With my next big expedition, Dove Step 3 - a complete on-foot crossing of Spain looming, I was inexplicably attracted to the 200 Bird Year. This may seem counter intuitive as the Spanish trip took me away from the UK and my home county of Suffolk for over a month, albeit at a relatively quiet time of year in February and early March.
With such trips I have learnt that the post-expedition lull can be fierce and in my case not entirely healthy. I have previously tried to fill the endorphin and exertion void with intoxicants - largely alcohol - which has had the duel effect of emptying my wallet and limiting my birding time. This year I have latched onto the My 200 Bird Year challenge as a healthy focus for my return from Spain and to civilian life. As I do not own a car and aside from the occasions I use my girlfriend’s, I do a lot of birding on bike or on foot from my home and within West Suffolk. This forms the primary focus of my 200 Year - to see if I can rack up 200 bird species within the West Suffolk recording area. In all likelihood this is impossible - or improbable at best. For example, by mid January I had already missed a Little Bunting on Knettishall Heath and repeatedly dipped out on both white-winged gulls frequenting a recycling centre on the Suffolk side of Thetford. If I had my own car I could have easily mopped up both of these targets, at almost any time. That is the curse of such a challenge, it heightens the experience of missing and dipping birds - at times almost overshadowing the birds actually seen! Despite the infancy of the challenge, by mid January I had already accumulated a very healthy 87 species, with some real specials which could have easily evaded me for the whole year, namely: White-fronted Goose, Smew, Raven and Waxwing.
The White-fronted Goose was a juvenile and cause of some embarrassment, as without the white blaze and black striations across the breast, I took the orange legs to mean Bean Goose and tweeted as such! Regardless of the public mistake and any embarrassment, any wild ‘grey goose’ constitutes an excellent addition in land-locked West Suffolk. The Smew was a first winter drake, but still in all the finery the male of this species exhibits. What a bird and what a privilege to see it on the 2nd January! Smew are certainly not annual visitors to my corner of the County and I have largely recorded red-headed females in the past. It has to be said, however, that such is the nuanced Vice County recording system, that this bird was some distance from my home and closer to the coast and further south than seems feasible for the west of the County! Raven, on the other hand, are an increasing sight and more tellingly found in West Suffolk. Whilst records have increased over the last few years,I did not consider Raven a ‘banker’ in respect of my year list. Indeed, having seen a pair locally in the last quarter of 2015, 2016 was a blank year for me. As such, it was especially gratifying when one cronked away on the first Saturday of January as I walked in the King’s Forest.
As Waxwing reports increased, moving ever southwards across the festive period, I became more attentive to berry laden trees and bushes on my daily walk-commute, double-taking every time a distant Redwing flew in! I was understandably delighted when a flock of 10 Waxwing started frequenting the less than salubrious Bury St Edmund’s bus station. Little did I know they would then become a daily feature, with birds habituating the car park trees outside my office window! A flock of 11 on Monday 9th increased and by the third weekend of the month totalled 14 birds. Despite being on-hand for three full working weeks, I never grew tired of the birds. They cheered the dreariest of days and even when I could not see them, the ‘trill’ call was an absolute delight! Waxwing are another species which, due to their cyclical pattern of arrival and the relatively southern location of West Suffolk, could easily have evaded my 200 Bird Year.
The second half of the month saw me hit the mother lode! Smashing the 100 species and half way mark. The white-winged gulls which had evaded me on the first two attempts gave themselves up beautifully on a pre-work visit with good friend Mal. It is not often that I would use the descriptor ‘beautiful’ and gulls in the same sentence – particularly since they were on a household recycling centre in the middle of an industrial estate! However, when the Glaucous flew overhead, one of the very first gulls to do so, at 07:51 it was beautiful. The sun had barely marked a crimson line on the horizon and our breath hung in the crisp air: the gull was backgrounded by really cold blue winter light. As the sun rose along with the daily commotion of the recycling centre, so did the gull numbers, seemingly out of nowhere. The Iceland Gull was also present in the assembled throngs on the rooftops. An invigorating start to the working day with both white-wingers superb additions to achieve in the first wintering period.
I can think of little to rival a winter’s afternoon at Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve. It is a full-on sensory and landscape level experience. Yes, the individual birds are superb, but collectively the Starlings and Corvids can fill a significant percentage of the sky; visually and aurally. Once beyond the central plantations and receiving longer views, you will rarely be far away from a Marsh Harrier - and as the day wanes they gather in double figures. Close attention can, as with my visit, produce further raptors - drawn by both the reed bed roost site and also the abundance of prey. Amidst the circling Marsh Harrier, a more buoyant active flight drew our attention and through the optics views of a male Hen Harrier were achieved. I can count on my two hands the times I have seen the grey male of the species, having mainly encountered ring-tails: another bird which could have evaded My 200 Bird Year efforts safely encountered within January. At one point, whilst manoeuvring the scope to get better views of the Hen Harrier I received full frontal views of a Bittern, headed straight towards me and on its way to roost! A much hoped-for encounter beyond the raptor roost. Other, expected reed bed specialists were; Bearded Tit, Cetti’s Warbler and Water Rail. Another, now expected bird of Lakenheath is the Great White Egret - from a national rarity when I started birding in West Suffolk to essentially a resident in 10 years. Indeed, I encountered a minimum of three individuals during the walk and then again as they flew to roost. Given the fenland location of Lakenheath, the final winter spectacle is the swans. Hundreds of swans - from the herds of expected Mute Swans to the mixed flocks of Whooper and Bewick’s Swan. The adjacent fields, usually dark with peat, can be white-washed or at least dotted with swans. On this visit, there were at least 126 Whooper and 2 Bewick’s showing, the Whooper’s occasionally giving their namesake call along with trade mark up and down sky-pointing of the bills, one of my absolute favourite winter time experiences.
From fenland to forest and heathland, West Suffolk has a good variety of habitats. As such I decided upon a change of pace for the second day of my penultimate January weekend and a walk through a favoured haunt - the King’s Forest. This secured a Woodlark flock and also wintering Great Grey Shrike, both iconic Breck species, certainly in winter time. Between the fenland and Breckland glut, by the third full weekend of the month I had amassed 105 species, comfortably crossing the half way mark and with several more winter targets outstanding. Remaining additions were all on-the-fly and achieved around walking the dog and domestic or work duties. We still have a relic population of Golden Pheasant in Suffolk Breckland. While it is not clear to what extent these are self sustaining or augmented by gamekeepers, regardless of their origins they are an incredible treat for the eyes on a January lunchtime. Golden Pheasant saw me poised on 106 species and just a busy working week to go before heading out to Spain.
Ten months to chase down another 94 species. Possible? Unlikely? I look forward to finding out!
All images © Jonny Rankin. Take the #My200BirdYear Challenge; www.birdwatching.co.uk/my200/