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Norfolk & Suffolk Goshawks & Hawfinches

A 4-day birdwatching holiday to Norfolk and Suffolk, exploring  Thetford Forest & Breckland

Our spring birdwatching tours to Norfolk and Suffolk focus on the special birds of Breckland, visiting its extensive heaths and woods at the very best time of year to find some of Britain’s most difficult-to-see species. Displaying Goshawk, Common Crane, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Woodlark, Firecrest, Crossbill and Hawfinch have been among regular highlights on Limosa’s past Norfolk birding tours - and Stone-curlew and Great Grey Shrike are occasionally about, too. Based at a tucked away village inn on the edge of Thetford Forest, close to the key birding spots.

Tour Dates

2020

Space
1
Spaces
6

Leaders
Gary Elton

Max Group Size: 8
Duration: 4 Days

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Cost: £645

Tour starts/finishes at the hotel in Mundford or with collection from/drop off at Norwich railway station

Deposit: £150

Single Supp: £75

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Hawfinch, Norfolk © G Elton/Limosa Holidays 0412

Male Hawfinch and Grey Squirrel foraging for seeds beneath the trees in Thetford Forest, Norfolk © Gary Elton, Limosa

Stretching from Swaffham in the north to Bury St Edmunds in the south, the area known as Breckland lies at the very heart of East Anglia. One of the driest parts of Britain, this fascinating region was once a wilderness of windblown sand and heath, where droves of Great Bustards roamed! The demand for timber following the Great War led to extensive Forestry Commission planting here during the 1920s and the creation of Thetford Forest - a mosaic of coniferous woods, clearfell and remnant heathland that nowadays comprises Britain’s largest lowland pine forest and one of the most important wildlife areas in Britain. Some of the country’s scarcest resident birds occur here - and we visit at the optimum time to seek them.

The fine, bright days of early spring are enough to stir Breckland’s early breeders into song. The first Woodlarks will be singing, and - in years when these highly nomadic birds are about - troops of ‘chipping’ Crossbills may already be settling down to nest. The Brecks also preserve some fine areas of broadleaved woodland. With the trees yet to break into leaf, this is the ideal time to search for two of Britain’s most elusive resident birds: Hawfinch and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. The secretive Goshawk is another Breckland speciality best looked for at this time and we will visit one or two favoured spots, hoping for a sighting of this impressive bird of prey rising up above the treetops in display.
    
Four of eastern England’s loveliest rivers meander quietly through the Brecks: the Thet, Wissey, Little Ouse and the Lark. Fed by the latter, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s excellent Lackford Lakes reserve is well worth a visit. Kingfisher, Water Rail and Tree Sparrow are usually about and this is a noted haunt of Goosander and Goldeneye in winter. Thousands of gulls and Starlings regularly gather to roost here on winter evenings and can provide a thrilling wildlife spectacle at the end of the day.

Not far away lies one of the UK’s premier wetland sites: the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen reserve. This remarkable manmade wetland is perhaps the finest example of habitat creation anywhere in the British Isles. Sought-after specialities such as Bittern, Little Egret, Marsh Harrier, Crane, Cetti’s Warbler and Bearded Tit are resident and, in March and early April, we could also be lucky to see Peregrine.
    
Other localised Breckland specialities to try for in early spring include Firecrest, Stonechat, Siskin and Brambling. The recent run of mild winters has even encouraged the odd Stone-curlew to over-winter in the forest - and who knows, we could strike lucky again this year, as we did in 2018 and 2019! The predatory Great Grey Shrike is an irregular late winter visitor to clearings within the forest, and if one is about this year we may have time to try for that, too.    

We stay at a tucked away village inn on the northern edge of Thetford Forest, within an easy drive of all the key birding spots. Guides Gary Elton and Brian Small live locally and are  frequent visitors to the Brecks. Limosa has been operating birdwatching tours to Norfolk and Suffolk since 1986 and we have an unparalleled track record for regularly finding the more difficult species. However, please keep in mind that weather can be a factor and of course none of the specialities can ever be guaranteed - nor are they always easy to find!

Firecrest southwold BS 211017 1 copy resized

Lynford is one of several spots in Thetford Forest where the amazing Firecrest now breeds © Brian Small, Limosa

Our early spring birding tours to Norfolk and Suffolk commence with arrival at our hotel on the evening of Day 1, where we gather at around 7.00pm for an informal get-together in the bar prior to enjoying dinner. The next two days are spent in the field, with packed lunches and flasks of tea and coffee available on demand. We return to the hotel each evening in time for a delicious dinner. After enjoying a final morning of birding and a packed lunch on Day 4, the break concludes back at the hotel at around 2.30pm that afternoon to allow good time for farewells and departure for home.

Please note that the following itinerary is intended only as a guide and we may decide to vary this to take best advantage of weather, local conditions and what birds are about at the time of your visit - or to substitute some spots with visits to other sites not mentioned below.

Most of the key Breckland specialities are best looked for on fine bright mornings in early spring, so the prevailing weather will play an important role in determining where and when we go, and what birds we look for on your trip...

Day 1
ARRIVAL AT MUNDFORD
Evening rendezvous at our hotel to the north of Brandon, where we gather for an informal get-together in the bar around 7.00pm, followed by dinner. Night Crown Hotel, Mundford

Days 2 – 3
THE BRECKS: THETFORD FOREST, LYNFORD & LACKFORD LAKES
Lynford Arboretum is one of Thetford Forest’s most productive spots. Conveniently located within a mile of our hotel, it makes a great place to begin our birdwatching break. Best known as a regular haunt of Hawfinch in winter, Britain’s largest and most powerful finch is best looked for during February, March and early April, before the leaves are out and when these shy and undemonstrative birds are at their most vocal.

Lynford’s fine mix of coniferous and broad-leaved specimen trees in an open, park-like setting is also attractive to a trio of key Breckland breeding species: Siskin, Common Crossbill and Firecrest. Although finding the latter is a lot like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack (usually, there are only two or three pairs), we have been lucky on most previous visits. If Crossbills are about – they are an irruptive species that may be common one year but absent the next - they often give themselves away by their tell-tale ‘chipping’ calls. Siskins can sometimes be numerous in early spring and we may well hear the male’s peculiar song, its fast chattering interrupted by an unexpected mechanical wheeze. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit, Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Grey Wagtail are resident, and a visit to nearby Lynford Water could reveal Great Crested Grebe, Goldeneye, Red Kite and perhaps an early Chiffchaff or Sand Martin or two.

Corridors of alder and poplar woodland beside Breckland’s clear rivers and streams are an ideal habitat to look for the much-declined and ever-elusive Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - adults are barely the size of a sparrow. Encouraged by fine weather from mid-February onwards, like the Hawfinch, these diminutive tree-climbers are also at their most vocal in late winter, indulging in bouts of active ‘drumming’ and calling, making this an ideal time to search for them. We often find the exotic Mandarin Duck nearby, too.

The Woodlark is one of the UK’s finest avian songsters and has a major stronghold in Thetford Forest’s sprawling coniferous woodlands, which support around a quarter of the British breeding population. Fine, bright mornings during March and early April are the best time to hear this amazing little bird, whose far carrying, fluting voice is outstanding for its clarity. Given in circling song flight, the sound seems to come and go as the birds drift across the clear-fell.

In late winter, the same conditions also stimulate one of Britain’s most secretive and powerful birds of prey, the Goshawk, to indulge in aerial display over the forest. A few pairs are resident in the Brecks and we may be lucky to see this impressive raptor, perhaps swooping and diving at great height over the trees or patrolling its territory in flapping, harrier-like flight.

Unlike the localised Woodlark and Goshawk, Goldcrests and Coal Tits are numerous and widespread throughout the extensive pinelands, with Red-legged Partridges and Yellowhammers common in the fields. A March-April visit adds the prospect of flocks of Redwing, Fieldfare and Brambling, too.

Breckland is home to a number of other species that are generally scarce in East Anglia and we will be checking likely haunts for some of them: Common Buzzard, Gadwall, Grey Partridge and Stonechat are possible. The recent run of mild winters has even encouraged the odd Stone-curlew to return early to the Brecks (our groups were lucky in 2018 and 2019), while Great Grey Shrike, a nomadic and erratic visitor to the UK, occasionally appears here in late winter. The latter favours areas of young plantation and clear-fell broken by avenues of pine stumps and brashings, and over the years several of our groups have been successful.

Set beside the River Lark, Lackford Lakes have been transformed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust from unattractive worked-out gravel pits into a wonderfully diverse wetland reserve with meadows, woodland, reed beds and streams. A superb site for wildfowl in winter, Lackford regularly attracts Teal, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Pochard and a few sleek Goosander. Cormorants are often to be seen fishing or ‘hanging out to dry’ in the tall trees by the river, and this is one of the best places in the region to see Kingfisher. A large winter gull roost here can hold as many as 28,000 birds, and as evening approaches, variable numbers of Starlings may gather to perform aerial ballets over the reserve before dropping down to roost, making a late afternoon visit to the reserve especially rewarding. Tree Sparrows are present year-round at the bird feeders and Water Rail is regularly spotted from the hides. Nights Crown Hotel, Mundford

Day 4
LAKENHEATH FEN
Where the westernmost of the elevated heaths fall away into the valley of the Little Ouse, and the poor sandy soils of Breckland meet with the darker and much more fertile soil of the intensively cultivated Fenlands, the RSPB has created its magnificent Lakenheath Fen reserve.

Twenty years ago, the land that is now one of Britain's finest nature reserves was largely carrot fields, with little to offer in the way of wildlife interest. Now it is a superb patchwork of bird-rich reed beds, grazing marshes and lagoons! Classic reedbed species such as Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit are firmly established, along with the furtive Cetti’s Warbler, a bird whose spontaneous, loud shouted song may be heard at anytime during the late winter months. Grey Heron and Little Egret are likely beside the river and pools, and Common Cranes have bred at Lakenheath in recent years; on settled days from February onwards, we may be lucky to hear their evocative bugling calls echoing across the marshes - although for all their size these great grey birds are seldom easy to see!

All in all, our visit to Lakenheath should make an exciting finale to our birding tour to Breckland. The break concludes with a return to our hotel at around 2.30pm this afternoon, for farewells and journeys home.

Goshawk imm Norfolk 0118 GE IMG 7478 sRGB

Goshawks are resident in Thetford Forest but they can be extremely difficult to see. However, our birding tours in early spring, when the birds are displaying, provide an ideal opportunity to look for them © Gary Elton, Limosa

What To Expect

A 4-day birdwatching tour to the Norfolk / Suffolk borders focusing on the specialities of East Anglia's unique Breckland region - home to some of Britain’s most difficult-to-see resident birds. Goshawk, Crane, Water Rail, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Woodlark, Firecrest, Crossbill and Hawfinch possible, as well as winter visitors such as Fieldfare, Brambling and occasionally the erratic Great Grey Shrike.

Led by Limosa’s friendly expert guides, these holidays are ideal for birdwatchers of all levels of ability, interest and experience. Just bring your bins and enthusiasm for birds - we’ll do the rest!

The UK climate is famous for its unpredictability. Late winter temperatures at Thetford, in the heart of the region, are typically in the range of 0-9C (32-48F). Breckland is one of the driest parts of the UK, but rainfall is of course possible at any season in the UK, so do bring rain wear just in case.

Birds

80-100 species

Mammals

5 species

Accommodation

3 nights accommodation at the Crown Hotel in Mundford, a comfortable and traditional Norfolk village inn at the edge of Thetford Forest, and perfectly situated for easy exploration of this unique region. All rooms are en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the price, commencing with dinner on arrival at the hotel on the evening of Day 1 and concluding with lunch on Day 4.

Breakfasts and dinners will be taken at the hotel. Portions are generous and the meals are excellent. Lunches will be picnics in the field to help maximise our birding time.

Walking

Easy walks (approx. 1-3 miles) at a gentle pace over good trails and mostly flat terrain. Sturdy waterproof walking shoes or boots recommended. Wellies will be useful in wet weather and can be handy first thing, when the grass can be damp after overnight.

Travel

Daily excursions will be by minibus.

Participants arriving in Norfolk by car will be sent a map and joining instructions for the hotel. We meet for an informal get-together in the hotel bar at around 7.00pm on the first evening.

For those without their own transport, we pick up at Norwich railway station at 4.45pm on the Friday afternoon (most routes arrive into Norwich by about that time), and are able to drop off there again by about 4.45pm on the Monday evening.

There is no extra cost for pick-up and drop-off at Norwich railway station as outlined above.

Please note: if you intend to travel by rail and elect to spend an extra night at the hotel, then we are unable to offer return transport to/from the station. Instead, it will be necessary for you to arrange a taxi between the station and the hotel - for this reason you might look into travelling to/from Brandon or Thetford stations, which are ca. 15 minutes journey by taxi (rather than travelling to Norwich, about an hour away).

Bearded Tit, male, Norfolk © Jo Latham/www.wildlifephotocards.co.uk 2010

A visit to the RSPB's excellent Lakenheath Fen reserve adds the prospect of reedbed birds, such as Bittern, Common Crane, Cetti's Warbler and Bearded Tit (above) © Jo Latham, wildlifephotocards.co.uk

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  AUTHOR TESTINTRO TITLE
1 I&GM, Norfolk & Suffolk Tour Gary was excellent and looked after us very well. We found this an excellent trip. We saw many birds and were particularly pleased about seeing Goshawks and Hawfinches. The Crown Hotel is in the perfect location so we did not have to travel too far to get anywhere and were able to go out early morning for an hour before breakfast. [empty string]
2 BP, Norfolk & Suffolk Tour It was so nice to be with Gary again. His skill at finding the birds and his relaxed, cheerful personality made for a happy group! [empty string]
3 JM, Norfolk & Suffolk Tour I very much enjoyed this weekend and was sorry when it came to an end. I did not want to go home!! Well done Gary. [empty string]
4 RK, Norfolk & Suffolk Tour Gary's local knowledge was a significant factor in the success of this weekend. He made sure we all got to see the target birds. [empty string]
5 JP, Norfolk & Suffolk Tour ...Gary had great knowledge of the area and up-to-date information on where to find the target species. He had very good hearing. As a result we found nearly all the birds I had hoped to see... Norfolk & Suffolk Tour
6 TC, Norfolk & Suffolk Tour ... What can I say about Gary? Absolutely great as usual. As good if not better than any I have met ever!... Norfolk & Suffolk Tour
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