migrated to Africa last autumn, its wintering range is south of the Sahara and extends from Guinea in the west to Ehtiopia in the east and may extend as far as South Africa.  Then, this bird migrated north from its African wintering grounds back to the very clearing where it was ringed in 2013 on Croxton Heath where I found the bird today.  I am sure you will agree that this feat of migration with all of its natural and man-made hazzards is truly fascinating.

The only raptor species seen today was a single Common Buzzard.  This bird was seen over Croxton Heath where it typically attracted the attention of mobbing Crow species.

We then spent some time overviewing Langmere from the hide.  From this location a few Shelduck, a pair of Egyptian Geese, Lapwings, a pair of Little Grebes, Tufted Duck, a few Coot, and Crows were all seen.  Close to along the fringes of the water a Pied Wagtail gathered food for its young.

Having left the hide, I became aware of the familiar song of a bird which East Wretham is famed for, this bird was a male Redstart.  This sweet but simple, short warble was tracked to some Hawthorns and scattered mature Scots Pines.  This bird was quite mobile, however, on one occasion it was seen in a Hawthorn where it revealed its superb bright plumage.  Seen against a background of green  leaves, this beautiful Redstart showed off its bright Orange underparts which contrasted strongly with the black bib which in turn accentuated the bright white fore-crown.  The bird appeared to fly-catch within the Hawthorn, this behaviour showed off briefly the extremely beautiful bright Orange rump and tail.  Tony rightly described this stunning Redstart as "exotic".

Following the encounter with the Redstart, we walked slowly over the heath back to the car park, arriving there at about 1130.

I would like to finish this entry by thanking Andy and Tony for joining me on this tour of this, one of all time favourite birding locations.  Thank you Andy and Tony for your company and for making this a superb day out. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

'Nettle Creeper' back on the patch.

Great Cressingham (early morning)
A slight overnight frost was followed by another fine, sunny morning with a light south-easterly wind.  Although the wind had a slight chill to it, there was plenty of warm sunshine in sheltered areas.
This morning I visited the area of Great Cressingham from Chalk Hill to Southwater.  There are some fine old hedgerows, damp woodland, scrub habitat, and a mature belt of Scots Pines in this rolling landscape.
Driving along Chalk Hill a pair of Bullfinches flew in and out of the hedgerows ahead of me along the lane in their typical bounding flight before darting sharply into cover and showing their highly distinctive white rump.
The walk down the hill between the hedgerows seemed fairly quiet, however, once close to the are known as Southwater, I looked back and saw a Red Kite drifting slowly east beofre turning to fly towards me and then off south along the valley.
Whitethroat (male) Gt Cressingham 16/04/14
Having just watched the Red Kite pass overhead I then heard the distinctive scratchy warble of a Whitethroat (my predicted bird for the day).  This was my first Whitethroat of the year and is a typical arrival date for the species.
A short search soon revealed the Whitethroat in some scrub close to the path.  Whilst at this site the Whitethroat ranged quite widely from where I initially found the bird, to other typical habitats including bramble scrub, light damp woodland, and a thick patch of scrub on the Watton Brook valley.
The Whitethroat is also known in the UK as 'Nettle Creeper' due to its habit of creeping through nettles, brambles, and umbellifers, within which it nests and also searches for food.
Whitethroats return to the UK from their African wintering grounds mid-April (my earliest Record is 12th April), however, the main migration/arrivals occurs in the second half of April.
The wintering grounds for Whitethroat is along the Sahel region of Africa.  The Sahel is a 600 mile wide (North to South) belt south of the Sahara Desert and stretches from the east coat to the west coast of Africa.
Back to Great Cressingham, also seen/heard in the area of Southwater was at least 3 singing Blackcaps, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Coal Tit, and Chaffinch.
Having been entertained by the beautiful Whitethroat, I returned towards Chalk Hill along the corridor of hedgerows where once again a pair of Bullfinches flew in and out of cover ahead of me  showing off their conspicuous white rumps......a good end to this visit.   

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Hockham Fen (A Breckland gem)

Within the extensive forest of pine and mixed woodland habitats at Hockham is Hockham Fen, a truly fantastic ancient grassland comprising juncus grasses, phragmite reedbeds, and peripheral Sallow and Birch scrub.  This is a very damp site with some standing water.  I positioned myself for about an hour at the base of a tall tree where I could overview most of the fen.
Thick cloud dominated with poor light, however, brighter conditions slowly moved in from the north.
Several Swallows (including 6 together) were seen low over the fen, clearly these birds would have been attracted to the abundance of insect food over the fen.
Marsh Harrier (female) Hockham Fen 12/04/14 
As with much of my birding I like to go out with a target species and today the expected bird was seen, a Marsh Harrier (female).  This raptor was seen very briefly initially then went out of site for an hour so, it later returned to hunt over the grassland and reedbeds. It always remianed quite distant.
This was a typically marked Marsh Harrier appearing all dark-brown with the exception of the creamy head and nape with the distinctive ete-stripe. The legs were a conspicuous yellow.

Whilst sitting at the base of the tree, I heard an approaching flock of Crossbills. soon after, a flock of 20+ Crossbills alighted in the top of the tree directly above me.  Interestingly, at least one of these Crossbills was a heavily streaked juvenile bird, quite probably this was a locally raised bird.
Expected species included a number of Grey Herons, Mallard, a few Teal, and 3 Buzzards overhead.
The wind direction was not helpful when trying to listen to birdsong and later during this visit I could hear the song of another species I was expecting, however, the wind was carrying the song away from me. I was eventually able to hear the song well, it was that of a Sedge Warbler.  Although not seen, this Sedge Warbler was singing within a stand of phragmite reeds and constitutes my first record of this species this year.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Ashill (evidence of passage) and Little Cressingham, Norfolk

Ashill, Norfolk 0730-0845
I arrived on Common Lane to high cloud with a hint of brighter things to come from the north. The wind was a light to moderate northerly.
My intention this morning was to look for evidence of passage (departing migrants) and at 0750, one of my predicted species was seen.  3 Meadow Pipits passed almost directly over me calling and in a northerly heading, I continued to watch these migrants as they flew north until lost to view.  This is clear evidence of passage of a species which will be heading to their breeding grounds in upland Britain or Scandinavia, having spent the winter months either in lowland Britain or even further south on the Iberian peninsula.
Also noted along Common Lane was several Linnets and Yellowhammers and in the sky above, Skylarks sang.
Summer migrants on territory included singing Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, and a Willow Warbler.
Farmland east of the cutting held at least 3 Lapwings, this included a displaying bird performing its low level acrobatic stunts of lightning fast twists and turns.

Little Cressingham (afternoon)
With a temperature high of 14 degrees and a coolish northerly wind, it was lovely to sit out of the wind on the Peddars Way north of the village where the sun was quite warm on the back.
Leaving Little Cressingham on the Peddars Way, a pair of Common Buzzards soared high on thermals above 'The Nunneries'.
In the valley I took up position and sat for about an hour watching the beautiful well-wooded hedgerow which always attracts good numbers of birds.  This is an old hedgerow comprising Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Elder, Guelder Rose, Oak and Ash.  Today, a good variety of birds were seen with Finch species dominating.  At least 2 pairs of 'piping' Bullfinches were seen, also, many Goldfinches, Chaffinches, and Greenfinch, all occupied one well stocked length of old hedgerow.
Summer visitors in this habitat included 2 singing male Blackcaps, a single Chiffchaff, and overhead, a single Swallow passed over.

Walking back to the car I met an old friend Chris White (originally from Watton now living in London) and his lovely wife Sandra and daughter Grace (also met their other daughter Charlotte near home).  Good to see you all again.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Arrivals, passage, and possible migrant Goshawk

Houghton-on-the-Hill 0730-1000
Blackcap (male) at Houghton-on-the-Hill 10/04/14
A bright morning with strong sunshine and in sheltered parts it was quite warm.
It was evident since my previous visit that Blackcap numbers have increased, therefore, I decided to sit in an area where I knew that Blackcaps have set up territory. Despite this, the male Blackcap was frustratingly singing out of sight with only brief glimpses seen, including when the bird was seen taking an Ivy berry for food, however, the bird did sing at distance on top of a branch offering the opportunity for this photograph.
Several Chiffchaffs were in song as was a Goldcrest.
There was some evidence of passage overhead with calling Redpoll and Brambling, both species will be heading north with the Brambling making for Scandinavian Birch forests to breed.

Thompson Water 1330-1600
My intention this afternoon was to see if yesterdays Marsh Harriers were still present, however, it would appear that they had continued their passage as there was no sign.
Migrant Warblers were well represented by both Blackcap and Chiffchaff, also, the resident Cetti's Warbler occasionally gave a burst of its explosive song.
On the water was 3 Great Crested Grebes, a pair and singleton.  The pair appeared to be strengthening their bond by showing signs of display.
With conditions good for raptors my eyes were always on the sky, however, just a single Buzzard passed over in a fast glide from west to east.  Things were set to change.
2nd year Goshawk at Thompson Water 10/04/14
At about 1515 whilst checking the sky, I saw a very distant speck against clouds and to the north-east.  I followed the speck and as it came closer it was descending in a fast glide and it became apparent that this was a large raptor species.  It certainly looked good for Goshawk and indeed the structure of the bird indicated also this was Goshawk.  The bird passed almost directly overhead and continued its glide south towards the battle area.  It wasn't until following the examination of the photographs that this was in fact a 2nd calendar year Goshawk. The heavily streaked underparts of this bird separates this species from Sparrowhawk and the absence of dark carpals and hands discounts Buzzard.  Goshawks moult from immature to adult plumage in their 2nd year, this will see the streaking on the underparts become coarse barring as seen in adult birds.  Given the great height and directional approach of this Goshawk, the question is, was this a locally bred bird from last year or a migrant?
This beautiful raptor provided a good ending to this visit to Thompson Water.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Marsh Harrier spectacle.

The morning dawned bright and sunny, however, a chilly SW wind kept temperatures at dawn at 5 degrees.  The afternoon was warm and very bright with a high of 18 degrees.
Early morning I walked north from 'The Arms' at Little Cressingham to as far as Watton Brook, a lovely stream which meanders through farmland and STANTA before flowing into the River Wissey.
On land north of the brook, a pair of Oystercatchers fed between grazing sheep.  Also 3 Mallard were present.
I found myself a nice spot to sit and overlook arable land, some of which has been set aside for grazing sheep.  From this point I saw several Skylarks both on the ground and singing in the early morning sunshine.  Some chasing was seen between some of these birds...rival males perhaps.  Also here a small party of about 8 Linnets came and went.
Brown Hare at Little Cressingham 09/04/14.
Whilst overviewing farmland, this Brown Hare was seen in front of me.  He/she had an idea I was in the area as it often warily sat twitching its ears (often towards me), when it had enough it moved off sharpish.  On one occasion this animal was seen quite close as it sat on its haunches, using its front paws for an early morning wash.
An interesting migrant appeared behind me as I was watching the Hare, unfortunately, the bright, low sun made it diffcult for me to locate it and if I moved...it would have moved.  The bird was a Redpoll.  This bird occasionally sang, however, the most frequent call heard was the familiar "djit djit".  I eventually saw this small Finch flying to the north.  Redpolls are sadly quite scarce breeding birds now, this particular bird would have been a winter visitor which is now on passage to its probable Scandinavian breeding grounds.

Thompson Water 1500-1800 (with Richard Farrow)
At 1500, I met my very good friend Richard Farrow at Thompson Water.  The afternoon was sunny and warm and there was a fantastic light cast over the water, reedbeds and surrounding woodland.
Several Great Tits and Reed Buntings were seen in the area of the hide and surrounding damp woodland scrub/carr.  Also in the nearby area was singing Blackcap and Chiffchaff and overhead Siskins passed by.  Cetti's Warblers occasionally gave a burst of its explosive song.
Female Marsh Harrier (one of 2) Thompson Water 09/04/14
Whilst watching birds in the area of the hide, an unusual raptor species passed overhead, further investigation revealed a female Marsh Harrier over woodland and reedbed habitat, however, Richard confirmed there were 2 female Marsh Harriers, and indeed, he captured an excellent photograph of both birds together.
The presence of these visiting raptors caused them to be the subject of attention from resident Buzzards and Corvid species which frequently mobbed the Harriers. 
Although occasionally seen at height soaring above the water, the Marsh Harriers also did what they do very well, hunting just above
Reed Bunting (male) at Thompson Water 09/04/14
the reedbeds around the periphery of the water.  It was possible at times to see the structural differences between the Marsh Harrier and close-by Buzzard.  Buzzards are much bulkier birds with broader wings than the Harrier, also, the underwing of Buzzard is a mixture of pale and darker colours with much barring, the female Marsh Harrier appears all dark with no underwing barring.   When seen head-on it was possible to see the Harriers wings held in the typical shallow V, a distinctive feature of the Harriers.
Marsh Harriers are annual passage migrants to Thompson Water. It is likely that these stunning raptors wintered in Africa, although it should be remembered that Marsh Harriers do winter in small numbers in Britain.
Richard was able to take a stunning image of the Buzzard over the water, the picture showed in excellent detail the pale underparts and conspicuous barring formed by the dark tips to the underwing coverts.  As well as mobbing the visiting Marsh Harrier, the Buzzard also made close passes at a single Cormorant.
This was a productive visit to Thompson Water and as always it was great to be in the company of my good friend Richard Farrow....thank you Richard.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Migrants

Overnight rain moved away, this was followed by a cloudy dawn with a further belt of rain moving through mid-morning.  Brighter spells threatened, however, the theme for most of the day was cloud with varying degrees of light.
Early morning and I took my Toby for a walk starting at Houghton-on-the-Hill.  We walked downhill to the valley and water meadows before returning to Houghton Common and our start point.
At least 2 male Blackcaps were singing in woodland near the church along with ChiffchaffYellowhammers and Linnets were typically found in or near farmland hedgerows along the route.
At Houghton water meadows at least 3 Snipe were seen, this included a bird singing in flight along with the distinctive 'drumming' display flight.  The song is a repeated "chip-per chip-per", however, the fantastic 'drumming' display flight is a sound very much of yesteryear, sadly, this is a sound not heard too often in inland Norfolk now.  When Ornithological writings was in its infancy, observers thought the 'drumming' sound produced by Snipe was a call, however, later studies discovered that this 'pulsating vibrating hum' was made by the outer tail feathers held away from the rest of the tail, the wind passed through these feathers causing this beautiful vibrating sound.  The Snipe 'drumming' occurs when the bird is in a shallow, and sometimes steep dive over its chosen breeding site.  Whilst watching displaying Snipe with binoculars it is possible to see the outer tail feathers held away from the tail.
Walking back to Houghton Common along the lane produced further singing Blackcaps and Chiffchaff.  One particular Blackcap was seen singing in dense hawthorn blossom, he was also seen to visit a thick patch of Ivy, a breeding habitat for this Warbler species.
Also of note was an overhead party of 40+ Fieldfare.  This winter Thrush may be moving through Norfolk until late April/early May.

Friday, 4 April 2014

First Willow Warbler of the year and an impressive gathering of Fieldfare

Today dawned murky, misty, and very grey, and that's the way it remained for much of the day.  Visibility was therefore quite poor with low light.
An early morning walk along Common Lane, Ashill, produced a couple of singing Blackcaps and 3+ Chiffchaffs.  At the disused rail cutting at least 3 Blackbirds and a number of Linnets were present.
I then checked a large, young plantation with a scrub understorey and heard this mornings predicted bird, a singing male Willow Warbler, my first returning bird of this year.

Little Cressingham
At mid-day I took Toby for a walk north along the Great Cressingham road from 'The Arms'.  Upon approaching Watton Brook I became aware of chattering Fieldfares in the trees by the barn.
Fieldfare at Little Cressingham 04/04/14
As I walked past the woodland, lots of Fieldfares dropped from the trees to the pasture to the west.  Once in position I was able to estimate a flock of 1500+ Fieldfare ranging between Bodney (Bodney Slip) and the Hopton Farm area.  Many of these Fieldfares appeared quite confident and returned to the trees around me, however, on one occasion the whole flock appeared to have been disturbed and flew just above and to the side of me, as these hundreds of Fieldfare passed by me there was a continuous "whooosh" of wings...an incredible sound and experience.
Walking back along the road towards 'The Arms', a singing male Blackcap was in the wooded pit, careful looking in the trees and shrubbery eventually produced a glimpse of the bird in song within a tangle of branches.
Also at this locality, a few Redwings flew from cover of trees within the pit.  

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Yellowhammer near Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk

Yellowhammer (male) near Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk 02/04/14
I seemed to lack motivation to do too much today but a short walk with my beautiful Toby revealed a number of singing Linnets, Chaffinches, and Yellowhammers in typical hedgerow habitat.
Yellowhammers are often overlooked birds, probably due to their common status, however, these are stunning birds and always worth a prolonged look.  Attention is always drawn to the bright yellow head and underparts of this gorgeous Bunting, however, the upperparts offer a nice contrast as does that beautiful chestnut rump.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

South Pickenham estate, Norfolk

April is the month which sees the greatest movements of birds returning to us to breed from their wintering grounds in the Mediterranean and Africa, and indeed it is the month which still witnesses migratory Thrushes and Finches departing for their Northern European breeding grounds.
This morning I set off at 0700 from the beautiful church at South Pickenham and walked a large circuit over farmland, eventually re-joining the South Pickenham road at Great Cressingham Fen.  As with many areas on my patch, the localities walked through today are very typical of Breckland with blocks of Pine woodland, mixed woodland, and sandy tracks and adjoining farmland.
The first section of my walk took me through mature mixed woodland and as expected this was where most species was encountered this morning. 
As I set off the first bird of the morning was a lovely Red Kite circling low over the treetops within parkland, this bird settled for a while in a treetop before moving off.  Jackdaws were ever present, the habitat here of mature parkland trees will offer many suitable nest sites in holes and cavities etc.
Warbler numbers are certainly on the increase now with 10+ singing Chiffchaffs being the most abundant Warbler with at least 8 singing Blackcap following a close second.  Most of these Blackcaps were encountered along the initial stage of my walk in a large area of parkland and mature mixed woodland habitat. A single calling male Golden Pheasant was hidden somewhere on the woodland floor.
Also noted along the walk was 2+ Nuthatches, 3+ Treecreepers, 4+ Coal Tit territories, singing Marsh Tit, 4+ singing Song Thrushes, a pair of Stock Doves, calling Green Woodpecker, and many singing Skylarks over open farmland.     

At 0845 I found a good spot to observe woodland and parkland on the South Pickenham estate, here I remained for an hour or so listening to and watching the wealth of birdlife that occurs here.
Red Kite at South Pickenham, Norfolk 01/04/14
Dominating the sky and woodland was this majestic Red Kite, this bird often circled just above the woodland canopy but also alighted a number of times in the tops of trees, when, on this occasion, I was able to photograph it through branches.

Jackdaw at South Pickenham, Norfolk 01/04/14
Once again Jackdaws were plentiful as one would expect in this type of habitat. These 'comical' Crows will utilise holes and cavities in trees, as well as holes in old buildings such as churches, for nest sites.
A Mistle Thrush was seen carrying a worm in its bill, clear evidence of young being tended to.
Early spring bird song in the woodland habitat here really does lift the spirits and species heard during my time here included a male singing Blackcap (seen in treetops), also the following were all in song -NuthatchCoal Tit, GoldcrestMarsh Tit, Great Tit, Chaffinch, and Wren.