Friday, 5 August 2011

The Breckland Experience contd. (13/4/11)

The 13th April was my final day in Norfolk and East Anglia. I only had until early afternoon to do birding as we were taking the plane home early evening. I planned to visit three locations in the time that I had – Santon Downham for possible Woodlark, Lesser-spotted Woodpecker and Willow Tit in the nearby Thetford Forest, Weeting Heath for Stone Curlew and Welney WWT for possible Bluethroat.

On arriving at Santon Downham at 9:00am we walked along the trail, encompassed by looming, mature pines for the first 15 minutes or so. These pines eventually cleared, giving way to an open area of small fields and in the near distance a patch of softer deciduous trees. Just as we were leaving the pines behind us, a Treecreeper (yeartick) scuttled up a nearby deciduous tree. The trail took us through the patch of deciduous trees, and once at the other side we were able to view the trees from across the pretty River Little Ouse. This seemed like prime Lesser-spotted Woodpecker and Willow Tit territory to me. We set up the scope and waited patiently by the trees, waiting to see if the aforementioned species were present. The area was silent and completely isolated, so if a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker was to drum or a Willow Tit to call there would be no trouble in hearing it. Despite scanning the trees thoroughly and keeping our ears open for 15 minutes or so, there was no trace of either of our target species, nor were there any Woodlarks around. However, 2 Nuthatches were a delight to watch scuttling up and down the trees (a rarity here in Aberdeenshire), at least 4 Blackcaps and a Willow Warbler were seen in the bushes by the river, and the common tit and finch species were present in good numbers. With fairly limited time on our hands, we moved on and continued to search for our three target species. We soon entered more pines as we continued to follow the trail. We hoped we’d get to another clearing, where we felt we’d have the best chance of seeing our target species. However, the forest seemed to drag on for ages with no clearings, and with time becoming shorter and a long walk back to do, we decided after a while to turn back. Things were proving very difficult, and a general feeling of negativity resided over me. A Green Woodpecker was seen high in one of the pines when initially heard drumming, and although a stunning bird it wasn’t enough to make me feel better.

However, things were about to change. As we came out of the forest and neared the River Little Ouse, I heard an unfamiliar but completely diagnostic, descending call coming from more than one bird right above me. I looked up to see two Woodlarks high in the air but not very far away. Instantly my negativity had morphed into a feeling of delight as I watched these two birds in display flight. This was a deeply poignant and breathtaking experience. Their descending calls filled the air, somewhat melancholic but unbelievably beautiful and carrying far. As they called, the two Woodlarks performed their spectacular aerial show, spiralling round at each other at high speed and flying at each other. At one point one bird even flew on its back whilst the other flew above it with its legs dangling. I feel deeply privileged to have caught the latter two spectacles on camera. I don’t think my words quite describe how moving and spectacular seeing them in display flight and hearing them call was. The pictures below will hopefully help you imagine this somewhat more (click on photos to make them larger) .

Woodlarks displaying, Santon Downham, Norfolk (13/4/11)

They never flew far, continuing their display flight high above us. Eventually they parted, one bird landing atop a pine. The other bird landed on a piece of grass within 15ft of my Dad and I, and we watched astounded by this extraordinary piece of luck. I tried to photograph this particular bird whilst it was on the grass, but it flew as I attempted to do so, landing on a tree stump equally nearby and continued to sing. This was a picture perfect moment, so perfect that it felt as if it was showing itself off to us by being deliberately confiding. Completely bowled over by what I was witnessing and my unbelievable luck, I proceeded to get photos of the Woodlark as it sat upon its newly adopted perch. For the whole time that I watched it and photographed it, it didn’t move from that perch. My Dad also kept an eye on the other Woodlark on top of the tree, which also just sat there and sang! I couldn’t believe my luck - this was birding at its best! This was such a memorable experience that Woodlarks will always have a special place in me – for their fantastic display flight, their beautiful song, the views I got and the evocative experience that I had with them as a whole. Truly amazing birds, and one of the best ways that I’ve ever been introduced to a British lifer! I headed towards the car spellbound by what I had just experienced. On the way back, we stopped by the Little Ouse again and checked the deciduous woodland for a last look go at Willow Tit and Lesser Pecker. 7 Bramblings (4 males and 3 females) were in the trees here, calling and flying about. On top of being stunning birds, I had only seen Brambling for the first time in the year the day before so I was delighted to come across this elusive species once again. However, there was no sign of Lesser-spotted Woodpecker or Willow Tit, but I wasn’t fazed by that after seeing the Woodlarks so well. I couldn’t have been more happy heading back to the car. Below are a few pictures I got of the bird on the tree stump (click on photos to make them larger), as well as a video of mine. The video includes my pictures and a sound recording of the exquisite song of the Woodlark and comes in the form of a link to my flickr account where the video is - enjoy.

Woodlark, Santon Downham, Norfolk (13/4/11)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/josephbirdphotography/5632442174/in/photostream/ - Copy and paste this to view my video of singing Woodlark

Having just seen a British lifer in the most ideal way possible, the thought of probably seeing Stone Curlew pleased me. I had seen Stone Curlew on my visit to Weeting Heath in 2010 with no problem at all in seeing them, so I was hoping it would be the same this time. We pulled up at the small car park, paid at the Visitor Centre and walked to the West Hide where some Stone Curlews were apparently present. The hides at Weeting look onto an extensive area of flat open grassland and stony heath, ideal for Stone Curlew, which breed on the reserve. On arrival at West Hide we got the scope up and very quickly were on to 3 Stone Curlews (yeartick) fairly distantly towards a dip in the heath. To be precise, they were to the right of the small hide which you can see from West Hide. At first the birds kept on dipping out of view below the dip in the heath, but eventually they moved away from the dip and came a bit closer. Views, although distant, were pretty good through the scope and once away from the dip of the hill were constant. They’re wonderfully enigmatic birds; the real oddball of the wader family and striking me as reminiscent of reptiles. Their large yellow eyes are perpetually and intensely wide, giving them a look of being constantly perturbed and edgy. It’s always a pleasure to watch them, both due to the fact that they are so localised as a species and also so interesting to look at! These birds kept close together at all points, often standing tall but occasionally sitting down and sometimes running alongside each other. This was the second time I have seen Stone Curlew in this country. Below are some photos I managed of the birds, (be warned they are blurry) as well photo of the heath that I took on my visit last year.

Stone Curlew, Weeting Heath, Norfolk (13/4/11)

Weeting Heath (taken in 2010)

The final stop of the holiday was Welney WTT, an inland, fenland reserve near the Cambridgeshire/Norfolk border. This was my second visit to the reserve, and the time before I had also gone for the same bird – the singing male Bluethroat that has spent the spring there in the last couple of years. The bird was said to be seen only in the early mornings so I wasn’t confident that I’d see it. It was worth a try though, so we headed towards Lyle Hide and waited patiently to see if it was singing. After 10 minutes or so it was clear it wasn’t singing. Another 15 minutes or so were spent checking the area to see if it was lurking in any reeds or bushes, but of course it wasn’t anywhere in sight so we headed in to Lyle Hide instead. From here I made sure to have good look at around 10 Avocets that were present as I knew this was the last time I’d see them in such numbers for a while. Also present were at least 40 Black-tailed Godwits, 6 Dunlins and 8 Whooper Swans in the fens and 2 calling Sedge Warblers – a nice selection of birds. Although I had dipped the Bluethroat, I wasn’t fussed by not seeing it as it had already been a very successful morning (plus, I had seen Bluethroat before at Girdleness much closer to home) – the same applying to Lesser-spotted Woodpecker and Willow Tit (although I still haven't seen these species before). At this point we called it quits as we had to get all the way to Luton from here in plenty of time before the plane.

And so the trip to East Anglia ended. It had been a fantastic few days birding, starting with a Nightingale in Essex and ending on Stone Curlews at Weeting Heath. In between that I’d had stunning views of Bittern, Dartford Warbler, 2 self-found Spoonbills and a White-fronted Goose, two Red Kites, Barn Owl, two long-needed lifers in the form of Woodlark and Goshawks and numerous other decent species. In other words, this was yet another fantastic and productive trip to Norfolk in which yet again it had shown its outstanding quality. What a place it is!

Thanks for reading

Joseph

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