It was a 4.30 wake-up for me on Saturday although I was awake well before that, awoken by the sound of a Cuckoo persistently singing outside the tent! Not a bad problem to have, despite the loss of sleep…
The attendees were split into three groups the previous evening and I was in group one, the only group that had to wake up so early. However I didn’t mind all that much as our first activity was bird ringing down at the BTO Nunnery Lakes reserve and an early start usually means more birds!
The Nunnery Lakes reserve is a network of lakes created by the gravel workings of the past. As well as lakes, there is also a myriad of other habitats including sandy heathland and wet woodland. An excellent 60 different bird species breed on the reserve, not including all those that pass through or spend the winter on the site. One of the key species on the reserve is Cetti’s Warbler, a localised resident species found in only the southernmost locations in England and Wales as well as across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.
We were able to catch a couple of these birds during our ringing session. They may be drably coloured but they are full of character. I believe that breeding wasn’t able to be confirmed at Nunnery Lakes in previous years, however one of the birds we caught clearly had a brood patch. Brood patches are bare patches of skin that develop in the breeding season. They only occur in birds which are incubating eggs as the added proximity of the blood vessels to the surface of the egg allow heat to be passed on to the egg more efficiently. It was great to be able to confirm breeding of this uncommon species.
A Cetti’s Warbler that we caught at Nunnery Lakes
Cetti’s wasn’t the only warbler species we caught during the session. We also managed to ring Sedge, Reed and Garden Warblers. We ringed a few Reed Warblers and there were clearly others singing around us, along with more Sedge and Garden Warblers. Clearly the reserve supports good breeding populations of each species. They all have slightly different habitat requirements and it is evident that Nunnery Lakes provides the perfect breeding location for them all.
Although there were plenty of birds being caught, ringed and released, there was still a number of avian attractions to steal the attention. Cuckoos were calling from every direction, and there must have been at least 3 males heard calling through the whole morning. The sound of the male Cuckoo is well-known however the female’s is less so yet nonetheless distinctive. We were lucky to hear the call of the female which is described as a ‘bubbling’ sound, quite bizarre! Shortly after first hearing this unusual sound the female herself came into view, flying quickly across the pit nearest the ringing station.
It didn’t take more than a first glance to realise that this individual female Cuckoo was not an ordinary female Cuckoo. Most female Cuckoos look very similar to the males, with only a small patch of rufous colouration on the breast. However, this Cuckoo had more than a little rufous colouration on the breast, in fact almost its whole body had a rufous tinge! Rufous morphs like this one are quite uncommon to see so I feel privileged that we had caught a glimpse of such an unusual Cuckoo. These photos below were taken by Elliot Montieth (@Elliot_Montieth www.elliotsbirdingdiaries.wordpress.com):
It was following the ringing that our group moved on to the nest recording part of the morning. We were each given a long, wooden stick that, we were told, was to be used to gently tap vegetation to see if a bird flies off a nest. We all set off gorse bushes here and small trees there however not finding much using that technique. It wasn’t long into the session however that we located a Bramble and Gorse thicket that was a possible nesting site for a Willow Warbler. After a lot of searching and poking about within the spikey vegetation the nest was eventually located, with several young in the nest:
Willow Warbler chick
As you can see the chick is not very developed with lots of down and adult feathers only just coming through. The white bars on the wings are what are known as the pin feathers, a sort of sheath before the feather veins expand and become the feathers seen in the adult bird. This chick clearly has a lot of growing to do before it fledges!
Lots of time passed until the next nest was found and we resorted to using the tapping sticks again. I was tapping most of the gorse and bramble bushes, as well as the short oak and hawthorn trees dotted around. Most taps were generally unsuccessful however one unassuming Hawthorn tree did give me a bit of a surprise when a female Blackbird flew out from the centre after a light tap! Knowing that this probably meant that there was a nest present, I immediately looked inside the tree for a nest. It wasn’t hard to spot as it was right in the centre of the tree and with the help of Toby Carter’s purpose-bought selfie-stick we were able to see that there were indeed eggs in the nest!
I was quite pleased to find my first Blackbird nest as it is not a species I was expecting to find. This is because as the Blackbird is a resident species, most pairs are already well into their breeding attempt with many having already fledged young. Few would have started their first attempt so that they would be on eggs at this time of year, so I doubt that this brood is the first to be attempted to be raised by the parents this year. I imagine that either this pair started incredibly early and have already fledged young which are now independent and are attempting a second brood, or the nest failed (e.g. it was predated or the nest itself destroyed) and the pair have now started again.
Just after that activity ended it was time for some birding before the next activity (and, to a lesser extent, breakfast). Just standing around seeing what flies by proved to be a useful exercise with my first Hobby of the year accelerating past high above the nearest lake. Arriving in the UK in late April to May they sometimes gather in large groups (up to 50!) at popular prey-rich wetland sites soon after arriving. However this was the only one I was to see that morning. Still, it was not bad to get a year tick.
Following the replenishment of energy, my final activity of the day commenced. This was learning how to do the Common Bird Census (CBC). For the CBC, one needs to note down the locations of individual birds on a map, and visit the site several times each year. By doing this one can begin to build up an idea of each bird’s territories. Whilst learning about the Common Bird Census we took a circuit of some of the lakes, which were rich in invertebrate as well as bird life.
The above beetle is a species of longhorn, so named due to their long antennae. There are a number of species in the UK and they are a favourite among many entomologists due to their size (they can get larger than this) and how easy they often are to identify. Annoyingly, this is one of a few similar species, however I believe that it is Stenurella melanura. Longhorn beetles can often be found on flowers like this one or on the dead wood where they have spent most of their life as a grub. Occasionally, as they are so large compared to many other beetles, I spot them in flight and follow them until they land. One species that is easy to spot and identify is Rutpela maculata or the Yellow and Black Longhorn Beetle. If you do spot any longhorn beetles, the Longhorn Recording Scheme would love your records via iRecord.
After a much-needed rest back at the Nunnery and a well-earned lunch, we set off to Lakenheath Fen just inside Suffolk. I was looking forward to visiting this reserve as I’ve never visited it before and it’s home to a number of species that are tricky to see, such as Bittern and Marsh Harrier. Upon arrival at the reserve, we were split into two groups as this reserve trip was not simply a walk to see what we can see but a bird race: a competition between teams to see as many species as possible.
My team set off in a different direction to the other, and our first stop was a viewpoint overlooking a wetland. With Oystercatchers, a Redshank and Common Terns flying down the river it was clear that Lakenheath was a reserve full of birds even with an incredibly strong wind blowing. After seeing all that was in view at that viewpoint we continued along the path beside the river. We saw a Marsh Harrier and another Hobby, both birds of prey characteristic of wetlands.
It wasn’t much farther along when the highlight of the visit to Lakenheath appeared. On huge, pounding wingbeats a Bittern made its way across the reedbed, presumably with food for its young. At this time of year most breeding Bitterns will have young in their nest, and this makes them easier to see as they make feeding flights to and from the nest in order to feed the growing chicks.
The final stop before heading back in the direction of the visitor centre was where a Marsh Warbler had been seen for the past week. With it being incredibly windy I knew that we were never going to hear it let alone see it, but it was nice to stop for a short while and wait. There was a Marsh Harrier quartering the nearest reeds and a Cetti’s Warbler flew around us. Despite not seeing the Marsh Warbler I felt satisfied by our visit to Lakenheath as we had managed to see a number of key reedbed specialists. I’m hoping I can visit the reserve again sometime, because as it’s so large there is lots more to explore!
One of the highlights of the day was this stunning Stone Curlew giving exceptional views in a field. I do not want to disclose the location of this unusually unwary individual as it is on a breeding site, and as Stone Curlews are in decline I do not want it to gather unwanted attention from people with unfavourable intentions. All that aside it was superb to get such a rare opportunity to watch this species at a range that wasn’t hundreds of metres!
Writing part two made me realise that I have a lot more to write than can fit into 3 parts so this series of blog posts will now be extended to four parts. In the next part, look forward to hearing about an adventure with Nightjars, a successful moth trap and a search for Dartford Warblers!