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Brecks birdlife top 12

The Breckland area covers just under 1,000 km2 on the western Norfolk–Suffolk border. With its poor soils and semi-continental microclimate (hot summers, cold winters and low rainfall) the Brecks historically consisted of large swathes of lowland heathland, which were later converted to agricultural grazing.

In the early 20th century much of this was removed to make way for the familiar coniferous forest plantations that now make up much of the area.

Today, however, the remaining areas of precious heath are being positively managed for the benefit of wildlife. And even the area’s coniferous plantations form an important habitat for a number of species. In no particular order here are 12 species of Breckland birds to keep an eye out for.

Brecks living landscape

Norfolk Wildlife Trust  

Lakenheath Fen

Weeting Heath

Barn owl

Barn owl by Geoffrey Tibbenham
Although we think of owls as secretive and nocturnal birds, the barn owl is often seen during daylight, particularly during the summer when it flaps buoyantly above a hedgerow or dyke looking out for its favoured rodent prey to feed its young. The barn owl’s beautiful pale colouration is actually a combination of creamy buff and white feathering, which makes the bird surprisingly easy to spot. And if you’re lucky enough to see one perched, its heart-shaped face is distinctive. Barn owls have declined considerably across the UK since the end of the second world war, largely as a result of the intensification of agriculture. However, numbers remain relatively healthy in Norfolk, making it one of the better places in the country to observe this ghostly bird.

Green woodpecker

Green woodpecker by Nick Appleton

The largest of the three British woodpeckers is shyer and harder to see than the great spotted but, if you are lucky enough it’s a spectacular bird. Grass-green above and pale lime below, green woodpeckers spend much of their time on the ground (particularly on short grass) looking for ants to eat. Get a good view and you might also make out the bright scarlet cap and moustache – the hides at NWT Weeting Heath are a great place to try. Green woodpeckers are more often heard than seen: their far-carrying, laughter-like call – known as a ‘yaffle’ – also gives rise to one of their old names. Fans of the 1970s children’s TV series Bagpuss will remember the know-it-all Professor Yaffle, who was, of course, a green (albeit wooden!) woodpecker.

Stone curlew

Stone curlew by Lawrie Webb

Breckland is home to the stone curlew, one of the county’s most distinctive birds, fittingly also known as the Norfolk plover. Stone curlews are a type of wading bird, but they’re not (as their name might suggest) related to the Eurasian curlew, which is a familiar bird found mainly around our coasts. In fact, the stone curlew is the only European representative of the Thick-knee family and, yes, it does have rather knobbly knees – though you’ll need a very good view to actually notice this. Plumage-wise stone plovers are brown and streaked above, with a pale belly and a noticeable white wing-bar. They have a stubby, strong-looking bill and long yellowish-green legs. However, their most distinctive feature is their large yellow eyes, which give rise to another of their historical names – the goggle-eyed plover!

Undoubtedly the best site in the country to see these strange birds is NWT Weeting Heath, near Brandon. Two special viewing hides have been constructed, which give excellent views over the grassy heath where the birds feed and nest during the summer.

Nightjar

Nightjar by Andrew Ramsey

As the summer dusk arrives a strange sound fills the heath – an almost-mechanical mix of reeling, rattling and croaking. A swarm of insects, or a frog chorus perhaps? No, these throaty, churring calls belong to one of the UK’s most enigmatic birds: the nightjar. Nightjars are a scarce nocturnal summer visitor, arriving in May and heading back for their sub-Saharan wintering grounds from mid-August. In Norfolk, they are found mainly in heathland and young conifer plantations, particularly in the Brecks.

Nightjars are odd-looking birds. Their plumage is an intricate mix of camouflaged browns, perhaps most similar to a tawny owl, but their shape is very different: whereas owls sit upright, nightjars are elongated and horizontal, meaning that during the day, when they often sit lengthways along a branch or on the ground, they are almost impossible to spot. In flight, they’re an entirely different prospect: long-winged and hawk-like, though with a jerky, flapping action that brings to mind a giant moth.

Little owl

Little owl by Elizabeth Dack
Our smallest species of owl, roughly the size of a blackbird (though much plumper and more rounded in silhouette), the little owl was introduced to England from southern Europe in the 19th century. Today, it is fairly common around much of Norfolk, though the Brecks are one of its county strongholds. Little owls have mottled brown-and-cream plumage, with yellow eyes and short, rounded wings. Their flight is rather whirring and undulating. Although they are largely nocturnal, little owls are often also seen around dusk and sometimes even earlier, especially during the summer. NWT Weeting Heath is a good place to catch up with these diminutive owls.

Woodlark

Woodlark by Chris Mills
In Norfolk, this scarce heathland bird has its stronghold in the Brecks. Shorter-tailed than the more widespread skylark, the woodlark also differs in having a distinct eye-stripe, which meets at the back of its head. In spring, the species carries out a beautiful, flute-like song flight high above cleared areas of the forest. A pair of these birds can often be seen feeding on the short grass in front of the hides at NWT Weeting Heath.

Willow warbler

Wiillow warbler by Jo Garbutt
In the right kind of wooded habitat the distinctive down-slurring song of the willow warbler is a familiar sound of summer. Willow warblers are summer visitors from sub-Saharan Africa to Britain. They’re small, rather plain, greyish-green songbirds that are very similar in appearance to chiffchaff. However, willow warblers usually have pale legs and longer wings, and tend to have a more distinctive face pattern. The best way, however, to tell them apart is by song: the soft, descending whistle of the willow warbler is very different to the onomatopoeic two-note song of the chiffchaff.

Hobby

Hobby feeding young with dragonfly by Mark Ollett
The hobby breeds across much of Europe and the southern UK and spends the winter in Africa south of the Equator. It’s is a sleek small falcon with very pointed wings that almost give it the appearance of a large swift in flight. Hugely acrobatic, the species can often be seen hunting over reedbeds, heathland and wetland for dragonflies, catching the insects in its talons and eating them on the wing. Hobbies have dark upperparts, black-spotted cream underparts, a distinct ‘moustache’ and red ‘trousers’. Men of a certain age will also be interested to learn that the scientific term for the species, Falco subbuteo, gave a name to the popular table football game, because the designation ‘Hobby’ had already been trademarked.

Grey partridge

Grey Partridge by David Savory
The grey partridge is a declining native farmland bird that, sadly, is actually not particularly easy to see anymore. In fact the commonest partridge in Norfolk (no, it’s not Alan…) is the red-legged, which was introduced to the UK in the 18th century from continental Europe. Grey partridges have mainly grey bodies with an orangey face, whereas the slightly larger red-legged can be most easily told apart by its contrasting white cheeks and throat, and black necklace.

Goshawk

Goshawk by WildStock
The goshawk is one of the most impressive avian residents of the Brecks, but you’ll have to be very lucky to see one. Essentially, these birds of prey are buzzard-sized versions of the much-commoner sparrowhawk. A few pairs breed in hidden corners of the area’s vast conifer plantations, where they terrorise the local pigeon population as they weave powerfully through the trees. Sunny early spring days offer the best opportunity to see this rare species, when they engage in their soaring display flights.

Golden oriole

Golden oriole by Michelle Lambert

The Brecks are home to one of the UK’s rarest songbirds. RSPB Lakenheath Fen, just across the Suffolk border, is the only site where it possible to observe the UK’s tiny remnant population of golden orioles. Until recently two or three pairs bred each year in the reserve’s poplar plantations, though whether new birds will return each spring is a source of considerable consternation. A number of the reserve’s paths skirt the edges of the trees and offer an excellent vista over the densely wooded habitat favoured by the orioles. These brightly coloured summer migrants arrive back at Lakenheath in the middle of May.

They are most easily located by their distinct, fluty calls – a magical, almost ethereal sound. Male birds are more vocal when they first return and are setting up territories, but can still be heard into the middle of June, albeit less frequently, particularly early in the morning or on sunny evenings. Seeing the birds can require a lot of patience (and luck), as despite their beautiful bright plumage (males are yellow, females greener) they are very shy and blend surprisingly easily into the dense foliage.

Common crossbill

Common Crossbill by Peter Davies

The common crossbill gets its name from its distinctive crossed beak, which is specially adapted to prize seeds out of spruce and pine cones, its favoured food. Other adaptations aid with this tricky culinary preference: its feet are adapted for grasping and holding cones; while its agile parrot-like behaviour means it can move easily around the dense coniferous branches. Crossbills are members of the Finch family; males are bright red and females dark green. Crossbill numbers vary considerably from year to year, with large numbers of Scandinavian birds coming to the UK (an ‘irruption’) when food is scarce there, so they can be a difficult species to see.

However, the Brecks is certainly one of the best places to try – listen out for the distinctive ‘chip-chip’ call, which is often the first indication that these delightful finches are in the vicinity. Although they usually feed high among the pine trees, crossbills are also often seen on the ground drinking from puddles, as the pine resin gives them a real thirst.

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