North Norfolk New Year

rs Sciencebase and myself often run away to the north Norfolk coast, originally it was just the quickest route to the beach for us, but then we started looking out for aves and this part of the country is so rich in birdlife you can’t help but visit again and again. On our short trip to Morston Quay between Xmas and New Year, we “ticked” more than 60 bird species, not counting the dozen or so extras on Blakeney Duck Pond. Here are a few scenic shots and some of the birds.

Morston Quay
On the way to Blakeney
Morston Quay
Morston Quay at dawn
Morston Quay
Morston Quay
Morston Quay at dusk
Morston Quay
Male Pintail, Blakeney Duck Pond
Female Goldeneye, Blakeney Duck Pond
Barnacle Goose, Blakeney Duck Pond
Cormorants, Blakeney
Male Goldeneye, Blakeney Duck Pond
One of 100 or so Curlew we saw, this one in Blakeney
Male Goldeneye, Blakeney Duck Pond
Grey Seal, Wells-next-the-Sea
70+ Snow Buntings, Holkham Gap (not all of them pictured!)
One of four Shore Larks at Holkham Gap, first time we’ve seen this species
1000s of Pink-footed Geese over Morston Quay (not all of them pictured!)

1. Bar-tailed Godwit
2. Barn Owl
3. Black-headed Gull
4. Black-tailed Godwit
5. Blackbird
6. Black Brant Goose
7. Blue Tit
8. Brent Goose
9. Buzzard
10. Canada Goose
11. Cetti’s Warbler (call)
12. Collared Dove
13. Common Gull
14. Coot
15. Cormorant
16. Curlew
17. Dunlin
18. Dunnock
19. Goldcrest (call)
20. Great Black-backed Gull
21. Great Tit
22. Greylag Goose
23. Herring Gull
24. House Sparrow
25. Jackdaw
26. Kestrel
27. Knot
28. Lapwing
29. Linnet
30. Little Egret
31. Little Grebe
32. Long-tailed Tit
33. Magpie
34. Mallard
35. Marsh Harrier
36. Meadow Pipit
37. Mute Swan
38. Oystercatcher
39. Pheasant
40. Pied Wagtail
41. Pink-footed Goose
42. Red Kite
43. Red-throated Diver
44. Redshank
45. Reed Bunting (call)
46. Robin
47. Sanderling
48. Shelduck
49. Shorelark
50. Shoveler
51. Skylark
52. Snow Bunting
53. Sparrowhawk
54. Starling
55. Teal
56. Tufted Duck
57. Water Pipit
58. Whooper Swan
59. Wigeon
60. Wood Pigeon
61. Wren

Sunny Suffolk – Lackford Lakes

Paid just our second visit of the year to Lackford Lakes Nature Reserve in the hope of seeing the Siskins that had been reported there this week. We stopped off at the ringing hut where two of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust team had netted various birds (Treecreeper, Blue, Great and Marsh Tits, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Robin, and others) and were carefully recording the recatches and ringing any new catches for their conservation efforts.

So, what did we see on the day? 46 species not in order of sighting but loosely grouped:

  1. Siskin
  2. Goldfinch
  3. Redpoll
  4. Great Tit
  5. Blue Tit
  6. Long-tailed Tit
  7. Coal Tit
  8. Marsh Tit
  9. Dunnock
  10. Chaffinch
  11. Robin
  12. Nuthatch
  13. Wren
  14. Treecreeper
  15. Blackbird
  16. Song Thrush
  17. Starling
  18. Lapwing
  19. Green Woodpecker
  20. Sparrowhawk
  21. Common Buzzard
  22. Kestrel
  23. Cormorant
  24. Goldeneye
  25. Mallard
  26. Tufted Duck
  27. Gadwall
  28. Wigeon
  29. Pochard
  30. Shelduck
  31. Shoveller
  32. Little Grebe
  33. Moorhen
  34. Coot
  35. Greylag Goose
  36. Canada Goose
  37. Egyptian Goose
  38. Grey Heron
  39. Black-headed Gull
  40. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  41. Great Black-backed Gull
  42. Jay
  43. Rook
  44. Jackdaw
  45. Wood Pigeon
  46. Collared Dove
Treecreeper being ringed
Treecreeper being ringed
Blue Tit
Blue Tit
Marsh Tit
Marsh Tit
Male Siskin (left) and what looks like two Redpolls)
Male Siskin (left) and what looks like two Redpolls). There were a couple of dozen Siskins around.

Birds spread their wings

A Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) flew into Berry Fen when we visited a couple of days ago to settle among the eight Little Egrets feeding there. In so doing it spooked two of the six Glossy Ibis that were feeding on the edge of a flooded area and they flew off to join four others of that species.

Cattle Egret over Berry Fen near Earith, Cambridgeshire, October 2021. Sixteen of this species seen there, the following day (county record)

Apparently, there were fifteen additional Cattle Egret in a flock on the same patch the day after we visited, which is the largest recorded gathering of this species in Cambridgeshire. A county record, in other words. The bird is ostensibly an African species that has been extending its range over the last decade or two because of habitat opportunity and climate change.

UPDATE: There were a record 57 Cattle Egret at this site at the beginning of November. I have also now seen four at RSPB Ouse Fen on the Reedbed Trail side close to Over.


UPDATE: Four Spoonbills at Kingfisher Bridge Nature Reserve during November 2021.

Great White Egret, one of half a dozen seen at RSPB Fen Drayton, December 2020

Back in the early 1990s when we visited Botswana and Zimbabwe we saw lots of egrets and then were very surprised to see one or two on the North Norfolk coast in subsequent years. Little Egrets are, almost 30 years later rather commonplace. Similarly, the Great White Egret is seen in many parts now and a sighting is no longer considered particularly notable. I heard that part of the reason is that there is an abundance of red swamp crayfish in the lakes of northern France which have provided a food source and hopping off point for this species. The presence of at least a couple of dozen Glossy Ibis on our patch during the last year or so, may similarly be due to individuals spreading their wings from a known breeding colony in Southern Spain. The experts may know more, but I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

Glossy Ibis feeding on farmland adjacent to the River Cam at Chesterton, just outside Cambridge, Spring 2021

Wheatears have nothing to do with ears of wheat, they just have a white rump

The Wheatears are on the move, there were a couple of females that took a pitstop along the Cottenham Lode on the outskirts of our village while on passage south. They were first spotted on 18th August by friend Josh C, and Mrs Sciencebase and myself saw them on the 21st, although it was drizzly so I wasn’t carrying my camera. Here’s a male I snapped in May 2017 in Aldeburgh. Suffolk, Le Cul-blanc.

By the way, the name Wheatear has nothing to do with wheat, ears, nor ears of wheat, even. It’s from the 16th Century name meaning “white arse” as the bird famously has a white rump. The French call it the Cul-blanc. They used to be caught and roasted as seaside snacks on the South Coast in the 1700s. Apparently, half a million every year. I think I’ve seen fewer than a dozen in my whole life…but imagine a time when a bird that seems fairly rare was so abundant…makes you wonder where they all went…ah.

Freedom of movement for European Roller

About a week ago, the birding wires were buzzing with news of a rare visitor to the British Isles – a European Roller (Coracias garrulus). It’s the only Roller to breed in Europe and you usually find them around southern Spain, the Mediterranean coasts and into the Middle East, Central Asia, and Morocco, rather than the British Isles. But, here was one perching on overhead powerlines that cross a farm alongside a busy stretch of Suffolk road.

European Roller

Now, Mrs Sciencebase and myself love a bit of nature as you probably guessed by now, but we don’t tend to “twitch”, we rarely go out of our way to see a bit of wildlife, although it has been known.

European Roller

Usually, we’d combine an off-patch twitch with another trip and so when Mrs Sciencebase mentioned she’d like to visit the Suffolk Wildlife Trust site at Lackford Lakes on our joint day off I agreed and then let her know about the Roller. Fortunately, the short, fast route we’d normally take had roadworks, so we took a diversion that just happened to go along the aforementioned Suffolk road.

Coracias garrulus

We stopped off, just as had done perhaps 100 other birders, set up cameras and scopes and took a good long look at this beautiful and exotic bird that has some of the characteristics of the Jay, the Bee Eater and the Kingfisher, all rolled into one, as it were. When it wasn’t perched on wires or hiding in the hedgerow it was generally flying past us at about 200 metres distance. But, just as we were giving up on getting a decent shot it flew on to the wires about 100 metres away, sat for a while, did couple of barrel roll flights (hence the name) and then headed back to the hedgerow, so I did get a couple of half-decent in-flight photos of this quite exotic and unique bird.

Hard shooting a fasst-moving bird against a bright sky, high shutter speed also means high ISO which means digital grain (noise).

Sharpen your Peregrines

Just giving Topaz Sharpen AI and Denoise a try-before-you-buy. I had some hastily grabbed photos of the Ely Peregrines, but the best of the bunch had quite a lot of motion blur and was rather noisy because of high-ish ISO and exposure compensation to get the underside markings of the bird against a bright blue sky as it flew overhead.

So, here’s the basic photo converted from camera RAW and close-cropped to a square to ultimately upload to the Sciencebase Instagram. It looks very grainy/noisy and the motion blur and shoddy focusing look irretrievable, to be honest…

I told Topaz that the photo is suffering from serious motion blur and is “very blurry” and let it choose the basic settings. It took several minutes to process the image but the output is quite astonishing…you have to admit!

Still noisy, but then I hadn’t asked it to clean up the grain, I used the separate Denoise AI software to do that, again with quite astonishing results just setting it to “standard” and letting it do its job. Denoising was very quick…

The final step was to go back to my usual photo editing package PaintShopPro to develop the image as I normally would and to add my logo…

That’s a pretty good result considering how shockingly bad the original unprocessed image was and perfectly acceptable for Instagram and other social media I’d say although probably not going to be good enough for National Geographic in any way, shape, or form.

The Topaz Labs software – Denoise, Sharpen, and others – can be found here.


Swift action in Cottenham

Swift boxes designed and built by Dick Newell have now been installed by firefighters from Cottenham Fire Station on the new Village Hall and the sports pavilion with plans to install additional units.

Swift in flight, Apus apus
Dick Newell with one of the multistorey Swift boxes now installed in Cottenham’s sports pavilion

The wooden boxes blend in well with the buildings offering executive homes for our summer visitors and augmenting the swift bricks that already form part of the fabric of the new Village Hall. The boxes have a smooth slot through which these slick and speedy birds can fly to build their nests.

Retained firefighters from Cottenham Community Fire a Rescue Station

Within each box is a ‘nest form’, Newell told me. Essentially the nest form is a square of plywood with a hole cut in it. He and his colleagues tested various designs, such as smooth cup-shaped nest forms against this simpler approach and found that the swifts showed no preference, so new boxes are built with the simpler design.

The large box installed in the gable end above the pavilion clock also has an electronic that plays back a recording of swifts calling in flight to encourage new arrivals to approach the boxes and ultimately build their nests within. Newell told me that the birds usually use spit and feathers to construct their nests and once they’ve raised chicks and flown back to Africa for the winter, the remains of the nest will be degraded by insects and mould.

Unfortunately, he adds in recent years, swifts have been found to use fragments of plastic they catch or collect and these fragments simply accumulate in the nest box as with no way for them to be broken down naturally before the next year’s summer visitors arrive.

The first swifts of 2021 arrived on the Cottenham fen edge patch in the latter half of April and more turned up over subsequent weeks with some locals reporting that the birds have taken up residence in nest boxes installed on their houses. It remains to be seen whether the visitors are inclined to nest in the new boxes this year, but the village has now offered new housing for the birds. It is their turn to take action.

You can find out more about Dick Newell and Action for Swifts here.

Birding on the Wild Fen Edge

UPDATE: 14 July 2021 – Simon Gillings spotted two cranes briefly at the Smithy Fen flooded field. Others have noted sandpipers and Ringed Plover raising chicks.

When it comes to local places to spot new and interesting birds, the first place you might try in this neck of the woods (as it were) are the various nature reserves we have within a few clicks. There are the RSPB reserves – Ouse Fen, Berry Fen, Fen Drayton, Fowlmere, Ouse Washes most of which I’ve mentioned on this site at least once in the last few years. Then there are the National Trust places like Anglesey Abbey and Wimpole Hall as well the likes of Wicken, Tubney, and Burwell Fen. Further afield there’s the Wetland Trust site at Welney and other fairly nearby RSPB reserves such as Lakenheath.

Turtle doves have arrived in Cottenham again for 2021

But, we also have a couple of very interesting birding sites in our village of Cottenham – Long Drove and Smithy Fen.

Long Drove stretches from the entrance at Beach Road all the way past the various farms, the back of the landfill site, several ponds, and on to the gravel works and then the Cambridge Gun Club. The drove itself is a public highway and most of those various spots are only observable from the road itself, nevertheless, there is often something to see in the fields, in the skies, and babbling about on the ponds.


Watch out for Common Buzzards and other raptors, including Kestrel and even Peregrine, small birds such as Linnets and Goldfinch, and plenty of gulls. For the gull aficionado (never seagull, by the way) there are often great flocks of mixed birds: Black-headed Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Common Gulls (which are quite rare). Most winters and into the spring there are often some slightly less common gulls, such as Iceland, Caspian, and Yellow-legged gulls, which might even draw birders from wider afield. A couple of winters back there was a Hooded Crow (common in Scotland, but a rarity this far south).


Turning to Smithy Fen, however, the recent flooding of the paddocks at the bridge and the farmland adjacent to the Lode but beyond the travellers’ site has turned up a veritable mega list for local birdwatchers. None of the sightings are strictly ‘megas’, which is usually a term reserved for an incredibly rare bird. Nevertheless, several locals who send me sightings for my newsletter report have put together a list of birds one might not usually expect to see, but for those flooded paddocks and fields.


Among them: Yellow Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtail (European version of the British Pied Wagtail), Water Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Sedge Warbler, Stonechat, Wheatear, Wigeon, Shelduck, Garganey, Green Sandpiper, Golden Plover, Snipe, Jack Snipe, Dunlin, Redshank, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Avocet, Ruff, and Common Tern. In the Fen Reeves Wood a Nightingale was reportedly heard recently, but it apparently stayed only a day or two. And, another for the gull aficionados, Kumlein’s Gull, which brought in quite a few birders from off the patch to see this rarity.

UPDATE: 2021-05-15 – Two Temminck’s Stints on the flooded field seen by local birder Brendan today. RSPB website describes this as a formerly breeding species with just 100 or so seen each year on migratory passage.

UPDATE: 2021-05-17 – Glossy Ibis has now been seen on that flooded field.

UPDATE: 20121-05-20 – Little Stint joins the one remaining Temminck’s

Yet to be noted are Common Sandpiper, Curlew, Turnstone, Spotted Redshank, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper…and then the rarities.

A Nuthatch (possibly the first in modern birding memory) turned up for a few days in the trees around All Saints Church and the gardens thereabouts. A couple of Turtle Doves are back as are Whitethroats, and Lesser Whitethroats along Church Lane.

Nuthatch – a first for Cottenham in modern birding memory

Speaking of Turtle Doves…

A community conservation officer for the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire recently set-up a small project, following guidance from the RSPB Operation Turtle Dove project to provide supplementary feeding for Turtle Doves in South Cambridgeshire.

He contacted me in December 2020 having got wind of the half a dozen or so turtle doves we’d had in Cottenham in the summer.

Anyway, he was hoping to speak to local landowners on the patches where TDs had been seen, so I spoke to a couple of those I know. And, one of them was happy to discuss further. He met up a few weeks ago and seed has been scattered at the margin of the field and extra bags left with local residents to dispense. The idea as I understand it is actually to encourage pigeons to feed in places where TDs have been sighted and so give the TDs the confidence to feed there too and hopefully then to feel safe and so breed.

One TD was heard and seen in our village two weeks ago, a second one has joined it and both were seen feeding on the margin. I saw them on the wires today but they flew off towards the church after I’d done the initial photoshoot before I got closeups. This shot was taken from about 200 metres away.

Incidentally, if you’re a local and would like to be in on the local sightings as they happen I have a Google Group – Wild Fen Edge – which might be of interest, drop me a line on the sciencebase email address ([email protected]) and we can discuss getting you in the Group.

Grasshopper Warbler, Locustella naevia

I’m fairly sure I’d heard this relatively rare bird at RSPB Fowlmere several years ago but as a very, very amateur birder, I’d not seen one and certainly not seen one calling until this week. We took a trip to RSPB Titchwell on 2nd May 2021 and could hear one in the reed bed adjacent to the main footpath from the visitor centre, but didn’t catch a glimpse of the bird. A second visit in the week (5th May) and we could definitely hear the insect-like call of the bird and finally pinned it down to a patch of gorse and hawthorn not far from Patsy’s reedbed.

The Common Grasshopper Warbler is one of the grass warblers. (See What’s a Warbler, Anyway?). Given the name, one might assume that this bird dines on grasshoppers. But, that’s not the allusion of its name. Far from it. Rather the bird is so-called because its call is a constant monotonous trilling that sounds very much like the sound of a grasshopper. Here, have a listen to hear what I mean

The bird finds a safe perch, opens its bill and lets rip with its tuneless but rather delightful call. It’s quite difficult to pinpoint from exactly where the sound emanates, as is often the case with high-pitched bird calls. It’s almost as if the bird has some kind of ventriloquial skill. Nevertheless, we were lucky today and caught sight of it following an outburst as it weaved its way through spiny bushes to find its next perch.

There an estimated 16000 pairs in The British Isles and the bird is in the conservation red list as endangered. For comparison, there are 260,000 Sedge Warbler “territories”. The species can be seen across Europe from the west to Russia and Ukraine. It spends the northern winter in West Africa. The Locustella of the scientific name is the genus of which this species is the “type” naevia “translates” as spotted.

RSPB Berry Fen

I’ve driven past Berry Fen, which lies betwixt the fenland villages of Earith and Bluntisham, dozens of times in my 30+ years in Cambridgeshire. Often when visiting friends out in the sticks but in more recent years, it’s usually been on a trip to the Needingworth side of RSPB Ouse Fen. Well, yesterday a fellow twitter user posted photos of an intriguing wader species that has turned up in the fens – Ruff, Tringa pugnax – so I thought I’d pay the site a visit, he kindly gave me the What3Words for the exact spot he’d observed the birds.

Female Ruff, lacking the male’s “ruff”

There were two or three Ruff, several courting Lapwings, a Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Moorhen, Mallard, Coot. To be heard in the trees and reeds flanking the flood: Willow Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler, Reed Warbler, Reed Bunting, Whitethroat etc. Oh and my first couple of Common Terns of the year.

Classic fenland sentinel, Grey Heron

Nice patch to visit on a sunny day. You can also take a detour from here to the larger lake at the north end of RSPB Ouse Fen or head for Brownshill Staunch and cross the Great River Ouse to get to the Reedbed Trail of that same reserve where you might catch a glimpse of Bearded Reedling.

Bearded Reedlings at RSPB Ouse Fen, Reedbed Trail
Little Grebe, RSPB Berry Fen