Trip reports

Suffolk 2011

Hobby chasing dragonflies

Friday, 9 November 2012

Wednesday 18th May
Our special Silver Jubilee holiday to Suffolk started with the usual long drive through Lincolnshire to the popular refreshment stop at Gedney between Spalding and King's Lynn. After that we still had quite a drive before reaching our first bird watching destination, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Lackford Lakes near Bury St. Edmunds. The reserve lies between the A1101 and the River Lark and has been created from a series of gravel quarries. The reserve has a good information centre and nine hides.

After a welcome and brief chat from one of the wardens we embarked on our walk which took us first to the sailing lake, the deepest pool on the reserve. There was no one sailing while we were there which meant there were a few common waterfowl on the lake including the expected coot and mallard. There was also a snow goose of the dark variety sometimes referred to as 'blue goose'. This sparked a debate abut its origins and whether it was eligible for inclusion on the trip list. It was eventually agreed it was not admissible. Checking my notes from 2010 it was also there in March when I made a preliminary visit. There was also a flock of about a dozen gulls patrolling the opposite side of this lake. They appeared to have dark heads but they were small and had dark under-wings but with no black to the wing tips. They were similar to, but clearly not, black-headed gulls. Closer examination showed them to have small dark beaks and deep red legs. These were little gulls clearly feeding on the insects emerging from the lake. Here we also saw the first of about a dozen Egyptian geese. The sky above this lake was full of swifts which were skimming low over the water in search of insects. There were clearly lots of insects on the wing ranging from the smallest flies to a number of large dragonflies. After a while it became apparent that one of the birds was not a swift. Something on the same design but bulkier. It was our first hobby and was feeding over the lake as it could clearly be seen to catch something then, with one foot, transfer it into its beak. It was probably making inroads into the local dragonfly population.

Just beyond the Sailing Lake is another pool known as Slough. This was overlooked by the largest hide on the reserve. Shallower than the sailing lake and with muddy edges to the right of the hide, this is where we found the first of our bonus birds, a male red-crested pochard. We had been told a pair was breeding on the reserve although the female usually stayed deep in the reeds. Slough held many commoner wildfowl including tufted duck, pochard, gadwall and shoveler while, on the muddy margins, were lapwings and oystercatchers. There was also a raft which was being visited by common terns. Both sedge and reed warblers sang from the fringing vegetation.

As we walked away from Slough we passed through an area of scrub and mature woodland; the birds here changing to the commoner small birds, especially warblers. Although we heard both common and lesser whitethroats these were outnumbered by blackcaps and garden warblers although, the commonest warblers were chiffchaff and willow warbler, many singing and a few giving views which allowed us to compare their features, especially the leg colouring. Surprisingly this was the only site on which we were to hear that distinctive descent through the scales which is the song of the willow warbler.
Beyond the woodland are five more main lakes. These again attracted wildfowl with good counts of mute swans, Canada and greylag geese. We had been told to look out for the kingfishers nesting near the bench in the corner of Hawker Pool and they did not disappoint with one perching for ages on a post just outside one of three holes in a concrete wall. Those who completed the walk to the furthest hide were rewarded with a flock of sand martins and, on the return, goldcrests, jays and great spotted and green woodpeckers.

Thursday 19th May
Thursday saw the first of our three drives to the coast with our first destination today being the village Walberswick. Much of the area around the village is designated as a national nature reserve, as much for the scrubland as the coastal habitats. We parked near the mouth of the Blyth estuary, which flows to the north of Walberswick, and headed south; first skirting the village before moving onto more open ground. The village stands on a small ridge which drops down to a vast reed bed protected by a shingle ridge. At the start of the walk we were picking up familiar garden birds, but as we moved on along the path beside the fields and reeds, we started to see a few waders on the marsh including our first avocets, bar-tailed godwits and redshanks. Amongst the familiar songs of reed and sedge warblers, our ears were being assaulted by the short but explosive song of Cetti's warblers. These are one of the most skulking of birds, rarely seen in the open and even then only briefly. Although we were to encounter more Cetti's we never got more that the briefest of glimpses of birds deep in the undergrowth.

After spending time scanning the impressive reed bed for harriers (which we did see) and for bitterns and bearded tits (which we did not), we loitered at the edge of a patch of gorse and hawthorn scrub in the hope of hearing nightingales. A year earlier a male had performed beautifully from the very spot where we stood and had shown briefly. On this occasion nothing. Returning along a path through the middle of the reeds we came across a massive beetle, its back dark green verging on black. We debated its identity and suggested diving beetle but as none of us had an insect book with us we could not be sure. However, once home, I compared the picture below with my copy of 'Chinery' and I am confident it is a great silver beetle, a species which is a strong swimmer and which scavenges plant debris and preys on pond snails.

A brief visit to the shingle bank revealed a pair of ringed plovers but no terns, despite an extensive area of bank having been fenced off. After lunch, taken in the car park or in one of the many tearooms in the village, a few ventured briefly to the shore and were rewarded with views of a gannet (from Bempton?) and three little terns, the intended inhabitants of the fenced off area. We also found a rather late wheatear.

Our afternoon walk was at the National Trust property at Dunwich Heath another coastal reserve but on a slight rise which gives excellent views both back north towards Walberswick and Southwold and south over Minsmere. A single triangular walk skirts the edge of an impressive heath. Although many joined the full walk a few decided to take it easy and return to the café after we had found our target species. We began by picking up another heathland specialist breeder, stonechat, which appear to have suffered from two successive cold winters. Unlike the whinchat and wheatear they do not migrate but move off the moors onto the coasts and estuaries in winter. A succession of mild winters had made this a successful strategy, until recently. We saw about four pairs including one where both parents were clearly attending to recently fledged chicks.

However, our aim at Dunwich was to see another resident which can suffer badly in harsh winters, the charismatic Dartford Warbler. We had walked only a few hundred yards along the southern footpath when we noticed something flicking about on the heather and heard a peculiar scratching call. Although we sometimes use the term scratching to describe the song of a number of warblers this is the ultimate in tuneless scratching, at least to human ears. We enjoyed the most fantastic views of about a dozen different Dartford Warblers during our walk. In what was fantastic light their colours were remarkable, the deep blue/black of the upper-sides, the deep purple/red of the undersides and the intense pink/red of the legs. It was clear that most pairs had broods as they would often return to the same patch of heather although they were difficult to get good views of through telescopes as they never sat still. They would spend no more than a few seconds on any one perch before dashing off to another. We later learned that the reserve holds about forty pairs of this magical little bird.

The walk beside the wood at the eastern edge of the reserve was a little quiet with linnet the next commonest small bird. We also saw about twenty red deer grazing in the heather.

Friday 20 May
In planning this Silver Jubilee holiday my aim had been to explore RSPB Minsmere and build the rest of the holiday around this day. Today, to avoid the weekend crowds, was to be our visit. Dunwich Heath is immediately adjacent to Minsmere and, at the end of yesterday's walk some of us had spent a few minutes scanning the reserve in eager anticipation of the next day's visit. The cover photograph was taken from Dunwich. Minsmere is a massive site. There are two main walks both of which take about three hours to cover. There is no way you could seriously contemplate visiting this reserve for only half a day.

The morning walk, through the wood and grassland areas, began with a visit to Bittern Hide, a high building with an excellent view across the reed beds and towards the nuclear power station at Sizewell. Estimating from the dimensions on the reserve maps, the reeds cover an area about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide, broken only by pools and the occasional bush. Approaching the hide we had seen a few of the commoner woodland birds including blue and great tits, while from the hide we could hear sedge and reed warblers and the ever present Cetti's again. Cetti's was to prove to be the most frequently heard warbler all day.

Settling down to view the reeds, one of the first things we saw was a marsh harrier perched on a post in the middle of the bed. After a while it became clear that there were others about while an occasional heron drifted past or dropped into the pools. Out of the extreme right hand window there was a brief flight by a bulky pale brown bird. A bittern had flown over a ditch and dropped deep into reeds. Was this to be our only sighting? After a while we moved off to the Island Mere Hide passing an excitable whitethroat on the way. We had not all settled in our seats before a large bird flew from right to left just in front of the hide and dropped deep into the reeds. Another bittern, which not everyone saw. After a while watching the cormorants sunning themselves lost its appeal and I was considering starting the next leg of the walk when a bittern rose from beside the narrow channel in front of the hide and flew left, disappearing into the reeds at almost the exact location as the earlier bird. Was it the same bittern? Had it walked all the way to the front of the hide without us noticing, which would not be difficult given the depth and height of reeds?

The morning's adventures concluded with a walk along the approach road and back to the visitor centre and car park. A few made the short detour to the canopy hide which gives views of the woods from tree top height and from where stock doves were heard calling. At the other side of the road an open area, managed with stone-curlew in mind, gave views back over the reeds and pools. Birds were very distant and even the largest were difficult to identify with certainty through the heat haze. It was this which led to a long debate about a distant heron. Was it the purple heron which had been recorded in the days leading up to our visit? It was just too difficult to be certain and was left as a probable grey heron.

After lunch we concentrated on the wetland habitats and the area known as The Scrape which is overlooked by five hides and the encircling footpath. The first impression of this part of the reserve is the noise, principally from hundreds of breeding back-headed gulls. Every patch of bare earth held a nest and their incessant arguments resulted in an at times deafening noise. Also nesting in this area was a colony of common terns, possibly up to forty birds being seen. We also saw ten or so little terns although they were seen in a small group resting at the edge of one of the pools. There was nothing to suggest they were breeding. Careful examination of the gulls, which included non breeding herring, lesser and greater black-backs, produced the occasional glimpse of another with a black head. The black was a true black and extended further down the nape, the bill was stouter and brighter red than that of the black-headed gull and there was a clear white ring around the eyes. These were Mediterranean gulls but they could prove difficult to find. When the directions are 'follow the left edge of the blue building in front of Sizewell and go a few feet to the right of the blue bag' you can tell they were taking some finding.

The Scrape also supports the breeding waders, star of these being the bird that is responsible for the RSPB having a reserve here and our symbol, the avocet. Although not as numerous as the black-headed gulls, they were still plentiful. They were also fiercely protective of their young, as demonstrated by a pair just in front of the East Hide who scolded, swooped and attacked anything which came close to the long legged bundles of fluff which were their recently fledged chicks. The next most common wader was the black-tailed godwit with a flock of about 40 birds circling the pools, clearly not breeding here but in varying degrees of colouring from fairly plain brown to rich orange. About half a dozen bar-tailed godwits were also found, best identified by the lack of a wing bar when seen in flight. We took a little time to decide on the identification of three medium sized, short legged, short billed grey waders but eventually agreed they were winter plumage knot. By now most would be on the breeding grounds and in their red plumage.

There was also a good selection of wildfowl on The Scrape with mallard and about forty gadwall, the commonest of the ducks. We also found a pair of pintail and two male wigeon. There were also a lot of coot, found on almost every pool, but moorhen were scarce; I counted no more than half a dozen on the entire reserve. Twice we heard the pig-like squealing of their close relative, the water rail. The commonest species of wildfowl however is one whose truly wild populations should have been in the Arctic Circle; the barnacle goose. It was surprising how many pairs there were and, although we did not see any goslings, it was clear they were breeding. They outnumbered both the greylag and Canada geese.

The walk around The Scrape starts by passing through another area of reed bed, North Marsh. It was here that we had bitterns fly into the reeds on either side of the path. In all we saw at least five different birds. The walk south is along a shingle beach before returning between The Scrape and the main reed bed. While at the open public viewing platform just south of East Hide, two large, white, long necked, long legged birds circled the scrape before landing. These were a couple of spoonbills who obliged by showing well.
As we reached the southern most point of the reserve, The Sluice, another large white bird flew over and landed in one of the pools in the reeds. My initial call was spoonbill but this was soon questioned when the impression given was of a larger bird holding its neck in an S shape, similar to a grey heron rather than a spoonbill, which holds its neck almost straight. The bird had flown directly over another group of bird watchers on the footpath and they described it as having a straight, dark beak. A few minutes later it rose and flew further inland, its great size and the way it again held its neck strongly suggesting great white egret. By contrast we saw only one little egret on the reserve.

Having arrived at 10.00am we departed at 5.00pm having seen all of the reserve without having to rush. This account gives only a small impression of the number of bird species on the reserve. I have not mentioned the common species such tits, warblers and familiar garden birds which we also saw. In all our seven hours at Minsmere produced a day list of eighty species. There is absolutely no wonder why this is one of the RSPB's top reserves. The bird watching here is exceptional.

Saturday 21 May
After the phenomenal day's bird watching at Minsmere yesterday, my fear was that today would be a case of 'after the Lord Mayor's banquet' with everything, however good, feeling flat by comparison. However, we returned to the coast and the RSPB reserve at North Warren between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness. We were dropped off in the car park beside the shore for a one way walk through a reserve with a variety of habitats including wet meadows, woodland, reed bed and grassland heath. But, this was East Anglia in a drought and large parts of the wet meadows were dry. From the embankment, which was the first leg of the walk, areas to the south were damp, the pools attracting mute swans and a few ducks and gulls. The area to the north was dry and in places brick red with a thick carpet of sheep's sorrel.

It was warm and sunny and this was drawing out the insects. While on the embankment we had to pass single file through a small patch of hawthorn. The sudden movement of a small butterfly drew my attention. When it landed its colouring was such a shock. It was vivid green. A green hairstreak. As I stopped so did everyone else and those a few paces behind me suddenly realised that, only a few inches away from the butterfly, basking on top of the bushes and brambles which were about four feet high, was a grass snake. It was clearly awake and kept tasting the air with its forked, black tongue. Shortly after joining the railway path we also came across a young adder, about eight inches long, orange and brick red in colour.

The bed of the old railway, which is the path heading north, was sandy and we started to find more butterflies ranging from the familiar large and green-veined whites to the less common but beautiful small copper. We were also seeing more dragonflies, mainly large red damselflies and four-spotted chasers. However, beside one small pool we were drawn to a medium sized insect, brown on the thorax, powder blue on all but the tip of the tail which was dark. Initial thoughts were of broad-bodied chaser, but it seemed too slim, or black tailed skimmer. I was beginning to regret not packing my dragonfly book. Even connecting to the Dragonfly Society's identification website that evening on Sue Leyland's laptop did not help. It was only a chance conversation later in the week with someone photographing dragonflies at Lakenheath Fen that we realised we had seen a scarce chaser. We also found a spectacular moth, pale with a network of fine, black markings which Lenora Bruce identified as a lattice heath.

Although being distracted by the insect life we were not ignoring the birds. Yet again Cetti's proved to be the commonest warbler, although sedge warblers found the edges of the ditches to their liking. We continued along the railway through an area of woodland until we came to a small pool at the edge of an extensive reed bed. We took the chance to rest a while and watch the antics of the black-headed gulls to-ing and fro-ing across the reeds. A marsh harrier flew into the reed bed and, after a while we became aware of a hobby flying above the tree line at the far side of the reeds. Eventually it became clear that there were three hobby and about a dozen swifts although none of them came very close. By way of contrast, at this time last year there were eight hobby over this pool. At the beginning of the season, when they have just arrived in the country they tend to aggregate at wetland sites in large numbers for a few days. Counts of over fifty are common before they appear to pair up and disperse to their breeding sites. It is possible that the hobby were later arriving last spring, when it was much cooler, and therefore had not dispersed as much as they appear to have done this year.

We returned to the wood where we saw a great spotted woodpecker visit a nest from which the young could be heard calling. The last part of the walk was through the heath which was very dry and held few birds although it is the sort of area which green woodpeckers feed in and could hold stone-curlew. We then drove to Snape Maltings for lunch. Some of the party took the opportunity to have a relaxing afternoon in the cafes and shops of this extensive renovated site which also boasts a concert hall while a hardy few joined the walk to the new RSPB reserve at Snape Warren.

We set out along the far bank of the river, the embankment dry with deep fissures in the baked mud. It was also starting to get a bit breezy. We had great difficultly watching a male reed bunting singing from the top of a reed stem. Views over the estuary produced a few shelduck and single oystercatcher, redshank and avocet. After a short while the path leads into a small woodland then out onto Snape Warren which is an area of heath with extensive patches of gorse. Although the site holds Dartford warblers we did not see any and the area generally was very quiet. The path eventually leads into Snape village after which we followed the main road back to the Maltings.

In comparison to the previous day and our fantastic list at Minsmere today felt a little flat. We added only one new species, a dark-bellied Brent goose flying downstream at Snape. However the two walks still produced good lists with 46 bird species recorded at North Warren and 44 at Snape.

Sunday 22 May
Our last day in Suffolk and the start of the long journey home. We got away in very good time and made our way to the relatively new RSPB reserve at Lakenheath Fen. The Society only became involved with the site in the mid 1990s before which it was farmland, apparently noted for the carrots grown there. Now it is a wetland site with extensive reed beds and three stands of poplar trees. It is these trees which hold our target species, the golden oriole. Today the weather was at its worst with a very strong westerly wind blowing all day. This showed just how dry Suffolk was as, in neighbouring fields, the wind was blowing clouds of soil across the countryside.

The chances of seeing the orioles are always slim. Despite the male being a resplendent black and yellow bird and the female looking like a green thrush they tend to stay in the upper branches of the tall poplars. The best way of connecting with them is by hearing the males singing. Reserve staff suggested that two males and a female were present. However, as soon as we got close to any of the woodlands it was clear how difficult hearing them would be, the only noise was the constant rustle of the leaves. It does not help that the oriole is not a great songster. Its song is transcribed in 'Collins' as a fluting 'foh-fluo-fih-fioo'. In these gales we had no chance of hearing that.

However, we loitered near the woods for a while before heading to the furthest point of the reserve and the viewpoint which overlooks the marsh that the cranes nest in. However, it is a general rule that, if the cranes can be seen at this time of year, they have not bred successfully. We can only hope that their no show meant that they were tending their young deep in the vegetation. However, there were at least two pairs of marsh harriers here and a couple of hobby. As we began the walk back along the riverbank, a pair of cuckoos flew into a patch of scrub. For many of us this proved to be our best views of cuckoos all year.

Now on the sheltered side of the woods we again paused to listen for the orioles but heard nothing. However the river provided some of our highlights. The excitement began when we reached a small, shallow pool and found a splendid male garganey. Although he spent most of the time resting with his beak underneath his wing the broad white eye-stripe on a deep purple head could clearly be seen. A little further along and we were entertained by another hobby feeding low over the river channel. It was clearly feeding successfully, probably on dragonflies, which included a number of scarce chasers like the one we had seen yesterday at North Warren. The hobby seemed intent on feeding until a kestrel flew from over our left shoulder carrying a small prey item. The hobby immediately rose and pursued the kestrel, chasing it and harrying it for what seemed like minutes. They were last seen; talons locked together, tumbling to the ground in a field some distance beyond the river.

No sooner had we absorbed that highlight than another flew into view. The gentle bobbing flight of what was clearly a tern gave rise to excitement when we realised this tern was not grey and white but black and white. This was a black tern, the Group's first UK record. The tern gave excellent views as it patrolled the river on the look out for small fish. The river walk ended with views over an extensive wetland at the other side of the river. This was dotted with coot nests and patrolled by over thirty mute swans.

While walking the riverbank one or two members at the rear of the group heard the reeling call of a grasshopper warbler, a fine achievement given that the wind had not abated and the warbler's song would have been drowned out by the swish of the reeds and rustle of leaves. Back at the Visitor Centre a glance at the oriole log book showed that the female had been seen at about 10.30 flying into one of the woods with nesting material. Did anyone see a thrush like bird carrying material during the outward walk? On leaving Lakenheath we added sparrowhawk to the list when one almost swooped into the windscreen of the coach.

Our last port of call was actually in Norfolk and to a reserve famous for an unusual wader. The site was the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Weeting Heath and the wader was the stone-curlew. The poor weather would be in our favour as heat haze is the last thing you need when scanning a dry, dead, open field for a brownish bird. There are two main hides at Weeting Heath and, as soon as we arrived, one of the wardens was dispatched with a scope to the West Hide to try to find one for us. And credit to her, everyone got to see a stone-curlew. Distant admittedly, but a stone-curlew all the same and for a lucky few there were even very brief views of the chick in the nest beside a patch of nettles. A very special bird to end our special Silver Jubilee holiday.

From our accommodation, the Cedars Hotel in Stowmarket, it is about an hour's drive to the coast which may not be ideal but at least left time, on both journeys, to rest, or even take a brief nap. There are very few hotels near the Suffolk coast and I know that other groups have often split their party over a number of B&Bs which I think detracts from the atmosphere and camaraderie of the group.

At first glance The Cedars Hotel does not appear to be in a particularly promising location being situated between a dual carriage way and an industrial estate. However the traffic died down during the evening and there was little activity on the estate at night. I have to admit that, on both my visits last year, I had not really explored the area near the hotel, despite there being a small area of scrub just next door. On the first morning I awoke to birdsong and what I thought I recognised as the nightingale. 'Oh good', I thought, 'Someone in a neighbouring room is revising their birdsong in preparation for today's visit to Walberswick.' It was not until I ventured out for a breath of air before breakfast that I realised what was happening. I was met by Lenora who told me that she and a few of the other early risers had heard a nightingale in the scrub immediately outside my bedroom window. After that a listen to the nightingales became a feature of every morning and evening. A passing local told us that it was an annual event, having nightingales near the hotel and that there used to be many more in the area, possibly lost to recent developments on the industrial estate. If that was the biggest bonus of the holiday the biggest letdown was the complete lack of bearded tits. Not one seen on any of the wetland reserves although they do seem to have suffered more than most species in the last two winters.

There is a certain charm to many of the villages in Suffolk. We lost count of the number with thatch roofs and saw one in the process of being re-thatched. Also, the brickwork of many cottages is painted in pastel shades of cream, yellow, blue, green, pink or orange which adds to the beauty of the area. Although less famous than Norfolk for its bird watching Suffolk is easily a match for its northern neighbour.

Apart from the excellent bird life on its doorstep the Cedars Hotel also proved to be an excellent venue. The accommodation and food were first class and our appreciation of the efforts of all the staff was recognised in a very generous collection on the last morning. Despite a few late problems Manor Travel again provided our transport.

The bird list -

1) Little Grebe
2) Great Crested Grebe
3) Gannet
4) Cormorant
5) Bittern
6) Little Egret
7) Great White Egret
8) Grey Heron
9) Spoonbill
10) Mute Swan
11) Greylag Goose
12) Canada Goose
13) Barnacle Goose
14) Dark-bellied Brent Goose
15) Egyptian Goose
16) Shelduck
17) Wigeon
18) Gadwall
19) Mallard
20) Pintail
21) Garganey
22) Shoveler
23) Pochard
24) Red-crested Pochard
25) Tufted Duck
26) Red Kite
27) Marsh Harrier
28) Sparrowhawk
29) Buzzard
30) Kestrel
31) Hobby
32) Red-legged Partridge
33) Grey Partridge
34) Pheasant
35) Water Rail
36) Moorhen
37) Coot
38) Oystercatcher
39) Avocet
40) Stone-curlew
41) Great Ringed Plover
42) Lapwing
43) Knot
44) Dunlin
45) Black-tailed Godwit
46) Bar-tailed Godwit
47) Whimbrel
48) Redshank
49) Mediterranean Gull
50) Little Gull
51) Black-headed Gull
52) Lesser Black-backed Gull
53) Herring Gull
54) Great Black-backed Gull
55) Common Tern
56) Little Tern
57) Black Tern
58) Feral Pigeon
59) Song Thrush
60) Wood Pigeon
61) Collared Dove
62) Cuckoo
63) Barn Owl
64) Swift
65) Kingfisher
66) Green Woodpecker
67) Great Spotted Woodpecker
68) Sky Lark
69) Sand Martin
70) Barn Swallow
71) House Martin
72) Meadow Pipit
73) Pied Wagtail
74) Wren
75) Dunnock
76) Robin
77) Nightingale
78) Stonechat
79) Wheatear
80) Blackbird
81) Song Thrush
82) Mistle Thrush
83) Cetti's Warbler
84) Grasshopper Warbler
85) Sedge Warbler
86) Reed Warbler
87) Dartford Warbler
88) Lesser Whitethroat
89) Common Whitethroat
90) Garden Warbler
91) Blackcap
92) Chiffchaff
93) Willow Warbler
94) Goldcrest
95) Long-tailed Tit
96) Marsh Tit
97) Coal Tit
98) Blue Tit
99) Great Tit
100) Nuthatch
101) Treecreeper
102) Jay
103) Magpie
104) Jackdaw
105) Rook
106) Carrion Crow
107) Starling
108) House Sparrow
109) Chaffinch
110) Greenfinch
111) Goldfinch
112) Linnet
113) Bullfinch
114) Yellowhammer
115) Reed Bunting