Trip reports

Suffolk Sojourn

Hobby chasing dragonflies

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Suffolk Sojourn

In May ten of us joined the Group's visit to Suffolk. This was only the Group's second holiday in this magnificent county, following our holiday there in 2011. We arrived at our first venue, RSPB Lakenheath Fen, on schedule. The comments about this site being a carrot field only twenty years ago are often recited. If that is the case then this site proves what can be done with the will and resources to create new wildlife sites. The site was also one of the last to hold breeding Golden Oriole but that was a few years ago and the reserve makes no attempt to claim that they are there now. However, the poplar plantations are still there, breaking up the extensive reed beds. It was a very warm day and one of the first things that I noticed was not the birds, but the dragonflies, something which was to be a feature of this holiday. At this time of year you would expect to see a range of damselflies, those colourful, flying matchsticks, but there were also larger species which Barry Smithson identified as Four-spot Chasers and Hairy Dragonflies. These are bulky beasts and were probably providing food for the Hobbies spiralling at tree top height. At first only one or two but at times four or five of these acrobatic raptors.

Most of the pools held the expected Mallard, with ducklings, and families of Greylag Goose with a few Tufted Duck, Gadwall and Shoveler. Although they were present Coot and Moorhen proved elusive as they did at most of the sites we visited. One or two heard a Water Rail from deep inside the reeds. The reeds also held one of our target species the usually elusive Bittern. No booming here, or anywhere else during the holiday, but a few flights low across the reeds which everyone got onto. The reeds were also full of both Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler giving us chance to compare their songs. We also briefly heard the pinging of a Bearded Tit but did not see any. We walked the full length of the reserve to the viewpoint at the western end of the publicly accessible part of the reserve. Lakenheath Fen extends for about three miles, the furthest part being where the Cranes breed. Only a few weeks earlier I had read an article about Lakenheath's Cranes in an edition of 'British Birds' which outlined the success of these special birds at Lakenheath, but also warning that they can be very secretive when nesting. This proved to be the case. They did not show although a pair of Marsh Harrier did. We returned to the visitor centre via the riverbank walk, remembering that this is the boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk and that nothing on the north bank would be allowed on the holiday list. The main interest was the number of Mute Swans on the river.

You cannot go to Suffolk and not visit RSPB Minsmere. As we were staying in Stowmarket this did mean a one hour drive each way but, up and away by 9.00am, we were at Minsmere by 10.00am with over six hours to be enjoyed. The weekend before the holiday Barry had checked what was about in Suffolk and had noted that a Savi's Warbler had been heard near one of the hides overlooking the massive reed beds. We decided to do this walk first which includes a woodland section. On arriving at the tower hide the first thing we noticed were the number of Black-headed Gulls circling over the reeds. This went on all day. Were they feeding on insects? Close to the base of the hide a few short cuts have been made into the reeds. There was a movement in one of these - a big, bulky, heavily streaked brown and black bird. This was a Bittern and it remained in that immediate area all the time we were in the hide. Occasionally obscured by new reed growth, it was still relatively easy to see.

After a while another group in the hide picked up on two birds flying in from the south. At first they were nothing more than two dots in the sky. As they got closer they appeared to have very broad and long wings. A little closer and possibly they were darkish, although in some lights even the Black-headed Gulls looked black. As they came closer they appeared to be holding their necks straight and the wing beats were shallow. The extended neck immediately eliminated any members of the heron and egret family, they all carry their necks cricked. Eventually they came close enough to see that they were predominantly pale grey with black wing tips. Closer still and there was some red on the crown. Totally unexpectedly, this was two Cranes, the species we had missed yesterday. They did drop in, admittedly at a distance, and also admittedly for only a few minutes. What bonus birds, they even distracted us from the Bittern.

We moved on to the second hide, through a wooded area which held most of the commoner species, but also provided excellent views of a singing Garden Warbler. At the second hide we learned that the Savi's Warbler had not been heard since the preceding Saturday. For the record Barry described the song as similar to that of a Grasshopper Warbler. It was quieter at this hide but we did get further views of Marsh Harrier including one flying off with what we took to be a Moorhen. We completed the morning with a walk back along the path beside the access road where we were stunned to see, flying determinedly at and then passed us, a Turtle Dove.

In the afternoon we did a circuit of Minsmere's famous scrape where open water and shallow mud attracted waders. The resident Avocets were there in number, as were some very belligerent Lapwing with one repeatedly attacking a Redshank which flew too close to its nest or chicks. We also saw a few Ringed Plover and Dunlin, a single summer plumage Turnstone and a flock of approaching 20 Black-tailed Godwits which varied in colour from almost grey to rich orange. The Scrape was also dominated by geese with the expected Greylags and Canadas but also large flock of Barnacle Geese which appeared to be breeding.

The scrape also attracted a lot of gulls. Commonest was the Black-headed Gull which were breeding in large numbers. Amongst them, and requiring a little bit of work to find, were Mediterranean Gull but there were also non breeding representatives of Common Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Greater Black-backed Gull. A little more surprising was a resting flock of about 30 Kittiwake but these breed on a platform just off Sizewell which is in constant view from Minsmere so maybe this was not a surprise. There were also a few Common Tern but the highlight of this group of birds was at least eight Little Terns. Minsmere set a challenge to all visitors, to see 70 species in a day there. My personal list was 67 and I may have missed some that others saw so maybe, as a group, we met that challenge.

Wednesday involved another long drive, again to the coast starting at RSPB North Warren near Aldeburgh. The reserve has no facilities whatsoever, in fact it is difficult to see that it is an RSPB reserve. It is a mix of coastal wet grassland, disused railway line, woodland and grass dominated heath. But despite the lack of facilities, and the lack of visitors, it is an interesting site all the same. We dropped off near the beach just north of town and made our way to the village of North Warren along a combination of narrow tracks, disused railway and footpath. Just inland from the sea is the wetter area of the reserve. I assume it is flooded to some degree in winter. In summer it is a rich, cattle grazed meadow with a few pools and drainage ditches. As we came to the end of the track a Hobby repeatedly circled a line of Scots pine being pursued by two Crows. Did it have a nest there?

There were fewer wildfowl than we had seen elsewhere with only a handful each of Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Canada Goose, Shelduck, Gadwall and Mallard. We also saw, if somewhat distantly, our first Egyptian Geese. The only waders were a few Lapwing. Once we had negotiated the narrow track and joined the railway line we moved into more scrubby and wooded habitat. We also started to see more butterflies including a few of those tiny, orange jewels the Small Copper. We also came across a butterfly which is quite scarce locally and one I have seen on very few occasions. This is the Green Hairstreak an almost impossible insect to find if you do not get it on the move. The forewing in particular is a shiny, almost iridescent green. Even when we had followed one in and found it perched it could be almost impossible to see. We counted a minimum of eight Green Hairstreaks, probably more than I have seen in total in my entire life. As with the dragonflies we had a very good list of butterflies during this break.

It was while we were on the railway line that our ears were almost assaulted, or is that enchanted, by an explosive short bubbling song. This was a Nightingale and it was very close to the track. We were almost on top of it and could not see it, other than the briefest of glimpses as it flew at breakneck speed into a bush at the other side. We think we had three different males by the end of the walk. It was also here, looking to our left over a grassed area that we saw some deer. For us the usual species is the Roe but these were larger, longer legged and their bums were not bright white enough. We are sure that these were Red Deer with over a dozen grazing in the distance. As we walked from scrub into woodland we picked up more warblers, Blackcap and Chiffchaff being the most common. Parts of the woodland lacked understory and was a little quiet but all in all this reserve provides a rich mix of habitats and produced a list of 45 species.

Our afternoon visit took us to the National Trust's property at Dunwich Hath which lies immediately north of RSPB Minsmere and overlooks it. This is heathland site with an old coastguard unit converted into shop, café and visitor centre. Throughout this holiday Peter Ryalls had been using his electric mobility scooter which neatly, and easily, dissembles and can be stored in the coach's boot. Here one of the wardens offered us use of their top of the range Tracker scooter. This was a blessing as it could deal with almost all terrain while we would have struggled with Peter's machine. The weather this afternoon was the worst for the holiday, dull and cold with a strong northerly wind.

After a short introductory talk from the warden we set out in pursuit of our target species which are normally found within a few hundred yards of the visitor centre. Not today, with their favoured perches exposed to that northerly wind. We had been advised that they tend to associate with Stonechat and the first truly moorland bird we did see was a Stonechat on a sheltered hillside. After a while spent admiring the striking black, white and orange colours of this male bird we became aware of a movement close by. This was darker and distant but it was our target bird. This was a Dartford Warbler. We followed a triangular course around the heath and, as the weather slightly improved, and more importantly, the wind eased, we started to see more Stonechat and more Dartford Warblers. In the past we have been lucky enough to have they very close to the paths. Today was a little different. They were more distant but with patience and a telescope we all got good views of these special birds. The Warden had advised that the Dartford Warblers had come through the wintry spell in March better that the Cetti's Warblers which had declined quite markedly. In all we probably saw eight or so Dartfords, out of the thirty on site.

Those who joined our previous holiday in Suffolk will remember that we stayed at The Cedars Hotel in Stowmarket then, as this year. They will also remember that we had Nightingale singing from a small patch of scrub immediately behind the hotel. Sadly, this year this was not the case. There were quite a few birds around the hotel but not these special songsters. Although the habitat may have changed a little this probably reflects the decline of the Nightingale nationally.

Our homeward journey took us to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Lackford Lakes a wetland and woodland reserve. We should have been sharing the site with a school trip but, due to a power cut they were unable to accept the school (health and safety and all that) so we more or less had the reserve to ourselves. While I was booking us in at the visitor centre a Spotted Flycatcher flew briefly onto the feeding station. We did not see it again. As soon as we arrived we noticed lots of Swift low over the visitor centre. After a few minutes we realised that they were using special Swift nest boxes on the building. When we were leaving I also realised that they were playing Swift calls to entice the birds down.

The first lake we walked past is shared with a boating club but still held a few geese and swans including more Egyptian Geese. We also spent a few minutes watching a pair of Goldfinch fly from the seed heads of old bulrushes into the fork of a very tall, thin and spindly tree. At first we thought they were feeding young. After a few minutes if was clear they were building a nest. At the next hide we were to see a family of Egyptians with four young and a few Black-headed Gull nests, some with recently hatched chicks. Although numbers were not large we also seemed to find more Moorhen and Coot here than elsewhere. We were also picking up the sort, explosive song of Cetti's Warbler and from the second hide one repeatedly flew back and forth in front of the hide. Unfortunate it never perched in the open so we never got chance to get a good luck at a bird which is usually so very skulking in it behaviour.

As we progressed into more mature woodland, including a number of interesting old oaks we found more warblers although the Willow Warbler was notable by its absence. Is it struggling in Suffolk as it appears to be with us? National data suggest the centre of the Willow Warbler population in Britain is moving steadily north. Walking past a small field our attention was first drawn by a fox paying more than just 'passing attention' to some rabbits. We also found a Green Woodpecker. Time did not allow us to walk to the very end of the reserve but we did get further views over the ponds and lakes with fish repeatedly leaping out of one. As it was again warm and sunny there were a number of dragonflies on the wing, and perched including a vivid yellow-orange specimen which Barry later identified as a female Black-tailed Skimmer.

As we were walking back through the woods we tuned in to some very high pitched calls. We eventually tracked these down to a Treecreeper. After following it for a few minutes we realised there was a second. This bird was paler and streakier. This was a youngster. Unusually for a lowland site we also got Grey Wagtail although after checking my old notes, I have also had them at Lackford in the past.

Our journey home was again beset by road works, first around Cambridge where, although slow we were more or less moving all the time, and at Holme on Spalding Moor where we were delayed by a full half hour. When we are away we always do a bird list which starts and finishes when we enter our destination county (or when I say it does). Although we were driving through farmland we missed out on a few familiar species including Yellowhammer, Tree Sparrow, Mistle Thrush and, in the woods, Nuthatch. However, the final list was exactly 100 species. We stayed at The Cedars Hotel in Stowmarket where the portions at meal times can only be described as generous, and delicious. We travelled with BusKing whose driver Chris was excellent company and a very good driver given some of the narrow roads we had to negotiate.

In 2019 the Group's holiday will be in Spain which means we will be in Britain in 2020. Those of us on this holiday have decided where we would like to go but that will be announced at another time.

An audio visual presentation of this holiday will, weather permitting, be given at the February 2019 indoor meeting.