top of page

Up with the Lark for a Stonker of a Day!

Updated: Oct 31, 2021

Twitchers have their own language, which some of you will know, and some will not - and I don’t blame you! So the reason for this Blog’s title will become apparent later, and suffice to say my Pro Birder Tour this week was a stonker in all that word’s meanings.

There was an extra element to this tour too, a field test opportunity with the newest Swarovski Binocular model, the ‘NL Pure’ and in a size that I would never envisage using for a full days birding; the 12x42s. I will post a full review in another article and, despite some pre-use doubts, I have to admit that they cut the mustard; being very usable in the field and enhanced my birding day no end!

I decided to head for a region with its own particular bubble (to use an in-word) of habitats and wildlife, and one that folk in my neck of the woods in Cheshire wouldn’t always be familiar with. To this end I crawled out of bed at 3.20am and prepared for a round trip of 385mls to the Suffolk Brecklands and back in a day. An early start ‘on site’ was required, hence the unearthly hour to rise and not quite shine! I hit the road at 4am and headed off down the M6 and across the A14 to arrive at my destination in the Mildenhall area around the Suffolk/Norfolk border at 7am. Despite a poor forecast behind me in the NW, I was greeted by sunshine and blue skies in the Brecks; what a nice welcome to this picturesque part of the country.

My initial port of call was one of the Breckland heathland sites which, due to its rare breeding bird species, is a sensitive area and needs all the protection it can get, so I’ll not name names here, but most birders in the know will be acquainted with this location. As I slowly drove down one of the permissible tracks, I stopped to check the first likely looking area. This was a grassy field, cropped short by rabbits and on a sandy substrate, perfect for my target bird here. Even before seeing the bird I could hear an eerie wailing call that gave away the presence of this species. Raising my binoculars I was really pleased to see first one, then two, then two pairs and in the end an estimated six Stone Curlews in this field.

They were happily feeding , chasing off crows and even being belligerent to each other, all as if I wasn’t there watching. The Stone Curlew is the only member of the ‘Thick-knee’ family to be present in Britain and requires specialist habitats. So it is thinly spread, with its strongholds being East Anglia and in Wiltshire and Hampshire, but breeding numbers in the UK are low and it is categorised as of Amber Conservation Status with about 400 pairs at present. Some evidence points to an increase in numbers in The Brecks and on Salisbury Plain, hence why it is not a Red listed species. They are summer visitors, arriving on average in mid-March and departing post-breeding in October. These birds have large yellow eyes, evidence of their nocturnal lifestyle, and long yellow legs giving them a strange, almost comical appearance as they move around their habitat in short, fast clockwork-like bursts. Knowing this site well, and having met a head warden there in the past, I knew that the field which I was watching was not a breeding location, but a feeding ground and, to some extent, a pair-bonding area. So, even though the birds were pretty close, and I was in cover and camouflaged, I knew that my disturbance would be minimal. In fact, I was ignored by the Stone Curlews and as morning marched on they also ignored the dog walkers, cyclists and joggers too; birds get used to where they are and these were obviously comfortable in this area. OK, I had better explain that title now too! In twitcher’s parlance Stone Curlews, by shortening parts of their name, are referred to as Stonkers! I for one won’t argue with that name, they really are just that!!

Next, I headed to an area of sandy heath close by, again an area I know and covered in a patchwork of heather with isolated trees and an edge of birch woodland next to a small river - a beautiful place to while away the next hour or so on this still sunny morning. Here the air was filled with birdsong, warblers such as Garden Warbler, Blackcap and Willow Warbler from the birch scrub, Linnets serenading the new day from tops of gorse bushes, and some more specialist species that I’d hoped to see too. The first of these is abundant here, but with a little luck and patience can be seen all over the UK, the Cuckoo. A couple of male birds were heard cuckoo-ing and then one flew across in front of me, looking falcon-like with pointed wings and long tail, always a special bird to see. I could hear another species that I especially wanted to see just south of where I was, so I headed quietly and carefully in that direction. Tracking down the sweet and melodic “lu-lu-lu” calls I was soon looking at a Woodlark in flight, which was then joined by a second bird. They were instantly recognisable, not only by call but also by their very short tails. After a bit more searching, I estimated at least a dozen birds in quite a small area of heath, most of them on the ground feeding and even fighting with rivals. Again, they seemed oblivious to my presence and carried on doing what they were doing. I hope this reflects my fieldcraft skills on approaching birds quietly, slowly and stealthily so as not to disturb them. I managed lots more digiscoped shots, again a useful part of my fieldcraft as I don’t need to get as close as traditional photographers do, as my scope gives me a higher magnification than their lenses.

Close by Tree Pipits and Yellowhammers sang from the tops of the lone trees whilst Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, the commoner cousins of Tree Pipits and Woodlarks, were seen and heard all across the heath.

Time moved on and my next target species was also a species best searched for early in the day, so I reluctantly left the heath behind and headed onto the Breckland back roads off to my next destination. A short while later I arrived in a pretty empty car park, well it was still relatively early, at Lackford Lakes Suffolk Wildlife Trust Reserve. With a bit of homework I knew where to go first and walked back out of the car park and crossed the entrance track. Here, almost immediately, I heard my next target species. A jumble of loud melodic, rounded and fluid notes coming from deep in cover could only be one bird – the Nightingale. For around 15 minutes I stood and listened, transfixed by this legendary songster, but try as I might I couldn’t catch even a glimpse of the source of the sound. This is pretty normal and I probably only see around 1 in 30 of the Nightingales that I come across. Again, this species isn’t widespread across the UK being confined to areas south of a line between the River Severn and The Wash, and more often on the east side of that area of England. Having seen (or heard) my top three targets it was time for a leisurely stroll around the reserve and to see what else was around.

One of the most notable things was that the air was absolutely full of Swifts, racing about the sky above my head and wheeling around with exquisite grace and beauty. Leaving the car park behind I ventured out on empty paths and evidence that I was one of the first birders on site was a Muntjac Deer standing slap bang in the middle of the path in front of me. As I stopped dead and slowly raised my binoculars it ambled slowly away down the path and off into the undergrowth, with not an ounce of panic in its departure; what a chilled out deer it was and gave fantastic views to boot! In the area in which they first became established as a UK breeder, next on my list were a pair of Egyptian Geese, a naturalised African species but always nice to see on our lakes. Explosive calls came from the bankside vegetation of the lakes; this was typical Cetti’s Warbler, but atypically several of these usually skulking birds actually popped out and gave pretty good views. From nearby reedbed and scrub, Reed and Sedge Warblers called and a female Marsh Harrier quartered the area looking for prey. A group of young, just fledged, Long-tailed Tits perched close to the path looking so cute, like little fluff-balls on sticks; it’s always a great time of year when youngsters such as these start to emerge from nests. I eventually headed back to the visitor centre and spent a short time watching the feeders by the pond where a couple more species were added to my day-list. First, a pair of Siskins paid a long visit to the sunflower heart feeder, a species that I hadn’t expected to see here in mid-May, but with lots of pine forests nearby then it perhaps wasn’t as unexpected as I had first thought.

A welcome visitor to these feeders was a Marsh Tit, a species seen in most of the UK but almost extinct in Cheshire where I live. Consequently this was my first sighting of Marsh Tit in 2021, so a good sighting indeed. A final walk along the side of the large Sailing Lake gave me the last sighting at Lackford Lakes for the day when, whilst scanning the far side, I chanced upon a magnificent Hobby twisting and turning in pursuit of insect prey. As it was now quite overcast and no Odonata were on the wing I can only assume that it was taking St. Mark’s Flies, of which there were hundreds about all over the reserve and which are big enough to be worth catching and eating. With the bird a fair distance away and flying a fast, jinking pattern the 12x binoculars really showed their worth. I could even see the Hobby lifting its foot up to its beak as it caught each fly, something that would probably have been less clear with an 8x optic.

So, that was that and my Brecks day was over, but one more avian highlight was to come. As I travelled westwards along the A14 towards home, at least 5 Red Kites were seen over the verges and adjacent fields. This is another species that I never tire of seeing, making it 73 species seen in the day, and a fittingly wonderful way to end what was truly a stonker of a day!

94 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page