Breckland Birder

Breckland Birder
Crossbill in Breckland, Norfolk Photo by Paul Newport

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Southburgh, Norfolk

Southburgh in Norfolk lies about 8 miles north-east of Watton.  This is a very small settlement close to the larger Cranworth, and will possibly appear remote and isolated to some.
I parked at St Andrews Church, a lovely 19th century building with a spire, a good focal point for the walker.  The walk today took me east of the church along Church Lane, through rolling countryside to as far as the River Blackwater on the Southburgh Road, and back again along the same lane.
A variety of habitats were seen, and although mostly arable, good thick hedgerows with mature standard deciduous lined the roadside.  Pockets of woodland were seen in fields with two good sized woods which are adjacent to the lane.  The meandering River Blackwater on the Southburgh Road flows gently through rush meadow, woodland, and damp grassland, and has mature Alders growing along its banks.
The dominant birds seen on this walk was Thrush species and it was straight away evident that lots of Blackbirds were present with birds flying in and out of the roadside Hawthorn hedging.  Redwings gave themselves away by their "chuk" and "seeeep" calls and many were seen, again in Hawthorn hedging.  In woodland habitat and close to the river, several Thrush species were seen in mixed company, these comprised Fieldfares, Redwings, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, and Mistle Thrush.
My first raptor of this visit was a single Common Buzzard sitting in a tree on woodland edge, this bird sat upright with its left wing held slightly from its body, it called then flew off.
Walking through more wooded areas I heard the explosive call of Marsh Tit, also heard was Treecreeper.  A number of Bullfinches were heard.
Upon my approach to the River Blackwater, a number of Fieldfares and Redwings were in the tops of Alders, the Fieldfares flew off giving their harsh "shack shack" calls.  Next, a pair of Goldcrests called in trees close to me by the bridge and a male Kestrel hunted above marshy grassland habitat immediately west of the river.  A Moorhen called in the valley and a Grey Wagtail passed overhead calling.
Walking west back along Southburgh Road and once again Fieldfares and Redwings kept almost constant company as they flew ahead of me and frequently alighting in trees before flying off ahead of me again.  A single Redpoll was seen above the lane giving its "djit djit" call.
As I was getting ready to depart, an unseen Bullfinch gave its 'piping' call somewhere very close to me.  Finally, the peace was shattered at the church by numerous alarm calling Tit species, undoubtedly alarmed by the presence of a hunting Sparrowhawk which I did not see.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Houghton-on-the-Hill and Little Cressingham, Norfolk

The morning dawned clear and bright with a slight to moderate frost, a complete contrast to the persistent rain of the weekend which has left lots of standing water of fields, especially along the valleys.
A walk on Houghton Common was particularly productive for Thrush species. The corridor of well stocked hedgerows east of St Mary's Church saw some very good numbers of Blackbirds (30+), Fieldfares, Redwings, and Bullfinches. It was clear that the hedgerows were particularly well-stocked with Hawthorn, an undoubted attraction to the Thrushes. The question is, were these Blackbirds grounded by the poor conditions of the previous weekend, or did they take advantage of the clear night for passage, whichever was the case, these birds were clearly overnight arrivals given their urgency to feed.

Little Cressingham (Watton Brook Valley) at dawn 24/11/14

Lapwings taking advantage of the flooded fields along the Watton Brook Valley at Little Cressingham 24/11/14

'The Arms' to Watton brook Valley near Hopton Farm, Little Cressingham
Following the heavy persistent rain of the previous weekend, Watton Brook was running very high and the adjoining flood plains all along the valley was extensively flooded.
the standing water along the valley attracted hundreds of Gulls, mostly Black-headed Gulls, with much larger Lesser Black-backed Gulls within.  At least 50+ Lapwings visited the flood along with small flocks of Starlings.
A few Pied Wagtails alined the fence alongside the brook, also, 4 Blue Tits passed along the brook-side vegetation searching for grubs and other small invertebrates to feed upon.  A Fieldfare was heard as was an overhead calling Redpoll.
The walk back to 'The Arms' continued as the day started with several Blackbirds in the roadside hedges.  Bullfinches continued to be seen darting between cover and showing their bright white rumps.  Two Bullfinches flew in front of me, one was a beautiful bright male showing his scarlet red underparts...surely one of our most beautiful birds.


Friday, 21 November 2014

Little and Great Cressingham, Norfolk

A very typical November day with murky conditions although temperatures remained above average peaking at about 10 degrees.  Some short lived brighter spells soon gave way to rain by mid-afternoon.

Peddars Way Footpath (Little and Great Cressingham)
My first walk of the day took me from the village of Little Cressingham north along the Peddars Way to the Priory Road junction at Great Cressingham, and back again, a distance of about 3.5 miles.
Initially appearing quiet, fortunes changed about a mile north of Little Cressingham with a flock of about 50 Fieldfares on the fields and in hedgerows alongside the road.  A few Starlings mixed with the Thrushes.  The hedges here are rich in fruits, mostly Hawthorn and Blackthorn, which the Fieldfares will eat, but also, the birds flocked on the wet fields where various invertebrates will be taken.
1st winter male Blackbird
Between the Peddars Way crossroads and Priory Road, the path is lined both sides with well stocked hedgerows, the most noticeable species here was multiple numbers of Bullfinches and Blackbirds.  The number of 'piping' Bullfinches indicated several birds present in the hedgerows.  Equally, several Blackbirds seen would show that many of these are continental birds.
Walking back south along the path, Blackbirds continued to show themselves and flashes of white rumps between cover gave the delightful Bullfinch away.
North Bridge, Little Cressingham is always worth a prolonged watch as so much habitat exists here in the valley.  On this occasion, Blackbirds, Song Thrush, a few Goldfinches, and Redpoll (3) were seen.  The latter two species will probably be attracted to the abundance of Alder, a favoured food source for these Finches.

Little Cressingham (Hopton Farm to The Fairstead)
This afternoon I walked the Great Cressingham road from the Watton Brook Valley north to The Fairstead and back, a distance of about 2 miles.
Immediately, I was greeted by another small flock of about 40 Fieldfares in the meadow north of the brook.  Typically wary, these Thrushes often took to the wing, however, they were seen on the grassy paddock where they will take various invertebrates.  A Great Spotted Woodpecker was seen chisseling away at dead bark in an Oak.
Walking north up the hill, a number of Blackbirds were seen as well as the odd flash of white rump of a Bullfinch darting between cover.   
Back by the brook I checked a large area of grazing where a single Buzzard was on Rabbit prey.  A further Buzzard was over Princes Covert.  A single Grey Wagtail passed over calling.
I headed home with conditions turning increasingly murky, once home, rain set in.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Grimes Graves, Norfolk (with Richard Farrow)

Following a dismal weekend of thick fog and heavy rain it was a pleasure to get out and enjoy a mornings birding with my good friend Richard Farrow in reasonably good conditions and light.
We met as arranged at Grimes Graves at about 0800 with the intention of watching the Great Grey Shrike which is wintering at the site.
Walking along the forest trail it was evident that the area had been used for a motorcycle event as the ground was churned up and difficult to walk on.  With a purpose built track not too far away at Wretham I wondered why this locality had to be used.
We eventually made it to the road which accesses Grimes Graves and started our search for the Shrike, however, it was not to be, it would appear that the bird was keeping low or was temporarily visiting another location.  Magpies were seen perched on tops of Hawthorns doing their best to fool us into thinking they were Shrikes.
Although cloud was passing over at intervals, the light was good as we overviewed the heath.  A small party of Yellowhammers were in Hawthorns and a Tit flocked passed through comprising mostly Long-tailed Tits.  The trees around us prodcued passing Goldcrests whilst 'piping' Bullfinches were heard.  Some singleton Blackbirds passed back and forth.
It was while overviewing the heath that a single Redpoll overflew giving its distinctive "djit djit" call.
Richard and I decided to walk to the entrance gate to Grimes Graves and had some nice views of 3 Green Woodpeckers on the ground where they would search for ants.  The area here is full of well-established Yellow Meadow Ants mounds, therefore providing a good feeding site for Green Woodpeckers.  A single Pied Wagtail paid us a visit at the gate.
Back at our original viewpoint we resumed our search for the Shrike with no success.  It was at this time however, that Ron Seymour, a Wymondham birder arrived.  Ron is a lovely man and we have met on a few occasions, the first of our meetings was back in 1993 when we watched a Hoopoe at Saxlingham Nethergate.  It was really good to catch up with Ron.
Time drew on and it was time to walk back to the car.  Walking along the trail a lovely flock of about 6 Redpolls flew into the top of a Silver Birch almost directly above us, however, their stay was very short.  I did manage to see a lovely male bird before they flew off.
Richard saw a Jay in front of us and we commented on the numbers of these beautiful Crows in the Breckland area at the moment.  I saw some high flying Jays over Watton on September, perhaps our local Jay numbers have been augmented by continental birds.
Despite not seeing the Great Grey Shrike on this occasion it was still a very pleasant morning, especially so as I was in the company of Richard, and for meeting up with Ron.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Threxton and Little Cressingham, Norfolk

Although fairly clear at dawn, thick fog once again soon descended over Breckland, this would clear readily to be replaced by heavy rain.
I started out on a 4 mile walk from the sewage treatment works (STW) at Threxton and heard Goldcrests calling in the conifer belt around the STW.  A Kingfisher was heard only in the Watton Brook valley.  Further along the lane a single Little Owl sat motionless on a fencepost in the half-light.  Soon after this, a Sparrowhawk was disturbed in the hedgerow and flew out carrying prey in its talons.
As I reached the junction with the Great Cressingham road at Saham Hall, 2 Kestrels sat together on wires, these were probably young birds.
I then walked the Great Cressingham road for just over a mile until I reached the Peddars Way.  Along the route were lots of Pheasants, Wood Pigeons, and calling Stock DoveBullfinches and Goldcrests were heard along this road.
Walking south along the Peddars Way, the narrow lane descends to the Watton Brook valley at North Bridge, Little Cressingham.  I always spend time checking this area as so much habitat exists in this mix of damp pasture for grazing and arable.  A variety of tree species are present, the most numerous being Alder, with Oak, Ash, and Birch, and a healthy understorey of Hawthorn and Bramble.  This visit saw Bullfinches 'piping' in the trees above along with a pair of Goldcrests.  Several migrant Blackbirds were present along with Redwings, Song Thrush, and a few Fieldfare.
As well as these lovely pockets of habitat, this part of Breckland has wide open vistas of rolling countryside, and although no raptors were seen this morning, I am always ready for the appearance of wintering raptors, especially Peregrine (which is regular), Merlin, and very occasionally (and not often enough) Hen Harrier.
At Little Cressingham I turn left to follow the B1108 back to my start point, it was now becoming increasingly foggy once again.  Further Goldcrests were heard, especially once again in the conifer screen at the STW, also, a Grey Wagtail was heard and my third Kestrel of the walk was seen. 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Hedge planting.

In June of this year we moved into our bungalow in Watton, Norfolk.  I really do miss our previous home and the large garden I had which was created with wildlife in mind.  However, the house was a bit to big for us, and with our son and daughter in their own homes now it was decided that we should look at downsizing.
We have an attractive enclosed back garden in our new home with some wildlife friendly plants, however, the border along the length of the back fence was empty of plants although it was evident that some large conifers were there by the buried stumps.  These conifers were felled sometime ago as the roots were dead and quite easy to remove.
And so to the project.  At either corner I wanted a tree, one corner already a young Ash tree, the other I planted a lovely Rowan.  I chose native hedging plants for the border, these comprised 10 Hawthorn, 10 Blackthorn, 6 Dog Rose, and 10 Elder.  My idea is to create a mix of species and to this end I planted 2 Hawthorn, 2 Blackthorn, a Dog Rose, and so on.  The Elders were given their own space as these would not do too well within the fast growing thorny hedging.
This mix of native hedging will provide a breeding habitat for a range of bird species, as well as a feeding station and roost site, additionally, a wide range of insect species will be attracted to this habitat.
I am hoping that my hedge will provide a visual spectacle in spring with the various flowers blossoming and an equally colourful fruit larder in autumn for both resident and migrant birds.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Great Cressingham, Norfolk (Village to Rowley Corner and back)

Today has been a very windy day with low thick cloud and frequent showers.  Light was generally very poor with just the odd bright spell.
The route taken is a straight road of just over a mile, it then meets the main A1065 Swaffham to Brandon road.  Being as staight as a dye , some drivers think it is ok to speed, clearly, these people fail to understand that the unexpected may occur and therefore the thinking time is greatly reduced if a potential incident occurs...maybe these drivers will learn the hard way.
From the crossroads at the South Pickenham crossroads to Rowley Corner is exactly one mile and for the full length along the southern side of the road is given over to Pigs.  This area has for many years been used for rearing Pigs.
Probably the most impressive sight of the day was the 1,000's of Starlings which kept in one large gathering on the field presumably to feed upon various invertebrates.  Also on the field was hundreds of Gulls, these comprised Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, and by far the most numerous was Black-headed Gulls.  Often these Gulls would be near or in the wallows.  Wood Pigeons, Stock Doves, and Jackdaws were scattered around the field.
Pied Wagtail.  A species seen around livestock.
The roadside hedgerows supported Goldcrests, Bullfinches, a flock of 50+ Fieldfare, and a few Redwings and Song Thrushes, and a single Buzzard.  Sadly, I found a dead Tree Sparrow, a traffic casualty.
Pied Wagtails were seen, this is an expected species in such habitats where they are constantly on the go searching for midges etc. around livestock and beside water, in this case wallows for pigs.
At least 2 Red Kites were seen, these beautiful raptors constantly scoured the ground below for carrion, and in fact along the road I found a long dead animal and it was clear that the Kites took a great deal of interest in it as I stood by the potential food.  Despite the strong and gusty wind, I marveled at how the Red Kites mastered the wind and held course, their beautiful reddish forked tail being used as a rudder to steer.
This was an interesting area to watch and I must admit that the large numbers of Starlings was very impressive.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Great Grey Shrike at Grimes Graves, Norfolk

Breckland contains many sites which could potentially hold a wintering Great Grey Shrike, however, sites like Grimes Graves are traditionally good for this enigmatic species.  Wide open expanses of heathland with lots of scattered bushes, especially Hawthorn, makes up the habitat here, however, views are from the periphery as this is private land.
Having parked alongside one of the many forest trails near the village of Lynford, I walked the forest trails until the heathland opened up in front of me and within seconds I saw a bright white speck on a distant Hawthorn, checking this with the binoculars revealed the Great Grey Shrike.  The bird remained in view for all of my 30 minute stay, however, it always remained distant.

Great Grey Shrike at Grimes Graves 03/11/14
Despite remaining distant, the Shrike was typically conspicuous, this being due to its behaviour of sitting on prominent perches on top of Hawthorns, watching and waiting for potential prey to be sighted.
Occasionally, the Shrike flew between perches or gave chase to passing Finches, in doing so the beautiful mix of black, whites, and greys were seen on this bird.
Although distant, the picture on the left shows the highly distinctive plumage features of this predatory species.  The crown and mantle are a pale grey, this contrasts strongly with the black mask through the eye, black wings, black tail (white sides), and bright white underparts. A white patch on the wings opens into a bright white wing-bar when in flight.  Close views of this bird would show a raptor-like hooked bill, this highly efficient tool is used to tear open its prey.
Great Grey Shrike at Grimes Graves 03/11/14
The picture to the left shows a very typical view of a Great Grey Shrike sitting on the topmost part of a bush and watching its surroundings for potential prey. From such a perch, the Shrike will launch its attack, and indeed, I witnessed this when a Finch of Bunting species was chased to height before the Shrike returned to the same, or nearby perch.
Although distant, this picture shows how easy it is to pick out this species, however, a distant bird may be more difficult to pick out if its was against a bright background.  

Also seen at this locality was a few Mistle Thrushes, one of which was chased by the Shrike, Jay, Carrion Crows, and a single Fieldfare.
The mixture of Pine and Birch habitat in the area held several Goldcrests and a mobile Long-tailed Tit flock which included more Goldcrests.
Shrikes are my favourite group of birds and throughout the coming winter months I will be visiting this stunning bird again.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Bodney, Norfolk (at sunset)

What an incredibly mild start to November with temperatures today reaching 18 degrees Celsius.  The day was sunny following some early cloud and light rain.  Skies were clear at sunset and the temperatures did then start to fall, although it was still mild for the time of year.
1600 Bodney: I walked along Smugglers Road which leads to one of the gates which accesses the Stanford Training Area.  Although not too far from the main B1108 road, the wide open spaces here does give a feel of bleakness and isolation, my kind of country.
The first bird seen along the route was a single Kestrel sitting rather Shrike-like on the top of one of the few Hawthorns which break this otherwise open country.  A bit further along I saw a larger raptor flying distantly against the tree-line, this was a pale looking Buzzard.  Meadow Pipits and a few Skylarks were passing overhead.
Looking ahead to the mature woodland belt which runs along the boundary of the army training, I was hoping that there would be some pre-roost movement of passerine species.  Upon reaching this habitat, the first bird heard was a calling Chiffchaff, clearly, the mild weather has given this migrant species no reason to move south at this time, and indeed, if it remains mild, the bird may over-winter in the area.  Mild winters will see migrant species over-winter, this was seen at Threxton sewage treatment works in February of this year when I found 3, possibly 4 Chiffchaffs wintering.
Also seen and heard within the mature woodland belt were Redwings and Song Thrushes, these wintering Thrushes probably spent the day feeding on nearby heaths and pastures.  Coal Tits, Goldcrest, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker were also heard here.
Light was fading fast as I walked back towards the car, and thoughts of a Hen Harrier gently passing over farmland to its roost crossed my mind….and that is as far as it went…just thoughts.