Friday 18 February 2022

Brecks guided walk, 17 February 2022

Honeyguide’s first group in the Brecks followed last week’s recce visit and last night’s Storm Dudley. There were fallen branches in places, and twice very brief showers, but generally it was dry and bright, if a little windy sometimes. 

We met at the Forestry Commission’s car park at Santon Downham – from which there were brief sightings of siskin and sparrowhawk – and we walked to and then by the river Little Ouse. It’s probably worth saying at the outset that were unsuccessful in finding lesser spotted woodpecker today; perhaps it was just a little too blustery. We started with a good view of a little grebe near some mallards on the river. Robins and great tits were singing and some in the group found a marsh tit.

Galls on reed. An oddly shaped gall on the left (JM), which Tim Strudwick advises is made by the 'corkscrew gall mite' Steneotarsonemus phragmitidis. On the right is a more typical cigar gall (CD).

Violet ground beetle wing case.

Being a group of Honeyguiders, we were finding other things of natural history interest, despite the winter season. Ann showed us cigar galls on reeds, created by a frit fly (no that's not a typing error). With our eye in for these, soon there were many more. Jillian found the wing cases of a violet ground beetle; some saw an otter spraint; we enjoyed the occasional clump of snowdrops. There were even a few fungi: these included what looked like a species of funnel and, viewed through the telescope, a hoof fungus on a birch stump.

Otter spraint (JM).

Funnel (common funnel?) and distant digiscoped hoof fungus.

Snowdrops on the river bank.

We turned alongside a reedbed and marshes with Highland cattle, under a railway bridge and onto a heath. We looked at robin’s pincushions on dog rose and saw a sparrowhawk flying through. We paused to overlook Santon Warren. Here there were four mistle thrushes feeding on the ground, and Jillian was alert to a green woodpecker, also on the heath though moving all too quickly out of view. In the distance were some konik ponies, here for conservation grazing. A nuthatch was calling loudly over our heads near the level crossing on the short walk back to the car park.

We moved to Brandon County Park to eat our picnics, passing signs saying closed on Friday (the next day) on account of the impending Storm Eunice. Jon & Julia looked around the walled garden. Ann pointed out easy-to-overlook flowers on yew, and a cherry plum also had its first few blooms. Then we walked the short distance to the small lake where we easily found a small group of mandarins, four drakes and a duck today.

Yew tree flowers (AG).

Drake mandarin (TN).

We visited Lynford Arboretum for the rest of the afternoon, chatting to various birdwatchers about what was around as we progressed. A group of siskins was high in a conifer, distant dots through binoculars though clear through a telescope. There was lots of bird activity where the Forestry Commission puts out food. Stars of the show here were bramblings: the best count was seven.

Hawfinch tree: we spent much time looking in and under this tree. Telescopes were essential!

Would hawfinches show today? At first, it was mostly redwings in and under the hornbeams in the meadow. But soon Rob picked up on a single hawfinch on the ground, and it was consistently there with redwings and chaffinches, though we needed a little patience to see it when it hopped out of view or took flight into the branches for a time. Moving along the path a bit, the angle of the light was better and from here we enjoyed three hawfinches high in a tree, under a starling. As we returned, there was a hawfinch on the ground again with a greenfinch and more redwings. Two great spotted woodpeckers flew through, as did a buzzard.

Looking for a tawny owl.

I still don’t know how he managed it, but Rob somehow found the roosting tawny owl high in a fir tree and rigged up his telescope to view it at a distinctly challenging angle. But, with a helping hand, everyone managed to see it, not necessarily looking elegant in the process. A goldcrest did some fly-catching.

Back where bird food was provided there were three yellowhammers with the finches and both coat tit and marsh tit picking seeds off the ground. A male muntjac walked into the clearing and watched us watching him. A song thrush was singing as we returned to our cars.

Guided walk with Rob Lucking and Chris Durdin. Blog by Chris.

Saturday 12 February 2022

Brecks recce, 11 February 2022

A bright late winter’s day was ideal to check out some places in the Brecks for a future local Honeyguide event, and Rob Lucking, Julie and I met in the Forestry Commission’s car park at Santon Downham. That’s just into Suffolk, though as soon we’d crossed the bridge to walk alongside the river Little Ouse we were in Norfolk.

We weren’t the only people out today: the steady trickly of birdwatchers were mostly here as this is one of the very few places to see lesser spotted woodpecker nowadays. The reason was immediately apparent: this is nothing like the typical conifer plantations of so much of the Brecks. Instead, this river valley has a mix of open areas and deciduous trees, mostly poplars, with very obviously a lot of standing dead timber, which ‘lesser spots’ like.

Little Ouse at Santon Downham.

Another general view by the Little Ouse at Santon Downham.

In a tangle of branches in the Little Ouse a little grebe surfaced, then two, then three. They were surprisingly close, perhaps thinking that they were out of sight. The literature talks about a pale or yellow patch at the base of the bill: today it was distinctly pale green in colour. A water rail flew behind Rob; we heard Cetti’s warbler and the flight calls of siskins; there were various tits, including marsh tit.

Little grebe (digiscoped).

After a short while we heard the sound of a gentle, yet fast, drumming. It took a little while, but soon a lesser spotted woodpecker flew through and settled on open branches. It was still enough for a digiscoped photo: to say the picture won't win any prizes is an understatement, but you can see what it is, a female lesser spot, with no red on the head. This and a second bird flew on.

Lesser spotted woodpecker, female (digiscoped).

A little farther on, we found what we are pretty sure were two more lesser spots. Some passers-by told us that birdwatchers were watching our first birds as we enjoyed this second pair. There was more drumming, and a male lesser spot investigated a hole in a dead branch before being scared away by a great spotted woodpecker that then went into the hole. We also found a treecreeper.

On the way back we took a little detour under the railway line and through a patch of heathland. There were two stonechats and a birdwatcher here had seen a woodlark before we arrived, though our timing wasn’t ideal as someone was flying a drone over the heath.

Some Breck heath.

We made a fairly quick visit to the churchyard in the village as firecrest was reported here, but no luck.

Santon Downham church.

We drove onto Brandon County Park to eat picnics on the benches there, grab a cup of tea and look into the walked garden. Then we walked – a very short walk  to the large pond where, with the expected mallards, were 15 mandarin ducks. They are tame here and come to bird food, though they are undeniably beautiful.

Mandarin drakes and ducks; nine of the fifteen at Brandon Country Park today.

The final stop was Lynford Arboretum, just north of Mundford. We were lucky enough to be there for two brief appearances of hawfinches. There were several marsh tits, nuthatch, redwing and a long-tailed tit. A flock of birds were feeding under some tree: mostly chaffinches, some bright yellowhammers and three or four bramblings. Another birdwatcher had his telescope set up looking into a tall fir tree: his target took a bit of making out, but it was a tawny owl.

Chris Durdin

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