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How a visit to Breckland was rewarded with the sight and sounds of some special birds

We are fortunate in Cambridge to be within easy reach of a wide range of habitats with a rich variety of wildlife, including some rare species: the clay woods with their bluebells and oxlips; chalk downs with cowslips and pasqueflowers; fenland supporting marsh harriers, bitterns, and cranes; and the sandy heaths and forests of Breckland in nearby Norfolk and Suffolk.

Wild bluebell. Picture: Martin Walters
Wild bluebell. Picture: Martin Walters

It was to the Breckland that my friend Bob and I paid a visit on a recent sunny spring day, albeit still with a nip in the air from the dry north-easterly wind that was keeping temperatures below average.

A year ago, we made a similar expedition, with the aim of spotting two special birds - hawfinches and those magnificent hunters, goshawks. This time we were too late in the season to catch the goshawks in their display flights, but we were well rewarded as we managed to track down two other special birds of the heaths.

As we trudged along a track between a conifer plantation and a sheep-grazed meadow studded with gorse and broom and walked over the tiny red squiggles of mossy stonecrop at our feet, we finally heard the liquid, lilting song of a woodlark. We stopped and watched as three or four of these charming birds rose again and again, circling above us in buoyant flight, all the time singing.

Woodlark. Picture: Neil Bramwell
Woodlark. Picture: Neil Bramwell

The English name is really something of a misnomer as this lark prefers open heath to denser woodland. The German Heidelerche (heath lark) nails it habitat-wise, as does the onomatopoeic French allouette lulu, for the song. The Latin name, Lullula arborea, also recalls the song, though it too refers to woodland.

So tame were the birds that we could clearly see the difference between these rare songsters and their commoner relatives, skylarks, noting the much shorter tail, most obvious in flight.

Occasionally they would drop down and search among the grass and shrubs, pecking for seeds or small invertebrates, allowing close views, and revealing the bright eyestripe and small black and white patches on the edge of the wings. This was the nearest either of us had been to this special bird, and the experience was one of the highlights of the day. Despite interference from the wind, I managed to get some recordings of their musical song.

The songflight differs between the two lark species. Skylarks usually rise vertically, often to a great height, uttering a near continuous stream of song before parachuting back down to the ground, usually near to the point of take-off. Woodlarks sing much less continuously as they flutter and circle closer to the ground.

The next stop was at the habitat of another special Breckland bird, though one that proved much harder to spot. We noticed a pair of stonechats, alert and conspicuous on a clump of gorse where they probably had a nest; lovely to see, but they were not our main target.

Male stonechat at Welney, Norfolk. Picture: Simon Stirrup
Male stonechat at Welney, Norfolk. Picture: Simon Stirrup

After scanning the fields that were being grazed by dozens of rabbits, and to the heart-warming chorus drifting down from a nearby rookery, Bob announced “I’ve got one!” And there it was, skulking behind clumps of grass and rushes in the distance — a stone curlew, back on its breeding ground after wintering in Spain or north Africa.

The combination of two pairs of sharp eyes with decent binoculars had succeeded.

Stone curlew. Picture: Neil Bramwell
Stone curlew. Picture: Neil Bramwell

Only about 375 pairs of these strange, large-eyed, crepuscular birds breed in the UK, but their numbers have slowly increased, and rabbit-grazed heathy soil is perfect for them.

In the distance we heard a cuckoo calling, always a joy, and my first of the year, confirming that spring is here, despite the chill in the air.

Cuckoo. Picture: Neil Bramwell
Cuckoo. Picture: Neil Bramwell

Cuckoo tracking research has revealed the remarkable journeys these strange birds make twice a year as they migrate to and from the rainforests of the Congo in west Africa.

One individual returned towards the end of last month to his breeding grounds in the King’s Forest, Suffolk for the fifth year, having flown a total of about 50,000 miles.

  • Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based writer and naturalist.

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