Naturalists abroad

Published: 9th December 2013


Sunset looking towards Walberswick

Sunset looking towards WalberswickDerelict windmill seen through the reeds on Walberswick Fen NNR

After a busy year with Glenloy Wildlife we actually found time to take a few days holiday and ventured abroad (well, out of the People’s Republic of Scotchland, anyway). In search of pastures new we opted for the Suffolk coast; a land of big horizons, flat grey seas, shingle beaches and rippling fens. The scenery really is about as far from the West Highlands as it could be. When the wind got up and the rain streaked horizontally across the North Sea, there were shades of Scotland, but the flatness of the land and the evenness of the coast was a revelation. A sign telling us to beware of dangerous cliffs caused a chuckle as it took us a while to realise just where the low cliffs in question actually were! We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of reed beds and water bodies, both fresh and saline behind the dunes and shingle mounds, evenly distributed amongst the pigs and next year’s crops, already lush and green. Pleasing broad-leaved woodland, interspersed with heaths and pretty villages, replete with welcoming water-holes, were an added bonus. We spent some time walking along the coastline and visiting various fenland reserves (not to mention drinking and shopping), and managed to avoid the worst of the winter weather.


The first stop in Fenland on our way south was at Lakenheath Fen, set amongst a rather industrial arable landscape, from which indeed the fen has been resurrected. It was hard to imagine exotic orioles singing from the tops of straggly poplars on a dreich winter’s day! The visit set the scene, however, for what to expect over the rest of the week, and gave an insight into what things might be like on a warm early-summer’s day. First there were familiar creatures in unfamiliar settings, such as greater spotted woodpecker in the poplars and tits in the reeds. Then there were species that are no-doubt common in Suffolk, but rarely seen in the Highlands. Foremost of these was the marsh harrier – we saw three here, and others every time we went out looking for birds. Water rail squealed from the reeds, Cetti’s warblers sang lustily and inappropriately for the time of year, and bearded tits pinged both near and far – all were unseen. We did, however, catch a glimpse of a bittern passing swiftly from one reedbed to another. Open water produced a plethora of ducks, including large numbers of shoveller and gadwall, again scarce in the Highlands, along with the ubiquitous little egrets, yet to reach us. We also were pleased to see and hear green woodpecker on this visit and subsequently. The Fen even produced a rarity for us, a great egret, looking and behaving like a big white heron stalking the margins of a cropped field.


A walk through head-high reeds at Walberswick was atmospheric but produced relatively little. In contrast the flooded fields near the village yielded a wide variety of ducks, geese and waders, again providing a heady mix of the unkent and well-kent. We found a solitary dark-bellied brent goose and a party of barnacles amongst the plethora of teal. Lapwings flocked in the shallow margins, along with curlews and redshanks. Oystercatchers were largely absent, replaced by altogether more elegant black-tailed godwits, with their rather plain winter plumage. A small herd of whooper swans graced the adjoining field. On our return a barn owl quartered the fringing ditches; an evocative winter sight and something further to rejoice about by the open fire of a harbour pub. On another late afternoon over another reedbed we were lucky enough to witness a murmuration of starlings, thousands flying in from all directions to wheel about before settling down into the reeds. Apparently the starlings continue to move restlessly throughout the night, but as we left before the last light was lost, all was quiet.


We managed a dry afternoon at Minsmere (well we had to, didn’t we), following a torrential morning. Flocks of small birds included marsh tit, treecreeper and redpoll. Throughout our stay winter thrushes that have now passed us by, were seen feeing in the hedgerows and woods, but not yet on the fields. Ducks and geese on the main pools were rather disturbed by repair work to the sluices, and appeared nervous. The most excitement was caused by a group of Konig ponies that charged across through the water towards the hide, but veered away before any good shots could be captured. Walking round to the sea front we disturbed a mixed group of red deer that crashed away through the reeds – somewhat of a contrast to the usual Highland setting. A few snow bunting flitted around the base of the dunes – again rather different from the last we saw high on Cairngorm.  The bittern hide proved much more rewarding. A patient late-afternoon watch produced the elusive bearded tit feeding on seed by the edge of the reeds and the appearance of water rails along the margins of a channel. Two kingfishers fished in a small pool just below the hide, while Cettis continued to call.Red deer walked the paths between the reedbeds, marsh harriers glided above and a family of Bewicks winged their way across to open water. In the wood by the nearby path a muntjac stared at us, hunched over and nonchalant. A fleeting visit to a wind-swept heath failed to produce anything, let alone the desired Dartford Warbler, but if I was a little bird I wouldn’t have stuck my head above cover that morning either. To complete our short round up we found some wintering avocet at Orford Ness, but could only look longingly across the river to the islands and hidden secrets beyond.


On our return home we stopped off at the NW Bird fair at Martin Mere. The place was hooching and we were lucky to find a space in the overflow car park. Although there were relatively few stands it was good to see a few Scottish companies there, and in future we might consider joining them. We had time for a quick look around the hides. A surprising number of the birds we saw we had already seen down in Suffolk, including little egret and marsh harrier. The big draw at this time of year is, of course, the pink-footed geese and the whooper swans, both present in good numbers. We were also pleased to see the now-familiar godwits, in amongst large groups of ruff and lapwings. An adult and a juvenile peregrine also entertained the crowds, killing and eating an unfortunate starling in full view. A bird that we again don’t see at home that is always a welcome sight is the tree sparrow, here flocking in numbers to the bird feeders. A justified stop-off.


As we turned into the drive after our long journey home we flushed two woodcock from wet ground. Almost as soon as we had unpacked the car a pine marten appeared. Our mega flock of chaffinches must have moved on in our absence, but increasing numbers of coal tits are busy emptying our sunflower feeder. A good winter’s walk around FortWilliam produced a juvenile peregrine, a large flock of (understandably nervous) siskin, and a group of three roe deer in the middle of a field next to houses in the middle of the day. It’s good to be back!