Saturday, 18 January 2014

In Search of Winter Birds, Day 1 - January 2014

So here we are again, back in East Anglia for our annual winter visit to Norfolk. The day began with an early start for each of us from our respective homes, aiming to arrive at our first destination for 8am.

Spink's Lodge, Thetford Forest
Our first stop was Spink's Lodge in Thetford Forest where that have been regular sightings of parrot crossbills. The birds have been coming into an oak tree within the grounds of the lodge along with numerous common crossbills. We arrived at the lay-by just opposite the track leading to the lodge at just after 8am, and after a short walk were at the site. Common crossbills were already present, coming into an oak tree right next to the lodge to drink and pick at the lichen covered branches. 

Male Common Crossbill Loxia curvirostra

Birds were continually coming and going and in all we estimated that we had seen something in the region of 40 different birds.

Male Common Crossbill

However it was not long before our first, second and then third parrot crossbill dropped in. We first picked up the birds on call, but once in the oak tree they stood out from the common's due to their larger heads, particularly their stockier necks and massive bills. As with the common crossbills the parrots spent most of their time just sitting in the top of the tree calling, before dropping down to drink. We were able to get some cracking views of the parrots before they departed.

Santon Downham
Our next stop was Santon Downham where there had recently been a large flock of bramblings. On arrival there did not appear to be many birds around, but before long we hand picked a handful of brambling. The birds were feeding in the beech mast along the line of the railway, along with chaffinch's, great and blue tits and nuthatch's. Having ticked off the ramblings we headed off for a walk along the river. Siskin's and lesser redpolls were present in the alder wood, a water rail was a welcome surprise and a couple of fly over common crossbills, and a kingfisher added to our daily total.

Lynford Arboretum
Our next stop was Lyford Arboretum, which has been the place to see two-barred crossbills of late. Four or five birds arrived in November and since that time there have been regular sightings. This year they have become less reliable, but we still decided to give it a go. We parked in the Lynford Water car park and headed into the arboretum. Almost immediately we picked up a group of crossbillls in the trees, one of which showed features suggesting it was a two-barred. The bird was a male, it appeared slightly smaller in size and had a smaller bill. On initial impressions the bird looked good, it had well defined wing bars that were broad and white, but the tips of the tertials were only slightly edged white. I have to admit that I was not convinced by the identity of this bird, since the lack of well defined tertial tips could suggest it was a wing-barred common crossbill. The broadness, and coloration of the wing bars clearly pointed to this bird being a two-barred, as did the smaller size of the bird. Since seeing the bird I have heard of various discussions with local and Scandinavian birders and have been told that the consensus of opinion was that this bird was indeed a two-barred and probably a first year male. Unfortunately I do not have images of this bird as I spent most of my time watching it, but it would appear that this bird may indeed be a two-barred.

Lakenheath Fen
We ended our day with a wander around Lakenheath Fen. There has been a significant harrier roost here, comprising a confirmed maximum of 26 birds, seven of which have been hen harriers. We arrived at just after 14:30 and headed off to the furthest part of the reserve. Surprisingly there were not many birds to be seen on the way, but marsh harriers were already evident. The birds were floating over the reed bed, wheeling around and grappling with each other. As the light faded two common cranes appeared over the dyke and headed towards us. They kept low over the reedbed before dropping into the paddock to feed.

Common Cranes at Lakenheath Fen

Once they had landed the cranes were out of site, but our attention was soon diverted to our first hen harrier. This bird was noticeably smaller than the accompanying marsh harriers and quartered over the reedbeds giving us excellent views. Initially we thought it was a ringtail, but as the bird got closer we could see paler patches on the upper wing that suggested it was a first year male. Birds continued to arrive and soon there were 18 marsh harriers spiralling around, with the occasional hen harrier.

As the sun set we headed back to the car, a very vocal Cetti's warbler toyed with us for a while but did not show itself, so we headed off to our accommodation in Norfolk. By the end of the day we had seen 64 species, with the target species, parrot crossbill, well and truly etched on the list.

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