Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Lakenheath Orioles

Given how quiet things are in the county at present I decided that in order to get any sort of birding action I would need to go off-county and that therefore one of my birding excursions was long overdue. A fellow county birder had drawn my attention to the golden orioles at Lakenheath which he had been to see earlier and he informed me that this year one of the nests was unusually close to the edge of the plantation and that one could therefore watch the bird sitting on the nest. Given that usually the orioles are rather hard to see at Lakenheath I thought that this was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Given that the best time to view the orioles was supposed to be early in the morning I decided to head over to Suffolk the previous evening and stayed the night at a nearby hotel. I set off from Oxford at around 7pm but the journey over took less time than expected and I found myself two hours later arriving in Lakenheath. Since it was still light I thought that I would nip over to the reserve to do some reconnaissance for tomorrow. It was a beautiful evening and all around sedge and reed warblers could be heard warbling away. There was also the quiet reeling of a grasshopper warbler to be heard as well as the iconic calling of a male cuckoo. A green woodpecker and a great spotted woodpecker were both seen flying overhead. By the large pool near the car park a couple of hobbies were hawking for insects. Enchanted by the beauty of the place I returned to the hotel, looking forward to the next day with keen anticipation.

I awoke rather early (before 5am) the next day and there seemed little point in hanging around so I made my way straight over to the reserve to seek out the orioles. I was the first person there which meant that I had the place to myself but it also meant that there was no one to ask for guidance as to where exactly I should be looking. I knew that the orioles favoured the hybrid black poplar plantations that run along the reserve and thought that I'd seen postings about the second plantation on Bird Guides but my birding pal had said that he thought the nest was located in the furthest (third) plantation so I was a little unsure of what to do. I started walking towards the plantations with wonderful bird song all around me. As well as innumerable sedgies and reedies there were plenty of blackbirds and blackcaps singing and if one only caught a snatch of their song it could sound a little oriole-like so one had to listen out carefully. I arrived at the second plantation without seeing or hearing anything at all "oriolish". I wandered around the edge of second planation for a while but not finding an obvious vantage point. I was started to get a little frustrated about all this: I'd got up really early and now the prime oriole viewing time was slipping away without so much as a sniff of an oriole. Eventually I saw some people across on the river side of the reserve and decided to head over towards them to ask for advice. To add to my frustration I discovered that to get up onto the raised ridge by the river where the others were one had to walk all the way back to the start of the reserve which was a good ten or fifteen minutes walk which didn't help my somewhat darkening mood. I finally made it up onto the ridge and headed off after the people ahead of me seeing a good view of a male marsh harrier on the way. I eventually caught up with a couple who were standing on the ridge looking over at the second plantation keenly. They too were looking for orioles and had been told that the best course of action was to watch the gap between the second and third plantations where one could sometimes see an oriole fly across but they didn't know anything about a nest viewing point. I thanked them and headed off further along the ridge where I could see another distant birder. This other person was walking rather quickly and it was all I could do to catch up with him. Fortunately he knew the reserve very well and immediately directed me around the back of the third plantation where there were some other birders set up with scopes trained on the wood. This looked much more promising and I soon started to relax. My optimism was born out when I got to where they were located and they soon put me on to the nest where the female was sitting though she was pretty well hidden. However she left and returned a couple of times affording good views as she returned each time. I even managed to capture this event on video using my digiscoping gear.

The female golden oriole returning to the nest

After a while having got my fill of the wonderful oriole, I headed over to the view-point across Joist Fen where apparently some cranes had been seen. There I met the warden who informed me that there were a pair of cranes and a juvenile hidden away in the reeds in the distance. He suggested that I keep a close watch on the area where one of them had gone down which I decided to do. Whilst I waited there were lots of other birds to see: loads of marsh harriers hawking over the reeds and at least three flying bitterns were seen. Warblers and reed buntings were singing everywhere and water rails could be heard squealing from the depths of the reeds. A couple of male bearded tits flew over making a nice year tick for me. It was a very pleasant spot and one even had benches on which to sit but after waiting an hour there was still no sign of the cranes and I had reluctantly to depart as I had rather foolishly promised my VLW (very lovely wife) that I would stop off at Ikea on the way back and that I would be back at around lunch time and I also wanted to pop in at Wicken Fen to see if I could bag the squacco heron on my way back.

It didn't to take long to get to Wicken Fen though I got a BirdGuides text on the way saying that the bird had not been seen all morning so I was now not holding out much hope. I had noticed on BirdGuides that the bird sometimes went AWOL for awhile before being seen again. I decided to go and take a quick look but not to hang around given my shopping chores that I still had ahead of me. The reserve had an interesting mix of waterways, scrub and an area of fen-land, with the heron favouring Baker's Fen. I walked down towards that area and scanned closes in all the likely areas. There were plenty of little egrets and canada geese around, quite a few redshanks and a distant greenshank as well as some lapwings though no sign of the heron. I popped my head in at the hide but the occupants only confirmed that there'd been no sightings at all. A quick walk along the bank found a yellow wagtail but little else though a marsh harrier did fly over. With time running out I decided to accept the dip gracefully and headed back home, stopping off successfully at Ikea on the way. I later learnt that the heron was seen about an hour after I left and a few days later noticed that the bird was being successfully viewed from the north bank so it appears that when it can't be seen from the hide it must be tucked up in the reeds out of sight of all viewing directions except from the north. Had I known that at the time... oh well, that's birding for you.

A couple of ticks for the national year list with the golden oriole also being a lifer. It's a shame that I missed out on the cranes and also the squacco heron but I was most pleased to have seen the oriole. Incredibly enough that's also the two hundred mark for my national year list which is pretty amazing given that last year (admittedly my first full birding year since I took it up again) my year total was 222. I wonder what I'll end up getting this year.

National Year List 2009
199 golden oriole 02/06/2009 Lakenheath, Suffolk (LIFER)
200 bearded tit 02/06/2009 Lakenheath, Suffolk

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