From the 27th to the 29th of May I would be visiting the internationally acclaimed birding county of Suffolk were I’d be taking part in the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) first ever Young Birders Camp down at their HQ in Thetford, an event which the BTO describe as “to inspire young naturalists with great experiences and special insights into birds and conservation”. This was an event that I’d dying to go since I was told I’d be attending back in February, as it would allow me to meet up with so many other young birders who I had become friends with over a group chat set up on Twitter by young birder Luke Nash for all those who would be coming to the camp.
Friday 27th: Arrival Day
Most people coming such as Toby Carter, Sam Pitt Miller, Ben Moyes and Luke Nash all lived relatively local but for the like of Josie Hewitt, Zach Haynes and I it took a couple of hours. For it meant taking a train direct from Liverpool Lime Street to Thetford which in its self would take no longer than 5 hours! But as you’ll find out it was worth every second of it.
To the average person a 5 hour train journey would be nothing short of dull, and that’s not including the person you’re sitting next to who has a habitat of falling asleep on your shoulder and snoring which for majority of people would be enough to drive them insane. But being a birder all I had to do was look out the window and see what my avian friends were up to: At Manchester Piccadilly there was a Peregrine looking out for its next unwary victim, whist racing through the countryside of Suffolk Yellow Wagtails were in the freshly ploughed fields and to round it all off Hobby, Common Tern and Little Egret were surrounding the lakes, rivers and small pools adjacent to the tracks. So as time was flying by it didn’t take long till I arrived at Thetford Train Station and was picked up by no other than Ieuan Evans.
When we arrived at the Nunnery Ieuan guided me to the waiting room where fellow young birders Ben Moyes, Max Hellicar, Alex White had also arrived, so as it was still an hour till the other birders said they’d be here Ieuan dropped us off at the Nunnery reserve (private), which within the hour we were there got over 20 species to add to our BTO Young Birders Camp list including Hobby, Garden Warbler and Kingfisher.
When we returned from our afternoon birding trip we were greeted by the rest of the young birders group: Zach Haynes, Dante Shepherd, Ben Moyes, Toby Carter, Sam Pitt Miller, Paddy Lewin, Eleanor Harrison, Amy Hall, Mya Bambrick and Josie Hewitt to name those who I can remember! Over the course of dinner later that day the atmosphere couldn’t been any better; a room full young birders young and old talking a wide range of topics from the classification of the Dalmatian Pelican & Lammergeier (genuine or plastic fantastic), to our patches, our self finds and one to the point of the fantastic weekend which was planned ahead.
Afterwards it was short drive to our camp site at Two Mile Bottom, were we’d be sleeping in very spacious Tepee tents in the middle of a field with end being a bog home to Cuckoo and the other a pine forest home to Tawny Owls which together gave the perfect setting for a good night’s sleep ready for tomorrows 4:30am start.
Saturday 28th: Let the magic begin
On Saturday we were up bright and early at 4:30am ready for an action packed morning of Bird Ringing, Nest Recording, Common Birds Sense and Birding around the Nunnery Reserve. When everyone was eventually up we headed to the Nunnery were we were split into 4 groups all taking on a different activity. My group which consisted of me, Ben, Zach and a young birder called Tommy were taken to Nest Recording by the BTO’s top nest recorder Mike Thoms who had first-rate tips on how find nests and tell what the nest could be just by height and the coarseness of the material! After showing us the nests of Willow Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and Red-legged Partridge Mike then gave us free regain over a small area of the reserve to go out and find our very own nests. Ben took the lead by finding a Linnet nest which he was extremely proud of but was then quite frankly put to shame by my twin discovery of Whitethroat and YELLOWHAMMER! The first nest to be found this year at the Nunnery which even he was impressed by, Ben, not so much.
Afterwards we were then taken to Bird Ringing which would be carried out the BTO’s top ringers Lee Barber and Justin Walker. Who gave us what had to be the most informative demo I’d ever been to, from the ageing of birds to sexing them and extracting date from an already trapped bird. The group previous (Toby, Sam, Mya and Amy) were very lucky to have a Kingfisher caught and ringed in there session were as my group had still rather nice selection of birds including a Garden Warbler, which up close you can appreciate its beauty.
When ringing was over and done with it was time to carry out a CBS (Common Bird Survey), in which we’d we mapping the territory of warblers round one of the lakes at the Nunnery. For this we’d be assisted by BTO Staff member Su Gough who was extremely helpful in explaining to the group all of the symbols used by the BTO to keep track of what a bird was doing at the time of recording. During the time in which we carrying out the survey we’d mapped several Reed Warbler, Whitethroat and a Blackcap, along with the nest site of one of the local Kingfishers which put on a brilliant show as we watched them bolt back and forth across the lake.
When we had completed the CBS it was then time to do a spot of birding than no other than birding royalty Paul Stancliffe; it was an absolute honour to be out birding with someone who has such a wide range of knowledge which is backed by the fact that he was the County Recorder on Scilly for seven years! As we were walking round the lake Paul had informed that the two groups before us had found a Hepatic Cuckoo, which was a first for him at the Nunnery. We may have failed in trying to catch a glimpse of the Cuckoo but we did managed to get Grey Wagtail, Cormorant and Gadwall along some of the reserves other inhabitants which included Hairy Dragonfly, Slow Worm, Banded and Red-eyed Damselfly along with Grass Snake. Have to say a huge thanks to Paul for giving us the best tips anyone had ever given my on how to deal with Warbler calls which me and Zach found very useful!
By the time we had completed all 4 activities it was 11 o’clock and about time for breakfast!
After gorging our self’s on all food visible we then headed off for an afternoons birding’s at one of the RSPB’s most renowned reserves, Lakenheath Fen. Here we’d be going in search of some of the UK’s most memorable and icon conservation success stories; from the Marsh Harrier which in 1971 was down to just 1 breeding pair to now over 320 breeding pairs across the country, to the Crane which thanks to work from the RSPB and WWT is back from the dead and now once again being seen across the south and east Britain. But what me, Zach and many others in the group had our eyes set upon seeing was a Bittern, a bird which had been eluding us for years!
Over the course of “breakfast” Luke and I came up with the idea of having an internal bird race between Luke, me and Zach VS Toby, Ben, Max and Sam. Not sure about you but 3:4 didn’t seem fair, so I rafted in the help of young Suffolk birder and Lakenheath Fen volunteer Fabian Harrier who I hadn’t seen for 2 years since we first met a RSPB Conservation at Conwy.
After a short drive we came to the reserve and were greeted by top Suffolk birder and tour guide David Walsh (knew from twitter) and after a short talk by the reserve manager about the history of the reserve and showed a Crane egg which had been predated by an Otter! It was time to set off and let the bird race begin, as we were going on a circular route we’d be cross paths somewhere round the reserve were we’d be checking up on one another.
It didn’t take long for the list to start climbing rapidly as when we reached the Washland we added Common Tern, Gadwall, Little Egret, Cetti’s Warbler and Marsh Harrier to the list. Paul and David who were with us as the others had Ieuan and Lee were helping to add to our list with singing Lesser Whitethroat and even a Garganey which me, Zach and Luke managed to catch a brief view of before it landed on the river and out of view.
As we were halfway between the Washland and the Fen view point our group started which started off as a cluster had developed into a rather long snake, so when Paddy shouted Bittern me and Zach were a hundred meters or so ahead, so by the time Zach and I had legged it down to see our first Bittern it was too late as it sulked back into the reeds. But hope was not lost as just afterwards and out of nowhere another Bittern shot up out of the reeds and gave a spectacular performance as it flew past the group.
But whilst we thought it was us getting in on all the action Toby, Ben, Sam and Max who were on the other side of the reserve we extremely lucky to come across a Cuckoo in a bush just a couple of meters away from the footpath and they managed to get some brilliant phone-scoped images and videos. The link below is to a video by Toby Carter aka The Grimston Warbler.
A great video of the calling Cuckoo by Toby – https://youtu.be/KH5Gc0hWuoc
We were then finally joined by Fabian and as the 4 of us made our way up to the Fen View point the list kept on rising: a lone Hobby was racing along the river adjacent to path, with Mistle Thrush’s and Skylarks in the fields and up to 3 calling Cuckoos in the surrounding Poplars. Thanks to the eagle eyes of Zach’s dad who was with it we were able to get some fantastic views of a Scarce Chaser which put on an excellent showing as it perched on a leaf which enabled the photographers among us to get some beautiful images.
When we reached the viewing station we caught up with the other group were after finding out we were ahead of them by 3 species, we then set our eyes upon the reserves star attraction Crane. There were 3 of these exquisite birds out in distance in the reeds which was made up by 2 adults and there chicks which were very hard to see. To get a decent viewing of them many of us got on top of the benches! We may have wanted to see the Bittern more than the Crane but seeing the adults with their young and thinking of their story made it a much more special moment.
Making our separate ways and going round the other half of the reserve we were graced with stunning views of Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Hobby flying over us with the surrounding reeds alive with the explosive calls of Cetti’s Warbler. It was then Mya alerted us to the presence of a female Bearded Tit, which came out from the Reeds and gave everyone (bar me) exceptional views of this normally elusive reed specialists.
After feeling a little down on missing out on the tit I then had my shoulders lifted by a miraculous find this time by Paul of something which I didn’t expect to see at all on the trip, a Varied Damselfly! Which when I told my entomologist friends back on Wirral were very jealous of!
We then came to the end of our epic trip at Lakenheath Fen with the last bird being added to our list Kingfisher. The other group arrived soon after use and we compared notes; on their way back round they’d picked up 9 new species which put them 4 more ahead of us as we were on 58! Curious to why we suffered such a beating Zach asked to see the birds they’d seen in Toby’s note book and much to our relief they’d doubled up on 4 species twice ending it in a draw.
Before heading back to the Nunnery for a delicious BBQ supper we made a quick stop off at undisclosed site to catch a view of some Stone Curlew, despite the hazy viewing conditions I was still able to nab a handful of record shots.
Now it was time to head off to King’s Forest for an evening with Greg Conwy. Greg is leading the way in painting the picture of life of the Nightjar, so far his priceless work consists of for the first time finding the wintering grounds of UK Nightjar, there autumn and spring migration routes and more importantly the feeding grounds when breeding which to much of our surprise meant isn’t actually on the heathland on which they breed!
In the hour we had to wait for the action for kick off Ben, Toby, Luke and the rest of us all had out eyes peeled to see what else we could find. The calls of both male and female Cuckoos were coming from every direct, whilst in a nearby Conifer tree Tommy made the brilliant find of a male Yellowhammer singing its heart out before heading into the plantation. It was then time for some Nightjar action which in the short window we had was truly spectacular: 3 different males were churring away which always runs a chill down my spine and then every so often we’d sight of one flying overhead. But in amongst all the action the call of a Long-eared Owl kept everyone on full alert.
It was soon time to say good bye to the Nightjars to Kings Wood, but as we were just about to step inside of mini bus we got word from Josie, Lee and Greg that they had infact caught a Nightjar in there mist net! Witnessing the definition of beauty in the hand was truly a touching site and something I’ll never forget.
Well that was day 1 of what was by far the enjoyable weekend of my life. Keep your eyes open for the next instalment.