My Best Birding Experience Ever!!

Before I start, I normally try to make these posts quite funny (the success of which is debatable), but I need to be serious for just the next two paragraphs. I just want to say that I cannot thank enough everyone involved with this event- from Ieuan & Paul, to everyone who attended, I think this might just go down as the most eye-opening & possibly the best time birding I’ve ever had.

I first received news that I was attending the BTO Bird Camp early in February, and I was really excited. I was going to meet birders my age! Before this, I hadn’t properly been friends with any young birders (I had unknowingly met Toby Carter on Scilly last October though). However, I didn’t know who these people were. Yet.

Unfortunately, my ‘friends’ got wind of the fact that I was a birder & that, combined with the fact that I was slightly overweight & considered a bit different, led to me beginning to HATE school with a passion. To be fair to my teachers, they did their best to combat this , but it made a resurgence again every time (despite my English teacher being ex-Army!). I was being bullied by several individuals, and the others joined in because of their fear of the social hierarchy which seems to be in every secondary school. It soon got to the point where I was basically alone for the 200 days of the year that I went to school.

That’s when I discovered Twitter & I made new friends amongst the Young Birders Group Chat, and I felt I formed a bond with them, a bond which could only be strengthened by this camp, especially with so many of us there. From the group chat, I felt everyone there to be really nice people, and this showed: by the end of the weekend, I feel that I had made friends with nearly everyone who attended, thus adding much higher value to this experience.

Day 1: Friday 27th May- Arrival Day

Having travelled roughly an hour from home, my dad parked up at The Nunnery in Thetford : I was excited to say the least. I got in, and was registered. I then dumped my stuff & went to chat with a group of the Twitter birders: Zach Haynes, Elliot Montieth, Ben Moyes & Max Hellicar, all of whom I had talked to over Twitter. Over dinner, with Sam Pitt Miller, Dante Shepherd, Josie Hewitt, Mya Bambrick & Paddy Lewin having all arrived, completing the Twitter gang, we intensely discussed such current issues like the Cornish Dalmatian Pelican, Devon Lammergeier, our patches & more importantly the weekend ahead- we were going to be birding at a variety of locations, including The Nunnery Lakes, Lakenheath and, perhaps most excitingly, Landguard Nature Reserve.

It wasn’t long before we moved on to the campsite at Two Mile Bottom. The tents were very comfortable & the setting was spectacular: gorgeous boggy forest to the south, dense pine forest to the north. We went to bed listening to hooting Tawny Owls in the distance.

Day 2: Saturday 28th May- A Full Day’s Birding

We were up bright & early (4:30am!!) to make our way down to The Nunnery Lakes. I had heard of this place before, and its ‘permit only’ status gave it quite a mystical perception, especially having claimed multiple reports of Greenland Redpoll a few years back.

We arrived promptly at 5am, and got straight down to the activities which Ieuan & co. had planned for us. We were split into four groups: my group went with Sue Gough first.

Whilst watching an exquisite adult Grey Heron in a nearby field, she took us (me, Dante, Max & two other birders called Alex & Eleanor) through the procedures of the CBC. I had my biology teacher to thank here: he had shown me how to do this in basic detail & I remembered most of the symbols. We were told we were mapping warblers (which soon included Kingfisher under that bracket) and we were lucky to record eight of the nine ‘common’ warblers (the one we failed to observe was Lesser Whitethroat). We had a very pleasant walk around one of The Nunnery’s many lakes, mapping warblers constantly as we went. Try as we might, we failed to hear a Grasshopper Warbler which had been reported earlier, and we unfortunately failed to hear one throughout the weekend. By the end of the session, our maps were filled with symbols, lines, arrows & circles!

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Grey Heron in a ploughed field near the lakes
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Canada Goose AKX on Fisherman’s Lake. We soon discovered from Paul that the geese were being neck-collared to ‘see where they went’
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Adult Kingfisher on a perch near its nest on Fisherman’s Lake

We then went for a walk around the lakes with Paul Stancliffe, BTO’s Media Manager. He is an excellent birder, full of knowledge & skill, which may explain why he was County Recorder on Scilly for seven years! Whilst walking around the lake, he informed us that one of the birders in the previous group had found a Hepatic Cuckoo! We unsuccessfully scoured the trees for the bird, drawing up only a smart male Cuckoo. We mostly chatted whilst we walked, and he showed us Slow-worms & even a Grass Snake! All the while, Swifts were screaming overhead. We came back happy, despite not seeing the cuckoo & hearing reports of rarities up & down the east coast.

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One of several Slow-worms which Paul showed us
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A screaming Swift over The Nunnery
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An adult male Blackcap singing in a tree

We then moved on to nest recording with BTO’s Alan Thoms, who I understood to be an expert. Expectations were high as the other groups had found multiple Whitethroat & Willow Warbler nests amongst the gorse & brambles of The Nunnery, and Elliot even found a Yellowhammer nest! Unfortunately, try as we might, we couldn’t find a new nest. However, we were shown examples of Willow Warbler, Whitethroat & Elliot’s Yellowhammer nest, and we had a bit of fun beating the hell out of The Nunnery’s extensive vegetation.

Finally, we were on to the ringing, with Lee Barber & Ieuan Evans. We were shown how to put a ring onto a bird’s leg whilst we were waiting to do the rounds, and everyone struggled to shape the larger rings as brute force was required. Upon completing this, much at the expense of laughter & mockery from the others, we made a round of the various nets dotted around yet another of The Nunnery’s lakes. In this instance, we caught a Blue Tit and three Reed Warblers. We saw them being weighed, and the necessary data taken, before we had the opportunity to release them. I got to release a Reed Warbler, which was fortunately very calm in the hand, and it flew into the trees (!) surrounding the ringing hub.

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A Blue Tit in the hand having it’s wing measured up
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Reed Warbler in the hand

Sadly, we had to get back to camp for a delicious & filling 11:30 breakfast, only to discover lunch was being served at 12:30!!! Fortunately, everyone saved some room & packed up plenty for the afternoon ahead.

Then, Elliot & I concocted a plan for an internal bird race at Lakenheath that afternoon. The teams were set: Elliot, Zach & I against Sam, Toby, Ben & Max. The numbers were thought to be a disadvantage, although this was disproved on the grounds that only one of the group had to see the bird for it to count, and the fact that we were being joined by one of Elliot’s mates.

We arrived at Lakenheath where the warden gave us a brief introduction to the reserve & its work & showing us a dismantled Crane egg, to which Ben replied in his ineffable humourous manner, “That’s one bloody big egg!” All the while, species were coming in such as singing Blackcap, a flyover Kestrel & a calling Cuckoo. Then, having entered the reserve, we were off! We decided on the tough, long circular walk: we would be going anticlockwise, the other group clockwise.

We climbed up onto the Washland, and quickly added species to the list such as Common Tern, Great Crested Grebe & the resident Acrocephalus warblers. Then, Paul shouted that he had picked up the Garganey over the back of the Washland. It was seen to fly down onto the river, although subsequent searches proved fruitless. We then walked along the riverbank, all the while on the lookout for the elusive Bittern. Elliot & Zach both made it a point to leg it upon one of the group sighting one, if that were to happen. As we were nearing New Fen, having just seen the first Bearded Tit of the trip, Paddy announced he had seen a Bittern in the reeds. Unfortunately, Elliot, Zach & I were a hundred metres away from him as the group was in a very long snake. They reached Paddy in double-quick time as fast as Zach could run, only to discover it was a massive log. Then, a genuine Bittern flew up from the reeds to the left and flew around New Fen right in front of us! Everybody obtained fantastic views, some even getting some half-decent photos.

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‘The’ Bittern of all Bitterns- fantastic views!

Then, having logged a distant Marsh Harrier, we received a text from Ben Moyes from the other group saying that they were ‘five metres from a Cuckoo’. We soon worked out where they were, and, having blatantly lied about our species total, we soon got a response which fortunately meant the other team were lagging behind slightly. Having walked all the way up the riverbank, watching hawking Hobbies & another Common Tern fly up the river, we got our first glimpse of the other group- watching a Bittern fly right over their heads!! Cameras were extracted, the results being varied.

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My attempt at photographing the flyover Bittern

We then met up with the other group at Joist Fen, again blatantly lying, again confirming they were in fact behind. Whilst watching a pair of Crane near Humphrey’s Paddock, we heard our first ‘boom’ of a nearby male Bittern. We took a break here, and updated Paul’s electronic bird list. We were soon on our way again, but it was not long before a group of Bearded Tits interrupted & stopped us dead in our tracks. The other birds were quite showy as well, especially a Reed Bunting, another flyover Cuckoo & a circling Marsh Harrier.

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A circling male Marsh Harrier
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The male Cuckoo which flew over our heads
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An unusually showy Bearded Tit amongst the reeds

We then moved on back down towards the visitor centre, only stopping for a Scarce Chaser, a very close flyover Hobby & a Kingfisher for the bird race.

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A Hobby circling Trial Wood

We made our way back through the poplars, trying our hardest to pick up Great Spotted Woodpecker & Treecreeper, but to no avail. We returned to the visitor centre in fairly good time, having recorded 57 species. That was Lakenheath in 3 1/2 hours!

The other group arrived soon after, and we compared notes: they’d got 9 species on the return leg, putting them four species ahead of us! It appeared that we were staring down the barrel of a 61-57 loss. However, Zach was less keen, and asked to see Toby’s notebook. He found FOUR multiple entries! It was a draw! He was certain there was more, however, but intervention prevented him from further scrutinising, and we concluded it was best that we left it at that. We all had fun, though, and it added a sense of urgency to the Lakenheath circuit. The lists were identical, with the exception that the other group got GSW & Treecreeper, whereas we got Garganey & Common Tern.

We then drove to the field opposite Weeting Heath to see Stone Curlew. However, the views were poor in hazy conditions & at a significantly long distance, aptly described by Paddy as ‘two brown blobs in the middle of a field’. We then went back to The Nunnery for a delicious dinner.

But it was not over yet! We had the option to go Nightjar-ing in the Kings Forest, which everyone took. Having gone back to camp to retrieve our headtorches, we set out for the Nightjar site, and met Greg Conway, the resident BTO Nightjar expert. He gave us an introduction to the work he does & the Nightjars themselves, before we set up a few mist nets while it was still vaguely light. The sun set, and the Nightjars started churring. Finally, at roughly 9:30pm, a male gave itself up, and flew around us for a while. Another two flew over about half an hour later whilst we were listening out for a hooting Long-eared Owl which Paul had picked up! It was heard to call several more times over the course of the night.

Greg returned from the mist nets with a young male Nightjar safely in the bag (excuse the pun) & everyone got great views in the hand of this mystic bird of the night.

The Nightjar which Greg Conway trapped (photo subject to copyright)

We then beat a hasty retreat to camp in preparation for a very early start the next day. Overall, a great day’s birding.

Day 3- Sunday 29th May 2016- A Clean Sweep (almost)

Another day dawned, again at the disturbingly early hour of 4:30am, and we didn’t hesitate in getting into the bus down to Landguard for a welcome snooze.

We arrived at Landguard at about 6am, and were introduced to the Landguard Bird Observatory Manager. With his very good sense of humour, he walked us around the Landguard site, taking us through several moth traps, the Landguard Heligoland trap, and the ubiquitous mist nets. We also had a chance to seawatch from the old fort, but we failed to see anything aside from the resident Little Terns, 8 slightly unseasonal Brent Geese & 2 distant Kittiwakes. Having eaten breakfast, we set out onto the nature reserve, and soon located the breeding Ringed Plovers which are on site. One was even showy enough to go right onto the beach in front of us & pose nicely for photographs.

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A nice adult Ringed Plover

All the while, Swifts were streaming in from the sea having freshly arrived in the UK. We continued to walk along the beach listening to the Swifts constantly screaming, Linnets flitting in the bushes amongst the unique vegetated shingle habitat & Goldfinches flying around the gardens.

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A Goldfinch perched in some hawthorn

Sadly, it was time to leave Landguard & head back up towards Thetford, but not without some birding along the way.

We drew up at Upper Hollesley Common, despite discovering that the Red-footed Falcon had disappeared, and almost instantly a male Dartford Warbler popped up on top of a gorse bush! It proceeded to show very well amongst the gorse, and it was even seen from the bus as we were leaving!

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The gorgeous male Dartford Warbler which entertained us for a while

Pleased with our good start, we all followed Ben into an area across the road which is supposed to be good for Woodlark. Upon entering the collective area known as Sutton Heath, we pitched up & waited: a Stonechat sang from the treetop, a Kestrel hovered overhead & a Skylark flew through, but otherwise nothing.

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A Kestrel which flew overhead at Sutton Heath

We gave up soon after & returned to the bus. However, Sutton Heath was not finished yet: as the rest of the group got into the bus, they spotted a Woodlark song-flighting in the distance! Everyone eventually saw it, but we saw it better later in the day. Unbelievably, we also encountered two Redstart nearby: both of our target birds were located with relative ease, plus one extra!

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One of the Redstarts which we saw that day

We then drove to Boyton Marshes in search of Turtle Dove. Whilst the group saw plenty of Avocets & two Garganey were a nice extra, but no Turtle Dove. Ieuan gave the order for us to leave when Elliot cried ‘Turtle Dove!!’. I managed to catch a glimpse of a pair of birds flying down a field into some dead vegetation at the back of said field. I was one of only five to see it (the others being Elliot, Dante, a young birder called Sebastian & a birder called David Walsh who was accompanying the group) & I consider myself quite lucky.

It was time to leave sunny Suffolk & head back to Thetford Forest to prepare to leave, but Paul had one more site up his sleeve. In the Kings Forest, we disembarked from the bus & plodded along to an open area of pine trees & heath vegetation. Almost immediately, two Woodlarks were spotted: one on a fence, one on the ground.

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One of five Woodlarks in the Kings Forest

Then, a London birder called Alex picked up a small bird on top of a dead tree: it was a Tree Pipit! This find was great as all the group got to see it ‘parachuting’, and it showed well for those cameras with large lenses.

Unfortunately, time was not on our side & we had to leave to get ready to go. We drove back to the campsite, picked up our stuff, said goodbye to Elliot, Dante & Alex R at the train station & head back to The Nunnery to be picked up.

What a weekend. The birding was awesome, the activities were fun, the weather was glorious, the staff were really helpful & kind, and everyone who attended was friendly & I can say that I made loads of friends over the weekend. Thank you, BTO, your magic touch allowed this to happen. Also thanks to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for sponsoring this trip. I would also like to thank Ieuan Evans, Paul Stancliffe, Viola Ross-Smith, Alan Thoms, Sue Gough, Lee Barber, Justin Walker & Greg Conway for their hospitality & great fun over the weekend. I also want to thank everyone at Landguard for having us & showing us around your unique reserve, and thanks go to David Walsh & Alex Haynes for taking up your time to accompany the trip. But most of all I want to thank the young birders at the event for being such nice people & great birders. You are the best people I know

Elliot Montieth, Zach Haynes, Dante Shepherd, Ben Moyes, Toby Carter, Sam Pitt Miller, Max Hellicar, Paddy Lewin, Eleanor Harrison, Amy Hall, Mya Bambrick, Josie Hewitt, Alex R, Alex W, Sebastian, Tommy, and everyone who went who I have unfortunately forgotten the names of!

Luke Nash

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4 thoughts on “My Best Birding Experience Ever!!

  1. A brilliant write up Luke! It was an absolute pleasure to finally meet you and spend time birding with you and everyone else at the Camp, I’ll see you at Birdfair later this year and can’t wait for the next time we meet.

    Like

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