Monday, 13 April 2015

April 13th Weeting Heath and Lakenheath Fen

Weeting Heath
The area around the Norfolk and Suffolk border is known as Breckland or the Brecks. I am at two reserves on either side of this border today, joined by Mum and my Aunt Barbara. Our first reserve is the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Weeting Heath, made popular by one bird - the stone curlew. It is not a big reserve but it does have three hides, two of which focuses on the same field  where these birds can be seen from.

We visit West Hide first. From the hide, you can see rabbits, a lot of rabbits. This is a key feature of the Brecks. The word breckland means 'broken land' and this is partially made by the enormously large population of rabbits (more than anywhere else in the UK) that overgrazes the land and also partially due to the fact that this region gets less rainfall than anywhere else in Britain. The Brecks is Britain's answer to a desert. One effect which is created in this dry landscape which is a big problem for photography here is heat haze. This is why most of the photos shown here are not as sharp as I would have liked, that and the fact that my subjects like to be far in the distance than up close to the hide. Despite this, we did see a stone curlew, and on our second visit to this hide later that morning, we found 3-4 more. We also see lapwings, skylarks and mistle thrushes.

Stone Curlew
Stone curlews are odd looking birds. They are brown and streaky which makes them masters of camouflage and have long yellow legs and large yellow goggled eyes. Those big bulging eyes are their best feature and aids them to see at night. Stone curlews are summer migrants and the ones here have probably just arrived in the last few weeks or so. These birds are also pretty rare and are heavily protected by law. Weeting is perhaps the best place to see them. It is thanks to the rabbits' overgrazing that they are thriving here as they love rough landscapes to nest in. The ones we were watching were walking around at the back in the haze, but I remember my first visit here a decade ago, when a pair of stone curlews were in front of the hide with chicks. I never got that kind of view again ever since.

Leading you to each hide is a path under the canopy of a slither of pine forest. This is home to birds such as coal tits and goldcrests and for today, a temporary home to a firecrest. Just outside West Hide, a firecrest sings it's loud, piercing trill (much more audible than a goldcrest) and darts from pine tree to pine tree, barely keeping still for long. It too is a migrant but I don't know if this one will be breeding here as it is here alone. It is a cracker of a bird with a blazing orange and black crest, a real treat to see.

The Woodland Hide views a collection of birdfeeders and ponds in an opening surrounded by pine trees. It has your usual suspects; goldfinches, great tits, blue tits and coal tits. Best of all though, was a flock of 6-7 yellowhammers feeding on the ground below the feeder station. The males are dazzling in their bright yellow plumage, the closest thing I can get to a Norwich Canary. One male even fed at a feeder. I think my companions liked them more over the stone curlews. We then had a picnic outside the visitor centre. A treecreeper kept us entertained as it gathered nesting material, climbed a few trees near to us, hop onto the wall of the visitor centre and crept behind the Norfolk Wildlife Trust sign next to the door of the building. It did it several times.
Female Yellowhammer
Male Yellowhammer
Nuthatch inspecting a woodpecker hole for a nest site
Treecreeper with nesting material
In it goes!

After lunch, we crossed the border into Suffolk to visit Lakenheath Fen. Twenty years ago, this was once a carrot field before the RSPB took over to convert it into wetland. This reserve became an instant hit as it became famous for a rare exotic-looking bird called a golden oriole that is found almost exclusively here living in the patches of poplar forest. We are too early for orioles at the moment and weren't my next target anyway for today. We are here as a test run before they arrive in May. Mum hasn't been here before, while Barbara has only been here once many years ago with me. So this was a good idea to let them get to know the reserve and what it is like. Feeders at the visitor centre got us to a good start with great views of reed buntings.
Reed Bunting

Common Carder Bumblebee
I took my mum and aunt to the New Fen Viewpoint for a sit down and to watch the wildlife from the comfort of a bench. Marsh harriers displayed over the reedbeds, along with a kestrel hovering by the river. Mum doesn't like to walk very far, so Barbara and I allowed her to make her own way back (seeing a weasel along the way as it happens), while we continued to walk around the reserve.

The new Mere Hide
Two years ago, on my last visit here, there were no hides here. Today, I am pleased to see a new hide led to it by a wooden boardwalk. The water here was quite deep for one swan, who had to plunge half it's body under with it's bottom in the air as it reached it's meal of weed. Along the River Little Ouse, Canada and greylag geese, tufted ducks, oystercatchers, little egrets and a lone great white egret were all about as we made our way back to Mum. It was great practice for May and my companions both enjoyed their first and second visits to Lakenheath.

Bottoms up!!
Little Egret
Great White Egret
Mute Swan at it's nest

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