Sunday 21 May 2019

Twenty-nine of us had gathered in the Guildford Park-and-Ride on a crystal clear but slightly nippy early morning as Andy arrived with our transport for the day – a shiny cream and red 49 seater coach of Farnham Coaches. Introductions were completed and we headed out via the A3, M25 northern sector, M11 (with a brief stop at the M11 services), A11/ A14, A1065 to Brandon. From here we headed off on minor roads to Weeting village and finally, after just thwarting an attempt by the Sat Nav to take us on an unwanted diversion further into Norfolk, we arrived at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s small Weeting Heath reserve.

We were greeted by the warden, Dave, and it was established that we needed to split into three groups as the hides are fairly small and other people were also visiting. The first group headed off to the East Hide where they were lucky to see a shift change at the stone curlew nest that was being covered by the web cam. For some reason there were two yellow and white bins next to the camera, which really didn’t do anything to improve the experience of watching a brownish-grey blob shimmering in the heat haze.

The remainder of us went to the rest of the reserve first, which was rather more rewarding. We had been told that a non-breeding pair of stone curlews was in the area on the other side of the road and, after carefully scanning, we first found an ordinary (non-stone ) curlew in an area that seemed unsuitable for the species, along with a couple of mistle thrushes. Some sharp eyed observer then spotted an active stone curlew a considerable distance away up the hill, which personally I found much more satisfying than the rather artificial setting from the hide. The first group then found the second bird in the same area, so some of the group saw four in all. A perching buzzard provided a handy marker point just behind. Another hide overlooking a small pond and a feeding station gave good views of a range of small birds, the most interesting being a pair of yellowhammers, a marsh tit and a coal tit. Nearby was the West Hide which had little to offer except a pair of (non-stone) curlews busily engaged in procreating for some considerable time. The woodland looked promising but not much showed except a singing blackcap.

Weeting was just a taster, so we re-boarded the coach and headed some three miles back into Suffolk to the RSPB’s reserve at Lakenheath Fen. I remember this site when it first opened and was it one of the places to go for golden orioles. Sadly these have long gone but a superb reserve has now been created between the Little Ouse river and the railway line (no trains on Sunday apparently – or at least we didn’t see any!). The accessible part of the reserve is just over one and a half miles from end to end, and the reserve probably extends by as much again to the west. It consists mainly of reed beds, open water and two stands of poplars and is best known for its bitterns (11 booming males this year), marsh harriers, cuckoos, a breeding pair of common cranes and an unbelievable number of hobbies.

Due to the size of the reserve, we all did our own thing, so the following is just my experience and that of the small group that decided to join me. As we arrived, the first thing we heard as the coach door opened was a close and very noisy cuckoo – all reserves should have one to greet visitors! It was in an area of woodland and remained out of sight. Once we were all ready we headed to the centre where we were briefed on what was were by one of the staff. Our group decided that lunch was important and elected to eat on the river bank overlooking the Washlands where a pair of garganey had been reported. We were entertained here by a distant oystercatcher, lapwings, two common terns, a pair of teal, a pair of shovelers, a pair of gadwall, a cormorant or two and a flypast by a male cuckoo – but sadly no garganey. It looked unsuitable for them and I wonder if someone had mis-identifed the distant teal. The Washlands is a large area of bare mud, which had probably dried out during the dry spell and had just regained some water following the rain earlier in the week. It was sad to see it covered with numerous deceased fresh water mussels that must have been stranded high and dry.

Having returned our nosebags to the coach, we sallied forth along the path, with the aim of reaching the Joist Fen Viewpoint with sufficient time to spare to stand a chance of seeing some of the special birds of this site. A brief stop at the New Fen Viewpoint revealed little of interest – more gadwalls and some tufted ducks and brief glimpses of reed warblers flitting across channels, so we moved on the Mere Hide. A young bittern had been photographed here a few days before but all we had was an aaaah moment for a very young family of coots. It was here that we started to see the first hobbys flying overhead. Amusingly, a group of photographers encamped in the hide were attempting to photograph them from inside the hide. Talk about making life difficult for youself! We quickly moved on, passing some recently cleared areas of reedbed that produced nothing of particular note except a redhank. Stopping by some open water a bit further on we noticed that a great crested grebe had caught a fish – a VERY large fish. There was no way it was going to swallow it but it kept on trying, and trying and trying. We left it and when we returned some time later it had disappeared – had it choked to death or just realised that no matter how hard it tried it wasn’t going to get it down. We shall never know.

2019 05 Lakenhaeth Hobby alan rines cropped

Hobby at RSPB Lakenheath (by Alan Rines)

By now we were almost at the Joist Fen Viewpoint and the hobby count had been mounting steadily, but the numbers from the viewpoint were unbelievable, they were everywhere, like gnats in Scotland in summer. We had been told that someone had counted 62 in the sky at once – that may have been a slight overestimate, but not by much. It made it almost impossible to pick out anything else of similar size such as a peregrine, sparrowhawk or kestrel. Fortunately marsh harriers are much bigger, with a different flight style and we managed to pick up first a female and then a male as they quartered the reedbeds. So where were these 11 bitterns? Earlier arrivals had spotted three flying around but now they seemed to be having a siesta. Eventually we got a very brief glimpse of one as it flew across a channel – if you happened to be looking the wrong way, tough luck, because it was the only one we saw. As we had been walking we had heard several cuckoos and now one flew right past us and landed in a fairly close tree, albeit almost tail on but it allowed us to see what a feature that tail is – really large and long. Also seen were a couple of fly-by little egrets – sadly not the great white egrets seen earlier in the week here. I have skimmed over the more common reed bed birds that we saw or heard, such as reed, sedge and Cetti’s warblers, whitethroats and reed buntings. You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the cranes. Sadly they didn’t show and nobody in our group managed to tick off this particular target species. It isn’t unusual for these birds to stay put when the have non-flying young, so if you are planning a visit to see them, wait until the young have fledged when they are more likely to be moving around.

Apart from the long hike back to the coach, that was the end of our visit. We did manage to tick a kestrel (spotted by Trish) sitting on a post as we drove out of the reserve and headed for home, more or less retracing our steps but taking the southern route round the M25 as 20 minutes delays were reported on the northern sector. We had a clear run all day during our travels and we managed to achieve the unbelievable complete circuit of the M25 without once encountering a significant traffic delay. Almost unbelievable on a beautiful fine Sunday. As a result we arrived back in Guildford slightly ahead of schedule.

As an aside, one advantage of a front row seat is to be able to watch the mayhem caused by ‘Sunday drivers’ and suicidal motor cyclists without having to be ready to take avoiding action yourself. You can also amuse yourself with little things like wondering whether a 19 plate ending in ‘RAM’ is really what you want on your shiny new motor, and was the Transit van with the words ‘Dogs in transit’ and intentional play on words – and was it headed for Barking? Then there was the van saying something about CCTV that pulled in front of us and we tried to kid Andy it was watching his driving – and was that little red bus on the D6 route really supposed to be on the motorway. All good clean fun.

My thanks to all who made this trip a success, particularly Andy, our unflappable driver, for a nice smooth drive and of course Trish who puts in all the hard graft so that we can all enjoy the day out.

Until the next time…….

PETER HAMBROOK