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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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With its own unique microclimate, the Brecks attracts a range of birds, from Hobbies to Nightjars.