East Anglia - May 2012

Recently a friend and I spent 5 days in East Anglia. We had been to Norfolk before in the wintertime but never during springtime. Also, we were particularly keen to visit Minsmere, a reserve that neither of us had visited before. Over the course of the week we visited Welney, Minsmere (twice), Strumpshaw Fen, Hickling Broad, Lakenheath, Cley, and Titchwell. As it turned out we had to endure a spell of Arctic weather, not exactly what we had expected for mid-May. However we still got the birds and that’s what counts.

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We had intended to visit Welney on the way down but never managed to reach reserve proper since the last mile or so of road was under a foot of water. However we were able to walk down the bank of the Old Bedford River overlooking the reserve area. According to my map the reserve area should consist of a few pools set back from the river but the whole area was under water in the form of a giant lake, indistinguishable from the river. There were a few ducks around such as Gadwall and Shoveler, but the best birds were several Green Woodpeckers in the row of trees alongside the river, and the first of many Marsh Harriers seen over the week. Green Woodpecker was also seen at Minsmere and heard at several other reserves. In fact, the sightings of Green Woodpecker far outnumbered those of Great Spotted, which was only seen at Lakenheath.

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Marsh Harriers were certainly one of the birds of the weekend. Every reedbed seemed to contain several. Most of the birds seen were males presumably since the females were sitting on nests in the reedbeds. The males were extremely visible as they quartered over the reedbeds quite often coming very close to the hides. Hickling Broad and Minsmere in particular provided very good views of these superb raptors. Bittern and Bearded Tit are the other reedbed specialities one would hope to see in East Anglia and we were not disappointed. In total we had 4 sightings of Bittern spread across 3 reserves. Most were of the usual short flight from one distant part of the reedbed to another, but at Minsmere we had a Bittern stalking across the reedbed just a few feet in front of the hide. It may not have been the clearest view I’ve had of a bittern but it was certainly the closest.

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Good views of Bearded Tit were had at both Minsmere and Lakenheath. Again the sightings were mostly flights over the reedbed before disappearing deep into the reedbed, but occasionally they perched at the edge of the reedbed allowing much better views. In a space of 30 minutes at Minsmere I probably saw more bearded tits than in the previous 30 years of birdwatching! Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler were singing in the reedbeds at Lakenheath and occasionally allowed brief glimpses to be seen. A Common Crane was seen flying around the reedbeds at Hickling Broad.

Avocets were quite common and there were several broods of chicks running around at Cley, whereas the females still seemed to be sitting on eggs at Minsmere or indeed still at the courtship and mating stage. Cley and Titchwell were particularly good for waders and we had Turnstone, Spotted Redshank, and Grey Plover in full breeding plumage and also Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Little Stint, Redshank, Curlew, and Lapwing. A Greenshank was present at Hickling Broad. From the North Wall at Minsmere a pair of Stone Curlews were just about visible in the scope as they sat in the far corner of the field. One of the exciting finds at Cley was a pair of Spoonbills.

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Initially they were roosting, bills under wings, but later they were out feeding in the scrape and showing off their peculiarly shaped bills very well. At Titchwell a pair of Red-crested Pochards was just visible over one of the banks near the fen hide. For many people this required standing on a chair to achieve the necessary height. Egyptian Geese were present here as well.

A good number of Terns were present, particularly at Minsmere. Most of the birds were Common Terns but around six Little Terns were also present in the flock as well. Black-headed Gulls were very noisy nesters at Minsmere and several other of the reserves while one or two Little Gulls were present at Minsmere, Cley and Titchwell. A surprise find at Minsmere was a kittiwake sitting on one of the islands, a long way from its more usual cliff habitat. Yet another unexpected find was a Red Kite at Strumpshaw Fen.

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We saw it as we came out of the woodland walk and at first thought that it was another Marsh Harrier. However, the bird was very obliging since it flew towards us and passed directly overhead, circling around a few times as though keen to observe us. It had a tag on each wing bearing the number 75 so I presume it was part of a release programme somewhere. Its flight feathers were particularly tatty, again giving the impression that this was a young bird just acquiring its summer plumage. Several Hobbies were present at lakenheath and we had excellent views as they swooped low over the reedbeds. One was so close that its streaked breast and red “trousers” were clearly visible. It was here that we had a clear view of a Cuckoo. We only had a rear view as it flew away and at first I thought it was another Hobby. However it flew into a tree and started calling so the identification had to be hastily revised! Cuckoos were heard calling on several of the reserves.

Lakenheath provided us with one of our most frustrating episodes. On arrival we were told that a Golden Oriole had been showing well in the poplar trees so we were likely to get a good view. We stood under the trees with the bird calling seemingly directly overhead. Despite the best efforts of a crowd of a dozen or more birdwatchers nobody was able to catch a sighting of the bird itself, despite the fact that it appeared to be moving around in the canopy. For such a brightly coloured bird it was amazingly elusive. Very frustrating.

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Despite the unseasonably cold weather there were a good number of summer migrants around. We had good views of Blackcap, Whitethroat and Nightingale at Minsmere and a Cetti’s Warbler was blasting out its song here too. Sand Martins were busy excavating their burrows in the sandbank close to the visitor centre at Minsmere and the Barn Swallows were looking particularly smart and pristine in their breeding plumage. Linnets were present on the gorse bushes along the coast. Before leaving Minsmere we walked north up the coastal path to the adjoining Dunham Heath to search for Dartford Warblers. At first we had a very brief and distant view of something as it disappeared into the heather that may have been our target. However a few minutes later I managed to get one in the scope as it sat on a small birch bush. It was my best view ever of Dartford Warbler and its red eye ring was very obvious. It stayed around for some time and we had several more views over the next 15 minutes or so. One of the best birds of a very successful week.

[for more photos from this trip see [http://picasaweb.google.com/rgdmac]

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