Our early spring birding tours to the Norfolk / Suffolk borders 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 together 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.
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 include visits to other sites not mentioned below. Most of the key Breckland specialities are best looked for on fine bright mornings in late winter, so the prevailing weather will play an important role in determining where and when we go and what we look for...
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 winter 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 many 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 late winter and we may hear the male’s peculiar song, its fast chattering interrupted by an unexpected mechanical wheeze. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit, Nuthatch and Treecreeper are resident, and a late winter visit to nearby Lynford Water could reveal Great Crested Grebe, Goldeneye and Egyptian Goose.
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, 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 Woodlark and Goshawk, Coal Tits and Goldcrests are numerous and widespread throughout the extensive pinelands, with Red-legged Partridges and Yellowhammers common in the fields. A late winter 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, Grey Wagtail and Stonechat are possible. The recent run of mild winters has even encouraged the odd Stone-curlew to return early to the Brecks, 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, where several of our previous groups have been lucky.
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. There is a large winter gull roost (which can hold as many as 28,000 birds), and numbers of Starlings sometimes gather to perform aerial ballets over the reserve before dropping down to roost, making a late afternoon visit to the reserve especially rewarding. Common Buzzard and Sparrowhawk are often about, Tree Sparrows are present year-round at the bird feeders and Water Rail is regularly spotted from the hides. Nights Crown Hotel, Mundford
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 Fens, 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 predominantly 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. Common Cranes have also bred at Lakenheath in recent years and 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; we missed them last year, but our 2016 group's timing was perfect as two flew right past them at the watchpoint and were later picked up ‘on the deck’!
All in all, our visit to Lakenheath should make an exciting finale to our birding tour to Norfolk / Suffolk's Breckland. The break concludes with a return to our hotel at around 2.30pm this afternoon, for farewells and journeys home.