A Tour of the Brecks 17th March 2019

After nearly two weeks of bleak, windy weather and lots of grey days, it was looking as if our latest Brecks trip could be heading towards a complete wash-out and with torrential rain at 11pm the night before, I was preparing for the worst – so it was with a rather forlorn feeling that I went to bed that night ………..
………. But, I needn’t have worried, for upon waking at 6am the next morning I opened the curtains to find a glorious, sunny and calm morning to welcome me.

Our spirits well and truly raised by this amazing turn in the weather, by the time we arrived at Santon Downham, myself and co-leader Andrew Green were well prepared for business as usual as we greeted over 30 or so keen members who must also have been relieved at the good fortune we had with the weather.

Lesser Redpolls, Siskins, Nuthatch, Song Thrush and Marsh Tit had already been logged in the car park whilst everyone was getting themselves ready for the first part of our day and, as we set off towards the bridge, the first Bramblings of the day were noted on garden feeders. Shortly after, we had hardly set foot off the bridge and onto the path, when a Water Rail was spotted foraging among some fallen branches in the river. It showed excellently and seemed to be feeding on small snails which it was extracting from the underside of the branches – just the start we were after.

Onwards from there towards the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker site and the surrounding area suddenly seemed to become rather more quiet than usual with not much happening in the way of bird song or activity. This persisted pretty much all the way along to the far end of this linear walk and a pair of Mandarins seen flying up the river were the only real highlight and even then, they were only seen by a small fraction of the group – but it was a target bird at that and was promptly added to the day list.

Sadly, things were not looking good on the woodpecker front. Several other birders already on site before we arrived had only negative news for us, so some of us went even further down the river in the hope of finding on of these elusive birds but it was simply not to be on this occasion, although a Hooded Crow or Carrion x Hooded hybrid was seen briefly in flight. Unfortunately the view was too brief to nail it as a full on Hoodie. However, just back along the river a pair of young Otters had appeared in front of the main group, showing a rather playful attitude in the river. If that wasn’t good enough, these bold youngsters then proceeded to haul themselves out of the water onto a fallen tree trunk so we could observe them in their full glory.

Having such great views of Otters was good enough reason for the long walk down to the far end of the river but I was still a little despondent during the walk back, after our Lesser Spot dip and it always seems like such a long walk if you fail. You seem to have rather too much time in which to contemplate your dip – so it was with great relief when, back at the bridge, that one of our party spotted a good candidate for a Goshawk circling high over Santon Warren. It certainly was a Goshawk – probably an adult male and then one Goshawk became two – the other also looking like a male and the group thrilled to an exhibition of aerial dog fighting between the two birds. A third bird was picked up further over and looked more like a female as she was circling on the same thermal as a Buzzard and looked equally as big.

After a short tea-break we headed onto the churchyard in search of Firecrest. They took some searching for – more time than we had really – but persistence paid off and we were treated to reasonable views of a pair feeding together in a small holly bush adjacent to the churchyard.

After this stroke of good fortune myself and Andrew were feeling back on track with the birds but time wise we were steadily becoming further behind schedule. Doggedly, we decided to spend a bit more time at Santon anyway and try for Woodlark on the other side of the railway line. It didn’t feel particularly productive along the forest glade in question but it didn’t take long before two pairs of this pretty little lark took to flight in front of us and the group split in half to watch one pair each. By now the schedule was well out of the window so we decided to play it by ear and just bird each new area until we ran dry of birds. Also, by now, news had just got to me that at least two of our members had craftily sneaked off, but in doing so had successfully twitched a Great Grey Shrike near Elveden. You know who you are!! But thanks for adding it to our species list. Unfortunately, due to time limitations and logistical problems regarding parking, we were not able to fit this rather impressive winter visitor into the day’s agenda.

Lynford gravel pits and the Arboretum were the next port of call and almost straight away we found a smart pair of Goosander which fortunately were still present – but these were actually just the starter before the main course a few minutes later. An early Swallow was spotted circling over the lake and happily it lingered long enough for most of the group to connect with it. A Chiffchaff was also seen and heard singing briefly, giving a really spring feeling to the afternoon. Then, to counter this, we found eight Fieldfare in trees at the back of the gravel pit to remind us of winter again.

Moving onto the Arboretum, we had good views of summer plumage Brambling and Yellowhammer in the feeding tunnel although no Hawfinches were seen there. We walked further down towards the paddock area and fortunately it didn’t take long before we heard a short sharp ‘tswick’ call and we watched on flying low over our heads. At least five more were seen in this area but mostly in flight or perched on distant pines. Two more female Crossbills were seen briefly which preceded the best view of a Hawfinch of the day with a lone bird showing well, right at the top of a tree in the centre of the Arboretum.

It was well past mid-afternoon by the time we got back to the car-park and, after some deliberation, we decided to give the birding at Lackford a miss – only using it for a quick coffee break and meeting point for those who didn’t know the way direct to Cavenham Heath, where we would end our day.

It was nearly an hour later for some of us, but upon arriving at the heath we were pleased to record a rather pleasing, tight knit group of four Stone Curlew – not too distant and without the dreaded heat haze. They looked superb against the soft mauve and green heather background. True to form, they hardly moved at all but that did make them easy for everyone to get onto. Also, another early spring migrant was present, in the form of a crisp breeding plumage male Wheatear vying for the spot of top bird of the day for some of us, along with the earlier Swallow. Other nice sightings here included up to five Stonechats, a flock of seventeen Meadow Pipits and eleven Buzzards up and soaring together at the same time. It was while observing these Buzzards that I picked up four bigger, longer winged, longer tailed raptors flying on elastic wing beats which had to be Red Kites and, sure enough, they were. Unfortunately they were already low when I picked them up through the scope and they dropped out of sight before anyone could really get to them.

But that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits as there were all the other great birds and wildlife experiences to think about and fall back on during the course of a really special days birding. We achieved virtually every target species along with three or four bonus birds and, as the sun set behind us, we all said our goodbyes and head off for home.

Thanks to everyone for their great company, spotting ability and co-operation in leading a larger than usual number of people and I hope to see you all again soon.

Stephen Howell

Santon Warren
Otter
Great Grey Shrike
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